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Robert McNamara: Engaged till the end

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8 July 2009 10:37

In his 93rd year, Robert McNamara was still engaged in the public policy debate as a prominent and outspoken presence at a briefing given last February in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by the co-chairs of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), former Australian and Japanese Foreign Ministers Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi. 

The Commission had just concluded its second meeting and the co-chairs reported on their meetings with senior figures of the new US Administration, including Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser GEN Jim Jones. They had been very encouraged by the commitment of the Obama Administration to the goal of nuclear disarmament, with specific steps in mind as to how it would proceed down this path. 

This, they said, built on the momentum generated in the US by two Wall Street Journal articles co-authored by the so-called 'Four Horsemen', former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary Bill Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn. Evans and Kawaguchi also reported on the moving presentation given to the Commission the day before by three Japanese survivors of the US nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

At the end of the introductory briefing McNamara immediately got to his feet to say that he did not believe the Four Horsemen believed in disarmament. He encouraged Evans and Kawaguchi to challenge them to restate their commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons because he was convinced that they did not really mean it. After the meeting he was still heard discussing his matter with members of the audience.

McNamara would have been encouraged by Obama’s 5 April Prague speech. He died on the day Presidents Obama and Medvedev agreed to resume negotiations on significant cuts to their nuclear arsenals following more than a decade of corrosive stalemate which has weakened the fabric of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. 

McNamara was a highly influential figure during the period of rising American global power where international security was dominated by transatlantic tensions and the threat of mutually assured destruction between the two major nuclear armed states.  As the global centre of power shifts to Asia and the nuclear landscape becomes increasingly complicated, the task of nuclear disarmament goes far beyond the US/Russian negotiations. Both leaders have rightly acknowledged that their negotiations are a first step in a broader effort intended to reduce the threat of such weapons drastically and to prevent their further spread to unstable regions. The need to broaden the effort is almost upon us, as nuclear proliferation shifts to Asia.

For members of the Commission and its Advisory Board, those few days in Washington were memorable: to hear on successive days the heartbreaking testimony of members of the hibakusha and then the emphatic interventions in favour of nuclear disarmament by McNamara (who started public life analysing US bombers' efficiency and effectiveness for forces commanded by Major General Curtis LeMay, who directed the firebombing and atomic bombing campaign against Japan in 1945) was a unique experience.

Martine Letts is a member of the Advisory Board of the ICNND.

Photo by Flickr user Florian, used under a Creative Commons license.

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