Roger McNamara and the Price of His Dirty Hands

November 8, 2011

Dirty Hands, Political Theory


Cover for Errol Morris' documentary on McNamara's Life

After watching a clip of The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara in lecture, I decided to watch the whole documentary over the weekend.  As Professor LaVaque-Manty explained, the film is essentially a discussion between Errol Morris, the film’s director, and Robert McNamara about various lessons that he learned over the course of his life.

It was extremely interesting seeing McNamara’s reflect on his actions over the course of his lifetime.  Despite all of the many good things he did both in the private and public domain, he remains a controversial figure–he is often called the “architect” of the Vietnam War.  Despite having served in World War II, working as Secretary of Defense for nearly a decade, and inventing the safety belt for the automobile, McNamara’s image, at least until the release of the movie, was that of a cold-blooded, arrogant man who was willing to do whatever it took to reach his goals.

He was, to say the least, a perfect “Dirty Hands” ruler.  As Secretary of Defense,  McNamara, along with the rest of President Lyndon Johnson, President Richard Nixon, and their respective staffs, decided that the preservation of democracy in Vietnam was worth the tens of thousands of US soldier and Vietnamese civilian lives that were lost as a result.  He admitted to Morris that he and President Johnson withheld much of the intel they had on the state of the war from the American public in order to keep opposition cool and continue fighting until they saw fit.  It was quite clear in the film that McNamara greatly struggled with this, as he cried when recalling to the total US solider death toll and remembered the specific number even 35 years after the fact.  He seemed haunted by his actions, even though he believed then–and continued to believe as such in the documentary–that the fight for democracy was worth all the violence and struggle that ensued.  His emotions were so raw, so sincere, that it was clear that he still had not managed to get over all that had happened.

This brings to light a very interesting concept that Professor brought up in lecture.  Politicians, due to the “Dirty Hands” theory, are in many ways martyrs for their cause.  McNamara, for all intensive purposes, was written off before the war was even over.  He eventually decided to resign from his position as Secretary of Defense and effectively faced political death–all in the name of what he believed was right.  McNamara was willing to go through all this suffering in order to do what he believed was best for his country and his people, no matter what it took.  Even now, he seemed to be tortured by the suffering that he caused to people all over the world (from both Japan and Vietnam).  At the very end of the movie, he refused to speak further on Vietnam as he thought that he was “damned” no matter what he said about the subject, as people would simply take whatever he said the wrong way.  He essentially pleads for people to understand the underlying reasons for his actions, and tells them that everything he did was in the interest of the American people.

The consequences of his actions, and that of any politician that uses his “Dirty Hands,” is seems live with them for the rest of their lives.

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3 Comments on “Roger McNamara and the Price of His Dirty Hands”

  1. euriosti Says:

    I think the problem of dirty hands sticks with politicians who have a good conscience. Since dirty hands happens when immoral actions are taken in the best interest of the people, the politician has to have some sense of the consequences of his actions. If McNamara showed no remorse, how could he have dirty hands? He would never feel like he did anything wrong. To me, it proves McNamara is a man with high character. He understood the consequences of his actions, and still did them for his country. He is not a bad man for protecting the country that he loves. The lives he effected will weigh on him forever, and we should be grateful that he did this for our country. However if a politician lacks morals, the problem of dirty hands is negligible, because there is no sense of wrong doing.

  2. sarahspath23 Says:

    As discussed in the post, this issue is a clear one of dirty hands in the case of McNamara. Dirty hands applies here because this situation was one where a political leader or political leaders made a decision that was incredibly harmful, but the reason behind it was in the best interest’s of the people. McNamara and other government officials gave an order that will forever be remembered in history because it hurt so many people, both U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. These awful consequences were known before the decision was made, but McNamara believed that this action would help maintain the democracy in Vietnam. McNamara was trying to protect this democracy, which would in turn be beneficial to the United States people.

