WILSON'S GHOST: Robert S. McNamara

Wednesday, June 20, 2001

More than eighty years ago, President Woodrow Wilson presided over the U.S. entry into the First World War, promising that it would be "the war to end all war." Wilson promoted "peace without victory" and the creation of a League of Nations with the power to enforce the peace thereafter. At that time, Wilson's vision was dismissed by European and American leaders alike as naive idealism. Today, however, Robert S. McNamara, former U.S. secretary of defense, believes that Wilson's vision is essential to reducing the risk of conflict and war in the twenty-first century.

Recorded on Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. On our show today, former Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara discusses the ghost of Woodrow Wilson.

President Woodrow Wilson. At the end of the First World War, Wilson proposed what he called peace without victory. His plan involved two principle components. First, reconciling Germany with the rest of Europe. Second, establishing a League of Nations. In the end, both components of Wilson's plan were rejected. During the peace negotiations at Versailles, the other European powers, far from reconciling with Germany, insisted on imposing heavy reparations on Germany. Then here in the United States, the senate rejected the treaty under which we ourselves would have participated in the League of Nations. If Wilson's magnanimous peace plan had been followed, might the Second World War have been prevented? We'll never know but now at the end of the Cold War, a similarly generous, magnanimous foreign policy might do its own part to prevent conflict or so at least contends Robert McNamara.

Robert S. McNamara was born during the First World War, served in the Second World War and then as Secretary of Defense to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, participated in the Cold War, overseeing our military involvement in Vietnam. In his recent book, Wilson's Ghost, Robert McNamara, a man who has seen his full share of war lays out his vision for peace.

Peter Robinson: Mr. Secretary, a central argument in your book is that the United States must avoid seeming arrogant. Again and again you warn against American high-minded--high-handedness, overweening American pride, American arrogance. Now with that in mind, I want to remind you that Abraham Lincoln called this nation the last best hope of man on earth. Was Lincoln being arrogant?

Robert McNamara: He would be the last person to be arrogant in the first place, at the time, the nation didn't have the power…

Peter Robinson: True…

Robert McNamara: …to support I'll call it arrogance. But Lincoln was not an arrogant person. If you look at the way he handled the nation, both before the Civil War and after the Civil War, he was not an arrogant person.

Peter Robinson: Malice toward none, charity toward all.

Robert McNamara: Exactly.

Peter Robinson: All right. So what I want…

Robert McNamara: Exactly. Today--today we say malice toward none, charity toward all. No, we say we are the most powerful nation in the world economically, politically, militarily. And we are. And we're going to continue to be as far as I can see, certainly for half a century. And, on occasion after occasion, we demand that the world not just accept our leadership but do as we say they should do.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now I'm going to press you on this point just a little bit because we--this notion of American exceptionalism is a basic tenant of our political life. The notion…

Robert McNamara: Well I believe we're exceptional.

Peter Robinson: Right. Okay. So the notion that, let me spell it out, the notion that our principles give us a special mission in the world and, to some extent, the unavoidable corollary is that, to some extent, this nation is better than other nations. And that's been believed by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, John Kennedy, the president you served, Ronald Reagan, the president I served. That is not in your view inconsistent with the kind of empathy that you--you advocate.

Robert McNamara: No.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Robert McNamara: No, I'm very proud to be an American.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Robert McNamara: I think we have some extraordinary faults. Let me just mention one. We are the most powerful nation in the world, the richest nation in the world. In the capital of the richest nation in the world, Washington, D.C. today, the infant mortality rate is twice that of Castro's Cuba. Does that give us special wisdom to demand the rest of the world behave as we are behaving or as we think they should? No. I think we should lead but I don't think we should dictate.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Robert McNamara: And if we cannot persuade other nations with comparable values and comparable interests to follow our leadership, we should not apply our power unilaterally. If we had of followed that--that dictate, we would not have been in Vietnam. There was not one of our major allies, not Japan, not Germany, not Britain, France that were--were…

[Talking at same time]

Robert McNamara: …willing to support us in Vietnam. We are not omniscient.

Peter Robinson: Now Mr. Secretary, let me…

Peter Robinson: We are not omnipotent either although since the end of the Cold War, we've gotten pretty close which raises the question of how we should treat our former adversaries.

Peter Robinson: The kernel of your book is the argument. Again, let me quote you that you discern, I'm quoting from the book, "You discern an eerie resonance between Germany's feelings of betrayal in 1919 and those of Russia and China now following the Cold War. Explain your argument.

Robert McNamara: Let--let me--the long answer…

Peter Robinson: Go right ahead.

