McNamara’s Gamble: Robert Strange McNamara and U.S. Escalation in Vietnam

Robert Strange McNamara was born on June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, California. Yes, his middle name, as he so often told others, was in fact “Strange,” which was his mother’s maiden name.

At the height of the Great Depression in 1933, McNamara graduated from Piedmont High School in Piedmont, California. From there he went on to study economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated with honors in 1937. Following his undergraduate studies, he pursued, and completed, an M.B.A. at the Harvard Business School. He was an exceptional student. One of his professors at Harvard, Edmund Learned, remembered the young McNamara, “…I almost got the feeling he was ingesting these systems [as part of his studies in systems analysis] as if he’d somehow known them all before, in another consciousness….”[1]

McNamara served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, conducting statistical analysis on U.S. bombing operations. His work increased the accuracy, and decreased the loss rate, of U.S. bombers flying missions against Japanese cities. After the war, he joined Ford Motor Company. His stellar performance at Ford earned the notice of Henry Ford II, who promoted him to company president in the fall of 1960. When he became President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense in January 1961, he was only forty-four years old.

Following Kennedy’s assassination, McNamara stayed on as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Secretary of Defense.

McNamara’s personality was similar to that of McGeorge Bundy, another member of the Johnson administration. The two men possessed a comparable style of speech, they were both highly rational, and to LBJ’s liking, both behaved deferentially toward him. The two men also looked alike. They each wore glasses, combed their thinning hair straight back over their heads, and kept themselves physically fit. The two Macs looked as though they had been cut from the same cloth – clones stamped out of America’s Ivy League.

Neither McNamara nor Bundy participated in the game of inter-office politics, nor did they work behind the president’s back to advance their own political agendas. Both men were honest with LBJ, offering him straight talk. This was one of the key reasons LBJ kept the two Kennedy men in his administration for so long. Each man’s mastery of various subjects, his keen analysis, and his cut-to-the-chase, no-bullshit presentation style won over the uncouth Texan. Their influence in the White House derived not from manipulation or deceit, but from their analytical skills and their loyalty to the president.

McNamara lacked physical presence. He was of average height and build. He dressed like every other professional in America at the time, almost always wearing a white shirt, dark suit, and thin tie. He was a typical organization man. But when he opened his mouth and began to speak, it became immediately apparent to any listener that McNamara was not your standard, run-of-the-mill, bureaucrat. The man spoke with a steady, clear voice. There was never any wavering, hesitation, self-doubt, or nervousness expressed in his voice. It was this voice, and the certitude expressed through it, that deeply impressed those who came into contact with him. His voice revealed an inner strength, an unseen power.

Other than sharing a driving ambition, President Johnson and McNamara had little in common. Nevertheless, over the years, Johnson developed a deep respect for McNamara. In a conversation with Robert Kennedy, Johnson revealed his esteem for McNamara, “…if you get any solutions to Vietnam, just call me direct, will you?” RFK responded, “I just talked to Bob McNamara.” LBJ then interjected, “Yeah, yeah. Well, he’s the best one. You can’t beat him….”[2]

Although Johnson admired McNamara, the two men were not emotionally close. LBJ appears to have been truly close to only one person – his wife. Neither McNamara nor LBJ exuded personal warmth or approachability. Around new acquaintances, LBJ gave off a creepy, “come-to-daddy” sort of aura, while McNamara exhibited physical stiffness and discomfort. But while LBJ did express himself, sometimes with extreme displays of emotion, McNamara almost always remained even-keeled. The Secretary of Defense could discuss kill ratios, projected GI death rates, and the number of North Vietnamese trucks destroyed by U.S. fighter-bombers along the Ho Chi Minh Trail with a frightening detachment, displaying little concern for the human suffering unfolding far away in Indochina. And yet, this emotional detachment enabled him to be Secretary of Defense. The secretary’s job was certainly one of the most stressful positions in the United States government, not only because the Department of Defense was one of the world’s largest organizations, but also because the secretary had to regularly deal with issues of war and peace in an age when a miscalculation by either the Americans or the Russians could lead to nuclear war.

