'Terribly Wrong' Handling of Vietnam Overshadowed Record of Achievement

By Thomas W. Lippman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Robert S. McNamara, 93, the former secretary of defense whose record as a leading executive of industry and chieftain of foreign financial aid was all but erased from public memory by his reputation as the primary architect of U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, died yesterday at his home in Washington. The family said he suffered a fall three years ago but did not provide a specific cause of death.

McNamara was secretary of defense during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In that capacity, he directed a U.S. military buildup in Southeast Asia during the critical early years of a Vietnamese conflict that escalated into one of the most divisive and bitter wars in U.S. history. When the war was over, 58,000 Americans were dead and the national social fabric had been torn asunder.

Before taking office as secretary of defense in 1961, McNamara was president of Ford Motor Co. For 13 years after he left the Pentagon in 1968, he was president of the World Bank. He was a brilliant student, a compulsive worker and a skillful planner and organizer whose manifest talents carried him from modest circumstances in California to the highest levels of the Washington power structure. He was said to have built a record of achievement and dedication in business, government and public service that few of his generation could match.

After his retirement from the bank in 1981, he maintained an exhausting schedule as director or consultant to scores of public and private organizations and was a virtual one-man think tank on nuclear arms issues.

More than 40 years after the fact, he was remembered almost exclusively for his orchestration of U.S. prosecution of the war in Vietnam, a failed effort by the world's greatest superpower to prevent a communist takeover of a weak and corrupt ally. For his role in the war, McNamara was vilified by harsh and unforgiving critics, and his entire record was unalterably clouded.

In his 1995 memoir of the war, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," McNamara said he and his senior colleagues were "wrong, terribly wrong" to pursue the war as they did. He acknowledged that he failed to force the military to produce a rigorous justification for its strategy and tactics, misunderstood Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, and kept the war going long after he realized it was futile because he lacked the courage or the ability to turn Johnson around.

He elaborated on Vietnam and the other events that shaped his life in Errol Morris's Academy Award-winning documentary "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara" (2003). He described how as a young man he had analyzed bombing operations under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay during World War II and in that job played a role in making the firebombing of dozens of Japanese cities "more efficient."

"We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo -- men, women and children," he told Morris. "LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost," he added. "But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"

* * *

From the day in 1961 when he burst upon the Washington scene as a political unknown selected by Kennedy to be secretary of defense, McNamara's trim figure, slicked-back hair and rimless glasses made him instantly recognizable, a Washington monument whose interests covered everything from nuclear war to the fiscal health of local governments.

At the Pentagon, he reorganized the military bureaucracy, built up the country's nuclear arsenal and instigated a massive campaign to end racial discrimination in off-base housing.

At the World Bank, he was often described as "the conscience of the West" for his relentless efforts to persuade the industrialized world to commit more capital to improving life in have-not nations. In retirement, he avoided celebrity-for-hire appearances on the lecture circuit and TV talk shows, devoting his time to improvement of education, government and health in the United States and abroad.

As secretary of defense, he was a key figure in such major crises as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile confrontation with the Soviet Union. He changed the balance of nuclear forces in the world with the development of the multiple-warhead missile.

His reputation foundered in Vietnam. Many Americans held him largely responsible for the futile and humiliating military adventure there, a responsibility he accepted in a 1995 memoir of the war.

It was "McNamara's war," matching his technology, statistics, weaponry and organization charts against a peasant army from a small, impoverished country. The peasants won. In retrospect, it could be seen that McNamara's can-do, technological approach to military issues might have been perfectly suited to a conflict against the Soviet Union in Europe, but it led him into disastrous miscalculations in the jungles and paddies of Vietnam.

On his first visit to South Vietnam in 1962, before most Americans had heard of the place and before the involvement of American combat forces, McNamara said that "every quantitative measurement we have shows we're winning this war."

It was a statement often quoted by his critics in later years, because it seemed to encapsulate the fallacy of his approach. American troops did prevail in many of the big battles, and the United States did win the war by every statistical measurement on the Pentagon charts that McNamara so admired. But the numbers -- even the few that were accurate -- had little to do with the political reality on the ground.

* * *

Despite his addiction to charts, statistics and briefings in which the United States and its ally in Saigon were always winning, McNamara privately had a broader appreciation of what was happening in Vietnam. As early as 1964, after Buddhist uprisings that shook Saigon's political structure, he observed that the Viet Cong had "large indigenous support" and were held together by "bonds of loyalty." In 1966, even as the buildup of U.S. forces continued and Cold War tensions gripped Europe, he said it was "a gross oversimplification to regard Communism as the central factor in every conflict throughout the underdeveloped word. . . . The United States has no mandate from on high to police the world and no inclination to do so."

