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.

Cecil Stoughton/The White House via John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library/AP/FILE
President John F. Kennedy sits with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (r.) in the White House Oval Office in this Jan. 1961 file photo.

Robert S. McNamara’s public life was defined by his role as a leading architect of the war in Vietnam, despite major achievements in the corporate and non-profit worlds. He passed on Monday.

An enthusiastic supporter of the war in public, Mr. McNamara later admitted in a court case that he had begun to have doubts as early as 1965 or 1966 about whether the Vietnam War could be won militarily. He sent a detailed paper to President Lyndon B. Johnson in May 1967, arguing for a negotiated end to the conflict. Americans, he wrote, “want the war ended and expect their president to end it.”

Critics castigated McNamara for staying silent about his doubts while 58,000 American troops died and thousands more were grievously wounded. It was not until his 1995 memoir, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” that McNamara detailed his concerns. “We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of our country,” he told the Associated Press. “But we were wrong. We were terribly wrong.”

When the book appeared, The New York Times published an editorial arguing that McNamara “must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen,” adding that what he took from the “poor boys in the infantry” who died for no purpose “cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”

McNamara said it was absurd to suggest his later career as president of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981 was atonement for what some critics called “McNamara’s War.” Whatever the motivation, McNamara was tireless in trying to help the world’s poor. He tripled loans to developing countries and changed the Bank’s emphasis from large industrial projects to fostering rural development. The goal, he said, was the reduction of “absolute poverty – utter degradation” in the poorer nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

After leaving the World Bank, McNamara became a vocal opponent of the nuclear arms race as well as a consultant to scores of organizations. He was a director of The Washington Post Company and a trustee of the Ford Foundation.

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.

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.


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)

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