The Honorable Robert M. McNamara reflected upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, among other topics, at a forum for the 20th anniversary of OTA. He concluded that we should seek to return to a non-nuclear world as far as achievable and he recommended that the international community redouble its efforts to limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
The Soviet Union, Cuba, and the United States brought the world to the brink of a nuclear disaster in October, 1962, as a result of the distortions of misinformation, miscalculation, and misjudgment of their political leaders, according to McNamara, a former Secretary of Defense and former President of The World Bank.
“In this age of high-technology weaponry, crisis management is dangerous, difficult, and uncertain. Therefore it is crisis avoidance that is important,” McNamara said. The combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons carries a very high risk of destroying not tens or hundreds of thousands of lives but of destroying nations.
Stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them, according to McNamara, would require some form of collective security action by a multinational institution such as the United Nations.
“To begin with the council should agree to prohibit the development, production, or purchase of any of those weapons,” he said. Any country violating that ban should be subjected to strict economic sanctions and if sanctions failed, then U.N. military action would be necessary. Countries currently possessing these weapons- including the United States- would be subject to international inspections and control, and would be asked to approve a treaty prohibiting their first use.
McNamara said that a system for collective action would allow reductions of military spending and the huge savings could be used to address the pressing human physical and infrastructure needs across the globe.
“If development that meets the needs of all social groups is to occur, if democracy is to spread, there must be … a relatively equitable distribution of resources. That is not occurring today,” McNamara said. He pointed out that in many parts of the world, military expenditures strengthen the political influence of the armed forces at the expense of the civil groups and economic systems function primarily to befit a relatively limited number of people.
“I think the international community needs to identify ways in which it can reward those countries that reduce security and related expenditures in favor of development,” McNamara said. He strongly urged linking financial assistance to developing countries to their movement toward optimal levels of military expenditures.
” If together we are bold, if east and west and north and south dare break out of the mindsets that have guided …our actions for the past four decades, we can reshape international institutions, …we can reshape relations among nations, …and we can dramatically reduce military expenditures, which have been a derivative of those relationships and we do so in a ways which will lead to a more peaceful world, a more prosperous world, for all of the peoples of this interdependent world, McNamara said.
“It’s the first time in my adult life that we have had such an opportunity. Pray God we seize it,” he concluded.
OTA’s Forum on Technology and Governance in the 1990’s was hosted by the Technology Assessment Board for Congress on January 27, 1993. Robert McNamara’s full presentation and others with questions and answers are available at the OTA Archive.