McNamara moved at once to enlarge his personal staff and centralize decision making in the secretary's office, developing and employing a planning-programming-budgeting system (PPBS) in efforts to enhance cost-effectiveness by eliminating duplication, waste, and overlapping programs among the three services and subjecting proposed weapons systems to close cost-benefit analysis. These and other efficiency measures, including proposals to close unneeded military bases and consolidate the National Guard and Army Reserves into one system, provoked fierce opposition from many military men and from powerful congressional and civilian lobbies.
McNamara supported the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which he hoped would facilitate Soviet-American arms limitation talks, even as he supported developing a U.S. second-strike capability, the ability to retaliate ferociously even after absorbing a massive nuclear attack. He also broke with President Dwight D. Eisenhower's emphasis on threatening massive retaliation in all crises to support expanding the military by 300,000 men to develop flexible-response capabilities, a mobile striking force prepared for conventional or guerrilla warfare. Defense Department budgets rose from $45.9 billion in 1960 to $53.6 billion in 1964. Another reason for this surge was McNamara's early decision to increase land-based U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to 1,000, a move that may have triggered a similar Soviet buildup and arms race. He publicly defended the nuclear strategy of mutual assured destruction (MAD), arguing that it served as a deterrent to nuclear war.
McNamara made an early mistake in endorsing the disastrous April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. During the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, however, he was generally credited with devising the relatively moderate naval quarantine response strategy that Kennedy decided to follow. During the Kennedy presidency McNamara's reputation soared, only to fall dramatically and permanently under Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Growing American involvement in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam), which McNamara endorsed, undercut his efforts at rationalization. Military intellectuals later criticized McNamara's decision to permit the demands of the Vietnam War to denude American North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces. Under Kennedy, McNamara backed moderate increases in American advisors and military aid programs to Vietnam. Despite his deepening pessimism and personal doubts, however, to Congress McNamara presented an unequivocal picture of unprovoked North Vietnamese aggression. In July 1965 McNamara endorsed requests by General William C. Westmoreland for an increase of 185,000 American troops in Vietnam, but President Johnson rejected as politically unacceptable his accompanying recommendations to call up reserve forces and increase taxes for the war.
McNamara always doubted both the effectiveness and the morality of the heavy U.S. bombing raids, but Johnson and the military chiefs frequently overruled him. By 1966 McNamara had become increasingly pessimistic over the war's outcome, especially when antiwar protests intensified and he became a prime target for ferocious criticism, although as late as mid-1967 he appeared on occasion to believe that the war could be won. Within the Johnson administration, McNamara's growing emphasis upon seeking a negotiated settlement in the war that he still publicly defended decreased his influence, and in late 1967 Johnson rejected his recommendations to freeze U.S. troop levels, cease bombing North Vietnam, and transfer ground combat duties largely to the South Vietnamese Army. McNamara announced his impending resignation in November 1967, leaving three months later to become president of the World Bank.
McNamara remained at the World Bank until 1982, dramatically expanding its lending and development programs. During Ronald Reagan's presidency, McNamara was one of several leading American diplomats who openly sought a pledge by the United States that it would never be the first state to use nuclear weapons. In 1986 he published proposals designed to reduce the risk of conflict. In 1995 he finally published his memoirs and concurrently became heavily involved in continuing efforts by Vietnamese and Western scholars and officials to attain greater understanding of each other's position in the Vietnam conflict. In 2003 he cooperated in producing a documentary, The Fog of War, on his experiences from World War II onward.
McNamara remains controversial. His persistent refusal to characterize the American decision to intervene in Vietnam as inherently immoral and unjustified, as opposed to mistaken and unwise, still generates passionate and often highly personal criticism from former American opponents of the war.
Hendrickson, Paul. The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and the Five Lives of a Lost War. New York: Knopf, 1996.; Kraske, Jochen, with William H. Becker, William Diamond, and Louis Galambos. Bankers with a Mission: The Presidents of the World Bank, 1946–91. New York: Oxford University Press for the World Bank, 1996.; McMaster, H. R. Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.; McNamara, Robert S., James G. Blight, and Robert K. Brigham. Argument without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy. New York: Public Affairs Press, 1999.; McNamara, Robert S., with Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Times Books, 1995.; Shapley, Deborah. Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993.