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  • James Houser

November 29, 1967 - The Rise and Fall of Robert McNamara

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

November 29, 1967. The Vietnam War is going badly, and everyone knows it – even one of its chief architects. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announces today that he will be stepping down from his post. McNamara has experienced a lightning rise from automotive executive to become the most powerful Defense Secretary in American history. This is the story of his meteoric rise…and his moment of truth.

Today’s more of a character dive in contrast to my regular posts, and it’s about a historical figure that holds particular fascination for me: Robert McNamara. This was a man who embodied so much about the United States during the Cold War, and yet also came to reject most of it. Throughout the height of his power, he was an icon of self-assurance, the brilliant intellectual who could turn the whole world into numbers and data and always make the correct decision.

When this illusion was shattered by the realities of the Vietnam War, when those men in that small, puny Asian country failed to match his calculations and failed to meet the predictions that his computers made, McNamara came to openly reject and regret the war he helped create. At almost no other point in the 20th Century did a figure of his scale ever publicly repudiate his life’s work and his most important decisions. It would be as if Jeff Bezos became an anticapitalist icon. But the journey to McNamara’s self-realization destroyed many people along the way.

Everything about Robert McNamara screamed boy prodigy. Born in California in 1916, he tore through high school and college, impressing everyone with his beautiful mind and hardened work ethic. He earned his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1939 before returning a year later as its youngest and highest-paid Assistant Professor. McNamara’s life was always accompanied by a leitmotif of words like “youngest,” “highest,” “first,” “most.”

Above all, McNamara became obsessed by the idea of rationality, logic, statistics and systems. During World War II, he was initially brought into the War Department to teach his new analytical approaches to Army officers, before being commissioned as an Army Air Force Captain to conduct statistical analysis of the strategic bombing programs in Germany and Japan. Drawing on immense amounts of data, McNamara streamlined efficiency and minimalized waste within Curtis LeMay’s Bomber Command over Japan, pinpointing targets, rationalizing schedules and shaving minutes and pounds off of every B-29 flight.

The work he did – a murderous, destructive work that helped hollow out the core from Japanese cities and kill hundreds of thousands – never seemed to come home to McNamara the way it did for the actual bomber crews. The dead civilians in Japanese cities or even the bomber crewmen were not living, breathing human beings. They were data points. Numbers. A product of the machine. Efficiency, margins, the ratio – these were what mattered.

After the war, McNamara joined a number of other statistical officers from the Army Air Force that were hired as a team by, of all things, Ford Motor Company. Once the titan of the U.S. automotive industry, Ford had fallen on difficult times and the owner Henry Ford II was desperately trying to revive the fortunes of his father’s organization. Hiring this team was a major step towards rationalizing, improving, and streamlining Ford’s business practices to be more competitive against GM and Chrysler. The Thornton team, a bunch of bright young eggheads, came to be referred as the “Whiz Kids” whose number-crunching and obsession with rationality helped save Ford from the brink of insolvency.

The brightest of the Whiz Kids was soon revealed to be McNamara. He was the primary proponent of what has come to be called “systems analysis,” committed to shaving minutes off a part, dollars from the cost of production, hours off the time of production. Most of McNamara’s revolutions would find their way into modern business administration practices and remain a major component of statistical analysis. His rise was meteoric: by 1960, he had become the first President of Ford Motor Company not to be named Ford. McNamara inspired awe more than loyalty, respect more than devotion; no Vince Lombardi was he.

As the leader of a team he was stern, demanding, tireless. His mind and memory were seemingly incomparable, his self-discipline intimidating. The entire system at Ford throughout the 50s ran around this one highly specialized individual, so central to this accounting and rationalizing whirlwind. The father of the Ford Falcon and Lincoln Continental, he reengineered Ford to produce smaller, cheaper cars with much better profit margins – even introducing some of the first seatbelts into the basic design of the Falcon. This was a sales tactic, not a genuine safety concern: it was a relatively small monetary risk for a high possible reward. The Falcon could be advertised as the safest family car.

But McNamara was not just a living computer. In a corporate world full of rock-ribbed Republicans, he was surprisingly intellectual outside of the numbers and machines, residing in lefty Ann Arbor rather than Detroit and making friends with the East Coast intellectual elite. He had a great charm about him, warm and personable to his many friends, and got on especially well with women. His personal liberalism, though, never interfered with his systems; he was harshly anti-labor, since those labor laws cut into his margins. It wasn’t about the money, or about the glamor, or about the people, or even about the fame. It was about control, first and foremost: control through knowledge, data and analysis.

