McNamara, Robert Strange

views updated May 11 2018

McNAMARA, Robert Strange

(b. 9 June 1916 in San Francisco, California), secretary of defense during the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson (1961–1968) who became known as one of the leading architects of the war in Vietnam.

The son of Robert James McNamara, sales manager for a wholesale shoe company, and Claranell Strange, McNamara was a frail child with a bright mind. The hallmarks of his persona—a first-rate intellect matched with unwavering discipline—were apparent early in his life. He was reading at a high school level when he entered first grade, and was active in student government at Piedmont High School. He studied economics and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the end of his sophomore year. He received a B.A. with honors in 1937, and married Margaret McKinstry Craig, a schoolteacher and fellow Berkeley student, on 13 August 1940. They had three children.

McNamara attended the Harvard School of Business and received an M.B.A. in 1939. He studied the principle that a company would be more efficient and therefore successful if its managers could master the flow of information—in a corporate setting, this meant statistics. In his 1995 book In Retrospect, McNamara wrote: "To this day, I see quantification as a language to add precision to reasoning about the world." This philosophy would shape his public life, and not always for the better. When the United States entered World War II, McNamara was rejected for active duty owing to nearsightedness. He remained at Harvard as an assistant professor until 1943, when he took a leave of absence and went to England. There he set up a statistical system for the Eighth Air Force to manage the flow of personnel and equipment. Within the year he earned a captain's commission and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was a natural at planning, logistics, and operational analysis, able to digest massive quantities of information that would have choked a lesser intellect.

After the war McNamara was recruited to join a team of nine other statistical experts, known as the "Whiz Kids," who were hired by Ford Motor Company in 1946. They addressed the company's slipshod management and accounting practices, implementing their statistical control methods and reviving Ford's ailing fortunes. McNamara earned a reputation for "knowing where every buck is spent." Rising rapidly through the company, he succeeded Henry Ford II as president on 9 November 1960—becoming the first head of Ford Motors from outside the Ford family.

Yet McNamara would lead Ford for only one month. In late 1960, when President-elect John F. Kennedy asked the legendary Washington power broker Bob Lovett for cabinet recommendations, the first name that came up was McNamara's. Before agreeing to the position of secretary of defense, McNamara made it clear to Kennedy that he had no intention of being a passive observer. He intended to coordinate the services, reducing waste and duplication. This was music to Kennedy's ears; he wanted to run foreign policy and military affairs from the White House. For the position of secretary of defense, he wanted someone who could hold the reins on the world's largest bureaucracy.

McNamara clearly understood his charge, telling a New York Times reporter in January 1961 that his main task was "to bring efficiency to a $40 billion enterprise." On 21 January 1961 McNamara was sworn into office, and his first act as secretary was to streamline the Pentagon leadership, eliminating some assistant secretary posts and creating a new office of management planning. He used systems analysis to determine the cost-effectiveness of new weapons systems and insisted on allocating budget funds based on functionality rather than branch of service, stressing "commonality" when possible. In the past, civilian control of the military had been true only in theory; McNamara made it a reality. This added to his legend in Washington—the man who saved Ford Motors had now tamed the roaring military. He was, in the words of the journalist and historian David Halberstam, the "can-do man in the can-do society in the can-do era."

The determination of McNamara and Kennedy to treat the Pentagon as just another organization, however, turned out to be appallingly shortsighted. As secretary of defense, McNamara inevitably would become a top adviser on foreign affairs and the man who would orchestrate any U.S. military action—the government's "general-in-chief." However, nothing in McNamara's background prepared him for these tasks; indeed, his almost evangelical belief in the power of fact and reason was poorly suited to the swirling ideological passions of the cold war era. In retrospect, it appears inevitable that McNamara would fail. McNamara was also a victim of domestic political machinations. Although it had been seven years since the Senate censured Senator Joseph McCarthy for his anti-Communist crusades, the issue was still alive as far as Kennedy was concerned—owing in large part to his narrow victory over Republican Richard M. Nixon in 1960. Both Kennedy and his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, were wary of being labeled "soft on Communism."

Shortly after his election, Kennedy was briefed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) about an operation initiated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to undermine the Cuban regime of Fidel Castro. Determined to show muscle on the Communism issue, Kennedy decided to proceed with plans to launch a small invading force comprising CIA-trained Cuban exiles. McNamara agreed to the plan. On 17 April 1961 nearly 1,500 Cuban expatriates stormed the beaches at the Bay of Pigs. The mission was a tactical and political disaster. The insurgents were defeated in three days, and the Cuban populace rallied around Castro. When he left office in 1967, McNamara told reporters that his greatest regret was the Bay of Pigs, a policy that "could have been recognized as an error at the time."