Robert McNamara: …if you will allow me.

Peter Robinson: Go right ahead.

Robert McNamara: My earliest memory, you'll find this hard to believe…

Peter Robinson: You were born in 1916…

Robert McNamara: …my earliest memory…

Peter Robinson: …three years before Versailles…

Robert McNamara: …as a child is of a city exploding with joy. The city was San Francisco where I was born in 1916 as you say. The date of this memory was November 11, 1918, Armistice Day, I was two years old. The city was exploding with joy. For the obvious reason, we had won World War I. But a great many of the people and certainly the president, Woodrow Wilson, believed we'd won a war to end all wars. My God, how wrong we were. Because the human race, we human beings, killed a hundred and sixty million other human beings in the twentieth century. It was a century of carnage. Is that what we want in the twenty-first century? I don't think so. If we don't--what can we learn from the twentieth that will help prevent that. One of the things we can learn is to try to avoid war between or among great powers. Now if you look at what's happened in the last fifty years, I think the two most geo--two most important geo-political events, other than the end of the Cold War, were the reconciliation between France and Germany after hundreds of years of war and the reconciliation between the U.S. and Japan after one of the bloodiest wars which I was part of in all of human history. Now if we could--today it's inconceivable that France and Germany or Japan and the U.S. would be at war any time, you know, in the next half-century or so. Can't we do that with respect to the other great powers, particularly with respect to China and Russia. That is a major thesis of the book.

Peter Robinson: Well but in your book you say that Japan and Germany are precisely not examples of the way we--we--we need to behave now because after the Second World War we occupied those nations and effectively rewrote their political lives for them.

Robert McNamara: Well you're correct.

Peter Robinson: So--so what do we do toward the great…

Robert McNamara: No, no--well but--but the end result…

Peter Robinson: That's what you want to achieve.

Robert McNamara: Exactly.

Peter Robinson: Right. Right.

Robert McNamara: And I don't suggest we occupy Russia or we occupy China. But I do suggest that we--we recognize the risk of conflict between the U.S. and Japan on the one hand and China on the other or the U.S. and Russia. And I don't think we--we recognize that. And, in particular, we don't apply what I call empathy toward them. I don't define empathy as sympathy but empathy, in my mind, means trying to put ourselves in the skin of, the shoes of, potential opponents and enemies. We don't do that. We don't think of the way the Chinese look at us.

Peter Robinson: Let's take a closer look at our post-Cold War relations with Russia.

Peter Robinson: Let me take you back to this quotation, "An eerie resonance between Germany's feelings of betrayal in 1919 and those of Russia and China following the Cold War." Start with Russia. Why does--why should Russia feel betrayed?

Robert McNamara: I don't want to say they should feel betrayed but why should they feel concerned? Let me put it that way.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Robert McNamara: At risk with respect to the West, not just the U.S., but the West. Because we have expanded NATO and we're talking about expanding it a second time, a military alliance moved--moved eastward to their very borders. And it--also they believed that we had stated we would not do that and that was part of a deal, they thought, for integrating East and West Germany which they approved at the end of the Cold War. And today, we're talking about bringing the Baltic States in. Now I'm not arguing that right, please don't misunderstand me, what I'm arguing is, we've got to think about the way the Russians look at the West.

Peter Robinson: Let me--okay--let me push back on--against your thesis a little bit. The historical parallel. First World War ends, Versailles Treaty conference and Germany is stripped of substantial portions of its territory and the other victorious allies, France, Italy and Great Britain, impose heavy reparations payments on Germany. All right, we now go to the end of the Cold War and Russia, the Soviet Union, does indeed break up into Russia and a host of independent countries. That's not our doing. It's Boris Yeltsin's doing and far from imposing reparations on Russia we, through the International Monetary Fund, provide them with billions of dollars of…

Robert McNamara: And the World Bank that I headed.

Peter Robinson: And the World Bank that you headed. So my point is, all right, fine, it's terribly important in a dangerous and difficult world to understand the way an adversary or, for that matter, an ally, sees you. But, on the other hand, if the ally or the adversary is deluded, you ought to be able to say that too.

Robert McNamara: Well and I think we should say if we think Russia is deluded and, to some degree, I think they are but they're in a hell of a fix. And let me just give you an indication. I mentioned earlier that in Washington, D.C. the infant mortality rate is twice that of Castro's Cuba. That is a--an important measure of I'll call it the health of a society, another very important measure is life expectancy. There's not anything much more fundamental in gauging the health of a society than life expectancy.

Peter Robinson: How long your citizens live, right.

