Robert McNamara, the controversial former Defense Secretary who spent his twilight years apologizing for escalating the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, died early this morning in Washington. He was 93 years old.
McNamara was a top manager at the Ford Motor Co. and had just taken over the company in 1960Â when President John F. Kennedy tapped him to run the Pentagon. According to the Washington Post, McNamara used his considerable management skills to tame the military’s massive bureaucracy:
At the Pentagon, McNamara quickly put his own stamp on the sprawling military bureaucracy in what amounted to a management revolution. He centralized control, broke down the traditional fiefdoms of the individual services, and imposed multi-purpose, multi-service weapons on the brass.
According to an account published in The Washington Post at the time, “he shook all five floors of the Pentagon in his search for the tools he needed to get a firm grip on the biggest military establishment in the world . . . McNamara brought in computers to help with the spade work, hired systems analysts to comb through the technical points and then list the pros and cons for the generalists, reassessed the war plans, regrouped weapons into programs.”
McNamara greatly expanded the United States’ nuclear arsenal and helped Kennedy manage the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But McNamara’s skills weren’t enough to secure victory in Vietnam, and the conflict cost 58,000 American lives and, in many ways, tore the United States apart.
It was “McNamara’s war,” matching his technology, statistics, weaponry and organization charts against a peasant army from a small, impoverished country. The peasants won. In retrospect, it could be seen that McNamara’s can-do, technological approach to military issues might have been perfectly suited to a conflict against the Soviet Union in Europe, but it led him into disastrous miscalculations in the jungles and paddies of Vietnam.
On his first visit to South Vietnam in 1962, before most Americans had heard of the place and before the involvement of American combat forces, McNamara said that “every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war.”
It was a statement often quoted by his critics in later years, because it seemed to encapsulate the fallacy of his approach. American troops did prevail in many of the big battles and the United States did win the war by every statistical measurement on the Pentagon charts that McNamara so admired. But the numbers–even the few that were accurate–had little to do with the political reality on the ground.
The harshest critic of all, David Halberstam, describing McNamara’s trips to Saigon, wrote in “The Best and the Brightest” that McNamara, the ultimate technocrat, was “a prisoner of his own background . . . unable, as indeed was the country which sponsored him, to adapt his values and his terms to Vietnamese realities. Since any real indices and truly factual estimates of the war would immediately have shown its bankruptcy, the McNamara trips became part of a vast unwitting and elaborate charade, the institutionalizing and legitimizing of a hopeless lie.”
In Halberstam’s judgment, McNamara “did not serve himself or his country well. He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.”
Years after Vietnam, McNamara admitted that he suspected the war was unwinnable as early as 1965. Towards the end of his life, he accepted responsibility for his role in Vietnam.
In 2003, he appeared in Errol Morris’ Academy Award-winning documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” It’s a fascinating film that is well worth watching — McNamara shares his insights about figures like Gen. Curtis LeMay, reveals his fears regarding how close we came to World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and talks at length about his role in Vietnam. Some clips are embedded below (contains mild language).