September 1, 2009

Mads Exclusive: Professor Brigham On McNamara

This Saturday marks two months since Robert McNamara's death. Vassar history professor Robert Brigham, who co-authored Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy with McNamara, spoke to about his relationship with the controversial figure and the legacy he leaves behind.

"My first impressions of Robert S. McNamara were rather mixed. Obviously, I knew of his past policies and the controversy surrounding his tenure at Defense and the World Bank. I must confess that I initially thought our work together would not be that interesting. Most former policy makers who engage the issues of their time in office are simply interested in 'cleansing' the record. McNamara was different. He was the most curious policy maker I have ever met and he welcomed challenges to his strongly-held ideas, even from a young professor.

"As the years went by, I came to count Bob as a friend and admired his willingness to ask tough questions of himself and others. Though we often disagreed about issues concerning the Vietnam War, we agreed completely on the need to stop nuclear proliferation and improve the living standards of ordinary people around the globe. His work at the World Bank has often been under-appreciated in my view, with most of his critics focusing narrowly on his involvement in apex and structural adjustment loans. There was so much more to his time at the Bank, including massive funding to fight disease in Africa and poverty in Asia.

"What many people did not know about Bob McNamara was how passionate he was about causes he believed in. The stereotype of Bob as a technocrat interested only in numbers is way off the mark in my book. I cannot tell you how many times our conversations turned to deep concern about global poverty, human rights, and the environment. Some of this passion comes out in the film Fog of War, but not enough. I don't think the film truly captures Bob's complexity or his intelligence...though I think the film is first-rate.

"Anyone who knew Bob will tell you that he loved to hike and climb mountains, but he also loved the sea. He had a great appreciation for good books and loved art and poetry. He was a complex man indeed and I will miss him."

Image via Life photo archive.

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