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Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, architect of Vietnam War, dies at 93

McNamara was the top policymaker who oversaw the buildup of U.S. forces in Vietnam. He later called the decisions he made in that war wrong.

July 07, 2009|Stephen Braun

Driven, cerebral and pugnacious, Robert S. McNamara was the preeminent policymaker behind the massive buildup of American forces in Vietnam between 1964 and 1968. As Defense secretary for two administrations, he wielded blizzards of facts and figures to press the case for deploying military advisors and then ground troops to counter the advance of communist forces in North Vietnam and Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam.

By the time he left office in 1968, however, what had begun as a "limited war" involved 535,000 U.S. servicemen, of whom nearly 30,000 had died. The casualties would mushroom to 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese over a decade of conflict.

McNamara, 93, who died at his home in Washington on Monday after a period of ill health, came to harbor regrets about his role as the architect of the war's deadly escalation, but he kept his doubts private for nearly three decades before finally going public.

In a 1995 memoir and in the 2003 Oscar-winning documentary "The Fog of War," he offered a carefully parsed reassessment of his wartime decisions that mollified some critics and infuriated others.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, July 17, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Robert McNamara obituary: The obituary of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the July 7 Section A called him a Democrat who moved in Republican corporate circles when he was offered a Cabinet post in the new Kennedy administration. According to a 1961 entry in Contemporary Biography, McNamara was a registered Republican. He changed his party affiliation to Democrat in 1978, according to public records in the District of Columbia.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 23, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
McNamara obituary: The obituary of former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in the July 7 Section A misspelled the 1940s Bing Crosby song "MacNamara's Band" as "McNamara's Band."

A former president of Ford Motor Co., McNamara headed the Defense Department for seven years in the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and was the war's tireless cheerleader, traveling to the battle zones more than 40 times.

A dynamic Washington figure whose trademark wire-rimmed glasses and carefully slicked and parted hair gave him the appearance of a tautly wound schoolmaster, McNamara had won over both Kennedy and Johnson with his unflagging optimism, peerless management skills and bureaucratic gamesmanship that raised his profile and cowed his rivals.

McNamara was a colossus of the briefing room, equipped with a steel-trap memory and a facility with numbers that dominated Cabinet meetings and congressional hearings. Early on, a dazzled Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater called him "one of the best secretaries ever, an IBM machine with legs." Goldwater later altered his view, echoing veteran generals who felt McNamara was "a one-man disaster."

During one classic encounter in 1961, McNamara absorbed a complex one-hour presentation on nuclear deterrence from a Rand Corp. expert, glanced over 54 detailed slides and quickly decided to jettison the Eisenhower administration's policy of nuclear targeting of Russian cities and shift to military installations. Without debate, his "doctrine at the flick of his pen" set in motion the nuclear "counterforce" policy that would govern U.S. military strategy for the next 40 years, wrote biographer Deborah Shapley.

A new type of bureaucrat

But McNamara's numerical wizardry had a dark side. Critics accused him of misleading his presidential patrons and the American public by manipulating statistics -- including battlefield casualty "body counts" and underplayed enemy troop strength estimates -- and presenting a falsely optimistic portrayal of the war's grim prospects.

"McNamara's loyalty was to his bosses and not the truth. He lied to them. He had people under him lying. He did it with Kennedy and he did it with Johnson and it was only when he was impaled with the failure of the war that he didn't know what to do," said writer David Halberstam, who excoriated McNamara as a "fool" in "The Best and the Brightest," his account of the high officials who pressed for U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

McNamara was the archetype of a new wave of management specialists on the rise in Washington during the 1960s. He surrounded himself with a bevy of analysts who became known as his "whiz kids," and they played a prominent role in drafting the classified "Pentagon Papers," an exhaustive history of the U.S. entry into Vietnam that McNamara secretly commissioned in 1967.

Brimming with self-confidence, McNamara transformed the Defense Department into the giant military and civilian fiefdom it remains today.

But it was Vietnam that defined him, from his assertive oversight of the first contingents of Green Beret advisors sent by the Kennedy administration to South Vietnam in 1961, to his backstage qualms that led Lyndon Johnson to replace him as Defense secretary.

When Sen. Wayne Morse (D-Ore.), an opponent of the war, cracked in 1965 that the Vietnam conflict had become "McNamara's War" -- a sardonic take on the 1940s Bing Crosby tune "McNamara's Band" -- the Defense secretary unblinkingly took the line as a compliment. "I don't mind it being called McNamara's War," he told a reporter. "In fact, I'm proud to be associated with it."

But by 1968, after he had balked at further escalation and urged a freeze on troop levels, McNamara was eased out by Johnson, then appointed president of the World Bank, a position he held for 13 years before his retirement in 1981.

McNamara kept his private turmoil to himself for nearly 30 years, but finally went public in 1995 with a memoir that methodically deconstructed many of his once-cherished assumptions and landmark decisions.

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