Failure in Cuba necessitated an even harder line for the new administration, both to fend off domestic critics and to demonstrate toughness to the Soviet Union. As Halberstam wrote, the Bay of Pigs was "a shattering event" that would go on to "seriously disturb the balance of the first two years of the Kennedy Administration." In Vienna, in June 1961, the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev blustered his way through a meeting with Kennedy, making it clear that he thought the U.S. president was weak and indecisive. On 13 August 1961, seeking a solution to the dramatic flow of refugees out of Communist East Berlin to capitalist West Berlin, Khrushchev erected the Berlin Wall. Kennedy was forced to accept this unilateral action as a fait accompli.

The attention of the U.S. government then fell squarely on the previously obscure nation of Vietnam. Kennedy believed that the cold war would be fought and won, not in direct conflict with the Soviet Union but indirectly, in the Third World. He favored a military policy known as "flexible response," which would allow the United States to confront Communist aggression on a smaller scale, anywhere in the world. McNamara implemented this policy for Kennedy, strengthening conventional fighting capacity, expanding troop levels dramatically, and creating a counterinsurgency force, known as the Green Berets, that could stamp out revolution whenever and wherever it arose. Vietnam would be the ultimate test of this policy.

Vietnam turned out to be a poor test case. While North Vietnam was Communist, the opposition to Ngo Dinh Diem, the nationalist leader of South Vietnam, was an ambiguous mix of Communists and nationalists. Nevertheless, Diem referred to his opposition as "Vietcong," or Vietnamese Communists. This analysis was dubious at best. As the historian Stephen Ambrose writes, "Diem was incapable of distinguishing between Communist and anti-Communist opposition to his government." McNamara, like others in the administration, repeatedly fell prey to poor analysis of Southeast Asia generally and Vietnam specifically. McCarthy's "Red" baiting had another lingering effect on Kennedy's foreign policy—the State Department was purged of most of its experts on China. Compounding the problem, Vietnam policy had always been seen through a French prism. Until 1954 the U.S. Embassy in Paris had handled U.S. policy in Vietnam; afterward, French speakers with backgrounds in European affairs staffed the embassy in Saigon and the Vietnam desk at the State Department.

Finally, there was a tendency in the Kennedy administration to close ranks among senior officials when important decisions were made—thereby banishing country or regional experts, who resided at lower levels of government. McNamara was no doubt comfortable with this arrangement; describing his theory of corporate management, he once said, "I have always believed that the more important the decision, the fewer people should be involved in the decision." As a result, the administration seized on the so-called domino theory—in which South Vietnam was the linchpin to preventing a Chinese Communist takeover of Asia—without considering that Vietnam and China had been rivals for hundreds of years before the introduction of Communist theory.

McNamara made the first of many visits to Vietnam in 1962. By that time the United States had more than 10,000 military "advisers" there. (In 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower had declined to intervene in Vietnam, but had sent the first wave of U.S. military and economic advisers.) McNamara saw nothing to dissuade him from the belief that superior troops, training, and firepower inevitably would win the battle, presumably without much difficulty. On that first trip, when U.S. involvement was still at a minimum, McNamara said, "Every quantitative measurement we have shows we're winning the war." He failed to take into account intangible, human factors, such as the presence of a more determined foe, fighting to defend home soil—the elements that the German theorist Carl von Clausewitz had called the "friction" of war more than a century earlier. This failure was to be McNamara's Achilles' heel.

In August 1962 the Soviets began to build ballistic missile sites in Cuba. Like most Kennedy administration foreign policy decisions, the response to this development was handled in the White House, with the president surrounded by a relatively small circle of senior advisers. In this case, the results were a textbook example of how to manage foreign policy in a crisis. The president's team, known as the Executive Committee, or Ex Comm, patiently and deliberately debated their alternatives while the fate of the world hung in the balance and events on the ground shifted constantly. McNamara sided with the president in advocating a blockade of Soviet ships carrying offensive weapons to Cuba in October 1962. Over the more hawkish advice of the generals, who felt that the Soviets would understand only force, the blockade was ordered, and a standoff on the high seas ensued. The Kennedy administration was criticized for its confrontational, "warlike" attitude. Yet in the end, Khrushchev blinked first, ordering Soviet ships back to Russia. It was a great victory for the Kennedy administration, a decisive escape from the most dangerous crisis the world had ever known.

