Robert S. McNamara

John F. Kennedy / Lyndon Johnson Administration

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January 21, 1961 – February 29, 1968

Defense issues, including the missile gap, played a prominent role in the campaign of 1960. President-elect Kennedy, very much concerned with defense matters although lacking Eisenhower's mastery of the issues, first offered the post of secretary of defense to former secretary Robert A. Lovett. When Lovett declined, Kennedy chose Robert S. McNamara on Lovett's recommendation.

McNamara was born on 9 June 1916 in San Francisco, where his father was sales manager of a wholesale shoe firm. He graduated in 1937 from the University of California (Berkeley) with a degree in economics and philosophy, earned a master's degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration in 1939, worked a year for the accounting firm of Price, Waterhouse in San Francisco, and then in August 1940 returned to Harvard to teach in the business school. He entered the Army Air Forces as a captain in early 1943 and left active duty three years later with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In 1946 McNamara joined Ford Motor Company as manager of planning and financial analysis. He advanced rapidly through a series of top-level management positions to the presidency of Ford on 9 November 1960–one day after Kennedy's election. The first company head selected outside the Ford family, McNamara received substantial credit for Ford's expansion and success in the postwar period. Less than five weeks after becoming president at Ford, he accepted Kennedy's invitation to join his cabinet.

Although not especially knowledgeable about defense matters, McNamara immersed himself in the subject, learned quickly, and soon began to apply an "active role" management philosophy, in his own words "providing aggressive leadership–questioning, suggesting alternatives, proposing objectives and stimulating progress." He rejected radical organizational changes, such as those proposed by a group Kennedy appointed, headed by Sen. W. Stuart Symington, which would have abolished the military departments, replaced the JCS with a single chief of staff, and established three functional unified commands. McNamara accepted the need for separate services but argued that "at the end we must have one defense policy, not three conflicting defense policies. And it is the job of the Secretary and his staff to make sure that this is the case."

Initially the basic policies outlined by President Kennedy in a message to Congress on 28 March 1961 guided McNamara in the reorientation of the defense program. Kennedy rejected the concept of first-strike attack and emphasized the need for adequate strategic arms and defense to deter nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. U.S. arms, he maintained, must constantly be under civilian command and control, and the nation's defense posture had to be "designed to reduce the danger of irrational or unpremeditated general war." The primary mission of U.S. overseas forces, in cooperation with allies, was "to prevent the steady erosion of the Free World through limited wars." Kennedy and McNamara rejected massive retaliation for a posture of flexible response. The United States wanted choices in an emergency other than "inglorious retreat or unlimited retaliation," as the president put it. Out of a major review of the military challenges confronting the United States initiated by McNamara in 1961 came a decision to increase the nation's limited warfare capabilities.

The Kennedy administration placed particular emphasis on improving the U.S. military's ability to counter Communist "wars of national liberation," in which the enemy avoided head-on military confrontation and resorted to political subversion and guerrilla tactics. As McNamara said in his 1962 annual report, "The military tactics are those of the sniper, the ambush, and the raid. The political tactics are terror, extortion, and assassination." In practical terms, this meant training and equipping U.S. military personnel, as well as such allies as South Vietnam, for counterinsurgency operations. Later in the decade, U.S. forces applied these counterinsurgency techniques with mixed success in Vietnam.

Increased attention to conventional strength complemented these special forces preparations. The Berlin crisis in 1961 demonstrated to McNamara the need for more troops. In this instance he called up reserves and also proceeded to expand the regular armed forces. Whereas active duty strength had declined from approximately 3,555,000 to 2,483,000 between 1953 (the end of the Korean conflict) and 1961, it increased to nearly 2,808,000 by 30 June 1962. Then the forces leveled off at around 2,700,000 until the Vietnam military buildup began in 1965, reaching a peak of nearly 3,550,000 by mid-1968, just after McNamara left office.

