Robert S. McNamara dies at 93; architect of the Vietnam War

Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara died at home Monday in Washington. He was 93.
(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Driven, cerebral and pugnacious, Robert S. McNamara was the preeminent policymaker behind the massive buildup of American forces in Vietnam between 1964 and 1968. As Defense secretary for two administrations, he wielded blizzards of facts and figures to press the case for deploying military advisors and then ground troops to counter the advance of communist forces in North Vietnam and Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam.

By the time he left office in 1968, however, what had begun as a “limited war” involved 535,000 U.S. servicemen, of whom nearly 30,000 had died. The casualties would mushroom to 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese over a decade of conflict.

Robert McNamara obituary: The obituary of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the July 7 Section A called him a Democrat who moved in Republican corporate circles when he was offered a Cabinet post in the new Kennedy administration. According to a 1961 entry in Contemporary Biography, McNamara was a registered Republican. He changed his party affiliation to Democrat in 1978, according to public records in the District of Columbia. Also, the obituary misspelled the 1940s Bing Crosby song “MacNamara’s Band” as “McNamara’s Band.”—

McNamara, 93, who died at his home in Washington on Monday after a period of ill health, came to harbor regrets about his role as the architect of the war’s deadly escalation, but he kept his doubts private for nearly three decades before finally going public.

In a 1995 memoir and in the 2003 Oscar-winning documentary “The Fog of War,” he offered a carefully parsed reassessment of his wartime decisions that mollified some critics and infuriated others.

A former president of Ford Motor Co., McNamara headed the Defense Department for seven years in the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and was the war’s tireless cheerleader, traveling to the battle zones more than 40 times.

A dynamic Washington figure whose trademark wire-rimmed glasses and carefully slicked and parted hair gave him the appearance of a tautly wound schoolmaster, McNamara had won over both Kennedy and Johnson with his unflagging optimism, peerless management skills and bureaucratic gamesmanship that raised his profile and cowed his rivals.

McNamara was a colossus of the briefing room, equipped with a steel-trap memory and a facility with numbers that dominated Cabinet meetings and congressional hearings. Early on, a dazzled Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater called him “one of the best secretaries ever, an IBM machine with legs.” Goldwater later altered his view, echoing veteran generals who felt McNamara was “a one-man disaster.”

During one classic encounter in 1961, McNamara absorbed a complex one-hour presentation on nuclear deterrence from a Rand Corp. expert, glanced over 54 detailed slides and quickly decided to jettison the Eisenhower administration’s policy of nuclear targeting of Russian cities and shift to military installations. Without debate, his “doctrine at the flick of his pen” set in motion the nuclear “counterforce” policy that would govern U.S. military strategy for the next 40 years, wrote biographer Deborah Shapley.

A new type of bureaucrat

But McNamara’s numerical wizardry had a dark side. Critics accused him of misleading his presidential patrons and the American public by manipulating statistics -- including battlefield casualty “body counts” and underplayed enemy troop strength estimates -- and presenting a falsely optimistic portrayal of the war’s grim prospects.

“McNamara’s loyalty was to his bosses and not the truth. He lied to them. He had people under him lying. He did it with Kennedy and he did it with Johnson and it was only when he was impaled with the failure of the war that he didn’t know what to do,” said writer David Halberstam, who excoriated McNamara as a “fool” in “The Best and the Brightest,” his account of the high officials who pressed for U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

McNamara was the archetype of a new wave of management specialists on the rise in Washington during the 1960s. He surrounded himself with a bevy of analysts who became known as his “whiz kids,” and they played a prominent role in drafting the classified “Pentagon Papers,” an exhaustive history of the U.S. entry into Vietnam that McNamara secretly commissioned in 1967.

Brimming with self-confidence, McNamara transformed the Defense Department into the giant military and civilian fiefdom it remains today.

But it was Vietnam that defined him, from his assertive oversight of the first contingents of Green Beret advisors sent by the Kennedy administration to South Vietnam in 1961, to his backstage qualms that led Lyndon Johnson to replace him as Defense secretary.

When Sen. Wayne Morse (D-Ore.), an opponent of the war, cracked in 1965 that the Vietnam conflict had become “McNamara’s War” -- a sardonic take on the 1940s Bing Crosby tune “McNamara’s Band” -- the Defense secretary unblinkingly took the line as a compliment. “I don’t mind it being called McNamara’s War,” he told a reporter. “In fact, I’m proud to be associated with it.”