On 22 November 1963 President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The newly inaugurated president Lyndon Johnson urged McNamara to remain at the Pentagon. Johnson accelerated the pace of events in Vietnam with his determination to "win the war." On 2 August 1964 the president received reports that North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin had attacked U.S. destroyers. Johnson seized the opportunity and pushed a resolution through Congress—the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—that effectively gave him a blank check to broaden the war effort as he saw fit, without congressional interference. McNamara was one of the key lobbyists on the resolution and later admitted that he misled Congress about administration war aims.

In late 1964 McNamara supported the administration's determination to conduct an air war against North Vietnam—the systematic bombing lasted into early 1965. On 8 June 1965 Johnson authorized U.S. troops to engage in ground combat. Public opinion began to turn against the war. In this growing crisis, McNamara relied on what he knew best, data. Many of the photographs of McNamara in this period show him poring over endless volumes of statistics. He was constantly in the country, talking to soldiers, conferring with commanders, assessing the situation. Yet in gathering his research, he was too willing to accept military reporting that conformed to his relentless optimism. If he was played for a fool, he played right along. McNamara never sought independent corroboration of data. He went before the country and reported that indicators were good. While Johnson had his domestic policies to insulate him from Vietnam, McNamara had nowhere to hide. He became a focal point for antiwar protesters, vilified as a "murderer" and a "baby burner." Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of two dissenting votes on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, referred to the escalating conflict in Vietnam as "McNamara's war." These charges deeply hurt him and contributed to his growing disenchantment with the war effort.

McNamara began to focus his energies on a negotiated settlement to end the conflict. Hoping to draw the North Vietnamese to the table, he proposed, and Johnson reluctantly accepted, a thirty-seven-day pause in bombing during December 1965 and January 1966. Nothing came of it, and McNamara began to fall out of favor with Johnson, who wanted a decisive victory. The president began to rely more and more on the hawkish advice of generals in the field. McNamara began to think about leaving the Pentagon, finding a position that would allow him to test his evolving theory that "security is not military hardware" but rather "development." In April 1967 he requested that Johnson nominate him for president of the World Bank, a position that would be vacant at the end of the year. Johnson accommodated his wishes. McNamara assumed the presidency of the World Bank in January 1968 and held the position until 1981. McNamara received the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction from Johnson in 1968 for service to his country.

The legacy of McNamara is long but decidedly mixed. One of the best minds of his generation, a corporate titan, and chief architect of the turnaround at Ford Motor Company, he was also responsible in part for the escalation of the Vietnam War, an ill-conceived and poorly executed endeavor that cost more than 58,000 American lives. The specter of this war still hangs over U.S. public life and U.S. foreign policy. His legacy is one of great potential gone awry. At the first cabinet meeting for the incoming Kennedy administration, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was immediately taken with the men that would make up Kennedy's brain trust, the men whom Halberstam ironically labeled "the Best and the Brightest." Johnson was dazzled; each one was smarter than the next. The most impressive was McNamara, "the fellow from Ford with the Stacomb on his hair." Johnson passed his impressions on to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. His response was prophetic: "Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once."

McNamara reflected on his role in Vietnam in In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995). There are several full-length biographies, including Henry L. Trewhitt, McNamara: His Ordeal in the Pentagon (1971), and Deborah Shapley, Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara (1993). Works about McNamara's political beliefs include William W. Kaufmann, The McNamara Strategy (1964), and James Roherty, Decisions of Robert S. McNamara: A Study of the Role of the Secretary of State (1970). McNamara also features prominently in the vast literatures of the Kennedy presidency, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War, including such classics as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965); Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1969); David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972); and Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (1983). Articles about McNamara's work in the 1960s include "Confessing the Sins of Vietnam," Newsweek (17 Apr. 1995), "McNamara's Final Surrender," National Review (25 Dec. 1995), and "McNamara's Vietnam War Reconsidered," Society (1 Sept. 1998).

Timothy Kringen

McNamara, Robert S.

views updated Jun 11 2018

Robert S. McNamara

Born June 9, 1916
San Francisco, California

U.S. secretary of defense

R obert S. McNamara played an important role in U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War period of the 1960s. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry from 1945 to 1991 between the United States and the Soviet Union, falling just short of direct military conflict. Smart and ambitious, McNamara came from the business world to serve as U.S. secretary of defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy (1919–1963; served 1961–63; see entry) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69; see entry).

