The Fog of War: McNamara, Oppenheimer, and the Perils of Power

Two of the most influential yet controversial defense intellectuals of the 20th century were Robert S. McNamara and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Though coming from very different backgrounds, both men rose to positions of enormous authority over the US military establishment, especially concerning nuclear weapons. And both left incredibly complex legacies that historians still debate today.

Christopher Nolan’s biopic Oppenheimer dramatizes the enigmatic physicist who led the Manhattan Project. A fitting companion piece is the documentary The Fog of War, which features extensive interviews with Robert McNamara, another central figure involved in nuclear weapons development and strategic bombing during WWII and Vietnam. While Nolan uses creative license to imagine Oppenheimer’s story, The Fog of War offers authentic primary source footage of McNamara reflecting candidly on his and Oppenheimer’s legacies. Both works promise to provide mesmerizing, morally complex portraits of brilliant men grappling with the consequences of wielding great technological power amid wartime. Viewed together, these films will bookend the nuclear age by showcasing two of its most pivotal and conflicted participants.

A fascinating window into McNamara’s thinking comes from the 2003 Errol Morris documentary “The Fog of War,” which centers around an extended interview with the former Secretary of Defense. In the film, McNamara discusses eleven key lessons he learned over his long career spanning government, academia, and business. Several of these insights reveal compelling links between McNamara and Oppenheimer’s experiences with wielding technological power, facing moral dilemmas, and suffering public criticism.  It is a top-five documentary for me and I’ve revisited it often.   This is a sacred text of WWII history.

Most famously, Oppenheimer served as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bombs. Though Oppenheimer hoped these terrible weapons would convince governments to seek control of arms, he failed to foresee how nuclear proliferation would accelerate an unstable arms race. Decades later, McNamara too expressed regrets about his role in the nuclear buildup as Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, especially expanding the US arsenal far beyond the capacity needed for deterrence. Like Oppenheimer, McNamara realized too late how individual humans struggle to act morally and rationally to control the technological forces they unleash.

Both men also learned how secrecy and compartmentalized information impair leadership. Oppenheimer was shocked to learn that technical problems delaying the hydrogen bomb were purposefully hidden from him. Similarly, McNamara laments how compartmentalization prevented military leaders in Vietnam from communicating the real facts on the ground. In complex bureaucracies like nuclear programs or military campaigns, no single person can really understand the whole system, a dynamic that leads to dangerous misjudgments.

Critically, Oppenheimer and McNamara were both battered by the court of public opinion when their pasts came under scrutiny. Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked in 1954 over allegations, likely exaggerated, that he was a communist sympathizer. Despite playing a lead role in World War II atomic research, his reputation was left in tatters. Over 20 years later, when doubts about American strategy grew in Vietnam, McNamara was vilified for his role in escalation and war management, transforming him from a respected technocrat to demonized bureaucrat. Both men’s stories reveal how governments need scapegoats when policies fail or prove morally complex.  See Alan Turning’s life if you want to see the saddest version of this.

McNamara and Oppenheimer exemplify how smart, analytically-minded advisors can enable elected leaders to carry out grand, history-shaping initiatives, for both good and ill. Their two lives offer cautionary tales about the perils of concentrating technological or military authority in just a handful of individuals. McNamara’s reflections on the Fog of War continue to provide wisdom for leaders today who wield control over complex, high-stakes systems and organizations. McNamara and Oppenheimer traveled similar arcs, reminding us how even well-intentioned power can breed future calamity.

Using the Fog of War lessons in today’s politics

McNamara who was a successful businessman, gave us 11 lessons in The Fog of War.  These are lessons he created to end wars between leaders with different ideologies. Could they bridge the divide in American politics?  Let’s take it for a spin.

1. Empathize with your enemy – McNamara reflects on how the U.S. failed to see the conflict in Vietnam from the perspective of the North Vietnamese. Being able to empathize with political opponents could help reduce polarization. Empathy has taken a holiday.

2. Rationality will not save us – McNamara felt policymakers were rational men whose rational choices led to disaster in Vietnam. No one has a monopoly on rationality in politics.  There is little rationality to hang a hat on in today’s politics. 0 for two.  Let’s continue.

3. There’s something beyond one’s self – Leaders need a moral compass beyond just pragmatic national interests. A sense of global community and ethics could temper extreme partisanship. you lost me at a moral compass. 0 for 3.

4. Maximize efficiency – McNamara brought statistical analysis to defense operations, but statistical methods have limits. While good governance aims to be efficient, metrics shouldn’t eclipse moral considerations.  American Politics is anti-efficiency.  Three is no profit in efficiency.   0-4.

5. Proportionality should govern actions – The massive bombing campaigns in WWII and Vietnam were disproportionate failures. Proportionality is crucial for a measured political discourse.  There’s too much proportionality if anything.

6. Get the data – Facts and rigorous analysis are important. But leaders can delude themselves into thinking data justifies unethical action. Facts matter, but so do values.  Data is an illusion nowadays.   0-6.

7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong – McNamara admits the limitations of human cognition. Politicians too should be humble about the fallibility of their beliefs.  Lol.  0-7.

8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning – Rigidity of ideology can lead to disaster. Political leaders should rethink their stances when evidence disconfirms beliefs.  When money disconfirms belief today.  Rigid ideology is the platform.

9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil – McNamara argues that to achieve noble goals like security for one’s nation, leaders feel compelled to do morally dubious things. The ends rarely justify improper means in politics though, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try.  Victory for McNamara –  1-8

10. Never say never – Avoid categorical statements or absolute refusal to compromise. Politics requires flexibility, nuance and finding common ground.   ROFL 1 for 9.

11. You can’t change human nature – McNamara says we must understand the limits of what governments can accomplish in morally improving humankind. Similarly, we cannot expect to easily fix the flaws in human thinking that contribute to political polarization. But progress is possible with sustained effort.  Optimism has a place in politics we can still agree on that.  Let’s call it a win.  2 for 10

McNamara’s lessons emphasize empathy, morality, critical thinking, integrity, and human fallibility as necessary for wise leadership, in other words, we’re screwed.

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