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Robert McNamara, Vietnam War's anguished architect, dies

(Associated Press/File)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / July 7, 2009
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Robert S. McNamara, who as secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations was a leading architect of US military involvement in Indochina, died yesterday. He was 93.

Mr. McNamara died at his Washington home, his family said. He had been in failing health for some time, his wife, Diana, told the Associated Press.

Besides the Defense Department, Mr. McNamara led two other institutions of global importance. He became the first nonfamily member to serve as president of Ford Motor Co., in 1960, and he was president of the World Bank from 1968-81.

Yet Mr. McNamara is best remembered and in some quarters still reviled for the seven years he spent at the Pentagon and the part he played in waging the Vietnam War.

In 1995, he published his memoir, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,’’ in which he wrote that he and other top officials were “terribly wrong’’ to pursue the war. The controversy that erupted demonstrated the extent to which the nation’s scars remained unhealed.

Others can also be assigned responsibility for escalating the US role in the conflict during that time: Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. To many, though, it was “McNamara’s war,’’ as US Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon once put it.

“I don’t object to its being called McNamara’s war,’’ Mr. McNamara said during a 1964 press conference. “I think it is a very important war, and I am pleased to be identified with it and do whatever I can to win it.’’

Those words would come to haunt him.

Two years earlier, he had visited Vietnam for the first time. “Every quantitative measurement we have shows that we’re winning this war,’’ he said. It was a telling response from someone who would be presiding over a struggle in which, as the United States came to learn, hearts and minds did more to determine the outcome than body counts or bomb tonnage.

It was also a characteristic response from a man who saw number crunching as equal parts contact sport and higher calling. Give him enough statistics to analyze, Mr. McNamara seemed to believe, and almost any problem might be solved. “You can’t substitute emotion for reason,’’ he liked to say.

This quantitative bent was the foundation of his extraordinary certitude, a trait critics called inflexibility. Mr. McNamara brought an almost missionary zeal to problem solving. “I would rather have a wrong decision made than no decision at all,’’ he once said.

Mr. McNamara - an avid skier, tennis player, and mountaineer - personified the New Frontier. He was intelligent. He was youthful; only Donald Rumsfeld, during the Ford administration, was a younger defense secretary. And he was furiously dedicated, routinely working six-day weeks and 13-hour days.

Kennedy reportedly wanted Mr. McNamara to replace Rusk as secretary of state in his second administration. And Robert Kennedy said he and his brother speculated about supporting Mr. McNamara for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968.

The Kennedys were not alone in falling under the spell of the McNamara mystique; Johnson offered him the vice presidential nomination in 1964. When Mr. McNamara declined, Johnson pronounced him “number one executive vice president in charge of the Cabinet.’’ He later awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

US Senator Barry Goldwater, who would become a harsh critic, initially hailed Mr. McNamara as “one of the best secretaries ever, an IBM machine with legs.’’

Nevertheless, the very things that gave Mr. McNamara such cachet - briskness, brilliance, decisiveness - came to undermine him. Vietnam was only the most obvious example. His run-ins with senior military leaders, Congress, and the media earned him widespread enmity in Washington.

The New York Times columnist James Reston wrote in 1966, “He is tidy, he is confident, he has the sincerity of an Old Testament prophet, but something is missing: some element of personal doubt, some respect for human weakness, some knowledge of history.’’

Mr. McNamara could also subvert that image. This supreme bean counter also loved poetry. This avatar of detachment and abstract reasoning was prone to bouts of weeping.

The bouts increased as the war dragged on. “He does it all the time now,’’ a secretary remarked shortly before Mr. McNamara left the Pentagon, in 1968. “He cries into the curtain.’’

The term “McNamara’s war’’ arose from his very public enthusiasm for a military solution to the conflict. As the statistics that crossed Mr. McNamara’s desk more and more indicated the improbability of victory, the term remained fitting. For no one waging the war endured such agonies of doubt: He mirrored the nation’s own consternation. “My sense of the war gradually shifted from concern to skepticism to frustration to anguish,’’ Mr. McNamara later wrote.

