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Comparing the McNamara of the Kennedy and Johnson Period, Essay Example

Pages: 9

Words: 2595

Essay

Introduction

Robert McNamara at 41 years old became the eight and youngest ever secretary of state in the history of the United States of America, when he was sworn in with nine other fellow cabinet members by justice Warren in the East Room of the Whitehouse on January 21, 1961, the after President John F. Kennedy was sworn in, according to McNamara (1995).

The future secretary of defense also for President Lyndon B. Johnson grew up between the two World Wars and served in the Second World War, was a Harvard graduate and dean as well as the CEO of Ford Motor company before he was recruited by President Kennedy for the position.

Robert McNamara became part of a clan in the Us Government that was called the best and the brightest, but what went wrong and caused him to be appointed head of the World Bank before President Johnson completed his term in office?

Questions have also been asked if the McNamara that was secretary of defense and supervised one of the most tragic of US wars in Vietnam was the same one that headed the World Bank between 1968 and 1981.

Value System

An indication of the philosophy of Robert Strange McNamara can be seen by examining his biography entitled “In Retrospect”, where former secretary of defense wrote that the team in both the Kennedy and Johnson’s Administration that participated in the Vietnam War, acted according to principles and traditions  of the nation, and made decisions in light of those values (McNamara, 1995).

The Kennedy cabinet member confessed that the team did some things that were terribly wrong and owed it to the future generations to explain why. However, McNamara continued, these errors were not of values and intentions but of judgment and capabilities.

Philosophically, the former secretary of defense and military officer was quoted as saying that the war in Asia was a fight against communism  and it was worth the lives of American soldiers, but ran into trouble when he had to add that the same war was unwinnable.

It seemed that at this point Robert McNamara had a change of heart and wanted to end the war, but there were others in the team who did not share his beliefs and wanted it to continue. The end result was that an outnumbered McNamara with his new value system and conviction was forced to vacate his distinguished position.

The Vietnam War

The reason why Robert McNamara may have reasoned that the Vietnam War had become unwinnable may be as a result of the prevailing statistics and the unpopularity that had developed around it. According to Mobile Riverine Force Association (2012), 9, 087, 000 military personnel were on active duty during the Vietnam War that lasted from August 3, 1965 to May 7, 1975, and of this amount 58, 156 were either killed or missing in action.

Robert McNamara’s unpopularity as a result of his actions and attitude during the Vietnam War was reflected in Debora Shapley’s criticism, which Brinkley (1993) efficiently captured. In a study of Robert McNamara’s biography, Shapley wrote that what America needed during the Vietnam War was not a whiz kid, not a supreme bean-counter, but a leader of vision, moral courage, and one that was scrupulously honest (Brinkley, 1993).

These flaws recounted Shapley, overwhelm a lifetime of achievement, and the McNamara story was one of tragedy, as this man became the culprit of America’s ill-fated military engagement, and as such this historical assessment will stick, no matter how many nuclear arms reduction speeches that will be made and articles authored in the years that will follow (Brinkley, 1993).

According to Brinkley (1993), Robert McNamara was recruited by President Kennedy as he was seen as an ideal implementer of programs, and a corporate manager with a well established reputation for cost cutting, and efficiency, but despite such outstanding reputation, the man became a failure while serving a secretary of defense for both President Kennedy and Johnson.

It could be argued that based on Shapley’s assessment, Robert McNamara was in later years seeking redemption for the poor job he was supposed to have done during the Vietnam War, when he began giving speeches and writing articles  on nuclear arms reduction. However, according to Brinkley (1993), this was a case of redemption denied, even if the man was able to perform with great success elsewhere before his career comes to an end.

The World Bank and Robert McNamara

A careful study of the World Bank Group Mission statement today may lead one to think that one of the reasons President Johnson assigned the governor’s job to Robert McNamara was to help him find redemption from the wrongs that were done as they relate to the tragic Vietnam War.

The mission of the institution states that it was established to fight poverty with passion and professionalism to achieve lasting results. Additionally, it intends to help people help themselves and their environments, by providing resources, sharing knowledge, building capacity and forging relationships in the public and private sectors (World Bank, 2011).

