WASHINGTON -- The death of Robert McNamara at 93 was less a faint reverberation of a receding era than a reminder that mentalities are the defining attributes of eras, and certain American mentalities recur with, it sometimes seems, metronomic regularity. McNamara came to Washington from a robust Detroit -- he headed Ford when America's swaggering automobile manufacturers enjoyed 90 percent market share -- to be President John Kennedy's secretary of defense. Seemingly confident that managing the competition of nations could be as orderly as managing competition among the three participants in Detroit's oligopoly, McNamara entered government seven months before the birth of the current president, who is the owner and, he is serenely sure, fixer of General Motors.
Today, something unsettlingly similar to McNamara's eerie assuredness pervades the Washington in which he died. The spirit is: Have confidence, everybody, because we have, or soon will have, everything -- really everything -- under control.
The apogee of McNamara's professional life, in the first half of the 1960s, coincided, not coincidentally, with the apogee of the belief that behavioralism had finally made possible a science of politics. Behavioralism held -- holds; it is a hardy perennial -- that the social and natural sciences are not so different, both being devoted to the discovery of law-like regularities that govern the behavior of atoms, hamsters, humans, whatever.
Two of behavioralism's reinforcing assumptions were: Things that can be quantified can be controlled. And everything can be quantified. So, pick a problem, any problem. Military insurgency in Indochina? The answer is counterinsurgency. What can be, and hence must be, quantified? Body counts, surely. Bingo: A metric of success.
Not exactly. The behavior of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong did not respond as expected to America's finely calibrated stimuli, such as bombing this but not that, and bombing pauses. Behavioralists were disappointed, but not discouraged. They would give nation-building another try.