Robert Strange McNamara


Robert S. McNamara was born on June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, California. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1937 and then received his M.B.A. from Harvard in 1939. An expert in systems management and statistics, McNamara served in administrative positions with the Army Air Corps during World War II, and after the war he joined The Ford Motor Company, where he rose rapidly through management ranks as one of the new generation of whiz kids. In 1960, at the age of forty-four, McNamara was named president of Ford Motor Company. President-elect John F. Kennedy had his eye on McNamara, however, and offered him the cabinet post of secretary of defense. McNamara came to Washington, D.C., in 1961 and remained there until his resignation from the Pentagon in 1968.

Robert McNamara proved to be one of the most influential figures in the history of the Vietnam War. Blessed with a keen, analytical mind and a supreme confidence in the efficacy of modern technology, McNamara became a primary architect of American policy in Vietnam, exercising both logistical and operational control over the war, presiding over the initial buildup, and eventually losing all faith in the American effort there. McNamara was a leading exponent of counterinsurgency, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and bombing of North Vietnam in 1964 and 1965, as well as the large-scale commitment of ground troops to South Vietnam. To stop infiltration from North Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and across the Demilitarized Zone, McNamara called for the construction of an electronic barrier across Southeast Asia—a system of devices to alert the United States of any breach of security at any time. Dubbed "McNamara's Wall" by skeptical journalists, the proposal was never implemented, but it did show the naïveté of McNamara's faith in modem technology.

By 1966, however, McNamara had become somewhat skeptical of the American war effort in Vietnam. He was astonished at the resilience of the North Vietnamese and the relative lack of effect American bombing had, especially on their extraordinary ability to move men and material down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam. McNamara was also surprised at the level of casualties the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army were willing to accept, and he knew, statistician that he was, how their commitment upset the basic philosophy behind the American war of attrition there. Finally, McNamara grew positively disgusted with the corruption of South Vietnamese officials, the instability of their government, and their lack of sensitivity to democratic principles. Between 1961 and 1966 McNamara visited South Vietnam eight times, and by the end of 1966 he realized that American casualties were too high for the results achieved. No end of the war was in sight. By 1967 McNamara was advocating a negotiated settlement to the conflict, pushing on President Lyndon Johnson a diplomatic solution to the problem. Understandably, the president was upset. For years he had accepted the counsel and advice of these "experts," the "best and the brightest" in David Halberstam's words, and now they were essentially admitting they had been wrong, after the troop totals had reached more than 500,000 soldiers and more than 30,000 Americans were dead. As McNamara's skepticism grew throughout 1967, so did Johnson's frustration, and in November 1967 he asked McNamara to resign his defense post. By that time McNamara was advocating an end to bombing the north, a cap on American troop strength in Vietnam, and gradually turning the war over to the South Vietnamese. After leaving the Department of Defense, McNamara became president of the World Bank, a position he held until his retirement in 1983.


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