    It is a shame that McNamara is only remembered for this one decision and viewed so negatively for something he did with good intentions. I think people feel so strongly about McNamara, not because he gave the order for the wrong reasons, but because it was not something the people approved of. The U.S. citizens felt that they would not have made a decision that hurt so many innocent people, even if the end goal was something they wanted. Killing thousands of innocent people is a means that no one, including McNamara, would have wanted. He might have felt that there was no other way to achieve the ultimate goal of protecting democracy. The thing the people don’t understand is the difficulty of being in such a situation where you have the power to make history-changing decisions that must put the people first. People could say all they want to that they could never do such a thing, but until you are in that position with such responsibility and pressure, it is difficult to imagine what you would do.

    The other thing that the U.S. citizens do not understand is that political leaders must make decisions all the time that are not welcome by everyone, but we must trust that the leaders we have elected are taking the people’s best interests into account. This reminds me of when parents mandate that their children eat broccoli, but the children don’t want to and think that they would never make their children someday eat broccoli. However, when children do grow up and have kids, I’m sure many do make sure their child eats broccoli or some kind of vegetable. As children, we must trust that our parents, who have more knowledge and are responsible, know what is best for us. When we get to be in our parent’s position, I think it will be surprising how much we will act like them. Anyways, the point is that we need to have faith in our leaders because they may make decisions that are in our best interest’s, even if we don’t know it.

    Therefore, I think part of McNamara’s problem is that he was not fox-like according to Machiavelli. Machiavelli suggests that the leaders should do whatever is necessary in order to achieve an end that is good for the people. However, he also says that the leaders must try to put on a front of being moral and try to hide their decisions and actions that may not be moral from the people. As long as the end outcome is for the good of the people, the people don’t need to know the means according to Machiavelli. McNamara was not able to keep his decision or the repercussions of it away from the U.S. citizens because the war was very public and media coverage was constant. If the U.S. people knew nothing of the means, but knew of the end result, that democracy was protected in Vietnam, people would be praising McNamara.

    The other problem with this situation is that the means of killing thousands of innocent people seems un-American, no matter how American the ends were. The decision McNamara and the other government officials made hurt so many people that for many Americans, it was hard to fathom why anyone would decide to do that, especially when many of the people were innocent. By trying to achieve democracy, something Americans value so much, McNamara made a decision that could not be taken back. The U.S. people thought that there must have been another way to achieve the same goal, without committing such an awful crime.

    McNamara is a clear case of dirty hands, but since this issue was so public and horrific, the U.S. people could not see past the means to the end goal. McNamara made the right decision according to dirty hands and should not feel guilty. However, as a human being and an American that values life, he will never forget the lives lost because of his command. The American people should realize that McNamara was in a difficult situation and even if the decision may seem unthinkable, he did it for his country.

  3. jgurwitch Says:

    I agree with what Euriosti mentions. In my opinion Dirty hands takes on a different connotation when someone is not doing something solely for himself or herself without feeling terrible about it. In this sense it is very evident that McNamara truly felt bad about what he was doing. Overall what he was doing was helping his country stay powerful and although it was at the hands of many people, had his actions been different who knows what would have happened to the United States. He was not necessarily benefitting himself but benefitting the country he serves. Therefore in some ways this can be seen as a selfless act rather than selfish. I know that “dirty hands” actions are in occurrence when a bad action has good consequences, but it is hard to put any blame on McNamara since he felt so awful about the whole situation. . He made some decisions that he regrets making, but these were decisions that had to be made. He did not choose to do them for himself, which takes on a whole new name of whether he should be at fault or not.

    Furthermore, I agree that a lot of politicians make decisions that are relevant to dirty hands. The movie portrays him as a “cold-blooded, arrogant man,” but by showing that he could not discuss it anymore and became emotional about it, I feel different about him. If he were truly arrogant then he would not have cared about what he did and defended it; in this case he did not. Dirty hands can be used for good, and it is not really applicable if the person, or politician, does not care about what happened. Here dirty hands fits what is going on because McNamara has a conscious and is clearly regretful about what happened, but him saving a country and feeling terrible about it afterwards is a lot better than a politician who chose to do something like this and be the source of many deaths without having an ounce of shame in his body. He will continue to be remorseful, and therefore I think it is more forgivable.

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