Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary under Kennedy and LBJ and architect of the Vietnam war, died. I know some of you object when I blame that war on Democrats and on liberals, but it was a war that was started and waged under that ideology’s optimistic assumptions. Yes, conservatives supported it out of patriotic zeal, and, yes, the New Left would rise to oppose the Old Left liberalism, but the war was still the brainchild of the Democratic “whiz kids,” of whom McNamara was leader of the class. Described as the ultimate technocrat, McNamara was a modernist who assumed that the correct application of technical expertise, social engineering, rational planning, advanced technology, and quantitative science can solve any problem. Yes, Republicans now often exhibit the same hubris. And that spirit is very much in vogue in Washington today.
George Will has some comments along these lines:
Today, something unsettlingly similar to McNamara’s eerie assuredness pervades the Washington in which he died. The spirit is: Have confidence, everybody, because we have, or soon will have, everything — really everything — under control.
The apogee of McNamara’s professional life, in the first half of the 1960s, coincided, not coincidentally, with the apogee of the belief that behavioralism had finally made possible a science of politics. Behavioralism held — holds; it is a hardy perennial — that the social and natural sciences are not so different, both being devoted to the discovery of law-like regularities that govern the behavior of atoms, hamsters, humans, whatever.
Two of behavioralism’s reinforcing assumptions were: Things that can be quantified can be controlled. And everything can be quantified. So, pick a problem, any problem. Military insurgency in Indochina? The answer is counterinsurgency. What can be, and hence must be, quantified? Body counts, surely. Bingo: a metric of success.
Not exactly. The behavior of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong did not respond as expected to America’s finely calibrated stimuli, such as bombing this but not that, and bombing pauses. Behavioralists were disappointed but not discouraged. They would give nation-building another try.
And we keep trying it, unable to falsify our optimistic theories.