McNamara played a much larger role in the formulation of nuclear strategy than his predecessors. In part this reflected both the increasing sophistication of nuclear weapons and delivery systems and Soviet progress toward nuclear parity with the United States. Central in McNamara's thinking on nuclear policy stood the NATO alliance and the U.S. commitment to defend its members from aggression. In a widely noticed speech at Ann Arbor, Michigan, in June 1962, McNamara repeated much of what he had told a NATO ministers' meeting in Athens several weeks earlier, especially about the importance of NATO to U.S. security and the proper response to a surprise Soviet nuclear attack on the Western allies. Basic NATO strategy in such an unlikely event, McNamara argued, should follow the "no-cities" concept. "General nuclear war," he stated, "should be approached in much the same way that more conventional military operations have been regarded in the past. That is to say, principal military objectives, in the event of a nuclear war stemming from a major attack on the Alliance, should be the destruction of the enemy's military forces, not of his civilian population."

With his principal goal deterrence–to convince Moscow that a nuclear attack against the Western allies would trigger U.S. retaliation against Soviet forces, perhaps eliminating their ability to continue military action–McNamara also wanted to provide the Russians with an incentive to refrain from attacking cities. "The very strength and nature of the Alliance forces," he said in the Ann Arbor speech, "make it possible for us to retain, even in the face of a massive surprise attack, sufficient reserve striking power to destroy an enemy society if driven to it."

McNamara soon deemphasized the no-cities approach, for several reasons: public fear that planning to use nuclear weapons in limited ways would make nuclear war seem more feasible; increased Air Force requirements, after identifying additional targets under the no-cities strategy, for more nuclear weapons; the assumption that such a policy would require major air and missile defense, necessitating a vastly expanded budget; and negative reactions from the Soviets and NATO allies. McNamara turned to "assured destruction,'' which he characterized as the capability "to deter deliberate nuclear attack upon the United States and its allies by maintaining a highly reliable ability to inflict an unacceptable degree of damage upon any single aggressor, or combination of aggressors, even after absorbing a surprise first strike." As defined by McNamara, assured destruction meant that the United States would be able to destroy in retaliation 20 to 25 percent of the Soviet Union's population and 50 percent of its industrial capacity. Later the term "mutual assured destruction" meant the capacity of each side to inflict sufficient damage on the other to constitute an effective deterrent. In conjunction with assured destruction McNamara stressed the importance of damage limitation–the use of strategic forces to limit damage to the nation's population and industrial capacity by attacking and diminishing the enemy's strategic offensive forces.

To make this strategy credible, McNamara speeded up the modernization and expansion of weapon and delivery systems. He accelerated production and deployment of the solid-fuel Minuteman ICBM and Polaris SLBM missiles and by FY 1966 had removed from operational status all of the older liquid-fuel Atlas and Titan I missiles. By the end of McNamara's tenure, the United States had deployed 54 Titan II and 1,000 Minuteman missiles on land, and 656 Polaris missiles on 41 nuclear submarines. The size of this long-range strategic missile force remained stable until the 1980s, although the number of warheads increased significantly as the MIRV (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle) system emerged in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

McNamara took other steps to improve U.S. deterrence posture and military capabilities. He raised the portion of SAC strategic bombers on 15-minute ground alert from 25 percent to 50 percent, thus lessening their vulnerability to missile attack. In December 1961 he established the Strike Command (STRICOM). Authorized to draw forces when needed from the Strategic Army Corps, the Tactical Air Command, and the airlift units of the Military Air Transport Service and the military services, Strike Command had the mission "to respond swiftly and with whatever force necessary to threats against the peace in any part of the world, reinforcing unified commands or . . . carrying out separate contingency operations." McNamara also increased long-range airlift and sealift capabilities and funds for space research and development. After reviewing the separate and often uncoordinated service efforts in intelligence and communications, McNamara in 1961 consolidated these functions in the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Defense Communications Agency (the latter originally established by Secretary Gates in 1960), having both report to the secretary of defense through the JCS. In the same year, he set up the Defense Supply Agency to work toward unified supply procurement, distribution, and inventory management.

