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A House Built on Sand

Jungle Beach at Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard used to be the toniest plage in Massachusetts. A haven for bathers clothed and nude, it derived its name from the thick brush that cut it off from the island's south shore road. Reaching the beach involved hacking through the thicket, but the reward was a beach free of the crowding, vendors and photochemical oxidants of more popular spots.

 That was until a syndicate led by Robert Strange McNamara won control of Jungle Beach in an estate sale. McNamara and three friends obtained the entire beach, but agreed to lease back a portion to the selectmen of Chilmark. A road was driven down to the beach, a parking lot installed and permits required for access. McNamara and friends each got to build a house, a pool and estate buildings. The price for 40 acres was under one half million. It was, said an islander with some sophistication in the local real estate market, a masterful stroke. Some of the local skinny dippers were upset, including an artist who slugged McNamara on the ferry from the mainland, then tried to push him into the water. But it was generally considered on the island that McNamara was not at all a bad fellow. Rationality had been applied to the South beach situation. Most important, there would be no subdivision at Jungle Beach.

Today, McNamara's beach has become the second most pervasive issue on the posh island, right after statehood. Recently, at McNamara's insistence, the town selectmen posted guards armed with walkietalkies at each end of the private portion of what once was Jungle Beach, to keep bathers below the "mean low water mark," which the law defines as the limit of shoreline private property. One may walk through the water at low tide or swim by at high tide when the mean low water mark is 20 feet from the shore. But the public may not touch McNamara's dry sand under penalty of arrest. McNamara's name has been slung around the letters columns of the two local newspapers all summer. "It has got to be affecting him," says a neighbor. McNamara is seldom seen on Martha's Vineyard, keeping to himself on his private beach and in his house built on pilings driven into the sand. But this house built on sand is a special "moveable" house designed so as to be able to flee erosion of the beach.

McNamara's special moveable house epitomizes his escape from the world as McNamara once knew it. For McNamara, like so many others, life never has been the same since Vietnam. Not even at Chllmark, a place so elitist it should be custom-made for Robert McNamara, can he find peace.

McNamara's life hardly has been destroyed. When he freaked out in Montreal and gave some damned peacenik speech, LBJ fired him at once—but laterally, putting Bob in charge of the World Bank where he could do no harm and might even do some good. McNamara has done well. If in fact McNamara bears feelings of guilt about Vietnam, it is guilt carried in a very odd way. It is a penitence not at all of the hair shirt variety. In some ways, McNamara can look on his years since he was fired by LB] as his best yet. After all where is LBJ, and how fares his reputation? And look at McNamara.

McNamara has been in Washington for 16 years. During this time, by conventional definitions, he has performed brilliantly. Arriving from Detroit, he burst into the Pentagon like a battalion of Green Berets, rationalizing here, reorganizing there and prioritizing everywhere. He was a star. They called him Supermac, the Human Computer. LBJ called him "the greatest invention since the telephone"—a big Texas compliment that made McNamara into a celebrity and subject for discussion around town like no one since except Henry Kissinger.

Today McNamara is seasoned. No more silly gaffes like the occasion when he admitted to defense reporters that John Kennedy's missile gap didn't exist. McNamara operates on a higher level. His personality and contacts have become international. McNamara has been born again, but not into a world inhabited by anybody normal. McNamara's resurrection has been transcendental.

McNamara's new life comes with a new kind of power, largely self-developed. It is unchecked by conventional domestic political influences. In his International circle, McNamara is at the center. But McNamara's tenure at the bank has shed little light on the longstanding mystery of his personality. "An immensely complicated man," David Halberstam said. "Horrifyingly simple," says a former employee. McNamara clearly hungers for control; at the bank he has displayed definite monarchic tendencies. His term of office extended in June for five more years, McNamara is ruler of an institution whose governors exercise little authority. McNamara's escalation of his bank's lending and his doubling of the bank's staff have given him weapons of the heaviest caliber with which to control the interaction between the bank's funders and its clients.

In Washington, a city where one's friends frequently define one's personal station, McNamara can look on the current administration with satisfaction. No fewer than three of his former Pentagon protégés—Cyrus Vance, Harold Brown and Joseph Califano—are in the Carter cabinet. Henry Kissinger consults him, Katharine Graham is close.

If the McNamaras are a little weird, it is in that eccentric way that the great may be permitted to be non-conformists. They play tennis very early on Sunday mornings at St. Albans, and devote Sunday afternoons to religion. Mrs. McNamara has a well-attended Bible class. It is popular with bank employees, who tend to come for the occasions when McNamara himself leads the discussion.

McNamara has attained a position of eminence and authority that, like a Pope's, comes with its very own cloak of mystery. He is a survivor, a fixture, not without enemies but well able to overcome the handful of obstacles they may sometimes be able to toss in his path. William Simon tried to take on McNamara during the Ford administration by demanding a "lid" on World Bank lending. But the "lid" was removed earlier this year and the World Bank's lending next year will be $6.1 billion—and where is Bill Simon?