McNamara acknowledged late in his Pentagon tenure that the bombing of North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail supply line could not cripple the Viet Cong because the Viet Cong hardly needed any supplies other than ammunition. But as critics pointed out and as he admitted many years later, he was unable or unwilling to translate these assessments into policy reversals that would extricate Johnson's administration from the Asian morass.

The harshest critic of all, journalist and author David Halberstam, describing McNamara's trips to Saigon in "The Best and the Brightest," wrote that McNamara, the ultimate technocrat, was "a prisoner of his own background . . . unable, as indeed was the country which sponsored him, to adapt his values and his terms to Vietnamese realities. Since any real indices and truly factual estimates of the war would immediately have shown its bankruptcy, the McNamara trips became part of a vast unwitting and elaborate charade, the institutionalizing and legitimizing of a hopeless lie."

In Halberstam's judgment, McNamara "did not serve himself or his country well. He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool."

Chester L. Cooper, a senior official at the State Department when McNamara was at Defense, wrote in "The Lost Crusade" that McNamara's brilliant staff and his "unique ability to grasp and synthesize a vast mass and variety of information made him the best informed official in Washington." But McNamara's insistence on dealing with Vietnam in the same way he dealt with other issues led him into miscalculations, Cooper said. Cooper summarized McNamara's approach in a memorable portrait:

"His typical trip involved leaving Washington in the evening and, after a 24-hour journey and a 13-hour time change, arriving at Saigon at eight in the morning. The Secretary would emerge from the plane and suggest graciously that his fellow-travelers take a half-hour or so to wash up and then join him at a 9 o'clock briefing at MACV [Military Assistance Command Vietnam] headquarters. There, for the next three hours, they were expected not merely to add up figures but to absorb a rapid-fire series of complicated military briefings. . . . . While we less adaptable beings desperately attempted to make sense out of the mass of information, McNamara queried every apparent inconsistency and was usually well ahead of the briefers."

The problem was that as the war escalated, the briefings grew increasingly irrelevant to what was really happening. McNamara tolerated, even encouraged, a system in which optimistic Washington analysis dictated the content of the briefings, rather than the other way around.

For all his participation in the great events of his time, it was the Vietnam war that shaped the nation's perception of McNamara and his performance and eventually eroded his credibility. When he said, in 1966, that manpower requirements and draft calls would be reduced the next year, hardly anyone seemed to believe him. When he told Congress that the purpose of bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail was to reduce North Vietnamese troop infiltration into the South, newspaper analysts pointed out that the Pentagon's own charts showed infiltration was increasing.

An incident that reflected the temper of those tense, bitter years occurred in November 1966, when McNamara traveled to Harvard for an informal discussion with undergraduates. He was mobbed by about 800 jeering students, who blocked his car and cried "Murderer!"

The secretary, never apologetic, climbed atop his car, in shirt sleeves despite the New England chill, and told the crowd: "I spent four of the happiest years of my life on the Berkeley campus, doing some of the things you do today. But I was tougher than you, and I'm tougher than you are now. I was more courteous then, and I hope I'm more courteous today."

* * *

It is inaccurate to portray McNamara as an unreconstructed hawk to the bitter end; his early doubts became known after the war. But he failed to persuade the president and such hard-line White House insiders as national security specialist Walt W. Rostow to moderate their views. McNamara succeeded only in hastening his own ouster from the Cabinet, and because he waited 20 years after the fall of Saigon in 1975 to go public with his confession of error about the war, he retained his reputation as a technocrat committed to firepower above all else.

McNamara later dismissed as "absurd" and "baloney" suggestions that he devoted himself to helping Third World countries through the World Bank to atone for his record in Vietnam. But he never attempted to defend himself against critics of his role in Vietnam or to justify the escalation there. For more than two decades after leaving the Pentagon, he avoided the topic of Vietnam in his public statements.

Publication of his 1995 memoir opened some kind of intellectual floodgate for McNamara. He developed a virtual fourth career of organizing and participating in seminars about the war -- about who did what and why, and about how doing something else might have meant, if not a different outcome, at least less death. In 1999, he published a book about this quest for the truth about the war, with a title signaling that he did not find it: "Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy."