McNamara's institution of systems analysis as a basis for making key decisions on force requirements, weapon systems, and other matters occasioned much debate. Two of its main practitioners during the McNamara era, Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, described the concept as follows: "First, the word 'systems' indicates that every decision should be considered in as broad a context as necessary. . . . The word 'analysis' emphasizes the need to reduce a complex problem to its component parts for better understanding. Systems analysis takes a complex problem and sorts out the tangle of significant factors so that each can be studied by the method most appropriate to it." Enthoven and Smith said they used mainly civilians as systems analysts because they could apply independent points of view to force planning. McNamara's tendency to take military advice into account less than had previous secretaries contributed to his unpopularity with service leaders.

The most notable example of systems analysis was the Planning Programming Budgeting System (PPBS) instituted by DoD Comptroller Charles J. Hitch. McNamara directed Hitch to analyze defense requirements systematically and produce a long-term, program-oriented Defense budget. PPBS evolved to become the heart of the McNamara management program. According to Enthoven and Smith, the basic ideas of PPBS were: "the attempt to put defense program issues into a broader context and to search for explicit measures of national need and adequacy"; "consideration of military needs and costs together"; "explicit consideration of alternatives at the top decision level"; "the active use of an analytical staff at the top policymaking levels"; "a plan combining both forces and costs which projected into the future the foreseeable implications of current decisions"; and "open and explicit analysis, that is, each analysis should be made available to all interested parties, so that they can examine the calculations, data, and assumptions and retrace the steps leading to the conclusions."

Among the management tools developed to implement PPBS were the Five Year Defense Plan (FYDP), the Draft Presidential Memorandum (DPM), the Readiness, Information and Control Tables, and the Development Concept Paper (DCP). The annual FYDP was a series of tables projecting forces for eight years and costs and manpower for five years in mission-oriented, rather than individual service, programs. By 1968, the FYDP covered 10 military areas: strategic forces, general purpose forces, intelligence and communications, airlift and sealift, guard and reserve forces, research and development, central supply and maintenance, training and medical services, administration and related activities, and support of other nations.

The DPM, intended for the White House and usually prepared by the systems analysis office, was a method to study and analyze major Defense issues. Sixteen DPMs appeared between 1961 and 1968 on such topics as strategic offensive and defensive forces, NATO strategy and force structure, military assistance, and tactical air forces. OSD sent the DPMs to the services and the JCS for comment; in making decisions, McNamara included in the DPM a statement of alternative approaches, force levels, and other factors. The DPM in its final form became a decision document.

The Development Concept Paper examined performance, schedule, cost estimates, and technical risks to provide a basis for determining whether to begin or continue a research and development program. The Readiness, Information, and Control Tables provided data on specific projects, more detailed than in the FYDP, such as the tables for the Southeast Asia Deployment Plan, which recorded by month and quarter the schedule for deployment, consumption rates, and future projections of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia.

PPBS was suspect in some quarters, especially among the military, because it was civilian-controlled and seemed to rely heavily on impersonal quantitative analysis. As Enthoven and Smith observed, "Much of the controversy over PPBS, particularly the use of systems analysis, is really an attack on the increased use of the legal authority of the Secretary of Defense and an expression of a view about his proper role." In spite of the criticism, the system persisted in modified form long after McNamara had left the Pentagon.

McNamara relied heavily on systems analysis to reach several controversial weapon decisions. He canceled the B-70 bomber, begun during the Eisenhower years as a replacement for the B-52, stating that it was neither cost-effective nor needed, and later he vetoed its proposed successor, the RS-70. McNamara expressed publicly his belief that the manned bomber as a strategic weapon had no long-run future; the intercontinentalballistic missile was faster, less vulnerable, and less costly.

