I don’t know as much about Robert McNamara as I should. I do know he was the Lyndon Johnson adviser who was responsible for the escalation of American military involvement in Vietnam. His recent death brings David Brooks and Gail Collins, on their New York Times blog, “The Conversation,” to discuss a question the caption writer words as, “Has our ruling class gotten better or worse over the ages?”
Brooks starts off. He compares the bureaucratic elite of the 1950s to the elite of the 1960s (McNamara’s time), and presents McNamara’s failings as of a piece with what he as a conservative considers the decline of America generally over those two decades. He presents a narrative in which the “wise men” of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were great men, innovators, responsible for creating the institutions that made the America of the second half of the twentieth century what it was. The corresponding “best and brightest” of the succeeding decade, however, were entirely different. In their hands, everything fell apart.
In case you were wondering why, Brooks offers up a handful of possibilities: the kind of education they were given, their belief that they were in possession of scientific knowledge that could tell them exactly how to govern, their belief in their own competence, and their belief that they could improve conditions for other people at home and around the world. Basically, they were Democrats. The men of the 1950s, on the other hand, were wealthy industrialists (and the sons of industrialists), plutocrats with Wall Street values who believed their wealth and opportunities gave them the responsibility and the competence to participate in government. In other words, Republicans (though probably Rockefeller Republicans, as they’d later be called, not necessarily conservatives).
Undeniably, something happened sometime between 1958 and 1974. The difference between the bureaucrats of the immediate post-war period and those of the Vietnam era makes a nice example. But the question remains what the causes of the difference really were.
With the data Brooks relays to us, it seems that the only way of explaining the change is by the subsequent generation’s being inexplicably dumber than its predecessor had been (not its parents: the only subsequent political Harrimans that Wikipedia lists exist in science fiction). Or we might invent some theory of inevitable decline—where the men of the 1950s were indeed better than those of any other period in recent memory, but where the law of reversion to the mean shows that all good things must come to an end, and that they correspondingly did. What seems certain is that, for Brooks, many other possibilities, though imaginable, are not likely. The men of the 1950s did not leave weak or fragile institutions to their successors. The men of the 1950s did not leave nearly insuperable problems, of their own creation, to those of the 1960s. The men of the 1960s did not do the best they could under bad circumstances, and certainly did not lay the groundwork for improvement in the next two or three decades. (Any of these possibilities would cast in doubt Brooks’ assertion that the 1960s were a sad falling off from a high place.) No: what you see is what you get.
What you see is what you get. Americans were generally happy in the 1950s, and the presidents of the 1950s were Republicans. Americans were increasingly unhappy in the 1960s, and the presidents of that decade were Democrats. In the 1950s there wasn’t yet much in the way of the social sciences, and bureaucrats could be only generally educated yet govern with little outside criticism. In the 1960s many people felt a lot more was known, and at the same time problems were being identified with increasing frequency. Conservatives like David Brooks are asking you to do the math. He thinks you’ll be forced to draw the right conclusion.