(MILITARY TIMES) WASHINGTON — Robert S. McNamara, the brainy Pentagon chief who directed the escalation of the Vietnam War despite private doubts the war was winnable or worth fighting, died Monday at 93.
McNamara revealed his misgivings three decades after the American defeat that some called “McNamara’s war.”
Robert S. McNamara
“We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of our country. But we were wrong. We were terribly wrong,” McNamara told The Associated Press in 1995, the year his best-selling memoir appeared.
McNamara died at 5:30 a.m. at his home, his wife Diana told the AP. She said he had been in failing health for some time.
Closely identified with the war’s early years, McNamara was a forceful public optimist. He predicted that American intervention would enable the South Vietnamese, despite internal feuds, to stand by themselves “by the end of 1965.” The war ground on until 1975, with more than 58,000 U.S. deaths.
Lawyerly and a student of statistical analysis, McNamara was recruited to run the Pentagon by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 from the presidency of the Ford Motor Co. — where he and a group of colleagues had been known as the “whiz kids.”
He stayed in the defense post for seven years, longer than anyone else since the job’s creation in 1947. He left on the verge of a nervous breakdown and became president of the World Bank. In the new post, he threw himself into the intricacies of international development and argued that improving lives was a more promising path to peace than building up arms and armies.
McNamara was a distinctive figure, with frameless glasses and slicked-back hair. Anti-war critics ridiculed him as an out-of-touch technocrat and made much of the fact that his middle name was “Strange.” Simon and Garfunkel worked his name into a ditty about an overbearing government, and he once had to flee an appearance at Harvard through underground utility tunnels.
By the end of his Pentagon tenure, McNamara had come to doubt the value of widespread U.S. bombing, and he was fighting with his generals. President Lyndon Johnson lost faith or patience in him; McNamara would later write that he didn’t know if he quit or was fired.
In the Kennedy administration, McNamara was a key figure in both the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis 18 months later. The missile episode was the closest the world came to a nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, and historians have pointed to McNamara’s role in steering internal debate away from a U.S. airstrike.
Reticent, McNamara long resisted offers to give a detailed accounting of his role in Vietnam. His son, who had protested the war his father helped to run, once said it was not within McNamara’s “scope” to be reflective about the war.
McNamara’s eventual mea culpa won him admiration from some former opponents of the war. Others said it was not enough, and three decades too late.
“Where was he when we needed him?” a Boston Globe editorial asked.
Ted Sorensen, a speechwriter and adviser who worked with McNamara in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, said the criticism missed the mark.
“Most military chieftains — presidents or Cabinet members or otherwise — don’t admit error, ever,” Sorensen said. “At least Bob had the courage and commitment to truth to put out that he was wrong and why it was wrong so that we could all learn the lessons from that.”
“In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” appeared in 1995. McNamara disclosed that by 1967 he had deep misgivings about Vietnam — by then he had lost faith in America’s capacity to prevail over guerrillas who had driven the French from the same jungle countryside.
Despite those doubts, he had continued to express public confidence that the application of enough American firepower would cause the Communists to make peace. In that period, the number of U.S. casualties — dead, missing and wounded — went from 7,466 to over 100,000.
McNamara wrote later that he and others had not asked five basic questions: “Was it true that the fall of South Vietnam would trigger the fall of all Southeast Asia? Would that constitute a grave threat to the West’s security? What kind of war — conventional or guerrilla — might develop? Could the U.S. win with its troops fighting alongside the South Vietnamese? Should the U.S. not know the answers to all these questions before deciding whether to commit troops?
He discussed similar themes in the 2003 documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” With the U.S. in the first year of the war in Iraq, it became a popular and timely art-house attraction and won the Oscar for best documentary feature.
McNamara served as the World Bank president for 12 years. He tripled its loans to developing countries and changed its emphasis from grandiose industrial projects to rural development before retiring in 1981.
He was born June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, son of the sales manager for a wholesale shoe company. At the University of California at Berkeley, he majored in mathematics, economics and philosophy.
As a professor at the Harvard Business School when World War II started, he helped train Army Air Corps officers in cost-effective statistical control. In 1943, he was commissioned an Army officer and joined a team of young officers who developed a new field of statistical control of supplies.
McNamara and his colleagues sold themselves to the Ford organization as a package and revitalized the company. The group became known as the “whiz kids” and McNamara was named the first Ford president who was not a descendant of Henry Ford.
A month later, the newly elected Kennedy invited McNamara, a registered Republican, to join his Cabinet. Taking the $25,000-a-year job cost McNamara $3 million in Ford stocks and options.
As defense chief, McNamara reshaped America’s armed forces for “flexible response” and away from the nuclear “massive retaliation” doctrine espoused by former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. He asserted civilian control of the Pentagon and applied cost-accounting techniques and computerized systems analysis to defense spending.
Early on, Kennedy regarded South Vietnam as an area threatened by Communist aggression and a proving ground for his new emphasis on counterinsurgency forces. A believer in the domino theory — that countries could fall to communism like a row of dominoes — Kennedy dispatched U.S. “advisers” to bolster the Saigon government. Their numbers surpassed 16,000 by the time of his assassination.
Following Kennedy’s death, President Johnson retained McNamara as “the best in the lot” of Kennedy Cabinet members and the man to keep Vietnam from falling as the war escalated.
At a Feb. 29, 1968, retirement ceremony, McNamara was overcome with emotion and could not speak. Johnson put an arm around his shoulder and led him from the room.
McNamara’s first wife, Margaret, whom he met in college, died of cancer in 1981; they had two daughters and a son. In 2004, at age 88, he married Italian-born widow Diana Masieri Byfield.