Robert McNamara: The Russian male life expectancy has dropped on the order of seven years in the last decade or so. It's now on the order of fifty-seven. Male life expectancy. I'd guess our male life expectancy's on the order of seventy-seven. Now that's a--a measure…

Peter Robinson: You, yourself keep beating it.

[Talking at same time]

Robert McNamara: That's right. That's right. Knock on wood, I hope I'll continue. But--but my point is that--that we've got to understand the way Russians look at themselves today. And they think they're in a hell of a mess and they are.

Peter Robinson: And there, they're right. Now, okay, let me push again…

Robert McNamara: But we're not solely responsible for it but we've got to understand that they think that way and therefore, if they think we're bringing our strength to bear upon them in ways that weaken them, that causes them great fear and big concern.

Peter Robinson: All right. Now you say that Russia feels cornered, that's the word that you use…

Robert McNamara: Well yeah.

Peter Robinson: But my vi--my view would be but isn't that exactly--I mean, there's a basic distinction that we need to make and that perhaps you don't make enough of in--in the thesis which is, on the one hand, military and there for sure we want the Russians cornered. We want them…

Robert McNamara: No…

Peter Robinson: We want the military option ruled out…

Robert McNamara: No, no, wait a minute. Wait a minute.

Peter Robinson: Concentrate on your economy. We'll help you economically. We'll help you get the living…

Robert McNamara: Wait--wait--wait a minute.

Peter Robinson: …standards up. Right, go ahead.

Robert McNamara: The word cornered…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Robert McNamara: …implies that one's adversary who is cornered is an--in an inferior position, a dangerous position. That is the last thing we want the Russians to think that they're cornered. And one of the great evidences of the wisdom of President Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis was he said to all of us, for God's sakes, don't let Khrushchev feel he's cornered. He'll lash out if he does. If a nation is cornered, there's the danger of lashing out. We don't want the Russians to feel they're cornered. I think what you mean to say, if I may…

Peter Robinson: Go right ahead. No, no, no…

Robert McNamara: …is that…

Peter Robinson: Go right ahead.

Robert McNamara: …that--that want to insure that the Russians don't feel that they have such military capabilities that they can extend their jiminy [ph.] across either the rest of Asia or a part of Europe, which is what they…

Peter Robinson: From the bear, let's turn to the dragon.

Peter Robinson: China, why--why should China feel as Germany did in 1919? Not why should they but why do they, let's say?

Robert McNamara: Because of history. Think back to the Boxer Rebellion, the drug--the opium wars. Go back to what I witnessed. In August of 1937, before most of your audience was born, I was in Shanghai, I was a Merchant Seaman. I was in Shanghai in August of '37. I witnessed the Japanese start the Sino-Japanese War by bombing Shanghai. And then three or four years again, the then Prime Minister, Le Pong [ph.] of China told me with great vehemence and great anger that the Japanese, as a result of that action had killed twenty million Chinese and they had not apologized. They're scared to death of a rise of militaries am--in Japan. Now don't misunderstand me. I--I'm not suggesting the average Japanese wants to move that way. But what I am suggesting is that the Chinese look upon us and Japan as much stronger militarily then we are, the combination of us…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Robert McNamara: …and--and they fear that. They fear that--Le Pong went on to say to me, he said, Mr. McNamara, you--you just expanded and extended, those were his words, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. There could be only one purpose. That Security Treaty during the Cold War perhaps had a reason to protect Japan against an offense--offense from Russia. Today it can have no purpose other than to contain and threaten China. That's the purpose of it. Well now that is not the purpose of it. That's not our intention. That's the way they look at it. China, by the way, is dramatically expanding its military budget today.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Robert McNamara: And this is causing concern in the Asia Pacific Region. It causes concern in the U.S. But you have to understand that China starts with a--a mil--set of military equipment that should be in the Smithsonian Museum. It's antiquated. Of course, they're going to expand. They're going to be a billion, six hundred million people, a tremendous economic base. Of course, they're going to have a military. That's not the issue. We can't stop that. But what we should insist upon is that they and Asia, Pacific Region, Japan and us discuss how that military power will be used. Can we have confidence-building measures to insure it will not be used offensively? I think we can.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now here again, let me push back a little bit. Here there is a kind of drift or tendency in your argument which I'll--which I sense and I--I'll state it out loud to give you the chance to correct it if I'm wrong. And it is toward a kind of guessing game attempting to judge the subjective state of mind of an adversary who speaks a different language, who has a different history, with whom we very seldom speak face-to-face. I have heard George Schultz say, do you best to try to understand what is in the adversary's mind. But base your decisions on his capacity, his capability. If the Chinese are building up, we want them in the same kind of box, so to speak, that we want the Russians in, which is to say that any military option on their part we--ideally we wouldn't even want it to cross their minds. Is that a fair--fair statement?

