Robert S. McNamara

  • Born: June 9, 1916
  • Died: July 6, 2009
  • Location: Washington, District Of Columbia


Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara pauses while answering written questions from the audience after a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations on Monday evening, April 24, 1995.

By ANNE GEARAN, AP National Security Writer

WASHINGTON — Robert S. McNamara, the brainy Pentagon chief who directed the escalation of the Vietnam War despite private doubts the war was winnable or worth fighting, died Monday at 93.

McNamara revealed his misgivings three decades after the American defeat that some called "McNamara's war."

"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 told The Associated Press in 1995, the year his best-selling memoir appeared.

McNamara died at 5:30 a.m. at his home, his wife Diana told the AP. She said he had been in failing health for some time.

Closely identified with the war's early years, McNamara was a forceful public optimist. He predicted that American intervention would enable the South Vietnamese, despite internal feuds, to stand by themselves "by the end of 1965." The war ground on until 1975, with more than 58,000 U.S. deaths.

Lawyerly and a student of 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 else since the job's creation in 1947. He left on the verge of a nervous breakdown and became president of the World Bank. In the new post, he threw himself into the intricacies of international development and argued that improving lives was a more promising path to peace than building up arms and armies.

McNamara was a distinctive figure, with frameless glasses and slicked-back hair. Anti-war critics ridiculed him as an out-of-touch technocrat and made much of the fact that his middle name was "Strange." Simon and Garfunkel worked his name into a ditty about an overbearing government, and he once had to flee an appearance at Harvard through underground utility tunnels.

By the end of his Pentagon tenure, McNamara had come to doubt the value of widespread U.S. bombing, and he was fighting with his generals. President Lyndon Johnson lost faith or patience in him; McNamara would later write that he didn't know if he quit or was fired.

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 missile episode was the closest the world came to a nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, and historians have pointed to McNamara's role in steering internal debate away from a U.S. airstrike.

Reticent, McNamara long resisted offers to give a detailed accounting of his role in Vietnam. His son, who had protested the war his father helped to run, once said it was not within McNamara's "scope" to be reflective about the war.

McNamara's eventual mea culpa won him admiration from some former opponents of the war. Others said it was not enough, and three decades too late.

"Where was he when we needed him?" a Boston Globe editorial asked.

Ted Sorensen, a speechwriter and adviser who worked with McNamara in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, said the criticism missed the mark.

"Most military chieftains—presidents or Cabinet members or otherwise—don't admit error, ever," Sorensen said. "At least Bob had the courage and commitment to truth to put out that he was wrong and why it was wrong so that we could all learn the lessons from that."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates called McNamara "a patriot and dedicated public servant who took on grave duties during a period of great consequence. Having also held this post in a time of war, I have a special appreciation of the burdens and responsibilities he faced."

Gates said McNamara "implemented visionary reforms that fundamentally changed the way this department does business—reforms that long outlasted his tenure at the Pentagon."

McNamara's book, "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 guerrillas who had driven the French from the same jungle 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 over 100,000.

McNamara wrote later that he and others had not asked five 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 the U.S. win with its troops fighting alongside the South Vietnamese? Should the U.S. not know the answers to all these questions before deciding whether to commit troops?"

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 feature.

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 before retiring in 1981.

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 philosophy.

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 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 Johnson retained McNamara as "the best in the lot" of Kennedy Cabinet members and the man to keep Vietnam from falling as the war escalated.

At a Feb. 29, 1968, retirement ceremony, McNamara 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.


Associated Press writers Glen Johnson in Boston and Warren Levinson in Washington contributed to this report.

Condolence & Memory Journal


Though I met Mr. Robert S. McNamara when he led the World Bank, I got to know Bob better after he retired from there in 1981, when both of us joined the International Advisory Panel of the East African Development Bank (EADB). There is no doubt that his blunt challenge as Advisory Panel Member to the Governing Council of EADB -- consisting of the Ministers of the member governments (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) -- to clear their past due payments to EADB helped the Bank avert bankruptcy and allowed it to continue to lend to borrowers in the three countries to finance development.

As a fellow member of the Panel, I got to know and admire Bob, notwithstanding that I had demonstrated against and vehemently opposed him for his role in the war in Vietnam during my college days in California. In the margins of the EADB Advisory Panel meetings and on a few memorable other occasions, we spent hours talking about development, finance, politics, and East Africa -- where I was born. He clearly cared deeply about the poor of the world and spent a major part of his life trying to help them, even after leaving the World Bank. In the process, I believe he atoned in a small but significant way for the harm he did in Vietnam, though this is impossible to accept for many, particularly those who suffered family tragedies resulting from that unjust war. I found it hard not to forgive as he was above all intellectually honest, admitted to the grave errors of the war, sought to learn from them, and tried and succeeded in many ways to a lot of good for the World, including for East Africa.

I will miss his mind that was razor sharp even at 90, his deep convictions and commitment to help the poor, and his incredible ability not only to command attention but also to persuade reluctant policy makers to take difficult actions.

May you rest in peace, Bob, and may the world remember you not only for the horrors in which you had a hand but also for much good that you did for US and the world. Good bye my friend. I will miss you.

Mahesh Kotecha, CFA
President, SCIC
Member of the International Advisory Panel
East African Development Bank

Posted by Mahesh Kotecha, CFA, President, SCIC; Member of International Ad - Hastings on Hudson, NY   July 08, 2009


Secretary McNamara's continued public support for a war that he didn't believe was winnable, and his willingness to support policies that he thought would fail brought tears to his eyes in "The Fog of War". The tears were for the tens of thousands of American soldiers and the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who died while he remained silent. I hope he has a chance to speak to all of them now; and I hope that they can forgive him.

Posted by Tom    July 06, 2009

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Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara pauses while answering written questions from the audience after a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations on Monday evening, April 24, 1995.
In a November 23, 1963 file photo, President Lyndon B. Johnson confers with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
In a July 8, 1961 file photo, President John Kennedy, right, walks with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara towards a pier to board the Kennedy family cruiser on at Hyannis Port, Mass.
In a Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2001 file photo, Robert McNamara, right, defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, makes a point as Peter Almond, center, co-producer of the film "Thirteen Days," looks on
In a Thursday, Dec. 10, 1962 file photo, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, left, inspects Vietnamese civil guards saluting during a visit to training operations at Song Mao, Vietnam.
Journalists at a news conference in the Pentagon Oct. 23, 1962, listen as Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, left, orders all Navy and Marine Corps enlistments and duty tours be extended for up to one year to support the arms blockade of Cuba.

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Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, gestures as he relates an anecdote about President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson.
Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor, center, confer with President Kennedy January 25, 1963 in the White House Cabinet Room in Washington, DC.