Secretary of Defense
Robert S. McNamara served as secretary of defense from 1961 through early 1968, during the presidential administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. During his tenure, his institution of a quantitatively oriented, civilian-dominated approach to military budgeting and decision making revolutionized the Pentagon but outraged military leadership. McNamara was a major architect of U.S. strategy in the Vietnam War, for which he has subsequently been widely criticized.
Robert Strange McNamara was born on June 9, 1916, in San Francisco. He attended the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1937 with a degree in economics. In 1939, McNamara completed a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University; soon after, he returned to Harvard to accept a faculty position in the business school. During World War II, McNamara served in the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), performing systems analysis—providing quantitative inputs into complex operational planning—for operational forces. In November 1945, McNamara joined a group of former USAAF systems analysts hired by Henry Ford II to shake up the management of the Ford Motor Company. After 15 years of success at Ford, McNamara became president of the company in October 1960.
Just seven weeks later, McNamara was asked to join the cabinet of president-elect John F. Kennedy as secretary of defense. The main strategic concept of the Kennedy administration was “flexible response,” a focus on building up U.S. conventional military forces that had been neglected under the cost-saving, nuclear-dependent “massive retaliation” strategy of the Eisenhower administration. To implement the flexible response strategy over the objections of the often hidebound military services, McNamara sought to impose a more centralized, civilian-directed management system. Once in office, he quickly organized a group of exceptionally talented aides, many of them young academics, who upset the civilian–military balance of power in the Pentagon. McNamara’s “Whiz Kids,” as they came to be known, spoke the common language of quantitative systems analysis, which under McNamara became the basis of Pentagon decision making. The uniformed military leaders had been accustomed to using their professional judgment to justify service programs. Under McNamara, these sorts of arguments were swept aside in favor of quantitative analysis. The military services deeply resented McNamara’s lack of deference to their professional expertise, yet the Programming, Planning, and Budgeting System (PPBS) that McNamara instituted remains in place today.
McNamara also played a major role in shaping U.S. nuclear strategy, ultimately settling on “assured destruction”: in place of the established commitment to nuclear supremacy, the United States would moderate its increases in strategic nuclear forces, concentrating instead on maintaining a retaliatory force sufficient to inflict a level of destruction upon the Soviet Union that would deter Soviet leaders from an initial strike. During the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara counseled against the military strike advocated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff—his argument in favor of “overt military action” short of war formed the basis of the “quarantine” that successfully resolved the most dangerous U.S.–Soviet confrontation of the Cold War. This experience left McNamara convinced that he needed to impose even stricter control over the military services.
McNamara’s tenure as secretary of defense was ultimately defined by his central role in the escalation of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam. As the northern-backed, communist-led insurgency in South Vietnam gained strength, McNamara accepted the conventional wisdom that the fall of South Vietnam must be prevented lest all of Southeast Asia come under the control of the Soviet Union. Although McNamara initially embraced mobilization, as the U.S. role expanded he sought to accommodate the political needs of the president. President Johnson, concerned that he must avoid “losing Vietnam” as his Democratic predecessor Harry Truman had “lost China,” was nevertheless reluctant to accede to a national mobilization that would likely require retrenchment, and perhaps abandonment, of his ambitious domestic agenda.
Seeking to balance domestic and global priorities with the deteriorating situation in Vietnam and increasingly convinced that the military leadership’s pressure for a rapid, massive U.S. offensive against North Vietnam was unlikely to succeed and might result in Chinese intervention, McNamara trod a perilous middle path between the Joint Chiefs’ advocacy of an aggressive strategy and the outright withdrawal counseled by some of the president’s civilian advisers. Instead, he oversaw a strategy of gradual escalation: U.S. forces would increase incrementally in strength sufficient to prevent a collapse in South Vietnam, with the hope that the North Vietnamese regime would eventually realize that its efforts in the South were unavailing. McNamara remained publicly confident, repeatedly assuring the president and the public that the Free World would prevail in South Vietnam; privately, he came to doubt the enterprise but despaired of a means to secure an honorable U.S. withdrawal.
Having lost both faith in the effort in Vietnam and the president’s confidence, McNamara resigned as secretary of defense on February 29, 1968. His Pentagon legacy remains as controversial as his tenure. On the one hand, McNamara’s Pentagon reforms have endured despite early resentments, reducing interservice rivalry and effecting significant cost savings; his efforts to rein in expansion of U.S. nuclear forces arguably helped create the preconditions for the negotiated arms limitation treaties and agreements of the 1970s and 1980s. On the other hand, the Vietnam strategy he oversaw was ultimately disastrous—a reality he dwelt on at length in his 1995 apologia In Retrospect.
Robert McNamara was and remains an extraordinarily controversial figure. He was clearly brilliant, yet he failed to recognize his limits or his errors. McNamara’s role in the Vietnam conflict remains the major focus of controversy for both war supporters and opponents alike—a reality that mirrored reactions to the gradual escalation strategy that the he oversaw in Southeast Asia. McNamara, the epitome of the post–World War II American technocrat, sought to leverage his expertise to manage his way out of what grew to be an impossible situation. In the 2004 documentary film The Fog of War, McNamara observed that his actions had been taken in the context of the Cold War and had to be viewed in that light. This is a significant point, as the Vietnam conflict was fundamentally shaped by the Johnson administration’s need to respond simultaneously to domestic, diplomatic, and military concerns. But it is possible to feel sympathy for the difficult situation that McNamara found himself in while at the same time lamenting the consequences of his refusal to make hard choices. Robert McNamara saw the perils of both escalation and disengagement in Vietnam (albeit incompletely) and sought to maneuver between them. In so doing, he crafted an unworkable policy that failed disastrously; thus, he remains a target for criticism of the Vietnam War from both ends of the ideological spectrum.
Military Relations; Cuban Missile Crisis; Joint Chiefs of Staff; Nuclear Strategy; Vietnam War
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