Born June 9, 1916
San Francisco, California
U.S. secretary of defense, 1961–1968
Robert McNamara is one of the most controversial figures of the entire Vietnam War. As U.S. secretary of defense during both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he played a major part in shaping U.S. policy toward Vietnam. In fact, some people referred to the conflict in Vietnam as "McNamara's War" because of his role as primary architect and manager of the American war effort. As the war dragged on, McNamara lost confidence in an eventual U.S. victory and became tormented by doubts about the conflict. But he did not share these concerns with the American public. Instead, he publicly defended U.S. actions in Vietnam for another two years before leaving the government in early 1968.
Special advisor to U.S. military
Robert Strange McNamara was born June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, California. His parents were Robert James McNamara, a manager for a shoe company, and Clara Nell (Strange) McNamara. McNamara grew up in Piedmont, California, before attending college at the University of California, Berkeley. After earning a bachelor's degree in 1937, he moved on to Harvard University. He graduated from Harvard with a master's degree in business administration in 1939.
McNamara worked for a short time at a San Francisco accounting firm before returning to Harvard in 1940 as an assistant professor of business administration. When the United States entered World War II one year later, he volunteered for military service. The Navy turned down his application because of his poor eyesight, but McNamara still found a way to contribute to the war effort. In 1942 he taught special courses to U.S. Army Air Force officers (the Air Force did not become a separate branch of the military until July 1947). In addition, he helped the Air Force set up systems to keep track of their materials and personnel.
In 1943 the Army sent McNamara to England, where he helped develop and manage Air Force bombing operations. He remained in this special advisory role until April 1946, when he was released from active military service with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
High-ranking Ford executive
After returning to the United States, McNamara joined with eight other Air Force management experts who decided to form a business consulting company. A short time later, the Ford Motor Company hired this group—known collectively as the "Whiz Kids"—to reverse its declining business fortunes. After studying the company, McNamara's group delivered a set of recommendations designed to improve Ford's efficiency and financial performance. Ford's leadership was especially impressed by McNamara's insights. As a result, the company offered McNamara a management position within the company.
McNamara accepted the offer and became a manager for the automaker. Over the next few years, he rose rapidly through the corporate ranks, becoming known as a brilliant administrator with a good instinct for anticipating the American public's changing car-buying tastes. By 1957 he was vice president in charge of all of Ford's car and truck divisions and a member of its board of directors. On November 9, 1960, McNamara was named president of Ford Motor Company. This promotion made him the first non-member of the Ford family ever to serve as the company's president.
Joins Kennedy administration
McNamara's term as president of the Ford Motor Company ended five weeks later, when John F. Kennedy (see entry)—who would be taking over as president of the United States in January 1961—asked him to join his administration as secretary of defense. McNamara's national reputation as a talented manager and statistical genius had made a deep impression on Kennedy. He believed that McNamara's abilities made him ideally suited to oversee America's vast military forces.
After McNamara was sworn in as secretary of defense on January 21, 1961, he immediately began making changes designed to improve the efficiency and strength of the armed forces. Relying on reports from civilian financial and statistical analysts who studied all aspects of U.S. military performance, McNamara reorganized the budgets and management practices of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. He also shut down military bases that were no longer needed and refused to spend money on weapons systems he did not like. His actions angered some American military leaders but pleased many lawmakers, government officials, and newspaper editors.
During McNamara's first few years as secretary of defense, he and other Kennedy administration officials became increasingly concerned about a growing war in Vietnam. This conflict pitted the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its allies, the South Vietnamese Communists known as the Viet Cong, against the U.S.-supported nation of South Vietnam.
American involvement in Vietnam's affairs had actually begun in the 1950s. At that time, the United States began sending military and financial aid to South Vietnam to help it establish a strong economy and a democratic government. During the early 1960s, however, America became gravely concerned that South Vietnam was on the verge of being conquered by North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies. Most American officials believed that if the South were overrun by the Communists, other nations would become more vulnerable to a Communist takeover. This concern convinced McNamara and the Kennedy administration to launch a major U.S. military buildup in Vietnam during the early 1960s.