Similarly, McNamara terminated the Skybolt project late in 1962. Begun in 1959, Skybolt was conceived as a ballistic missile with a 1,000-nautical mile range, designed for launching from B-52 bombers as a defense suppression weapon to clear the way for bombers to penetrate to targets. McNamara decided that Skybolt was too expensive, not accurate enough, and would exceed its planned development time. He asserted that other systems, including the Hound Dog missile, could do the job at less cost. Toward the end of his term McNamara also opposed an antiballistic missile (ABM) system proposed for installation in the United States, arguing that it would be too expensive (at least $40 billion) and ultimately ineffective, because the Soviets would increase their offensive capability to offset the defensive advantage of the United States. Under pressure to proceed with the ABM program after it became clear that the Soviets had begun a similar project, McNamara finally agreed to a "thin" system, but he never believed it wise for the United States to move in that direction.

Despite serious problems, McNamara initiated and continued the TFX (later F-111) aircraft. He believed that Navy and Air Force requirements for a new tactical fighter could best be met by development of a common aircraft. After extensive study of the recommendations of a joint Air Force-Navy evaluation board, McNamara awarded the TFX contract to General Dynamics. The decision, based on cost-effectiveness and efficiency considerations, irritated the chief of naval operations and the Air Force chief of staff, both of whom preferred separate new fighters for their services and Boeing as the contractor. Because of high cost overruns, trouble in meeting performance objectives, flight test crashes, and difficulties in adapting the plane to Navy use, the TFX's future became more and more uncertain. The Navy dropped its version in 1968. Some of McNamara's critics in the services and Congress labeled the TFX a failure, but versions of the F-111 remained in Air Force service two decades after McNamara decided to produce them.

McNamara's staff stressed systems analysis as an aid in decisionmaking on weapons development and many other budget issues. The secretary believed that the United States could afford any amount needed for national security, but that "this ability does not excuse us from applying strict standards of effectiveness and efficiency to the way we spend our defense dollars. . . . You have to make a judgment on how much is enough." Acting on these principles, McNamara instituted a much-publicized cost reduction program, which, he reported, saved $14 billion in the five-year period beginning in 1961. Although he had to withstand a storm of criticism from senators and representatives from affected congressional districts, he closed many military bases and installations that he judged unnecessary to national security. He was equally determined about other cost-saving measures.

Nonetheless, mainly because of the Vietnam War buildup, total obligational authority increased greatly during the McNamara years. Fiscal year TOA increased from $48.4 billion in 1962 to $49.5 billion in 1965 (before the major Vietnam increases) to $74.9 billion in 1968, McNamara's last year in office. Not until FY 1984 did DoD's total obligational authority surpass that of FY 1968 in constant dollars.

In the broad arena of national security affairs, McNamara played a principal part under both Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, especially during international crises. The first of these occurred in April 1961, when a Cuban exile group with some support from the United States attempted to overthrow the Castro regime. The disastrous failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, carried through by the Kennedy administration based on planning begun under Eisenhower, proved a great embarrassment. When McNamara left office in 1968, he told reporters that his principal regret was his recommendation to Kennedy to proceed with the Bay of Pigs operation, something that "could have been recognized as an error at the time."

More successful from McNamara's point of view was his participation in the Executive Committee, a small group of advisers who counseled Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. McNamara supported the president's decision to quarantine Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from bringing in more offensive weapons. During the crisis the Pentagon placed U.S. military forces on alert, ready to back up the administration's demand that the Soviet Union withdraw its offensive missiles from Cuba. McNamara believed that the outcome of the missile crisis "demonstrated the readiness of our armed forces to meet a sudden emergency" and "highlighted the importance of maintaining a properly balanced Defense establishment." Similarly, McNamara regarded the use of nearly 24,000 U.S. troops and several dozen naval vessels to stabilize a revolutionary situation in the Dominican Republic in April 1965 as another successful test of the "readiness and capabilities of the U.S. defense establishment to support our foreign policy."

The Vietnam conflict came to claim most of McNamara's time and energy. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations had committed the United States to support the French and native anti-Communist forces in Vietnam in resisting efforts by the Communists in the North to control the country. The U.S. role, including financial support and military advice, expanded after 1954 when the French withdrew. During the Kennedy administration, the U.S. military advisory group in South Vietnam steadily increased, with McNamara's concurrence, from just a few hundred to about 17,000. United States involvement escalated after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 when North Vietnamese naval vessels reportedly fired on two U.S. destroyers. President Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnamese naval bases, and Congress approved almost unanimously the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the president "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the U.S. and to prevent further aggression."