McNamara was one of a group of superior managers emerging from World War II (1939–45)—smart, arrogant, and seemingly capable of tackling anything. He was young and vigorous and seemed—along with the rest of young President Kennedy's advisors—to be the new face of the new superpower, the United States. McNamara became famous for applying his sharp, mathematical mind to the problems of troop deployment and arms requirements during the peak of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75). As the military engagement in Vietnam grew, he became a lightning rod for criticism of U.S. war policy. He was seen as cold and harsh, as the war continued, and the number of lives lost rose. McNamara came to represent all that was good and bad about the United States during the Vietnam War.

A business scholar

Robert Strange McNamara was born on June 9, 1916, to Robert J. and Claranell Strange McNamara in San Francisco, California. The man who would later be considered one of the smartest men of his generation was raised by parents who never went to college. In fact, his father did not attend school past the eighth grade. Robert J. McNamara was from a family of Irish immigrants. Raised in poverty and sick throughout much of his childhood, through hard work McNamara's father created a middle-class life for his family.

McNamara graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1937. He went on to earn a master's degree in business administration at the Harvard School of Business in 1939. His strength as a mathematician and his expertise in statistical analysis were emerging. Following an impressive performance at Harvard, he was asked to come back and teach. He became a junior faculty member. He also married Margaret McKinstry Craig in 1940; the couple would have two daughters and a son.

At this time, Europe was disintegrating into what would become World War II, and some of the power brokers in the United States were beginning to prepare for the United States' entrance into the war. One of these people was U.S. War Department official Robert A. Lovett (1895–1986). Lovett believed that the Air Force would play a key role in the coming conflict, and that the United States was woefully unprepared. He needed men who could calculate how many planes were needed, and how many inductees would be needed to fly them. Also, he needed to know how many trainers would be required to train the inductees—and then get the planes and the inductees and the trainers all to the right place at the right time.

Lovett asked Harvard Business School to train the men he needed. McNamara was one of the teachers. He was so good that, in 1943, he was commissioned as a captain in the Air Force and sent to help Lovett plan the continuing conflict. For his work during the war, McNamara was presented with the Legion of Merit Medal.

A manager for Ford Motor Company

As the war ended, the team that had managed the U.S. Air Force was noted as being, perhaps, the best group of young managers around. The group, including McNamara, had experienced twenty years of organizational challenges in just a few short years. Recognizing their strengths as a team, a group of the Air Force managers decided to market themselves to corporate America as a group. They were smart, hard working, and could make an impact on a business. In 1946, McNamara and the group, which later became known as the "Whiz Kids," joined Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan.

In the mid-1940s, Ford was losing more than nine million dollars a year. McNamara was initially part of the Finance Division of Ford. He quickly established a reputation for using numbers to show how to add value to the company's automobiles without adding manufacturing costs, so that Ford could better compete in the marketplace. Over the years, McNamara rose through the company ranks and was elected to director of Ford in 1957. In 1960, he was elected president of Ford. He had just taken office, however, when he received a call from President-elect John F. Kennedy.

Secretary of defense

President Kennedy was about to take office and was looking to fill key positions within his government. On the advice of Lovett, Kennedy asked McNamara to meet with him. Impressed with McNamara, Kennedy offered him a choice of positions, either the secretary of treasury or the secretary of defense. McNamara was not interested in becoming secretary of treasury. He felt he had more impact on the national economy as president of Ford. But he was interested in secretary of defense, seeing it as a good platform for a commitment to national service.

Prior to accepting the position, McNamara expressed to Kennedy his concern that he was not qualified for the

position. Kennedy, impressed with McNamara's intellect, was not concerned. After all, he reasoned, there were no schools for being president either. McNamara served as secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968, first under President Kennedy and later under President Johnson.

Early in the Kennedy administration, a number of foreign events occurred that challenged the new administration. In particular, the failed invasion of Cuba by U.S.-supported Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs left the impression that President Kennedy did not know how to handle communist expansion backed by the Soviets. Communism is a system of government in which a single party, the Communist Party, controls all aspects of people's lives. In economic theory, it prohibits private ownership of property and business, so that goods produced and wealth accumulated are shared relatively equally by all. McNamara's statistical analysis prior to the invasion turned out to be flawed, when the administration later learned the estimated number of Cubans who were being counted on to rise up against Cuban leader Fidel Castro (1926–; see entry) proved far too high. The smaller-than-expected force experienced immediate defeat by Castro's army. Later, McNamara learned the information given to him for his analysis was inaccurate.