Thus in the final years of his life, the war again took over the reputation of a man whose life in many ways had embodied the American dream.

* * *

Robert Strange McNamara was born June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, where his father was sales manager for a wholesale shoe company. He demonstrated academic brilliance from the time he was in elementary school and achieved straight A's in high school. At the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied economics and philosophy, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa after his sophomore year.

After graduation in 1937, he went to the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, where he received his MBA in 1939. He went back to the West Coast for a year to work for the accounting firm of Price, Waterhouse and Co., and during that time he married a former classmate, Margaret Craig. She died in 1981.

In 2004, he married Diana Masieri Byfield, whom he met through mutual friends. Besides his wife, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Craig McNamara of Winters, Calif., and Kathleen McNamara and Margaret Pastor, both of Washington.

In 1940, McNamara returned to Harvard as an assistant professor. When the United States entered World War II, McNamara volunteered for military service but was initially rejected because of weak eyesight. He worked closely with the military, teaching courses for officers and serving as a consultant to the Army Air Forces on the establishment of a statistical system for the control of logistical operations.

He took a leave from Harvard to go to England on a military mission in 1943, and there he was finally granted a commission and accepted into the service as a captain.

In three years of active duty, he traveled in several Asian countries. He later said that it was the experience of visiting Calcutta during a famine, when there were as many dead people in the streets as live ones, that first stirred his interest in trying to improve conditions in the poorest nations.

McNamara left the service in 1946 at the rank of lieutenant colonel. Instead of returning to Harvard, he joined with nine other statistical control experts who offered their services as a group to various corporations. This extraordinary ploy resulted in all 10 being hired as a team by Ford Motor Co.

Ford was plagued by deficient management at the time, and Henry Ford II, chairman of the board, sent the 10 into every department to study operations and make recommendations. Their unending questions at first earned them the snide appellation "Quiz Kids," after a radio program of the period that featured bright youngsters, but their performance soon changed the title to "Whiz Kids."

Several of the "whiz kids" made careers at Ford; McNamara rose fastest and highest. Although his specialty was the application of statistics to management, he was also credited with a sense of public taste that led him to bring out new models that scored great success in the market. He started as manager of Ford's office of planning and financial analysis and by 1957 had become a director of the corporation. In 1960, he succeeded Henry Ford II as president -- the first president who was not a member of the Ford family.

He had been president of Ford only a month when Kennedy offered him the Defense post. When he left to join the New Frontier Cabinet, he said he was relinquishing $3 million in personal profits he would have realized from his stock options had he remained with Ford.

While he was at Ford, the McNamaras stayed out of the Grosse Pointe, Mich., social orbit dominated by the auto industry. They lived in Ann Arbor, where they cherished the academic atmosphere around the University of Michigan. Once they got to Washington, it became more difficult for McNamara to insulate his family from the demands of his job, and except for skiing vacations in Colorado it often seemed that he was on duty all the time.

"Bob lives an 'on-call' kind of life," his wife Margaret once said. When he had time to himself, McNamara tended to spend evenings with his wife and a few close friends, not on Washington's party circuit. The McNamaras kept their three children out of the news.

According to his widow, McNamara left written instructions that no funeral or memorial service be held, not even among his children. She said his decision was not because of his legacy as secretary of defense. "The reality is that he's been a very private person all his life and tried to avoid limelight and publicity," she said. "Of course he couldn't, because of the position he was in. And so he wanted to fade away quietly. His children maybe would have liked to, but he was against it."

* * *

At the Pentagon, McNamara quickly put his stamp on the sprawling military bureaucracy in what amounted to a management revolution. He centralized control, broke down the traditional fiefdoms of the individual services, and imposed multipurpose, multi-service weapons on the brass.

According to an account published in The Washington Post at the time, "he shook all five floors of the Pentagon in his search for the tools he needed to get a firm grip on the biggest military establishment in the world. . . . McNamara brought in computers to help with the spade work, hired systems analysts to comb through the technical points and then list the pros and cons for the generalists, reassessed the war plans, regrouped weapons into programs."

The Kennedy administration came into office vowing to close the "missile gap," the apparent Soviet lead in strategic nuclear weapons. McNamara later acknowledged that there was no "missile gap" -- he said it was based on "a total misreading of the information" -- but by that time the United States had greatly expanded its nuclear arsenal and the Soviets had responded in kind.

