Robert McNamara: Secretary of Defense excoriated for his part in leading America into the Vietnam War

In another age and circumstance, Robert McNamara might have been a classic American success story. He was a brilliant student, a formidable administrator who impressed everyone who met him. Destiny, however, propelled him to a job which made him a prime architect of arguably America's greatest foreign policy disaster. The young Robert McNamara had a dazzling career in Detroit; an older and saddened McNamara was President of the World Bank for 13 years. But he will forever be remembered for "McNamara's War," the tragedy of his middle years which was the calamitous US adventure in Vietnam.

John Kennedy might have initiated America's fateful build-up in south- east Asia. It was Lyndon Johnson who ordered the massive escalation which would destroy his presidency. But for more than seven of their combined eight years in the White House, McNamara was Secretary of Defense, largely shaping and executing a war policy which would ultimately cost 58,000 American lives and end in humiliating defeat at the hands of an impoverished third world country.

"The Best and the Brightest" was the title of David Halberstam's book about the group of men who came to Washington with John Kennedy, sure they could change the world but whose reputations would perish in the quagmire of Vietnam. They included people like Bill and Mac Bundy, Dean Rusk, George Ball and, of course, Kennedy himself. None though was brighter, or a more relentless achiever, than Robert McNamara.

Born to Irish-American parents in San Francisco, McNamara was an outstanding student at high school, then at Berkeley where he met his wife-to-be Margaret, and at Harvard Graduate School. In the Second World War he turned his evident administrative skills to military logistical planning. In 1946 he entered Ford and in 14 years had risen to President.

This was the brilliant young executive, just seven weeks into his new job, who was tapped by the President-elect on 8 December, 1960 to join the new Cabinet. Kennedy wanted him to be Treasury Secretary, but McNamara declined. Then he was offered the Pentagon. Again, Mcnamara insisted he wasn't qualified – to which Kennedy replied simply, "Who is?"

At first the 44-year-old McNamara was hailed as a genius, in the words of the Republican Barry Goldwater no less, "one of the best Secretaries ever, an IBM machine with legs." And he could indeed dazzle, as a briefer and a stupendously quick processor of facts. McNamara was a man you wanted on your side in an argument. But he had bad qualities, too, which made him uniquely unsuitable for that job at that moment in history. Sometimes McNamara's judgements were too quick and categoric for as complex and delicate issue as Vietnam. He could be unbearably arrogant, tolerating neither argument nor fools. To his few superiors he was obsequiously respectful, but he could be savage with subordinates. He was, in the phrase of his biographer Deborah Shapley, "a kiss-up, kick-down guy."

At first he relished the term "McNamara's War." Vietnam was still reasonably popular in the first two years of the Johnson Presidency, and a string of early crises, including the Bay of Pigs, the erection of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis had done nothing to harm his reputation. Indeed, Kennedy at one point thought of McNamara as a possible successor in 1968, and when he entered the White House Johnson seriously considered him as running-mate for 1964.

Two years later, however, everything was unravelling. Vietnam had become perhaps the most divisive issue in America since the Civil War a century earlier – and Robert McNamara was now one of the most hated men in the country. The questions remain to this day: how did so many talented men get it so hopelessly wrong; and why did an increasingly sceptical Defense Secretary not speak out far sooner?

Mcnamara records deep doubts over the war as early as December 1965, when he warned Johnson there was at best only a 50 per cent chance that America could save South Vietnam by military means. By 23 June 1966 he was confiding to Averell Harriman, President Johnson's special ambassador, his belief that an "acceptable" military solution was not possible, and that a negotiated settlement was inevitable.

But the watershed was his 19 May 1967 memorandum to the President, in which he came out against the request of General William Westmoreland, the US commander in Vietnam, for an extra 200,000 troops. Far more important, he told Johnson, was that negotiation was the only way. The war, he wrote, "was acquiring a momentum which must be stopped," and so large an increase in US forces there could "lead to a major national disaster."

For a while, other events such as the 1967 Middle East war, a major Cyprus crisis as well as race riots and intensifying anti-Vietnam protest at home, obscured the fierce debate within the Administration which the memo had unleashed. At one point the service Chiefs of Staff contemplated mass resignation over McNamara's stance.

By now however, McNamara's health was beginning to suffer visibly from the strain of endless hostile demonstrations and abuse, not to mention the manifest failure of Washington's policies. Stress from the war, he believed, contributed to the rare cancer from which Margaret McNamara died in 1981.

The war also drove a wedge between him and his three college-age children, on the other side of a generational chasm. Vietnam, in short,was not only a political and professional disaster for Robert McNamara. It also took a massive personal toll.

Thereafter his relations with Johnson were never the same. After six and a half years at the Pentagon, the question was not whether, but when, the Defense Secretary would step down. Another even more critical memo on 1 November saw the final parting of the ways. A few weeks later Johnson announced the McNamara would become President of the World Bank. On 29 February 1968 he left his Pentagon office for the last time.

Not surprisingly, for McNamara the World Bank represented a place of atonement, where the developing world might be assisted rather than bombed into rubble. His tenure saw a large expansion in lending to the Third World – which later critics believed to have hastened the debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s. After he left the Bank in 1981, McNamara's voyage of redemption continued, as he became a leading advocate of nuclear disarmament and a largely rehabilitated pillar of the American establishment. But the questions remained: why and how did Vietnam happen?

Part of the explanation was McNamara's loyalty to Johnson, an incredibly complex and compelling figure who could bend almost anyone to his will. But there was more. Like others of the Best and Brightest, McNamara found it impossible at the time to admit that he had made a terrible mistake. How could his talents not solve the conundrum of Vietnam, if they had worked such wonders at Ford?

But this was an age when the domino theory was all. The clever men around Kennedy believed that if South Vietnam fell, the Communists – like the Japanese 30 years earlier – would soon be at the gates of Australia and India. They couldn't understand until it was too late that Vietnam was a civil war, a colonial struggle for independence driven less by ideology than nationalism, and in which America had no business.

In his 1995 memoir In Retrospect McNamara finally offered his version of events, and acknowledged the huge mistakes which had been made. He showed how the "crucial incremental steps" toward heavier fighting had been taken by President Johnson and himself in late 1963 and 1964. But no one "had truly investigated what was essentially at stake and important to us," or properly examined the possibility of "other routes to our destination."

McNamara intended In Retrospect to be his testament. "This is the book I never planned to write," were the first words of a dignified, honest and desperately sad account of how a well-intentioned man led America to disaster. It is anything but self-exculpatory, even if it does not answer satisfactorily the question of why he stayed on for two years after he concluded the US could not win in Vietnam. As a political mea culpa, however, it has few equals. His 2003 documentary film with Erroll Morris, The Fog of War, also examined his role closely.

In Retrospect was greeted by fierce controversy. Two decades after the last American was helicoptered from the roof of the Saigon embassy, the wounds of Vietnam had not healed. Whatever else he did with his life, Robert McNamara would never escape McNamara's War.

Rupert Cornwell



Robert Strange McNamara, business executive, US cabinet member, international banker: born San Francisco 9 June 1916; Ford Motor Company, 1946-61 (president, 1960-61); Secretary of Defence, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, 1961-68; president, World Bank, 1968-1981; married 1940 Margaret Craig (died 1981, one son, two daughters); died Washington 6 July 2009.

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