WASHINGTON (AP) - Robert S. McNamara, the cerebral secretary of
defense vilified for his role in escalating the Vietnam War, a
disastrous conflict he later denounced as "terribly wrong," died
Monday. He was 93.
McNamara died at 5:30 a.m. at his home, his wife Diana told The
Associated Press. She said he had been in failing health for some
McNamara was fundamentally associated with the Vietnam War,
"McNamara's war," the country's most disastrous foreign venture,
the only American war to end in abject withdrawal.
Known as a policymaker with a fixation for statistical analysis,
McNamara was recruited to run the Pentagon by President John F.
Kennedy in 1961 from the presidency of the Ford Motor Co. - where
he and a group of colleagues had been known as the "whiz kids."
He stayed in the defense post for seven years, longer than anyone
since the job's creation in 1947.
His association with Vietnam became intensely personal. Even his
son, as a Stanford University student, protested against the war
while his father was running it. At Harvard, McNamara once had to
flee a student mob through underground utility tunnels. Critics
mocked McNamara mercilessly; they made much of the fact that his
middle name was "Strange."
After leaving the Pentagon on the verge of a nervous breakdown,
McNamara became president of the World Bank and devoted evangelical
energies to the belief that improving life in rural communities in
developing countries was a more promising path to peace than the
buildup of arms and armies.
A private person, McNamara for many years declined to write his
memoirs, to lay out his view of the war and his side in his
quarrels with his generals. In the early 1990s he began to open up.
He told Time magazine in 1991 that he did not think the bombing of
North Vietnam - the biggest bombing campaign in history up to that
time - would work but he went along with it "because we had to try
to prove it would not work, number one, and (because) other people
thought it would work."
Finally, in 1993, after the Cold War ended, he undertook to
write his memoirs because some of the lessons of Vietnam were
applicable to the post-Cold War period "odd as though it may
"In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam" appeared
in 1995. McNamara disclosed that by 1967 he had deep misgivings
about Vietnam - by then he had lost faith in America's capacity to
prevail over a guerrilla insurgency that had driven the French from
the same jungled countryside.
Despite those doubts, he had continued to express public
confidence that the application of enough American firepower would
cause the Communists to make peace. In that period, the number of
U.S. casualties - dead, missing and wounded - went from 7,466 to
"We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations acted according
to what we thought were the principles and traditions of our
country. But we were wrong. We were terribly wrong," McNamara,
then 78, told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of the
The best-selling mea culpa renewed the national debate about the
war and prompted bitter criticism against its author. "Where was
he when we needed him?" a Boston Globe editorial asked. A New York
Times editorial referred to McNamara as offering the war's dead
only a "prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late."
McNamara wrote that he and others had not asked the five most
basic questions: "Was it true that the fall of South Vietnam would
trigger the fall of all Southeast Asia? Would that constitute a
grave threat to the West's security? What kind of war -
conventional or guerrilla - might develop? Could we win it with
U.S. troops fighting alongside the South Vietnamese? Should we not
know the answers to all these questions before deciding whether to
He discussed similar themes in the 2003 documentary "The Fog of
War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara." With the
U.S. in the first year of the war in Iraq, it became a popular and
timely art-house attraction and won the Oscar for best documentary
The Iraq war, with its similarities to Vietnam, at times brought
up McNamara's name, in many cases in comparison with another
unpopular defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld. McNamara was among
former secretaries of defense and state who met twice with
President George W. Bush in 2006 to discuss Iraq war policies.
In the Kennedy administration, McNamara was a key figure in both
the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 and the Cuban
missile crisis 18 months later. The crisis was the closest the
world came to a nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and
the United States.
McNamara served as the World Bank president for 12 years. He
tripled its loans to developing countries and changed its emphasis
from grandiose industrial projects to rural development.
After retiring in 1981, he championed the causes of nuclear
disarmament and aid by the richest nation for the world's poorest.
He became a global elder statesman.