To arrive at some better understanding of how things could have gone so wrong, he commissioned a study called “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967.’’ The public would come to know it by another name: “The Pentagon Papers.’’

Although a man of phenomenal abilities, Mr. McNamara discovered how few of them were suited to the demands of Vietnam. “I had always been confident that every problem could be solved,’’ he wrote in his memoir, “but now I found myself confronting one involving national pride and human life that could not.’’

Mr. McNamara’s 13 years as president of the World Bank were widely seen as an act of atonement for what he had done in Vietnam, though he denied this. He increased tenfold the amount of money the bank had out on loans. In particular, he championed the Third World.

After leaving the bank, Mr. McNamara emerged as an elder statesman in the field of nuclear affairs. He had played a leading part in bringing about a limited test-ban treaty in 1963, and his concept of mutual assured destruction, the cornerstone of the nuclear balance of power for much of the Cold War, may have been his single most important legacy as defense secretary.

But he remained a controversial figure, as the media firestorm that greeted “In Retrospect’’ made plain. Mr. McNamara’s growing doubts about the Vietnam War were widely known as early as his final months at the Pentagon, but he had never directly addressed the subject. Now he put them on the record. “Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong,’’ he wrote. “We owe it to future generations to explain why.’’

The words were front-page news. “His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers,’’ a New York Times editorial declared. “What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.’’

Despite the withering criticism, Mr. McNamara remained a figure of public fascination. In 2003, the filmmaker Errol Morris released an Academy Award-winning documentary about him, “The Fog of War.’’

“I liked him,’’ Morris said yesterday. “He was the last of the great rationalists. He believed that if you thought hard enough, you could solve every social and political problem. . . . The saddest moment in the movie is when he says, ‘Rationality may not be enough.’ ’’

The son of Robert James McNamara and Claranel (Strange) McNamara, Robert Strange McNamara was born in San Francisco on June 9, 1916. His father was a sales manager for a shoe wholesaler; his mother, a housewife. He grew up in Oakland and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1937. Two years later, he earned a master’s degree at Harvard Business School. He briefly worked for a West Coast accounting firm, then returned to Harvard as an assistant professor of accounting.

During World War II, Mr. McNamara was part of an elite group of Army Air Force officers specializing in statistical control of the distribution of personnel, ordnance, and aircraft. The group became known as the Whiz Kids and wielded great influence. It was at their urging, for example, that B-29 bombers were employed over Japan rather than B-17s. Mr. McNamara rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

After the war, 10 Whiz Kids were hired by Ford. The company had been close to bankruptcy. Thanks in part to the new group and the statistical controls they brought, Ford became a model for other businesses and flourished. Mr. McNamara flourished too, rising in less than 15 years to the company presidency.

It was that technocratic vision Mr. McNamara attempted to institute at the Pentagon, with great fanfare and mixed results. He boasted of “the most outstanding group ever to serve in a Cabinet department.’’ Among his subordinates were future Cabinet secretaries - treasury (John Connally); defense (Harold Brown); health, education, and welfare (Joseph Califano); and state (Cyrus Vance).

Even if the war had not worn Mr. McNamara down, the job’s relentless demands and his own high expectations would have done so. It was plain that it was time for him to leave. “I do not know to this day whether I quit or was fired,’’ he said in 1995. “Maybe it was both.’’

A year before leaving the Pentagon, Mr. McNamara delivered an address at Millsaps College, in Mississippi, which offered a particularly revealing statement of both the limitations and sweep of his worldview. However inadvertently, it also went a long way toward explaining why he met with such impressive success and notable failure during his career.

“The real threat to democracy comes from undermanagement,’’ said Mr. McNamara. . “To undermanage reality is not to keep it free. It is simply to let some force other than reason shape reality.’’

Mr. McNamara married Margaret McKinstry Craig in 1940. The couple remained married until her death, in 1981. He married Diana Masieri Byfield in 2004.

Mr. McNamara also leaves three children: Craig of Winters, Calif., and Kathleen McNamara and Margaret Pastor, both of Washington.

Mark Shanahan of the Globe staff contributed to this obituary. Material from the Washington Post was also included.