In 1961, many in the White House and Congress were debating what to do about the U.S. arms race with the Soviet Union. McNamara was no exception. The United States had 450 missiles. The joint chiefs of staff, the key military advisory group to the president, was advising Kennedy to increase the number to 3,000. However, McNamara recommended 950. In terms of military effectiveness, the military experts concluded that 450 missiles were just as effective as 950. Though McNamara agreed from a military standpoint, for political reasons, McNamara asserted the United States needed at least 950.

In the Kennedy White House and later during the early Johnson days, McNamara was considered a man of action: always in control, always rational, always organizing. He could read faster than people could talk and demanded that briefings be written rather than orally presented to save him time. He always supported his reasons with statistics. As a result, as the country became mired in the Vietnam War, statistics became the focus of anger and derision.

The Vietnam War

For many people in the 1960s, the Vietnam War was "McNamara's War." The Vietnam War primarily involved U.S. efforts to protect noncommunist South Vietnam from takeover by communist-ruled North Vietnam. U.S. aid to South Vietnam began as early as January 1955. Steadily, U.S. military support escalated until hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were in Vietnam by 1967. As the war evolved, McNamara was often the face of the war, explaining victories and defeats in numbers and body counts. The costs in human lives aside, progress was often measured in the cost of air power used compared to the dollars of resulting damage. As the war continued and took more lives, McNamara's approach seemed cold and harsh. It seemed to ignore some key questions, such as why Vietnam was important to the United States, and just how committed the North Vietnamese were to their cause.

Initially a strong supporter of the war, McNamara became known as the architect of early U.S. policy in Vietnam. By the mid-1960s, however, he was becoming disillusioned. He no longer believed what the generals were telling him, and he was increasingly vocal about his concerns. At the end of 1965, U.S. general William Westmoreland (1914–) in Vietnam requested 200,000 more troops—bringing the total number in Vietnam to 410,000. McNamara was skeptical. He went to Vietnam himself to review the situation and did not like what he saw. He was not sure the United States could win—or that if it did, the price would be worth it.

McNamara voiced his concerns within the Johnson administration, but not to the public. While his son was protesting the war, McNamara still publicly supported President Johnson and the generals. But his challenges to the generals within White House walls were not received well, and he gradually became distant from the joint chiefs of staff and other Johnson advisors. In 1967, McNamara wrote a memo to Johnson stating that the war could not be won, largely due to the weakness of the South Vietnamese government. He recommended a political compromise. The generals were furious at McNamara's memo. In 1968, Johnson removed him from the White House by appointing him head of the World Bank, an international organization created by the United Nations for financing projects in developing nations.

McNamara came to represent to the American public both the strengths and the weaknesses of American intervention in Vietnam. He appeared consistently rational, full of good intentions, and sure he was doing the right thing. However, he seemed blind to indications that perhaps he was not doing the right thing. After the war ended, McNamara publicly admitted some of the doubts and debates of the U.S. leadership during the Vietnam War.

After the war

In 1981, McNamara retired from public service, but not from controversy. He authored several books, including The Essence of Security; One Hundred Countries, Two Billion People; and Out of the Cold. The book that revived debate on the Vietnam War, however, was In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. In the book, McNamara discussed the tensions within the White House during the Vietnam War.

While McNamara confessed his growing doubts about the war at the time more soldiers were being sent to Vietnam and the bombing of North Vietnam was increasing, the admission pleased no one. Supporters of the war felt he had betrayed the soldiers' sacrifice. Opponents of the war felt he should have spoken out much earlier. The aging McNamara weathered the controversy, as he had the social unrest spurred by massive antiwar protests during the 1960s.

Over the years, McNamara—the scholar, the mathematician, the Whiz Kid—has received numerous awards and recognition. He was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (with Distinction), the Albert Einstein Peace Prize, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Freedom from Want Medal, and the Dag Hammarskjöld Honorary Medal.

For More Information


Draper, Theodore. "McNamara's Peace." New York Review of Books, May 11, 1995.

Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Ballantine Books, 1969.

Hendrickson, Paul. The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War. New York: Random House, 1997.

McNamara, Robert S. The Essence of Security: Reflections in Office. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

McNamara, Robert S. Out of the Cold: New Thinking for American Foreign and Defense Policy in the 21st Century. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

McNamara, Robert S., and Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Times Books, 1995.

McNamara, Robert S., James G. Blight, and Robert R. Brigham. Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy. New York: Public Affairs, 2000.

From Cultured Businessman to Cold Warrior

While Robert McNamara worked at Ford Motor Company, he was known as a driven and exacting man. But he also had another side. He removed himself from the world of the automotive executives, choosing to live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a cultured college town. There, he attended art openings and concerts with his wife, and belonged to a book club. He prided himself on having broad interests.