McNamara and the Vietnam War
In November 1963 Kennedy was assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (see entry) became president. Under Johnson, U.S. military involvement in Vietnam escalated rapidly. "Between January 28 and July 28, 1965, President Johnson made the fateful choices that locked the United States onto a path of massive military intervention in Vietnam," recalled McNamara in his memoir In Retrospect. This intervention, he added, "ultimately destroyed his presidency and polarized [divided] America like nothing since the Civil War. During this fateful period, Johnson initiated bombing of North Vietnam and committed U.S. ground forces . . . . All of this occurred without adequate public disclosure or debate, planting the seeds of an eventually debilitating [crippling] credibility gap."
When the United States first sent ground troops into Vietnam in early 1965, McNamara was highly confident that America would win a swift and easy victory over the Communists. He thought that by using statistical analysis and other management techniques to direct the powerful U.S. military, America would methodically roll over the enemy. By the end of the year, though, McNamara realized that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were willing to absorb tremendous punishment in order to reunite the country under Communist rule. In addition, he lost faith in South Vietnam's ability to govern itself without continued military and financial support from America.
In early 1966 McNamara urged Johnson to negotiate a peaceful end to the war. He warned the president that the war was turning into a bloody stalemate that might last for years. "I could see no good way to win—or end—an increasingly costly and destructive war," he explained in In Retrospect. "It became clear then . . . that military force—especially when wielded [controlled] by an outside power—just cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself."
As McNamara wrestled with his growing doubts about the war, American families, neighborhoods, and communities became bitterly divided over U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But even as antiwar protests flared across the country, McNamara refused to confess his doubts about the war to the American public. Instead, he repeatedly assured the public that the United States was on its way to victory. In fact, McNamara defended U.S. military strategy in Vietnam throughout 1966 and 1967, even after he had lost all faith in its effectiveness. He also continued to send tens of thousands of American soldiers into the conflict. His actions during this period made him a major target of antiwar protestors.
McNamara repeatedly clashed with U.S. military leaders over Vietnam strategy and tactics during this period as well. American military commanders believed that they could defeat the Communists if Johnson approved a massive escalation of bombing attacks against North Vietnam. But McNamara argued that increased bombing would not stop the Communists. He charged that the bombing strategy would only create higher civilian casualties and greater damage to the battered Vietnamese countryside.
Leaves the Johnson administration
By late 1967 it was clear to President Johnson and other members of his administration that McNamara no longer believed in the war. "Two months before he left he felt he was a murderer and didn't know how to extricate [remove] himself," Johnson told biographer Doris Kearns in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. "I was afraid he might have a nervous breakdown." As a result, Johnson decided to replace McNamara as secretary of defense.
McNamara resigned in February 1968 to serve as president of the World Bank, an organization that lends money to poor nations for economic, educational, and social programs. In his memoir, McNamara claimed that he was not on the verge of "emotional and physical collapse" when he resigned. Instead, he stated that he left the Johnson administration because of differences over Vietnam policy. "The fact is I had come to the conclusion, and had told [Johnson] point-blank, that we could not achieve our objective in Vietnam through any reasonable military means, and we therefore should seek a lesser political objective through negotations. President Johnson was not ready to accept that. It was becoming clear to both of us that I would not change my judgment, nor would he change his. Something had to give."
In any case, McNamara was an unhappy and disillusioned man when he left the Johnson White House. A Johnson aide named Harry McPherson told Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History, about a farewell luncheon that McNamara attended in February 1968: "He reeled off the familiar statistics—how we had dropped more bombs on Vietnam than all of Europe during World War II. Then his voice broke, and there were tears in his eyes as he spoke of the futility, the crushing futility, of the air war. The rest of us sat silently—I for one with my mouth open, listening to the secretary of defense talk that way about a campaign for which he had, ultimately, been responsible. I was pretty shocked."
McNamara served as president of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981. During his presidency, the organization flourished and dramatically increased the size and scope of its funding operations. After leaving the World Bank, McNamara devoted his time to several issues that concerned him, including world poverty, nuclear arms policy, and environmental pollution.
In Retrospect creates controversy
In 1995 McNamara published a memoir in which he tried to explain his actions during the Vietnam War. In this book, called In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, McNamara insisted that he and other U.S. officials of the Vietnam era "acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong . . . . I truly believe that we made an error not of values and intentions but of judgement and capabilities." In In Retrospect, McNamara blamed the U.S. defeat in Vietnam on American ignorance of Vietnamese history and culture and errors in military strategy. "The foundations of our decision making were gravely flawed," he wrote.