A number of notable achievements were recorded while Robert McNamara was the governor of the World Bank, and these include, (a) the delivery of the first speech by a governor in 1974 at the  banks’ Annual General meeting in which poverty was at the top of the agenda, (b) a loan of US$2 m was made to Jamaica in 1970 for population planning, (c) the banks project and program staff were deployed regionally to ensure greater functional efficiency, (d) lending toward health projects began for the first time, (e) banking operations in Afghanistan was suspended as a result of the Soviet Union invasion into the country in 1979, and (f) policies regarding the environmental impact of bank assisted projects were developed and implemented (World Bank , 2011).

The Comparison

It could be argued that Robert McNamara, as head of the World Bank between 1968 and 1981, was engaged in roles that were in some cases practically opposite to what he was performing as secretary of defense during the Vietnam War.

One of the most prominent statement made by Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War, was that the fight against Communism on the Asian Continent was worth the lives of American soldiers that were engaged in the battle at the time. However, as the head of the World Bank, the same leader distinguished himself by delivering the first speech from a governor of the bank in which poverty was at the top of the agenda.

Suddenly Robert McNamara was telling the world that he cares about the poor and was using his elevated positions to not only say something to implement policies that may have lasting effect on future generations across the globe. This was a direct contrast to the man who was sending thousands of troops and millions of tons of bombs on the Cambodian people a few years before.

When the World Bank Governor approved a US$ 2m for the Jamaican Government in 1970 to conduct population planning for the first time, this was also in direct contrast to the military bombing carried out to decimate the people of North and South Vietnam between 1965 and 1968 when he left office.

In one role Robert McNamara was authorizing environmental and population destruction, while in the other he was approving a loan for a small island in the Caribbean to enable it to effectively manage it population growth, so that it could reduce the rate of poverty.

The efficiency Robert McNamara of World Bank brought to the World Bank was on show when as head of the bank he deployed project and program managers to different countries, to ensure the policies and procedures of the institution were being followed.          This compares negatively to the same Robert McNamara calling four star generals and naval administrators to meeting to discuss how much more troops inclusive of colonel and captains should be sent into Vietnam to ensure a quick victory or a more rapid cessation of the war.

In the former case the economic and social conditions of people in different countries would improve, while in the latter thousands will be killed and millions of dollars of resources that could have been used for national development in the USA would be wasted without any chance of recovery.

The statistics on the Vietnam War however, seems too frightening for Robert McNamara to be escape ridicule and criticism by many, and it could be argued that the 58,156 American causalities, the $200b spent to conduct the entire operation between 1965 and 1974, and the 220,357 Vietnamese deaths, according to Encyclopedia Britannica (1988) and Lewy (1978) ,  cannot be erased by the excellent work that may be done when the World Bank under his leadership developed and implement policies that enable lending towards health projects globally to become a reality, or when World operations in Afghanistan was suspended as a result of the Soviet Union invasion in 1979.

Additionally, the actions taken by Robert McNamara to implement policies that assessed the environmental impact of all bank assisted projects could be classified as being socially responsible and forward thinking at the time, but this was in direct contrast to those actions taken as secretary of defense. According to Owen and Kiernan (2006), between October, 4, 1965 and August 15, 1975, the United States military dropped 2, 756, 971 tons of bombs using 230,516 sorties to destroy the environment of 113,716 different locations in Cambodia.

These two strategies implemented by the World Bank under McNamara’s leadership therefore paled in comparison to the perhaps irreparable damage done to the Vietnamese environment and the lives that were destroyed in the process.

It was of the opinion of the World Bank Group however, that Robert McNamara as no one before him shaped the institution in a direction that will forever change the way people will be treated in terms of developmental assistance. According to the institution, Robert McNamara brought energy, forcefulness, and very high activity levels along with the philosophical belief that the problems of the world can be solved with proper analyses and the application of appropriate remedies (World Bank, 2012).

Cynics could argue that the situation was similar when Robert McNamara was appointed as secretary of defense, in terms of his energy levels, commitment, loyalty and value system, but after a number of years the results was both tragic and devastating.

In terms of the accomplishment of Robert McNamara, the World Bank (2012) pointed out that among other things, the governor introduced a 5 year lending plan, doubled the volume of lending, instituted the practice  of Country Program Papers,  restructure the banks organizational structure , expanded the banks geographical range to include even the Republic of China, stimulated debates on quantity versus quality, increased lending to troubled economies during the oil embargo through OPEC members, conducted war on poverty by focusing on the causes of underdevelopment, encouraged governments to play more central roles in meeting the needs of their peoples, and instituted the structural adjustment program as a short term measure countries take to meet their immediate needs during his tenure at the head of the institution.