Years later, when friends of his from Ann Arbor would see McNamara on television, talking about body counts and kill ratios and tramping around with troops fighting Cold War communist expansion in the jungles of far-off Vietnam, they would wonder what had happened to the man they had known.

Robert S. McNamara

views updated May 21 2018

Robert S. McNamara

Robert S. McNamara (born 1916) was a business executive, U.S. secretary of defense, and president of the World Bank.

Robert Strange McNamara was born in San Francisco on June 9, 1916, the son of Robert James McNamara, sales manager for a wholesale shoe company, and the former Clara Nell Strange. Educated in the public schools of Piedmont, California, McNamara proved an excellent student, achieving a straight "A" average at Piedmont High School. He continued his education at the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in philosophy and economics and earned the unusual distinction of being elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the end of his sophomore year. Following graduation in 1937, he was admitted to Harvard University's Graduate School of Business Administration. Two years later, after compiling a superb academic record, he was awarded the M.B.A. degree.

Military Career

In 1939 McNamara accepted a position in the San Francisco office of the accounting firm Price Waterhouse & Company. He returned to Harvard the following year as an assistant professor of business administration. With U.S. entry into World War II, McNamara volunteered for the Navy; his poor eyesight, however, prevented him from entering into active duty. Instead, McNamara remained in Cambridge and in 1942, as part of a special arrangement between the Harvard Business School and the U.S. Army, taught a course for Army Air Force officers. He also served as a special consultant to the Army Air Forces on the establishment of a statistical system to help monitor and control wartime logistical problems.

In 1943 he took a leave of absence from Harvard to serve with the Army Air Forces in England. While there he applied his accounting and statistical expertise to the B-17 bomber program, in the process earning a commission as a temporary captain in the Army Air Forces. He also worked on the development of the B-29, the long range bomber that was to play a critical role in the final years of the war. His role included working on the problem of flying the b-29 bombers from India to their forward bases in China and their targets in Japan without running out of fuel. Subsequently McNamara served with the Army Air Forces in India, China, and the Pacific and was released from active service in April 1946 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. For his wartime service McNamara was awarded the Legion of Merit.

Success as Business Executive

Upon release from the military, McNamara initially intended to return to Harvard University. However, Col. Charles B. Thornton, who had worked with McNamara during the war, presented him with a more intriguing possibility. Thornton induced McNamara to join a group of statistical control specialists who were planning to apply the skills developed during their wartime service to the corporate world. Late in 1946 the financially plagued Ford Motor Company hired these nine so-called "Whiz Kids" as a unit. McNamara soon proved himself the most adept of the group; he rose rapidly through Ford's corporate hierarchy.

Initially named manager of the company's planning and financial offices, by 1949 McNamara had become comptroller. In August 1953 he was promoted to assistant general manager of the Ford division. Two years later he was elected manager of the Ford division, and in 1957 he advanced to vice-president in charge of all car and truck divisions, was elected to the board of directors, and was named to the company's powerful executive and administration committees. On November 9, 1960, McNamara succeeded Henry Ford 2nd as president of the Ford Motor Company, becoming the first non-family member to occupy that position. Ironically, he was to serve as Ford's president only for about one month before being offered the position of secretary of defense by President-elect John F. Kennedy.

During his years with Ford McNamara established a reputation as a brilliantly innovative manager. He helped modernize the company by setting up a comprehensive corporate accounting system. In addition, he helped increase sales; introduced the popular Falcon, one of the first compacts; and pioneered in the installation of seat belts and other safety features. By 1960 Ford ranked as the third largest industrial concern in the United States.

Secretary of Defense

McNamara was sworn in as secretary of defense on January 21, 1961. At considerable personal loss he had previously disposed of all his Ford Motor Company stock and stock options in order to avoid any possible conflict of interest. Kennedy wanted someone to manage the world largest bureaucracy and his choice of McNamara seemed logical. He continued to serve as secretary of defense until his resignation in 1968. During those years he solidified his reputation as a financial and managerial wizard while also emerging as one of the top national security and foreign policy advisers to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

His main task, McNamara explained to a New York Times correspondent the day after taking the oath of office, was "to bring efficiency to a $40 billion enterprise beset by jealousies and political pressures while maintaining American military superiority." He was assisted in reorganizing the Pentagon by many of the "whiz kids" who accompanied him from Ford. McNamara and his "whiz kids" established elaborate controls over department resource use, closed down uneconomical military based and refused to spend funds for weapon systems of which he did not approve. He consolidated seven of the Defense Department's assistant secretaryships under five aides, while creating a new Office of Management Planning and Organization Studies.