But by 1968, after he had balked at further escalation and urged a freeze on troop levels, McNamara was eased out by Johnson, then appointed president of the World Bank, a position he held for 13 years before his retirement in 1981.

McNamara kept his private turmoil to himself for nearly 30 years, but finally went public in 1995 with a memoir that methodically deconstructed many of his once-cherished assumptions and landmark decisions.

His “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” questioned “domino theory” fears that a loss in South Vietnam would have led to a succession of communist takeovers elsewhere in Southeast Asia. McNamara conceded that he and other administration officials had misjudged Vietnamese popular support for Ho Chi Minh’s National Liberation Front and overestimated the limits of America’s military reach.

“My aim is neither to justify errors nor to assign blame, but to identify the mistakes we made,” he wrote.

But his painstaking language and desire to instruct without admitting guilt failed to reckon with the formidable emotional sway the war still exerted on the American psyche. On a limited speaking tour, McNamara was confronted by bitter Vietnam veterans and relatives of the dead.

He kept a tight rein on his private thoughts, but his haunted features gave him away. He appeared “a ghost of all that had passed and rolled on beneath his country in barely a generation,” wrote Paul Hendrickson in a devastating portrait of McNamara in old age.

McNamara took a final chance to salvage his reputation by sitting for a series of filmed interviews with director Errol Morris that resulted in “The Fog of War.”

When Morris asked why he had not spoken out about his doubts while the war was still being waged, McNamara held his ground. “These are the kinds of questions that get me in trouble,” he said. “A lot of people misunderstand the war, misunderstand me. A lot of people think I’m a son of a bitch.”

Robert Strange McNamara was born June 9, 1916, in San Francisco. A straight-A student, McNamara was also a disciplined athlete, an Eagle Scout who hiked and jogged. He later developed an interest in mountain climbing, and during his Cabinet years, scaled the 14,000-foot Matterhorn in Switzerland.

After attending UC Berkeley, he entered Harvard’s Graduate School of Business Administration in 1937, where he excelled in management and accounting techniques. He took a business faculty post at Harvard, where he married Margaret Craig, an old Bay Area friend.

Role in World War II

He volunteered for the Navy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but was rejected for poor eyesight. But McNamara’s expertise in statistics made him valuable to the war effort. In 1943, he was awarded a temporary captain’s commission and worked to improve the accuracy of long-range B-29 bombers that dropped tons of firebombs on Japanese cities.

After the war, McNamara contemplated a return to Harvard, but when he and his wife were briefly stricken with bouts of polio, he accepted a better-paying offer at Ford Motor Co. McNamara joined a coterie of young aides hired by Chairman Henry Ford II to shake up the firm with statistical analysis, the rigorous use of figures to measure trends and improve systems.

Although Ford’s great 1958 flop, the Edsel, was launched on his watch, McNamara moved quickly to shut the line down and cut losses. He ascended rapidly through Ford’s upper ranks and was named the company’s first president outside of the Ford family in 1960.

His tenure atop Ford was short-lived. A Democrat who moved in Detroit’s heavily Republican corporate circles, McNamara was offered a Cabinet job in the new Kennedy administration: either Defense or Treasury. McNamara chose Defense.

Vietnam loomed from the very beginning. Outgoing President Eisenhower had warned Kennedy about Vietnam, and Kennedy responded by ordering McNamara and his generals to devise a military strategy to brace the wobbly, corrupt South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.

They set a cautious course of limited aid at first, sending 400 Green Berets to train South Vietnamese troops. The contingent was the vanguard of a force that grew to 17,000 by the time of Kennedy’s assassination nearly three weeks after Diem was killed in a coup. But in internal meetings, McNamara pressed for an increased U.S. presence of 200,000 troops.

McNamara was convinced “that the dominoes would fall if we lost Vietnam,” he said ruefully in a series of interviews at Berkeley in 1996. “It was certainly the conventional wisdom among the foreign policy establishment. . . . I think we were wrong, and certainly misjudged it.”

Concerns about Vietnam were quickly dwarfed by a series of more urgent foreign policy concerns. A month before the first Special Forces arrived in South Vietnam, the Kennedy administration gave a green light for Cuban exiles to mount an effort to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The insurgents met with disaster at the Bay of Pigs.