This performance by Robert McNamara, should be classified as impressive by anyone conducting an objective assessment, and one could infer that it was the same person at both institutions but the motive, the motivation and the nature of the tasks themselves were different, and as a result the differences in results had to be at the opposite end of a continuum.

In the case of the McNamara as secretary of defense was fighting a war on communism in Asia that required military intervention, the loss of lives and the implementation of policies that were not easily accepted in the US society, while as head of the World Bank, McNamara’s job was one of poverty reduction, and it entails packaging loans, aids and grants to struggling countries having with low GDP and GNP, high unemployment, high levels of inflation, and had to be provided with workable economic prescriptions that will ensure their development.

Conclusions

It could be concluded that Robert McNamara was far more successful in his tenure at the World Bank than as secretary of defense, and a possible reason was that as head of the bank he was the ultimate authority to an extent, while as a cabinet member he had to report to the president as well face opposition to his recommendations by other members of the team, and this can negatively affect his ability to use the tools available to do the job.

As head of the World Bank however, Robert McNamara was able to implement policies that were based on his values and beliefs, but as secretary of defense his value system was severely challenged especially when his perception that the war was unwinnable and he wanted to change course.

President Lyndon Johnson may have done the world a great favor when he re-assigned Robert McNamara to the World Bank post, in that he was able to use apply powerful economic tools , employ experts, conduct appropriate research and implement programs that enable countries to meet their economic needs, especially in terms of providing valuable services to their citizens.

The World Bank had only praise for the work of Robert McNamara, as it released a number of outstanding achievements during his tenure, and the staff at the institution in particular grew from 1600 at the start of his term but expanded to over 5700 by 1981. This enabled the institution to better serve the nations of the world, in terms of the loans needed, quality services being more efficiently delivered, and stands in stark contrast to Robert McNamara recommending more troops to enter the Vietnam conflict in the 1960’s and displaying high levels of arrogance in the process, even as the death tolls rose.

Vietnam may still be an ugly reminder of the horrors of a war that one of the best and the brightest fail to deliver, despite having the most powerful military arsenal in the world, but it was the same man, who enter the World Bank in 1968, and armed himself with the right philosophy, the necessary energy levels and forcefulness that deploy some of the most powerful economic tools and policies to positively changed the political and economic landscapes of  several struggling countries across the world.

Shapley may argue that Robert McNamara lacked courage, vision and moral authority to handle the Vietnam assignment as secretary of defense, and will never find redemption no matter how many speeches he delivered or articles written on arms reduction, but the World Bank and millions of people in several countries today will forever be thankful for the excellent performance of the same person that led the institution from 1968 to 1981.       There were no reports of McNamara being lacking in vision, courage and moral authority while at the bank, and his actions during the oil embargo in expanding providing loans to struggling economies by way using OPEC members stood out as any example of a tremendous leader who had all the qualities the bank needed at a time when the world economies were on the brink of a major collapse.

Reference

Brinkley, D. (1993), The Stain of Vietnam Robert McNamara, Redemption Denied Foreign Affairs www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/48974/douglas-brinkley/the-stain-of-vietnam-robert-mcnamara-redemption-denied , 11/01/12

Encyclopedia Britannica (1988), 15th edition Chicago Encyclopedia Britannica

McNamara, R.S., (1995), In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam

Times Books Random House, New York NY

Lews, G. (1978), America on Vietnam, Oxford University Press, New York

Mobile Riverine Force Association (2012), Vietnam War Statistics www.mrfa.org/navy_army.pages.htm , 11/01/12

Owen, T., Kiernan, B., (2006), Bombs Over Cambodia, The Walrus www.yale.edu/cgp/walrus-CambodiaBombing_Oct06.pdf , 11/01/12

The World Bank (2012), A Guide to the World Bank, 3rd edition International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Development Association

The World Bank (2011), Robert Strange McNamara Archives www.worldbank.org/website/external/extaboutus/extrarchives/o../contentMDK:20502974~pagePK:36726~PPK:437378~thesite.PK , 11/01/12

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