Applying the techniques of systems analysis to the Pentagon's huge bureaucracy, McNamara inaugurated a planning-programming-budgeting system. This innovation enabled him to project the first five-year budget in the history of the Defense Department, a plan that he unveiled to Congress in January 1963. Much of his energy during his first few years at Defense was devoted to revitalizing America's conventional forces and moving away from what he viewed as an excessive reliance on nuclear deterrence during the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. He accepted the doctrine of "flexible response," which called for the development of a broad choice of deterrent forces, ranging from the nuclear to the anti-guerrilla.

Under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson U.S. military involvement in Vietnam increased steadily, and Vietnam ultimately became McNamara's principal preoccupation. Unquestionably, that divisive war was the most difficult—and controversial—episode in his career. The secretary of defense fully supported President Johnson's decisions for escalation, including the dispatch of American combat troops in 1965 and the inauguration of a massive bombing campaign that same year. Publicly, he continued to support the U.S. war effort until his resignation, and his public projections were almost unfailingly optimistic. Privately, however, McNamara began to express doubts about the war as early as November 1965, following a disappointing trip to Saigon. As his disillusionment grew, in 1967 the Defense secretary commissioned a study of American involvement in Vietnam, a project that eventually became known as the Pentagon Papers following its unauthorized release in 1971. Increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of American policy in Vietnam and at odds with Johnson, in early 1968 McNamara resigned to accept a position with the World Bank.

President of the World Bank

McNamara served as president of the World Bank for 13 years, from 1968 to 1981. Under his direction the bank became the world's largest and most important single source of international development assistance. When McNamara took office the bank was lending about $1 billion a day; by 1980 that figure had grown to $12 billion. During his last year with the institution it was supervising over 1,600 projects with a total value of approximately $100 billion in more than 100 developing countries. In his final address to the World Bank's board of governors, McNamara said that the most fundamental problem facing the world was the persistence of widespread poverty. "This World Bank—born out of the ruins of World War II—has grown into one of the world's most constructive instruments of human aspiration and progress," McNamara exclaimed. "And yet, it has only barely begun to develop its full potential."

Following his retirement from the World Bank in 1981, McNamara continued to write and speak on a broad range of public issues, including world poverty, development strategies, nuclear policy, and South Africa. He also served on a number of corporate and other boards, including Royal Dutch Petroleum, the Washington Post, Trans World Airlines, Corning Glass Works, Bank of America, the Ford Foundation, the Brookings Institution, and the California Institute of Technology.

After leaving the World Bank, McNamara became a strong critic of nuclear arms. He argued that the U.S. and Soviet officials should each maintain "a nuclear arsenal powerful enough to discourage anyone else from using nuclear weapons" and that "nuclear weapons have no military purpose whatsoever other than to deter one's opponent from their use."

During the 1980s McNamara devoted much of his time to writing books and articles delineating his position on nuclear arms proliferation, arms control, comprehensive test bans, restriction of antiballistic missiles. He also proposed the establishment of "new rules" of conduct that could provide each side the chance to pursue their own agenda through diplomacy rather than threat or use of force. He suggested that each side's military forces be restructured to be defensive and reduced in number; that they refrain from becoming involved in regional conflicts; and that they work together to solve regional and global problems peacefully.

In 1995, McNamara released a new book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in which he reveals that he lied to Congress and the American people about the causes for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. McNamara, while not entirely blaming himself, admits that his misunderstanding of Vietnam and Asian politics cost nearly 60,000 American lives. Many critics feel that the book is a self-serving way for McNamara to assuage his own guilt over his mishandling of the facts during the early years of the war. David Halberstam, author of The Best and the Brightest doesn't believe that McNamara understands what he did at all and stated, "the book is shallow and deeply disingenuous. For him to say 'we couldn't get information' borders on a felony, because he was creator of the lying machine that gave him that information. The point was to make a flawed policy look better."

