Feature

Robert S. McNamara

The defense secretary who was undone by Vietnam

Robert S. McNamara
1916–2009

In 1964, when Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon called the growing conflict in Vietnam “McNamara’s War,” the object of his gibe didn’t object. “I am pleased to be identified with it,” then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara responded. But in the end, McNamara became an enduring symbol of Vietnam’s myriad political and military failures, and for more than 40 years he grappled with the calamity he had championed.

A straight-A student from San Francisco, McNamara appeared destined for greatness, said the Los Angeles Times. A brilliant graduate of the Harvard Business School, and later its youngest professor, “he excelled in management and accounting techniques.” During World War II, McNamara worked for the Army Air Corps, and he used his technical knowledge “to improve the accuracy of long-range B-29 bombers that dropped tons of firebombs on Japanese cities.” Afterward he and “a coterie of young aides” were hired by Ford Motors “to shake up the firm with statistical analysis, the rigorous use of figures to measure trends and improve systems.” Rising through the ranks, McNamara turned the mismanaged outfit around and in 1960 became its “first president outside of the Ford family.” Weeks later, though, President-elect John F. Kennedy offered him a post: secretary of either defense or treasury. “McNamara chose defense.”

With his mastery of “technology, weaponry, and organization charts,” McNamara seemed an ideal choice, said The Washington Post. “He centralized control, broke down the traditional fiefdoms of the individual services, and imposed multipurpose, multiservice weapons on the brass.” Indeed, his “can-do, technological approach” and “penchant for dispassionate analysis” served him well in such situations as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But it also “led him into disastrous miscalculations in the jungles and paddies of Vietnam.” Relying on endless “charts, statistics, and briefings,” McNamara insisted that by all conventional measures, the U.S. was winning the unconventional guerrilla war. But his optimism “had little to do with the political reality on the ground” as the U.S. proved unable to subdue its invisible, shifting enemy. As casualties mounted, McNamara began to doubt his own assessments. Not until 1967, though, did he urge President Lyndon Johnson to negotiate peace. “He succeeded only in hastening his own ouster from the Cabinet.”

For 13 years after leaving the Pentagon, McNamara was president of the World Bank, a position that he used “to attack global poverty,” said The New York Times. But he could not escape Vietnam “and spent the rest of his life wrestling with the war’s moral consequences.” Once known for his crisply parted, slicked-back hair and his “steely-eyed” look behind wire-rimmed glasses, he “wore the expression of a haunted man” in later years. In his 1995 memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, McNamara denounced his management of the war as “wrong, terribly wrong.” But he met with little forgiveness from a public that had come to see him as a key architect of a war that claimed more than 16,000 American lives under his watch and that would take 42,000 more. During his book tour, Vietnam veteran John Hurley declared, “I have to tell you, sir, and there’s no polite way to do this, your book and your presence is an obscenity.”

In The Fog of War, a critically acclaimed 2003 documentary about his life and times, McNamara concluded, “War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”

His second wife, Diana Masieri Byfield, and three children from his first marriage survive him.

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