PROMISE AND POWER: Life and Times of Robert McNamara by Deborah Shapley
Kirkus Star

PROMISE AND POWER: Life and Times of Robert McNamara

Email this review


A sweeping, formidably researched life of Robert McNamara, the gifted, conflicted figure who for 30 years transformed American institutions as president of Ford Motor Co., head of the World Bank, and, most fatefully, secretary of defense under JFK and LBJ. Columnist Stewart Alsop said that McNamara had ""the highest intelligence quotient of any leading public official in this century""; JFK viewed him as an heir apparent to the White House. One of the virtues of journalist Shapley's (The Seventh Continent, 1985) approach is that she clearly details how this idealist's numbers-crunching management control, ruthlessness, and evasiveness undermined his noble ends as often as they served them. Even as McNamara transformed each organization he served, his bullying impatience for results inevitably produced lies from subordinates. As a postwar ""whiz kid,"" he imposed careful cost controls and top-clown management that saved the floundering Ford Motor Co. while marginalizing its engineers and assembly-line workers. The technocrat who rationalized the Pentagon's budget process, as well as lowered the threat of nuclear war through the strategy of flexible response, also precipitated a costly arms race with the Soviet Union and excited the mistrust of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress. As the longest-serving president of the World Bank, McNamara helped feed millions of starving people in the Third World, but he also saddled their countries with crippling debt. The most important section of Shapley's book, however, concerns Vietnam, as McNamara--ending a 24-year silence--explains why he publicly supported US involvement there, even though he was privately convinced as early as late 1965 that military victory was impossible. A definitive portrait of a symbol of the American Century--a figure touchingly innocent yet dangerously arrogant in his belief that all events could be controlled by can-do optimism and technological superiority.

Pub Date: Jan. 12th, 1993
Page count: 736pp
Publisher: "Little, Brown"