Further Reading

A full-length biography is Deborah Shapley, Robert McNamara: Soldier of the American Century; A brief sketch of his career up to 1968 can be found in David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972); Two studies of his tenure as Defense secretary are: William W. Kaufmann, The McNamara Strategy (1964) and Robert M. Roherty, Decisions of Robert S. McNamara: A Study of the Role of the Secretary of Defense (1970); His involvement with the war in Vietnam has been treated in a large number of secondary works on that conflict, including George C. Herring, America's Longest War (1979) and Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (1983); McNamara is the author of The Essence of Security: Reflections in Office (1968) and One Hundred Countries, Two Billion People: The Dimensions of Development (1973); A compilation of his speeches has also been published as The McNamara Years at the World Bank: Major Policy Addresses of Robert S. McNamara, 1968-1981 (1981). Also see a review of In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in National Review, July 10, 1995. □

McNamara, Robert S.

views updated May 18 2018

McNamara, Robert S. (1916–), secretary of defense and president of the World Bank.Born in San Francisco into a family of humble means, McNamara graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with an economics degree in 1937, and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1939, where he also joined the faculty, teaching financial management systems based on statistical controls. During World War II, the Army Air Forces appointed McNamara and several of his colleagues as officers to develop methods of statistical control for managing the strategic bombing campaign against Germany.

Hailed for their brilliance in applying statistical methods to large‐scale organization in this pre‐computer age, McNamara and several other “stat control” officers were hired by the Ford Motor Company in 1946 to rejuvenate the flagging auto giant. The “whiz kids” introduced new managerial and product changes and built Ford into a success. Six of the men eventually became Ford executives.

Shortly after becoming company president in late 1960, McNamara resigned to become John F. Kennedy's secretary of defense, a position he held from 1961 to 1968. Kennedy's respect for McNamara's liberal Harvard connections, youthful vigor, and reputation for efficiency and success were key factors behind his appointment. With his confidence in civilianized, centralized defense decision making, McNamara appointed a team of civilian analysts—“defense intellectuals”—to apply quantitative systems analysis for “cost effectiveness” (capability as a return on investment) over procurement and other decisions of the military. The McNamara “revolution” at the Department of Defense (DoD) included program budgeting, evaluation of systems‐wide costs, five‐year plans linking defense spending with missions, and efforts at reducing interservice rivalry and redundancy and increasing coordination and efficiency. Although a number of the McNamara reforms proved successful and were permanently accepted by the Pentagon, others put him continually at odds with the top brass.

While reforming Pentagon practices, McNamara also engaged in the military buildup of the early years of the Kennedy administration. He improved the strategic nuclear forces, increasing the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine‐launched ballistic missiles (while reducing the number of manned bombers) and bolstering the capability of U.S. nuclear forces to survive a nuclear attack and thus mount a retaliatory “second strike.” After briefly supporting a “counterforce” policy of targeting only Soviet missiles, not cities, McNamara reluctantly returned to a deterrence policy of “Mutual Assured Destruction.” Endorsing the doctrine of Flexible Response, which envisioned U.S. capability of responding to a variety of levels of threat, McNamara also expanded U.S. conventional forces.

McNamara's influence on policymaking stemmed from his overwhelming use of quantitative analysis, his reputation for success, and his personal friendship with John Kennedy and later Lyndon B. Johnson. In the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, McNamara proposed the selective naval blockade which successfully sealed off the island.

During the Vietnam War (1960–75), McNamara supported the policies of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to prevent the victory of Communistled insurgents, later joined by North Vietnamese regular forces, to overthrow the U.S.‐backed government of South Vietnam. This included expanding U.S. military advisers' roles under Kennedy, and then under Johnson a policy of graduated escalation that sought to maintain the Saigon government with increasing use of U.S. ground, air, and naval forces while not disrupting Johnson's domestic reforms in the United States. Years later, McNamara said that the United States could have disengaged after Kennedy's death in 1963; but at the time, he supported Johnson's decision to remain committed. Linked to Johnson's conduct of the war, McNamara was attacked by peace and antiwar movements for continuing the war and by the political Right for restricting U.S. military force. By 1967, he privately advised the president to end the war through negotiations.

In February 1968 McNamara left the Pentagon to become president of the World Bank. He served as its head from 1968 to 1981, focusing on the Third World. In later years, he became a prolific author and lecturer suggesting in books such as Blundering into Disaster (1986) drastic limitations on nuclear weapons. McNamara's principal role during Vietnam, however, has continued to haunt him. His controversial memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995)—where the aging former secretary of defense called the war “terribly wrong”—outraged both supporters and critics of the war, and highlighted the deep divisions that still surrounded America's involvement in Vietnam.
[See also Civil‐Military Relations: Civilian Control of the Military; Joint Chiefs of Staff; Strategy: Nuclear Warfare Strategy and War Plans.]


David M. Barrett , Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and His Vietnam Advisors, 1993.
Deborah Shapley , Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara, 1993.
Paul Hendrickson , The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and the Five Lives of a Lost War, 1996.
H. R. McMaster , Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, 1997.

John Whiteclay Chambers II and and Brian Adkins