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McNamara stuck to Vietnam War despite doubts

The former defense secretary went on to head the World Bank but could never escape his association with Vietnam.

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But his overarching legacy is as Defense Secretary and major strategist in the first war that resulted in US withdrawal rather than victory. He was named to that post by President Kennedy who called McNamara the smartest man he had ever met.

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At the time Kennedy tapped McNamara for the Pentagon, he had recently been named president of Ford Motor Company, the first person outside the Ford family to hold the job. He was just 44 and had already served as an Army lieutenant colonel in World War II and as a professor at Harvard Business School, where he earned his MBA.

McNamara’s term at the Defense Department, from 1961 through early 1968, was one of the most consequential in US history. One of his first assignments was to investigate the “missile gap” that President Kennedy had charged the Eisenhower administration with allowing to develop. There was a gap but in favor of the US, McNamara found.

He was involved in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in which US-backed forces were defeated in an attempt to overthrow Cuba’s Fidel Castro. He was also one of Kennedy’s key advisers during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when the Soviet Union sent nuclear missiles to Cuba prompting a tense confrontation.

McNamara also ordered the preparation of a secret history of the Vietnam war that became known as the Pentagon Papers, which were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 to various news organizations including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Monitor.

His life became fodder for art when the 2003 documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” won the Oscar for best documentary feature.

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Related content:

An interview with Robert McNamara (1986)

"Blundering Into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age", by Robert McNamara (1986 book review)

Cutting through the 'Fog of War' (2003 film review)

"In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam", by Robert McNamara (1995 book review)