Old Guard: Media Markers from the McNamara Era


rappleyeFor the media business — in turmoil  as it tries to figure out what it should be doing and how it should be doing it — events along the emotionally -conflicted career path of Robert McNamara give us a whole course curriculum of case studies and  topics for debate. Here are just a few – plus some lessons the media can still learn from them.

The Missile Gap. A vital issue in the Kennedy-Nixon campaign of  1960. Kennedy warned, vigorously and essentially unchallenged, that the Soviet strategic nuclear arsenal was significantly more powerful than ours, and the gap was growing wider every day. Eisenhower and Nixon  protested in vain that the gap was a fiction. The Kennedy claim prevailed, and turned out to be a powerful  force in the Democratic victory. One of McNamara’s first jobs as Secretary of Defense in the new administration was to measure that gap.  He did. In a matter of weeks he reported: Yes. There was a gap. In our favor. By a wide margin.  Why the shocking, and politically consequential mis-call? Bad intelligence,  provided by the CIA, exploited by political campaigners, unquestioned by journalists.

Lesson for the media today: Why didn’t we learn from that one — not be suckered again, by the CIA and the exploiters  of the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction?

The Bay of Pigs. Kennedy and McNamara were handed the fully-developed  project for anti-Castro Cubans to launch an attack from American bases, to overthrow the dictator.  McNamara wanted to stop it, but could not. Media lore has it clear that the New York Times had gotten word of the preparations, and was ready to break the story. Kennedy urged Scotty Reston to persuade the editors of  the Times to hold back on the story, which the Times did. The project proceeded to disaster. Much debate over morals, philosophy, and responsibility over the years.

Lesson for the media today: Always the toughest: Duty, loyalty, responsibility. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t (depending on the unforeseeable consequences).  cf: Patriot Act unlicensed wiretaps. You can only do your best, but duty, loyalty and responsibility are good guides.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Johnson claimed, falsely, that one August night in 1964, U.S. warships off the coast had been attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats. McNamara supported the President’s claim, based on  signals intelligence, which turned out to be too raw to be accurate.  The President used the episode to support his case for the Declaration of War by the Senate; he won, 99-1 (Wayne Morse, D-OR, was the sole dissenter).

Lesson for the media today: Impossible in the new world of Twitters and the internet. Important sidebar:  In the constant intelligence quest for human intelligence to bolster signals intelligence, humint has gained a powerful new resource in  its constant balancing act with sigint.

Dominican Republic. Over McNamara’s objections, Johnson accepted CIA assurance that “Communist conspirators” were trying to create another Communist government in the Dominican Republic, and sent in 24,000 troops to squelch the revolt. Turned out the Communists had nothing to do with a local insurrection, but subsequent realization of the falsehood  led the press for the first time to identify a “credibility gap,” which conditioned coverage, for good and bad, of the whole Vietnam war that followed.

Lesson for the media today: Remember it

The Pentagon Papers. McNamara, in personal agony and doubt about the purpose and performance of the war, commissioned the top-secret history. It was completed in 1968, and leaked in full to the New York Times in 1971.  Times house counsel James Goodale prevailed over strenuous  objections by outside counsel, on the grounds that the press had a First Amendment right to publish information significant to the people’s understanding of their government’s policy, and the series went to press that June.

Lesson for the media today: Remember it.


Marking the markers: Errol Morris, in his McNamara film biography , The Fog of War; and Tim Weiner, in his New York Times obituary, made clear the significance of McNamara’s various impacts upon the practice of journalism in this country.

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