The Tet Offensive and the Media
Teaser Image

Robert McNamara

United States secretary of defense. Born in San Francisco, California on June 9, 1916, Robert McNamara was an Army Air Corps officer in World War II, when he used statistical techniques that he had acquired at Harvard Business School in order to improve the logistics, planning, and analysis of strategic bombing raids over Europe and Japan. Joining Ford Motor Company after the war, in November 1960 McNamara was appointed president, but left almost immediately when President John F. Kennedy recruited him as secretary of defense.

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 United States "second-strike" capability, the ability to retaliate ferociously even after absorbing a massive nuclear attack. He also broke with the Eisenhower administration'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. ICBMs to 1,000, a move which may have triggered a similar Soviet buildup and arms race. McNamara 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 March 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 his reputation soared, only to fall dramatically and permanently under Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. The remainder of McNamara's life would be haunted by his actions toward the burgeoning crisis in Vietnam.

Growing American involvement in South Vietnam, which McNamara visited in 1962 and 1964, reiterating American determination to resist resist the growing Communist insurgency, undercut McNamara's efforts at rationalization. Military intellectuals later severely criticized McNamara's management skills for permitting the demands of the Vietnam War to denude American NATO forces. Under Kennedy, McNamara endorsed moderate increases in American advisers and military aid programs in Vietnam. Despite his deepening pessimism and personal doubts, to Congress McNamara presented an unequivocal picture of unprovoked North Vietnamese aggression. In July 1965, McNamara endorsed requests by General William C. Westmoreland for a further 185,000 United States 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 humanity of the heavy United States bombing raids, but Johnson and the military chiefs frequently overruled him. By 1966, McNamara became 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 on occasion he appeared to believe the war could be won. Within the administration, McNamara's growing emphasis upon seeking a negotiated settlement in the war he still publicly defended decreased his influence, and in late 1967 Johnson rejected his recommendations to freeze United States troop levels, cease bombing the North, 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 he was one of several leading American diplomats who openly though unsuccessfully supported a pledge by the United States that it would never be the first state to employ nuclear weapons. Half-way through his ninth decade, McNamara published proposals designed to reduce the risk of conflict. In 1995, McNamara 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 War. In 2003, he cooperated in producing a documentary, The Fog of War, on his experiences from World War II onward. McNamara remained perennially controversial, as his persistent refusal to characterize the American decision to intervene in Vietnam as inherently immoral and unjustified, as opposed to mistaken and unwise, still generated passionate and often highly personal criticism of McNamara from former American opponents of the war.

Priscilla Roberts

Further Reading
Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, 1972.; 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., and James G. Blight. Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing and Catastrophe in the 21st Century. New York: Public Affairs Press, 2001.; 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.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

ABC-cLIO Footer