McNamara's trademarks were his rimless glasses and slicked down
hair and his reliance on quantitative analysis to reach
conclusions, calmly promulgated in a husky voice.
He was born June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, son of the sales
manager for a wholesale shoe company. At the University of
California at Berkeley, he majored in mathematics, economics and
As a professor at the Harvard Business School when World War II
started, he helped train Army Air Corps officers in cost-effective
statistical control. In 1943, he was commissioned an Army officer
and joined a team of young officers who developed a new field of
statistical control of supplies.
McNamara and his colleagues sold themselves to the Ford
organization as a package and revitalized the company. The group
became known as the "whiz kids" and McNamara was named the first
Ford president who was not a descendant of Henry Ford.
A month later, the newly elected Kennedy invited McNamara, a
registered Republican, to join his Cabinet. Taking the
$25,000-a-year job cost McNamara $3 million in profit from Ford
stocks and options.
As defense chief, McNamara reshaped America's armed forces for
"flexible response" and away from the nuclear "massive
retaliation" doctrine espoused by former Secretary of State John
Foster Dulles. He asserted civilian control of the Pentagon and
applied cost-accounting techniques and computerized systems
analysis to defense spending.
Early on, Kennedy regarded South Vietnam as an area threatened
by Communist aggression and a proving ground for his new emphasis
on counterinsurgency forces. A believer in the domino theory - that
countries could fall to communism like a row of dominoes - Kennedy
dispatched U.S. "advisers" to bolster the Saigon government.
Their numbers surpassed 16,000 by the time of his assassination.
Following Kennedy's death, President Lyndon Johnson retained
McNamara as "the best in the lot" of Kennedy Cabinet members and
the man to keep Vietnam from falling to the Communists.
When U.S. naval vessels were allegedly attacked off the North
Vietnamese coast in 1964, McNamara lobbied Congress to pass the
Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which Johnson used as the equivalent of a
congressional declaration of war.
McNamara visited Vietnam - the first of many trips - and
returned predicting that American intervention would enable the
South Vietnamese, despite internal feuds, to stand by themselves
"by the end of 1965."
That was an early forerunner of a seemingly endless string of
official "light at the end of the tunnel" predictions of American
success. Each was followed by more warfare, more American troops,
more American casualties, more American bombing, more North
Vietnamese infiltration - and more predictions of an early end to
As the years passed, the war became increasingly controversial.Many young men did not want to die for a corrupt Saigon government and a cause whose purpose was not clear. Among those who marched protest was a young American attending Oxford University, Bill Clinton. Another protester, in California, was Craig McNamara, a teenager when his father ran the war.
In 1984, in an interview with Paul Hendrickson of the Washington Post, Craig recalled how McNamara would not talk about Vietnam for years afterward.
"Nobody can get anywhere on Vietnam with my father, including me," Craig said. "It's just not in his scope to communicate his deepest thoughts and feelings to me."
Toward the end, McNamara found himself pitted against the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who wanted unremitting and wide-ranging bombing of
He became openly skeptical about the effectiveness of bombing the north to cut down the infiltration of men and war supplies to the south. At McNamara's request, Johnson halted the bombing in December 1965 to induce North Vietnam to enter into peace negotiations. Nothing happened and Johnson resumed the bombing at the end of January.
McNamara, with Paul Warnke and Paul Nitze, privately transmitted a peace proposal to the North Vietnamese in August 1967. It was rejected in October. With 1,000 Americans now dying each month,
McNamara recommended a bombing halt, a freeze in U.S. troop levels
and a turnover of war responsibility to Saigon; Johnson rejected the idea.
The president lost faith in his secretary. McNamara would later write that he didn't know if he quit or was fired.
At a Feb. 29, 1968, retirement ceremony, he was overcome with emotion and could not speak. Johnson put an arm around his shoulder
and led him from the room.
McNamara's first wife, Margaret, whom he met in college, died of cancer in 1981; they had two daughters and a son. In 2004, at age
88, he married Italian-born widow Diana Masieri Byfield.
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