Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara
Birth Place
San Francisco
Date of Birth
9 June 1916
Date of Death
6 July 2009


McNamara was born into the family of a wholesale shoe sales manager. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1937 with a degree in economics and philosophy. He then went on to Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration where he earned a masters degree in 1939.

He worked a year for Price Waterhouse before returning to Harvard in August 1940 to teach in the Business School. He joined the Army as a captain in 1943 and served under Colonel Curtis Le May undertaking analysis of US bombers’ efficiency. He left in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

After leaving the USAAF he joined the Ford Motor Company. Joining a group of ex-service managers known as the “Whiz Kids” he undertook financial analysis and planning. His rise through the company was meteoric and by November 1960 he had been appointed president of Ford – the first from outside the family of Henry Ford.

The new President-elect John F Kennedy offered McNamara either the Treasury or Defence – he accepted the post of Secretary of Defense.

When he began his new job he knew little about defence but he immersed himself in the subject and learned quickly.

McNamara based his plans for re-organisation of defence on the basic policies President Kennedy had outlined: no first strike, and sufficient strength to deter nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. The purpose of the US Military overseas was “to prevent the steady erosion of the Free World through limited wars."The new administration moved from massive retaliation to flexible response.

With the modification to flexible response the United States' capacity to conduct limited conventional non-nuclear war was expanded. The Kennedy administration placed particular emphasis on improving the ability to conduct counter insurgency operations. This demanded an increase in the US Army strength. In respect to nuclear war McNamara saw the NATO Alliance and America’s commitment to defend its members as central to his policy. In the unlikely event of a nuclear exchange he argued that NATO should have a “no cities” policy, seeking to destroy the enemy's military forces, not his civilian population. Above all else he wanted to see deterrence. He wanted the Soviet Union to know that a nuclear attack against any country in NATO would result in US retaliation against its armed forces.

McNamara soon played down the no-cities approach and he turned to "assured destruction,'' which he saw as an ability to inflict an unacceptable degree of damage upon any single aggressor, or combination of aggressors, even after absorbing a surprise first strike. He defined this as assured destruction of 20 to 25 percent of the Soviet Union's population and 50 percent of its industrial capacity. Later the term "mutual assured destruction" was born which meant the capacity of each side to inflict an unacceptably high level of damage on the other to provide an effective deterrent.

If MAD was to work it had to be credible and he speeded up a programme of modernisation of weapons and delivery systems – Minuteman ICBMs and Polaris SLBMs. When he left office in 1968 the United States had deployed 54 Titan II and 1,000 Minuteman missiles on land, and 656 Polaris missiles on 41 nuclear submarines. He also raised the number of SAC strategic bombers on 15 minute ground alert from 25% to 50%.

McNamara increased long-range airlift and sealift capabilities and funds for space research and development. He also created the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In his cost reduction and organisational reforms within the Department of Defense, perhaps his introduction of a series of systems analysis programmes generated the most debate. He used systems analysis to cancel the B-70 bomber and the Skybolt project. He publicly expressed that he felt the manned bomber as a strategic delivery system had no long term future and that it would be replaced by the intercontinental ballistic missile which was faster, less vulnerable and less costly. However the cancellation of the Skybolt system caused a crisis in the British government, who were not consulted, and it was only when President Kennedy offered Polaris to Macmillan that the Anglo-American accord resumed.

He began and continued the TFX programme (later the General Dynamics F-111). Although he stronlgy supported the idea of a common aircraft to meet Air Force and Navy needs it proved impossibe to reconcile the two demands. The aircraft never went into US Navy service.

McNamara was a key player in two international crises - The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and the intervention in the Dominican Republic in April 1965. However it is the Vietnam War where he became most involved.

The United States government had provided some support to the French in Vietnam during the early 1950s and this was considerably expanded following their withdrawal and the country’s partition in 1954. During the Kennedy administration the US military support grew steadily to about 17,000 military ‘advisers’. McNamara agreed with this expansion and also with the response following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in August 1964. Following an alleged confrontation between North Vietnamese and US Navy vessels President Johnson ordered retaliation in the form of naval air strikes against North Vietnamese naval installations. The US Congress approved almost unanimously the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the president "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the U.S. and to prevent further aggression."

As time went on he began to doubt the administration’s policy of escalating the number of troops in theatre and the level of bombing against the North. Although he remained loyal to the administration his recommendation, of November 1967, to freeze troop levels and stop bombing North Vietnam put him out of step with the rest of the Johnson Administration. With his policy recommendation rejected he decided it was time to leave the government and he announced his forthcoming resignation to take over the leadership of the World Bank.

McNamara left office on 29 February 1968 and did not speak on defence matters again until 1982. He maintained his involvement in politics thereafter, delivering statements critical of President George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was also critical of some of the Reagan Administration’s Cold War policies.


We are confident that we can penetrate any enemy defences with our missiles. We know that we are more than the equal of any nation in the world.

A computer does not substitute for judgment any more than a pencil substitutes for literacy. But writing without a pencil is no particular advantage.

Coercion, after all, merely captures man. Freedom captivates him.

Neither conscience nor sanity itself suggests that the United States is, should or could be the global gendarme.

It would be our policy to use nuclear weapons wherever we felt it necessary to protect our forces and achieve our objectives.

I don't object to its being called "McNamara's war." 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.
One cannot fashion a credible deterrent out of an incredible action.

If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning.

In the end, it was luck. We were *this* close to nuclear war, and luck prevented it.

I think the human race needs to think about killing. How much evil must we do in order to do good.

The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of nations.

Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he is speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He's killed people - unnecessarily. His own troops or other troops. Through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand, maybe even a hundred thousand. But he hasn't destroyed nations.

And the conventional wisdom is: don't make the same mistake twice. Learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five.

They'll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. Make one mistake and you're going to destroy nations.

« back to all biographies