Robert Strange McNamara was born on June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, California, to Robert James McNamara and Clara Nell Strange McNamara. Yes, his middle name, as he so often told others, was in fact “Strange,” which was his mother’s maiden name. In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, 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, 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….” [Hendrickson, Living Dead, 86].
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 JFK’s Secretary of Defense in January 1961, he was only 44 years old. McNamara’s meteoritic rise symbolized the upward mobility available to men of his stripe in the United States in the immediate post-World War II era. McNamara stayed on as Lyndon B. Johnson’s Secretary of Defense after the death of Kennedy.
McNamara’s personality was similar to another member of Johnson’s administration, McGeorge Bundy. Those two men possessed a comparable style of speech; they were both overly rational; and, to LBJ’s liking, both were almost too deferential to the president. McNamara and Bundy carried themselves with confidence. They each wore glasses, combed their thinning hair back over their heads, and both initially held hawkish views on the war in Vietnam. McNamara and Bundy stayed physically fit, appearing rather muscular under their dress shirts. The two Macs looked as though they had been cut from the same cloth – clones stamped out of America’s Ivy League schools.
Neither McNamara nor Bundy participated in the imprudent game of interoffice politics. They did not manipulate the president nor did either attempt to discredit others in the White House in order to enhance his own standing with LBJ. Neither worked behind the back of the president to advance his own political agenda. McNamara and Bundy were honest with LBJ, offering him straight talk. This was a major reason LBJ kept both men on in his administration for so long. It was their mastery of various subjects, their keen analysis, and their “cut-to-the-chase, no bullshit” presentation styles that won over LBJ. Their influence in the White House did not derive from manipulation or deceit –which are tools of the weak and insecure. Instead, their influence derived from their competence and analytical skills.
McNamara did not have an impressive physical appearance. He actually looked a little odd with his hair combed over his balding crown and with a deep, part on the left side of his head. His oversized wire-rimmed glasses made him look professorial. But when he opened his mouth, it became immediately apparent that he was not your standard, run-of-the-mill, dull administrator. McNamara spoke with a steady, loud, 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. There was more to this man than met the eye. After hearing McNamara speak, a person knew he was not someone to be trifled with.
Other than sharing a driving ambition, Johnson and McNamara had little in common. But over the years, Johnson developed a deep respect for McNamara. In a conversation with Robert Kennedy, LBJ remarked on McNamara’s importance within his administration. LBJ said, “…if you get any solutions to Vietnam, just call me direct, will you?” RFK responded, “I just talked to Bob McNamara.” LBJ then stated, “Yeah, yeah. Well, he’s the best one. You can’t beat him….” [Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 131]
Although LBJ admired McNamara, the two men were not emotionally close. LBJ appears to have been truly close only to 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 an “oh god, please don’t touch me” look. But while LBJ did express himself, sometimes with extreme displays of emotion, McNamara almost always remained even keeled. He could discuss kill ratios, projected GI death rates, and the interdiction of communist traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail with a frightening detachment, showing little concern for the human suffering unfolding far away in Indochina. Yet, it was that very detachment that allowed 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 DoD was one of the world’s largest organizations, but 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.
Daniel Ellsberg, who worked in the DoD during McNamara’s tenure as Secretary of Defense, remembered how members of the national security apparatus found it impossible to keep abreast of developments around the world. Ellsberg wrote, “The image that often came to my mind as I watched John [McNaughton] or (occasionally) a master operator like McGeorge Bundy move from one caller to another on the phone, one crisis to another, was that of the juggler in a circus who keeps a dozen plates spinning in the air at once…With all of these simultaneous problems (whose range reflected America’s postwar sense of its “responsibilities,” its power, its entitlements), or even for any one of them, can they this way devise or choose adequate policies without setting up disastrous failures?” [Ellsberg, Secrets, 47]
McNamara, with his computer-like brain, admitted that his job and its responsibilities sometimes overwhelmed him. 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.” [McNamara, In Retrospect, xvii] 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 once confessed that he knew little about Vietnam’s history or culture. He said, “we didn’t understand the Vietnamese, particularly the North Vietnamese.” [NYT, July 6, 2009] The statements by Ellsberg and McNamara make it apparent that by the 1960s, the American empire had become too large for government officials to manage.
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. 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 off-the-record 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….” [Williams, America in Vietnam, 247] Years later he acknowledged that he and others in the Johnson administration overstated the consequences of the loss of South Vietnam. He said, “I am certain we exaggerated the threat” [of falling dominoes]. [New York Times, July 6, 2009]
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 that time, there had been a proposal under consideration 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.” [Herring, Pentagon Papers, 58]
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 are not good. He stated, “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.” [McNamara, In Retrospect, 224-225] In an interview with Ina Ginsburg in November 1983, McNamara told Ginsburg the following. “IG: Were you under tremendous stress? RSM: Oh, surely. Of course. It was obvious early on that there was no military solution to the problem. IG: That was obvious early on? RSM: Surely. Early on. 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.” [Hendrickson, Living Dead, 366]
Nonetheless, McNamara believed the U.S. had to try to stem communist expansionism in South Vietnam. To lose in Vietnam was better than not trying at all. If the U.S. did not try in South Vietnam, the communists and particularly the Chinese, would view the United States as weak – as a paper tiger. If the communists developed such a perspective, it would encourage them to pursue aggression elsewhere. And further communist aggression would increase the likelihood of general war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And so in 1965, McNamara advocated a program of gradual escalation of the ground war in South Vietnam and the air war in North Vietnam. He hoped that America’s show of force would persuade the communists to quit the war in South Vietnam and convince the Chinese and Russians that the United States was not a paper tiger.