McNamara had advised Kennedy to go forward with the secret invasion, which had been an Eisenhower project. McNamara later said the decision was his biggest regret, a clear “error at the time.”

A year later, McNamara played a central role in the Kennedy administration’s nuclear brinkmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The U.S. used a threatened blockade and private diplomacy to bluster and cajole Russian leader Nikita S. Khrushchev into removing nuclear weapons from Cuba. McNamara took satisfaction in his role in the outcome, saying the stand “demonstrated the readiness of our armed forces to meet a sudden emergency.”

Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, shook McNamara deeply. He had become an intimate in Kennedy’s social circles, and the slain president’s brother, Robert, asked McNamara to accompany him to meet JFK’s casket when it arrived by plane in Washington. At Kennedy’s urging, McNamara also picked out the isolated spot at Arlington National Cemetery where the president was buried.

Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, kept McNamara on, and he was soon as impressed as Kennedy had been.

In August 1964, a series of naval skirmishes between U.S. and North Vietnamese vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin gave McNamara and his generals a blank check to widen the war. The episode spurred a near-unanimous congressional vote to authorize Johnson to deploy ground troops. Years later, historians still spar over whether the attacks were as serious as they were initially reported -- and whether they justified a major escalation of the war.

McNamara insisted that the North Vietnamese attacks were real and alarming enough to provoke a stern reaction. His only hesitance, expressed years later, was the linkage between the skirmishes and Congress’ vote. “We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons,” he wrote in his memoir.

But internally, McNamara led hard-liners in blunting that debate. When Undersecretary of State George Ball tried to present a landmark memo to Johnson opposing further escalation, McNamara fought back. He “implied that I had been imprudent in putting such doubts on paper,” Ball recalled in 1994. Worse, Ball said, McNamara agreed with him in private and then shot “me down in flames” when they met with Johnson.

By 1965, as American forces in South Vietnam passed 150,000, McNamara privately advised Johnson that the U.S. had reached “a fork in the road” and either had to escalate or withdraw. Yet in public, McNamara remained publicly bullish, launching an aerial bombing campaign of North Vietnamese cities and installations.

By the fall of 1966, McNamara was privately showing the strain. He was now “visibly anguished” when he discussed the war, recalled Anthony Lake, a junior foreign service officer at the time who later became national security advisor to President Clinton.

In 1967, without authorization from Johnson, McNamara privately ordered a team of analysts to report on the roots of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The study took three dozen researchers 18 months to complete, but the 7,000 pages remained secret until analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked portions of the study to the New York Times in 1971.

When Johnson learned about the project in mid-1967, he suspected that McNamara planned to use the results to aid a presidential challenge by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Aware that his days as Defense secretary were numbered, McNamara began dropping hints of his interest in a top vacancy at the World Bank. After months of silence, Johnson suddenly announced McNamara’s nomination to the post. By March 1968, McNamara had left the administration.

Even after he resigned from the World Bank in 1981, the war kept tugging at him. Finally, in 1995, McNamara at last decided to speak out. He wrote “In Retrospect” to examine the mistakes that he and other top officials had made and codify the lessons for future policymakers.

But some Americans who still suffered from the war’s psychological wounds were less willing to forgive and forget.

During a 1995 appearance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government as part of a speaking tour, McNamara was confronted by John Hurley, a Vietnam veteran who would later become a top aide in Sen. John F. Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. “I have to tell you, sir, and there’s no polite way to do this, your book and your presence is an obscenity,” Hurley told McNamara.

When Hurley pressed McNamara to explain why he remained silent about his doubts during the war, McNamara suggested that he read the book. When Hurley nudged again, McNamara snapped. “Shut up,” McNamara raged, then replayed an old argument he had made 40 years earlier.

“He never understood, never seemed to care about the human cost of the war,” Hurley said later. “To him, Vietnam was just policy issues, sterile numbers to be managed.”

It was much the same remorseless apologia that McNamara made on camera during a solo turn in “The Fog of War.”

“We all make mistakes,” McNamara said at one point in the film. “I don’t know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There’s a wonderful phrase: ‘The fog of war.’ What the fog of war means is: War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate.”

McNamara’s survivors include his second wife, the former Diana Masieri Byfield, and three children from his first marriage, to Margaret, who died in 1981: Craig of Winters, Calif., and Margaret Pastor and Kathleen McNamara, both of Washington. He is also survived by six grandchildren.

Braun is a former Times staff writer.