An Obit for Robert McNamara

Assuming you are the obituary writer for the Globe and Mail, please prepare an obit for Robert McNamara – that was another question asked on the final exam for the Rotman School narratives course.

The question didn’t come entirely from left field, as we discussed on the last day of class the outlines of an obit in The Times for the fictional Lord Darlington in the novel and film The Remains of the Day. I began the discussion by noting that obituary writers draft obits for elderly notable people while they are still alive, sometimes even interviewing them.

So drafting an obit for Robert McNamara, now in his ninety-second year, would be an entirely reasonable assignment. And it would certainly be applicable to a course on narrative in which one of the narratives studied was Errol Morris’s documentary biography The Fog of War.

Working from the inverted pyramid model of journalism, I asked for the first paragraph verbatim, and then an outline of the rest of the obit, and finally for a Canadian angle. The key fact about McNamara is that his life has been controversial. The answer with the best leading sentence captured this perfectly: “War criminal or humanist, traitor or patriot, military genius or number cruncher out of his league, Robert McNamara, who passed away on Sunday at his home in suburban Washington, was branded with many labels during his life.”

From there, this student and others went into his personal narrative, including his academic achievements, his military service as statistical analyst for the American bombing of major Japanese cities in World War II, and his careers as an executive and President at Ford, Secretary of Defense, and President of the World Bank.

Good answers to the question also discussed his controversial role as one of the key figures in the Vietnam War, initially as a proponent, then as an internal critic who came into conflict with President Lyndon Johnson, and decades later as an analyst attempting to learn lessons from the war. Finally, a good answer to the question would discuss McNamara’s family history, and the toll the war took on his family life. While his wife and children became increasingly critical of the war, he said virtually nothing about it at home, and the tension and anguish grew.

The part of the question answered least well was the Canadian perspective. While McNamara was never closely connected to Canada, I can suggest two. First, both he and his wife had polio immediately after World War II, and the burden of his medical bills led to a life-changing decision, namely to leave the faculty at the Harvard Business School for a higher-paying job at Ford. An objective of our system of comprehensive health insurance, introduced initially in Saskatchewan in the late forties, is to indemnify Canadians against the costs of such catastrophic illnesses. (Had McNamara stayed at Harvard, he would likely still have gone to Washington in the Kennedy Administration, given how many notable Harvard faculty, starting with Dean of Arts and Sciences McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy called upon.)

Second, one of McNamara’s lessons from the Vietnam War was that if the United States Government cannot convince its major allies of the justification of its cause, it ought to re-examine its thinking. The Canadian Government, reflecting Canadian public opinion, was deeply skeptical about the Vietnam War and refused to join. To the great chagrin of the American Government, Canada opened its borders to war resisters, thousands of whom remain here as Canadian citizens.

McNamara’s is a compelling narrative, and, based on what the Rotman students produced, I can only wonder what the leading obituary writers have drafted.

1 comment

  1. This is an interesting exercise. I certainly agree that McNamara is one of the most controversial figures in 20th century American / World politics. One interesting view that illustrates this controversy is his role in Cuban missile crisis – his proponents argued that McNamara’s cool, dispassionate analysis and measured response helped avoid a nuclear catastrophe, while opponents argued that it was McNamara’s (and Kennedy’s) nuclear force build-up that led Russians to try to plant missiles in Cuban, largely out of fear of American superiority in nuclear firepower at the time.

    I wrote to him this February to seek his views on current crisis in auto industry, what his views are as the oldest living member of American auto executive – his reply was that ‘At 93 years of age, I find I must stop responding to questions – sincerely, R.S.McNamara’ scribbled on the margin of the paper with a pencil. I thought this was a classic McNamara response!

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