Robert McNamara: Well I don't like the term box as…

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Robert McNamara: …I didn't like the word corner.

Peter Robinson: Now only because there's a question of nuance…

Robert McNamara: We--we don't…

Peter Robinson: …here and you see things differently…

Robert McNamara: …we do not want…

Peter Robinson: …and I want to tease it out.

Robert McNamara: We--at least I don't want…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Robert McNamara: …our potential opponents to fear us. And--and fear that we have the intention of aggression against them. That will lead to preemptive strikes, it will lead to friction, that's number one.

Peter Robinson: Next topic, Robert McNamara's recommendations on nuclear disarmament and ballistic missile defense.

Peter Robinson: Now you make a couple of specific and forceful policy proposals in your book. One, build down the nuclear weapons. I quote you, "The political will must be found to undertake a process of radical, rapid de-nuclearization." President Bush has proposed dramatic reductions in our nuclear forces. The right move?

Robert McNamara: I endorse that wholeheartedly.

Peter Robinson: But…

Robert McNamara: Let me--let me--let me…

Peter Robinson: No. Go ahead.

Robert McNamara: Let me just take thirty seconds to say where we are today. As we speak, in the U.S., we have seventy-five hundred strategic nuclear warheads in a sense directed against Russia. Each one on average, twenty times the kill capability of the Hiroshima bomb which killed two hundred thousand people. Of the seventy-five hundred, twenty-five hundred are on fifteen-minute alert, to be launched on warning. Those in your audience who saw President Bush inaugurated saw him put his hand on--on the Bible, swear his oath. Then there was a little milling around because most--many of the people were going inside the Capitol for lunch and while the milling around took place, a blue-suited officer stepped behind President Bush, he carried the football. He carried the briefcase that carries the electronic codes, without which our nuclear warheads cannot be armed. And that briefcase has to be within arm's length of the President twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five--because he may arm them and may launch them. Twenty-five hundred on fifteen-minute alert with a kill capability, fifty thousand times that of the Hiroshima bomb. It's--it's insane. Now he, to his great credit, has said--didn't quite use the word insane but he said the--in effect, we go to move out of this and therefore, he says, I think we can move unilaterally. Now he didn't said to what level but he's talk--he's implied perhaps to taking down from seventy-five hundred to something on the order of twenty-five hundred or fifteen hundred. I strongly applaud that. And in addition, with reference to this twenty-five hundred on fifteen-minute, I'll call it hair-trigger alert, he said we've got to reduce the alert status and it ought to be done preferably by separating warheads from the launch vehicles. So those two moves, I strongly suggest--strongly support. It'll take us, if we were to start tomorrow, it'd take us five years to implement that. At the end of that time, you ought to think about the next moves and ultimately I would favor elimination or near elimination, you know, five or ten or fifteen. We won't argue about that but essentially eliminating the risk of destruction of societies. Really a risk of--of destruction of civilization.

Peter Robinson: What about his proposal for a ballistic missile defense?

Robert McNamara: I'm not going to discuss that today because, for this reason…

Peter Robinson: All right.

Robert McNamara: …well for two reasons. Remember I'm biased. I initiated the action in--in November 1966 in Austin, Cy Vance was my deputy, he and I and the five Chiefs of Staff were down there meeting with President Johnson. And at that meeting, I initiated the action to--that led ultimately to the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty which was signed about…

Peter Robinson: 1972 as I recall.

Robert McNamara: …1972. That's it--six years later. That's exactly right. Took that long to persuade the Russians to go along with it.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Robert McNamara: And that is, in my opinion, the foundation of strategic stability. Now he is moving--caught in ways that might abrogate that. But he--he has not described what--it was called the architecture of a ballistic missile defense. We don't know whether it's a space-based system or land-based, sea-based or all three. Until he does, I'm not going to…

Peter Robinson: Okay, so what I'm after here though…

Robert McNamara: …discuss it.

Peter Robinson: …but, in principle, then you don't object. You--it--it's a question of detail?

Robert McNamara: Well it…

Peter Robinson: And nuance and bringing the Russians along with us in some way.