McNamara's friends, on the other hand, are men (and one woman) of the greatest influence, entrenched members of a ruling elite that has influence and power no matter who is in the White House. Henry Kissinger protected McNamara from Nixon. Kay Graham, it appears, may have helped protect McNamara from reporters of The Washington Post. On at least two occasions McNamara has "reported" Post reporters to Graham following peculiar emotional episodes which McNamara is wont to suffer. The victims were defense reporter George Wilson and business reporter Hobart Rowan. When Wilson and Rowan asked questions McNamara didn't like, he "blew his cool," the reporters say. "I guess you would call it a rant," Rowan said. "In 30 years of reporting I hadn't been subjected to that kind of abuse." Graham ordered the Post's "ombudsman" to investigate Rowan's behavior. Rowan has since lost control of the financial pages, and while he has been permitted to continue to write about McNamara, it is not without the chilling knowledge of his publisher's personal interest in what he says.

McNamara apparently finds it hard to cope with other people except in settings that are pre-sanitized. He is surrounded by young, well-paid executives who guard him from dangerous contacts and who make sure that the questions of journalists are not permitted to go beyond the "proper scope." The World Bank's press operation, run by bank vice-president William Clark, is an integral part of McNamara's personal barricade. Aides say they "must rationalize the time" of their boss and that he "won't see any Tom, Dick or Harry." McNamara won't grant interviews to journalists without prior submission of an "outline" of the proposed article and a detailed list of questions. He will talk only about international economic development—not about his personal life, and most assuredly not about US policy past or present. International etiquette forbids it, his aides insist.

McNamara's determination to avoid dealing with people who will not relate to him on pre-determined terms extends to the bank's own staff. Only a close-knit inner circle, including Clark and bank vice-president Hollis B. Chenery, an econometrician, have regular access to McNamara. Others must communicate in writing through predetermined "channels." "The bank is not a very democratic institution," says an economics professor who used to consult there.

McNamara takes his work at the bank very seriously. He can become visibly distraught when he discusses the problems of the poor. .At last year's World Bank meeting in Manila he broke down and cried during his address. These incidents are no act, say those who have viewed them; McNamara is wholly consumed by his mission and believes utterly in its necessity for human survival. Of course, McNamara was sincere at the Pentagon, too. Sincerity as a quality has little to recommend it without knowing what one is being sincere about.

 IT IS SAID that when McNamara arrived at the World Bank in 1968 he kept slipping and using the word "billion" when he meant to say "million." He overcame this difficulty by changing the bank instead of his habits of speech. Before McNamara, the bank was lending money to underdeveloped countries—its principal function—at a rate of $777 million a year. In 1977 it will lend $5.8 billion and the figure is increasing rapidly.

The list of World Bank clients includes an almost complete list of the world's dictatorships—left and right, petty and grandiose. There is precious little evidence that McNamara has done anything to encourage human rights as a condition for his generous extensions of credit, financed primarily from contributions by the public and private sectors of the industrialized nations, and also, more recently, the OPEC countries. McNamara recently talked Congress out of placing moral restrictions on the use of US contributions to the World Bank. He claimed the bank would refuse any money with strings attached. Critics have suggested that McNamara, along with friend Henry Kissinger, has come to the conclusion that democratic institutions are not suitable in a developing world that needs increased efficiency and order.

There is a deafening silence from McNamara on these issues. In the guise of an "international civil servant" he declines to respond to questions about the propriety of unconditional World Bank loans to countries that violate human rights. McNamara's busy PR men issue voluminous material which is distributed around the world in multiple languages, but human rights issues never are discussed.

It is hard to see that the explosion in World Bank loans—however sincerely motivated— has brought the world any closer to freedom from poverty. Indeed, with the assistance of the World Bank's newest patrons, the Arabs, the problem for the very poor has grown worse. Like welfare clients, they exist largely on handouts. Simultaneously they acquire a heavy burden of debt. At last count, the poor countries owed the World Bank $40 billion, much of which never will be repaid. The bank's enormous volume of lending really is primarily technical achievement, of the kind McNamara likes best.

One intriguing aspect of McNamara's tenure at the World Bank that has gotten surprisingly little attention is his obsessive interest in population control. First enunciated, daringly, at Notre Dame University in 1969,  McNamara's theories on the subject have expanded to include fairly Draconian solutions. At a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in April, McNamara reflected tolerantly on government coercion to promote a "social consensus" on birth control. He said, "No government really wants to resort to coercion in this matter. But neither can any government afford to let population pressures grow so dangerously large that social frustrations finally erupt into irrational violence and civil disintegration. That would be coercion of a very different order. In effect, it would be nature's response to our own indifference."

A shared vigorous attitude toward birth control may help explain McNamara's enthusiasm for the former government of India's Indira Gandhi. McNamara visited Gandhi in India. His generous largesse to her regime disgusted American ambassador William Saxbe, who claimed McNamara was going around the country "waving dollar bills." The Indian people were not as enthusiastic about Mrs. Gandhi's decision to use compulsion to achieve population control targets. McNamara never has spoken out on Vietnam. The subject is reported by those close to him to be so painful that he is "incapable" of discussing it. This refusal to discuss Vietnam also conveniently extends to a refusal to discuss in public anything else that no longer suits him. Few are so successful as McNamara in accomplishing this defiance of everyone.

Is McNamara now wise? There is no evidence to suggest so, since he has avoided even the most ceremonious expressions of regret or doubt. "Dazzled by the possibilities of technology I devoted crucial years of my life to serving it," Albert Speer wrote. "But in the end, my feelings about it are highly skeptical." Of course, Speer went to Spandau. McNamara has gone to Chilmark, where he enjoys his new role as an international humanitarian living in a house built on sand.

This article originally ran in the September 3, 1977 issue of the magazine