According to critics such as John Edwards, in his 1982 book "Superweapon," the United States actually had nuclear superiority over the Soviets in 1960, and the U.S. buildup only convinced Moscow that the United States was seeking the ability to attack the Soviet Union with impunity.

The U.S. nuclear buildup, Edwards said, "far exceeded the forces developed by the Soviet Union in the first half of the 1960s. The secretary himself later judged that the American buildup contributed to the dramatic expansion of Soviet forces."

McNamara sponsored development of missiles that could carry up to 14 nuclear warheads each, giving the United States the ability to strike more Soviet targets without adding missiles and the capability of launching more warheads than the Soviets could fend off. This, McNamara later acknowledged, was substantially responsible for the nuclear arms race.

"I have no question," he said in a 1982 interview, "but that the Soviets thought we were trying to achieve a first-strike capability. We were not. We did not have it. We could not attain it. We didn't have any thought of attaining it. But they probably thought we did." Their response, he said, provoked a counter-response by the United States, and the cycle became self-perpetuating.

He was at the center of Washington decision-making during the 1962 confrontation with Moscow over the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Fidel Castro's Cuba. After a retrospective discussion of those dramatic days with his Soviet counterparts in 1989, McNamara wrote in a Newsweek essay about the crisis that "as I left President Kennedy's office to return to the Pentagon, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday night" -- so great was the threat of nuclear war.

All parties to the confrontation in Cuba, McNamara wrote, were guilty of gross miscalculations and errors that nearly resulted in a catastrophe. A quarter-century later, he wrote, "It is inconceivable to me that we should be content to continue on the present path of East-West confrontation for another 40 years. The risks of disastrous military conflict, so dramatically demonstrated by our re-examination of the Cuban missile crisis, are totally unacceptable." The hardware-loving strategist of the Cold War had come full circle.

* * *

McNamara never publicly broke with Johnson over the war in Vietnam, but a gradual process of disillusionment seemed to set in as he lost control of tactics to the generals. In one well-publicized incident, he rejected a list of bombing targets that the military officers wanted to hit, including targets near Hanoi and other civilian population centers. The joint chiefs of staff went over his head to Johnson, and the president authorized the strikes.

Even when he resigned to move to the World Bank, McNamara remained publicly loyal, staying on as secretary for a transition period of several months until his successor, Clark Clifford, took over in early 1968. During that interval, the Viet Cong staged the Tet Offensive, the nationwide uprising in South Vietnam's cities that shocked American public opinion by demonstrating the hollowness of all the Pentagon's claims of military success.

Unlike other high government officials who seemed to spend their years out of power waiting around Washington for a chance to get back in, once he moved from the Pentagon to the World Bank, McNamara threw himself into his new assignment with zest and concentrated on using the bank's resources to help alleviate the poverty of the most underdeveloped nations.

The year before he took over the bank, it had a staff of 767 and made 60 loans totaling about $954 million. In the last fiscal year of his tenure, a staff of 2,400 made about 250 loans, totaling $11.7 billion. And yet he wanted more, and he importuned the industrialized nations to expand their commitments.

As president of the bank, he could have given a speech a day if he wanted, but he chose a low profile and private persuasion. "I just don't give a damn whether I'm on TV or not," he said. "I just am uninterested in personal publicity. I've had all I need. Other people in town have different objectives."

He limited his public appearances to one or two a year because, he said, he wanted to speak out only when he had "new ideas" to offer, and "I don't get those ideas so frequently as to require me to speak out on them." His technique was to choose his spots, decide what message could best advance the objectives he was pursuing at the bank and take his time deciding what to say.

He spent a year, for example, thinking about what to say in a 1982 speech at the University of the Witwatersrand, in apartheid South Africa. Then he told his audience that America's "century of delay in moving to end our shameful discrimination toward black Americans . . . was without question the most serious mistake in our entire history, and the hard truth is that all Americans will continue to [pay] a heavy price for it for decades to come." He urged South Africa not to make the same mistake.

In retirement, McNamara maintained an office on K Street and worked, by his own count, with 55 corporations, universities, foundations and other groups in which he was interested. He was a director of The Washington Post Co., Royal Dutch Shell and several other companies, and he chaired the Overseas Development Council, a nonprofit organization that sought increased American understanding of economic and social problems in developing countries.

"I'm not wealthy, but I don't have to do anything I don't want to do," he said, "and I decided not to do anything that doesn't meet two criteria: expand my understanding of the world and allow me to apply whatever understanding I have in some productive way."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company