Robert McNamara: That's the point. We've got to bring the Russians along with us so they do not feel…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Robert McNamara: …we're destroying their deterrent. Now China is a totally different situation. They have on the order of twenty intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads capable of attacking the U.S. They have felt that that twenty brought them deterrence of our strike against them. They are absolutely certain that that deterrence will be destroyed if we deploy anything in the way of a ballistic missile defense, even along the lines that Clinton was talking about. That's a major problem. We've got to…

Peter Robinson: Last, let me ask Robert McNamara about his vision for America's overall role in the twenty-first century.

Peter Robinson: I want to get you to your--your proposal that you call the multi-lateral imperative. Again let me quote you. "The United States under this imperative, the United States will not apply its economic, political or military power unilaterally other than in the unlikely circumstances of a defense of the Continental United States, Hawaii and Alaska." Okay, that's your statement. Now…

Robert McNamara: That's correct.

Peter Robinson: …October, 1973, first week of the Israeli/Arab war goes very badly for Israel and Richard Nixon, acting unilaterally, I believe he had some support from the Portuguese but it was essentially unilateral American action, told the Soviets not to interfere and re-supplied the Israelis and very likely saved the state of Israel. Would you really want us to bind ourselves to multi-lateral actions such that we could not engage in an action like that ever again?

Robert McNamara: You--you either don't know or forgotten some of your history.

Peter Robinson: All right. Fill me in.

Robert McNamara: Nixon didn't do that for the first time. In June of '67, the hotline was used for the first time. I was Secretary at the time. Johnson was President.

Peter Robinson: You have the advantage of not only knowing your history but having lived it. Go ahead.

Robert McNamara: Consegan in the exchange of messages, first use of the hotline, one of the messages said, if you want war, you'll get war. Now why did that kind of a message come? Because the Egyptians were--were absolutely intent on literally eliminating Israel as a state in the world. They were going to destroy Israel. Israel knew that. Israel preempted. They knocked the hell out of the Egyptians. Then the Egyptians li--literally, Nasser a year later told Life magazine he had lied. He called King Hussein of Jordan and said, the American carrier in the Sixth Fleet is bombing Cairo and you--you, Hussein and Jordan have got to come in and help us. So Hussein came in, attacked Israel and Israel knocked the hell out of Hussein. So then we're left with Syria and Russia. And we were concerned that Russia would support Syria and attack Israel. So unilaterally, we moved the fleet back toward--it was steaming west, we moved it, steaming east to help protect Israel. That was a unilateral action. There are exceptions to every rule. I don't want to say there aren't but, generally speaking, we should lead. We should not apply our power.

Peter Robinson: But you would not--you would not foreswear…

Robert McNamara: Oh there are certain circumstances.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now fin--let me push you one last time. This is my final question. You speak of Woodrow Wilson.

Robert McNamara: Yes.

Peter Robinson: The book is entitled, Wilson's Ghost. Let me contrast Wilson with a man who preceded him as president, Theodore Roosevelt. In temperament, you could hardly ask for a differ--greater contrast but also in--in their outlook on policy. Roosevelt insisted on American strength, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." He went so far as to send the American fleet on a tour to impress the world with our power. Never doubted the superiority of American values and he so earned the respect of other major players of the world that he was called into mediate the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 which won him the Nobel Peace Prize. Woodrow Wilson, an idealist, loses control of events in Versailles. An internationalist, he fails in his effort to get the Senate to ratify the League of Nations. So on the one hand you have Wilson, idealism, nationalism, multi-culturalism and failure. Theodore Roosevelt, utter confidence in American values and might and the Nobel Peace Prize. Shouldn't we be listening to Roosevelt's ghost?

Robert McNamara: I think we can listen to Roosevelt's ghost for leadership…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Robert McNamara: …but not for unilateral application of power. And essentially Roosevelt did…

Peter Robinson: Because he was wrong or the world is different?

Robert McNamara: Well--well I'd say--it wasn't so much he was wrong. He--he didn't suggest unilateral application of the U.S. power across the world. He did apply it in so--I'll call it a couple of minor instances unilaterally but it--it--he was--he was a active leader and that's what I think the U.S. should be today, an active leader. Wilson was trying to be an active leader. He failed on something that today I think is absolutely fundamental, organization of multi-lateral structures in the world to deal with this globalizing world that we have. And one of those mul--one of those multi-lateral structures that needs strengthening for sure is the United Nations. In a sense, the United Nations is--is the--the heritage of Wilson. It's today's replacement of the League of Nations. It badly needs restructuring. The Security Council, the role of the Secretary General, both need to be strengthened.

Peter Robinson: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.

Robert McNamara: Thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: Wilson's Ghost. Is it a phantom as Robert NcNamara believes that should inspire us with its idealism or is it a specter that should simply haunt us with a sense of its failed naiveté. I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.