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Robert McNamara

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Robert McNamara
8th United States Secretary of Defense
In office
January 21, 1961 – February 29, 1968
PresidentJohn F. Kennedy
Lyndon B. Johnson
DeputyRoswell Gilpatric, Cyrus Vance, Paul Nitze
Preceded byThomas S. Gates, Jr.
Succeeded byClark Clifford
5th President of the World Bank
In office
April 1968 – June 1981
Preceded byGeorge David Woods
Succeeded byAlden W. Clausen
Personal details
Born(1916-06-09)June 9, 1916
San Francisco, California, U.S.
DiedJuly 6, 2009 (aged 93)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyRepublican[1]
Spouse(s)Margaret Craig (m. 1940-1981, her death)
Diana Masieri Byfield (m. 2004-2009, his death)
Alma materUniversity of California, Berkeley Harvard University
AwardsLegion of Merit
Military service
Branch/serviceUnited States Army
Years of service1943-1946
RankLieutenant Colonel

Robert Strange McNamara (June 9, 1916 - July 6, 2009) was an American business executive and former United States Secretary of Defense. After being an executive at Ford Motor Company, McNamara served as Defense Secretary from 1961 to 1968, during the Vietnam War under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. After holding that position he served as President of the World Bank from 1968 until 1981. He was of Irish ancestry on his father's side.

Early life[change | change source]

McNamara was born in San Francisco into an Irish family. He graduated from high school in 1933. McNamara was an Eagle Scout. He went to the University of California, Berkeley where he got a degree in economics. He went to Harvard University for his MBA. After a short time working as an accountant he taught at Harvard. He married his high school sweetheart, Margaret Craig, in 1940. In 1943 he joined the Air Force. During the war, he looked at how effficent bombers were working and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. For his service in World War II, he was given the Legion of Merit.

Business Career at Ford[change | change source]

In 1946 McNamara got together with Charles "Tex" Thornton and eight other people who, like Thornton, he knew from the military and went into business. The group was hired by Ford Motor Company, which was going through a difficult time. This group was known as the "Whiz Kids". The Whiz Kids made changes to the company that led to it becoming more profitable and its cars getting better reviews and better sales. He rose through the company fast. In 1960 he became the President of Ford. He helped launch several successful models, like the Lincoln Continental and the Ford Falcon and put in some of the first modern safety features to be seen in cars.

Secretary of Defense[change | change source]

In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president. After he asked Robert A. Lovett to be his Defense Secretary, Lovett said no but recommended McNamara. McNamara was considered for both the Defense and Treasury Secretaries even though he was (and was for his entire life) a member of the Republican Party (Kennedy was a Democrat). He wasn't interested in being Treasury Secretary but eventually decided to be Kennedy's Secretary of Defense.

McNamara was known for using statistics to make decisions about the military and to make it more efficient. He tried to cut down on wasteful spending, often by merging programs into more efficient single ones. He also worked to end discrimination based on race and sex in the US Military. While in Kennedy's cabinet, he became good friends with Robert F. Kennedy, the Attorney General at the time (and brother of the president). McNamara was a big supporter of the space program and was one of the first people in government to suggest going to the moon. He wrote a recommendation to Kennedy in 1961 in support of a moon mission. Kennedy made the moon mission a priority for NASA, and the US went to the moon for the first time in 1969.

McNamara ended the "Massive Retaliation" policy that came from the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Instead, McNamara put in place "flexible response" which allowed more options for defending the US. President Kennedy very much wanted to fight communist revolutions and wars to stop Soviet power from spreading, and McNamara supported this. He also played a big role in peacefully ending the Cuban Missile Crisis. He advised Kennedy to blockade Cuba and stop the Soviet Union from putting more missiles there. Kennedy agreed and their strategy worked.

John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, kept McNamara as Defense Secretary. He became a major leader of the Vietnam war, and he and General William Westmoreland were the two biggest leaders in the American military during the war. In order to stop the communists from taking over Vietnam, McNamara sent more troops to the country. Over a number of years this stopped the North Vietnamese Army from winning the war, but as large amounts of American soldiers were killed the war became very unpopular with the people. He and the president strongly disagreed on troop levels - McNamara wanted to stop the increase in troops but Johnson wanted to send more over. McNamara resigned from the Defense Department in 1968. Johnson did not run for reelection that year and the election was won by Richard Nixon, who ran on a promise to end the war. Nixon signed a peace treaty in 1973, but the North Vietnamese would eventually win the war after the US pulled out.

Responsibility for the way the US fought the war[change | change source]

McNamara shifted control of the war from commanders in the field to management experts in Washington. He did this by collecting data of different kinds, but also by appointing General Westmoreland as commander of the forces in Vietnam.

"The stakes in Vietnam were high... at risk was the intensely sensitive calculation of US troop-strength requirements in Vietnam".[2]

For McNamara's "manager" in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, the key numbers were the "cross-over point"... when NVA/VC losses in South Vietnam... would be greater than the NVA's ability to replace those losses.

As we now know, the US forces were gradually getting on top, when a mixup in intelligence failed to warn them of a big NVA offensive. The famous surprise Tet Offensive of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was reported by the press in the US as a serious defeat for the US, when in fact it was a considerable success: the NVA had suffered huge casualties.

"The Tet Offensive was the decisive battle of the Vietnam War... General Giap [NVA] won the battle where it counted most--not in South Vietnam but in the hearts and minds of the American people".[2]
"A disillusioned Robert McNamara resigned, unable to come to terms with the failure of his methods and his own responsibilty for the war".[3]

Later career[change | change source]

After leaving the Defense Department, McNamara received the Medal of Freedom, published a book, and was hired as President of the World Bank. In 1972 he was in the news when a man saw him on a ferry boat in Massachusetts and tried to throw him in the ocean. McNamara told police not to press charges. While at the World Bank he focused on reducing world poverty. He was the first World Bank leader to make this the organization's top priority and he was often praised for this. McNamara also helped the World Bank fight disease. He retired from the World Bank in 1981.

He wrote a memoir in 1995. McNamara enjoyed food and cooking, and started an orchard business in his retirement. A movie was released made of interviews and clips about McNamara in 2003 called the Fog of War. He was a trustee of the California Institute of Technology and the Brookings Institution. There is a scholarship of the World Bank in his honor.

In his later list McNamara said that he and the Kennedy and Johnson administrations "were wrong" about Vietnam. He said if he had known in the 1960s what he knows now he would've made a different decision.

McNamara died in Washington DC in 2009. He was 93 when he died. He is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

References[change | change source]

  1. SIX FOR THE KENNEDY CABINET, Time, December 26, 1960.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Hughes-Wilson, John 1999. Military intelligence blunders. London: Robinson, p191-209.
  3. Hughes-Wilson, John 1999. Military intelligence blunders. London: Robinson, p216.