McNamara, with his computer-like brain, admitted that his job and its responsibilities sometimes overwhelmed him. Later in life, he stated, “One reason the Kennedy and Johnson administrations failed to take an orderly, rational approach to the basic questions underlying Vietnam was the staggering variety and complexity of other issues we faced. Simply put, we faced a blizzard of problems, there were only twenty-four hours in a day, and we often did not have time to think straight.”[3] McNamara acknowledged that Vietnam was only one area out of many demanding his attention. As a result, he did not give it the time it deserved. He confessed,  “…we didn’t understand the Vietnamese, particularly the North Vietnamese.”[4]

McNamara believed in the assumptions underlying U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He believed that a fourth-rate power such as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam [DRV] could not be allowed to defy the will of the world’s most powerful nation. According to McNamara, if the DRV achieved its objectives in South Vietnam, the repercussions for the U.S.’s global standing, and for world order, would be staggering. He also believed in the Domino Theory. In an interview on April 22, 1965, he remarked, “If the U.S. withdrew from SVN [South Vietnam], there would be a complete shift in the world balance of power. Asia goes Red, our prestige and integrity damaged, allies everywhere shaken….”[5] Years later, he acknowledged that he and others in the Johnson administration overstated the consequences of the loss of South Vietnam, “I am certain we exaggerated the threat.”[6]

As early as November 1961, McNamara expressed doubts about whether the commitment of U.S. ground troops to the war would result in a U.S. military victory. At the time, the Kennedy administration was considering whether to send 8,000 U.S. ground troops to South Vietnam. McNamara wrote, “…it [the troop commitment] probably will not tip the scales decisively. We would be almost certain to get increasingly mired down in an inconclusive struggle.”[7]

McNamara’s doubts about U.S. military success in South Vietnam never vanished. He admitted to Johnson on December 17, 1965, just as the big U.S. troop build-up was under way, that the odds of a U.S. military victory in South Vietnam were not good. “A military solution to the problem is not certain – one out of three or one in two. Ultimately, we must find…a diplomatic solution.” Johnson replied, “Then, no matter what we do in the military field, there is no sure victory?” McNamara answered, “That’s right.”[8]

In an interview in November 1983, McNamara publicly admitted his earlier misgivings about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He stated, “It was obvious early on that there was no military solution to the problem.” Surprised at McNamara’s answer, the interviewer then asked, “That was obvious early on?” McNamara remarked, rather nonchalantly, “It was obvious as early as, oh, I’d say, mid-’65. Actually, I think it was obvious in – if not obvious, then many of us believed it was unlikely there was a military solution to it – as early as ’63. And certainly, by mid-’65 it was a more commonly held view.”[9]

Yet, despite his doubts, McNamara believed the U.S. had to try to stem Communist expansionism in South Vietnam. Intervening and losing in South Vietnam was better than not intervening at all. McNamara assumed that if the U.S. did not fight in South Vietnam, the Communists, especially the rulers of China, would view the United States as a paper tiger. And if the Communists developed such a view of American power, they would be encouraged to pursue aggression elsewhere, likely in areas vital to U.S. interests, which would increase the odds of a global war between the United States and the Communist Bloc.

So, in early 1965, McNamara proposed to President Johnson a program of gradual escalation of the ground war in South Vietnam and the air war in North Vietnam. And although he was doubtful of the chances of American success, he hoped the show of force would persuade the Communists to end their insurgency in South Vietnam. But the Communists in Hanoi were not persuadable. Consequently, McNamara’s gamble became McNamara’s War – the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history.


[1] Paul Hendrickson, The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 86.

[2] Michael Beschloss, Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965, (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 131.

[3] Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, (New York: Times Books, 1995), xvii.

[4] New York Times, “Robert S. McNamara, Architect of a Futile War, Dies at 93,” Tim Weiner, July 6, 2009.

[5] William Appleman Williams, Thomas McCormick, Lloyd Gardner, and Walter LaFeber, eds., America in Vietnam: A Documentary History, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), 247.

[6] New York Times, “Robert S. McNamara, Architect of a Futile War, Dies at 93,” Tim Weiner, July 6, 2009.

[7] George C. Herring, ed., The Pentagon Papers, Abridged Edition, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), 58.

[8] McNamara, In Retrospect, 224-225.

[9] Hendrickson, The Living and the Dead, 366.

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