The publication of In Retrospect triggered a new storm of debate about the war and McNamara's role in it. For many Americans, the book's appearance rekindled dark memories of a bloody and unsuccessful war that bitterly divided the nation. "As Mr. McNamara confesses the guilt he feels at being an early architect of the war, he isn't getting much absolution [forgiveness]," noted an April 16, 1995, editorial in the Detroit Free Press. "Those who still think Vietnam was a cause that should have been fought and could have been won are enraged by his restrospective judgment of it as a futile, unnecessary conflict. Those who opposed the war when it was being waged tend to have a bitter, I-told-you-so reaction to his memoir."
But reaction to McNamara's book was not entirely negative. In fact, some reviewers and readers called the memoir a courageous work that expressed great sadness about the American and Vietnamese lives that were lost in the conflict. But many Americans—including Vietnam veterans, former antiwar protestors, U.S. lawmakers, and journalists who covered the war—condemned the book as dishonest and self-serving. They charged that McNamara's memoir never explained why he continued to send American soldiers to die in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, after he had privately concluded that U.S. involvement in the war was doomed to fail. "Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen," stated one New York Times editorial. "His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers. The ghost of those unlived [the people who died in Vietnam] circle close around Mr. McNamara. Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late."
In 1999 McNamara cowrote a second book on the Vietnam War with several scholars and historians. This book, called Argument without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, provided excerpts from a series of meetings between American and Vietnamese scholars, policy makers, and military officers who were involved in the Vietnam War. Participants in these meetings, which were held from 1995 to 1998, included McNamara, Vo Nguyen Giap (leader of North Vietnamese military forces during the war; see entry) and Nguyen Go Thach (a former foreign minister of Vietnam).
Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, 1972.
Hendrickson, Paul. The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War. New York: Knopf, 1996.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking, 1983.
Kearns, Doris. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: Signet Books, 1976.
McNamara, Robert S., et al. Argument without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy. Public Affairs, 1999.
McNamara, Robert S., with Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Times Books, 1995.
"Mr. McNamara's War." New York Times, April 12, 1995.
Shapley, Deborah. Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993.
McNamara Recalls the Suicide of Norman Morrison
In late 1965 an American man named Norman R. Morrison set himself on fire in front of the Pentagon, the United States' central military headquarters, in order to protest U.S. policies in Vietnam. Morrison was a member of the Quaker religious group, which holds strong beliefs that violence in any form is unacceptable. His decision to commit suicide by self-immolation (setting oneself on fire) shocked the nation. Some historians believe that his action contributed to Robert McNamara's change of heart toward the war.
In the following excerpt from McNamara's memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, the former secretary of defense recalls Morrison's suicide and its impact on the McNamara family:
Antiwar protest had been sporadic and limited through the fall of 1965 and had not compelled attention. Then came the afternoon of November 2, 1965. At twilight that day, a young Quaker named Norman R. Morrison, father of three and an officer of the Stoney Run Friends Meeting in Baltimore, burned himself to death within forty feet of my Pentagon window. When he set himself on fire, he was holding his one-year-old daughter in his arms. Bystanders screamed, "Save the child!" and he flung her out of his arms. She survived.
Morrison's death was a tragedy not only for his family but also for me and the country. It was an outcry against the killing that was destroying the lives of so many Vietnamese and American youth.
I reacted to the horror of his action by bottling up my emotions and avoided talking about them with anyone—even my family. I knew [my wife] Marg and ourthree children shared many of Morrison's feelings about the war, as did the wives and children of several of my cabinet colleagues. And I believed I understood and shared some of his thoughts. There was much Marg and I and the children should have talked about, yet at moments like this I often turn inward instead—it is a grave weakness. The episode created tension at home that only deepened as dissent and criticism of the war continued to grow.
Thirty years after Morrison committed suicide, his widow, Anne Morrison Welsh, read In Retrospect. Much of the public reaction to McNamara's memoir was negative, but Welsh released a public statement in support of the former defense secretary: "I am grateful to Robert McNamara for his courageous and honest reappraisal of the Vietnam War and his involvement in it. I hope his book will contribute to the healing process."