In 1965, in response to stepped up military activity by the Communist Viet Cong in South Vietnam and their North Vietnamese allies, the United States began bombing North Vietnam, deployed large military forces, and entered into combat in South Vietnam. Requests from top U.S. military commanders in Vietnam led to the commitment of 485,000 troops by the end of 1967 and almost 535,000 by 30 June 1968. The casualty lists mounted as the number of troops and the intensity of fighting escalated.

Although he loyally supported administration policy, McNamara gradually became skeptical about whether the war could be won by deploying more troops to South Vietnam and intensifying the bombing of North Vietnam. He traveled to Vietnam many times to study the situation firsthand. He became increasingly reluctant to approve the large force increments requested by the military commanders. The Tet offensive of early 1968, although a military defeat for the enemy, clearly indicated that the road ahead for both the United States and the South Vietnamese government was still long and hard. By this time McNamara had already submitted his resignation, chiefly because of his disillusionment with the war.

As McNamara grew more and more controversial after 1966 and his differences with the president and the JCS over Vietnam policy became the subject of public speculation, frequent rumors surfaced that he would leave office. Yet there was great surprise when President Johnson announced on 29 November 1967 that McNamara would resign to become president of the World Bank. The increasing intensity of the antiwar movement in the United States and the approaching presidential campaign, in which Johnson was expected to seek reelection, figured heavily in explanations of McNamara's departure. So also did McNamara's alleged differences with the JCS over the bombing of North Vietnam, the number of U.S. troops to be assigned to the ground war, and construction along the 17th parallel separating South and North Vietnam of an anti-infiltration ground barrier, which McNamara favored and the JCS opposed. McNamara's resistance to deployment of a major ABM system also upset the military chiefs. The president's announcement of McNamara's move to the World Bank stressed his stated interest in the job and that he deserved a change after seven years as secretary of defense, a much longer tenure than any of his predecessors.

McNamara left office on 29 February 1968; for his dedicated efforts, the president awarded him both the Medal of Freedom and the Distinguished Service Medal. He served as head of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981. Shortly after he departed the Pentagon, he published The Essence of Security, discussing various aspects of his tenure and his position on basic national security issues. He did not speak out again on defense issues until after he left the World Bank. In 1982 McNamara joined several other former national security officials in urging that the United States pledge not to use nuclear weapons first in Europe in the event of hostilities; subsequently he proposed the elimination of nuclear weapons as an element of NATO's defense posture. His book, In Retrospect, published in 1995, presented an account and analysis of the Vietnam War that dwelt heavily on the mistakes to which he was a prime party and conveyed his strong sense of guilt and regret. McNamara died at home in Washington, D.C., on 6 July 2009, at the age of 93.

Evaluations of McNamara's long career as secretary of defense vary from glowing to negative and sometimes scathing. One journalist reported criticism of McNamara as a "'human IBM machine' who cares more for computerized statistical logic than for human judgments." On the other hand, a congressman who had helped shape the National Security Act in 1947 stated when McNamara left the Pentagon that he "has come nearer [than anyone else] to being exactly what we planned a Secretary of Defense to be when we first wrote the Unification Act." Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote, "Except for General Marshall I do not know of any department head who, during the half century I have observed government in Washington, has so profoundly enhanced the position, power and security of the United States as Mr. McNamara." Journalist Hanson W. Baldwin cited an impressive list of McNamara accomplishments: containment of the more damaging aspects of service rivalry; significant curtailment of duplication and waste in weapon development; institution of systems analysis and the PPBS; application of computer technology; elimination of obsolescent military posts and facilities; and introduction of a flexible strategy, which among other things improved U.S. capacity to wage conventional and limited wars. Although McNamara had many differences with military leaders and members of Congress, few could deny that he had had a powerful impact on the Defense Department, and that much of what he had done would be a lasting legacy.