Journalist David Halberstam would put it best in 1972: “Sometimes, to those around him, he seemed so idealistic as to be almost innocent. He never talked about power and he did not seem to covet it. Yet the truth was quite different. He loved power and he sought it intensely.”

It was this man, with this reputation, that became President John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense in 1961. He was sought after and recruited by the Kennedy Administration, which sought to make some sense out of the tangled Cold War military; McNamara, proving once and for all that money was never the object for him, gave up a $3 million-a-year salary to take up $25,000 a year as Defense Secretary, but on the condition that he had complete control over all appointments within his Department. So in awe were the Kennedy people of his reputation, so impressed was JFK by his interview with this charming, brilliant, relatively young (44) wunderkind, so overwhelming was his barrage of numbers and buzzwords and ideas, that he was easily given the job. This human computer wrapped up in a charming persona, this tower of ambition, self-confidence and yes, hubris, had ascended to the top seat of the world’s most powerful machine of destruction.

Robert McNamara, more than any other figure in American history, placed his stamp on the Defense Department. He introduced many of the modern bureaucratic and corporate systems that occupy the military-industrial complex, possibly to its detriment. He remains, at over 7 years, the longest-serving Defense Secretary in American history. And more than any other military or political figure besides the two Presidents Kennedy or Johnson, Robert McNamara bears the responsibility for Vietnam.

As Defense Secretary, McNamara became the eternal enemy of the generals and admirals. He profoundly distrusted them, and occasionally for good reason. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, it had been Air Force General Curtis LeMay (once McNamara’s boss in WWII) and Admiral George Anderson who had wanted to strike Cuba, but McNamara who came up with the idea of a blockade. McNamara regarded the officers as irrational, emotional creatures who failed to see the big picture and understand the numbers and the systems. The fact that he was right in Cuba would blind him when he was wrong in Vietnam. It didn’t help that the officers believed that when war started, they should be in charge and the civilians should take a back seat; at one point during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Admiral Anderson had tried to order McNamara out of the Operations Room only for the Defense Secretary to coolly refuse. McNamara soon had Anderson relieved, shipped off as Ambassador to Portugal. There was no “lead” when you worked with Bob McNamara; there was follow, or get out of the way.

He was a bundle of energy, a legend, a hard-driving man with iron discipline, always sharply dressed and punctual. Minutes were money, losing seconds was inefficient. The eyeglasses he wore glinted that cool, detached, occasionally icy gaze; they drew the viewer to his impassive face. When disagreement arose, when someone dared disagree, he would assail them with a barrage of numbers, figures, calculations. He was a beacon of physical fitness, controlling his body off-duty and controlling his generals on-duty. Early to bed, early to rise, working long after everyone went home, behind his enormous desk Bob McNamara sat, the Lord of Rational War, with the nuclear arsenal behind him, a universe of statistics in his mind. Come into his office, sure, but don’t waste his time. He took all his briefs in writing, rather than verbally, because he could read faster than they could talk and seconds counted.

He was human. He married his high school sweetheart Margaret Craig, had children, married again when Margaret passed away. His son became an anti-war protestor, increasingly bitter towards his father. He was particularly close to the Kennedy family, including Jackie and Bobby, and was devastated at Kennedy’s assassination. This strange man, so robotic and yet so warm to his confidantes, had been the only Cabinet member that Kennedy really confided in. When Ted Kennedy had his notorious traffic accident at Chappaquiddick, the first person the Kennedys called was Bob, brilliant and comforting Bob, with the plea “Come quick, Bob. There’s only women here.” He cried at his farewell speech to the Defense Department, cried publicly, and was a pallbearer at Bobby’s funeral months after he had left the government.

So human to those faces he could see, he turned out to be a mauler of faces he could not. During the Kennedy Administration, he oversaw the gradual commitment of more and more U.S. combat advisors to Vietnam. For McNamara, Vietnam was yet another puzzle to be solved with math and his giant banks of IBM computers. Raw data went in, ratios came out, and he could turn them into solutions. The computers spit out truth, reality, the concrete facts far away from the namby-pamby measurements of popular mood and public opinion.

On paper, South Vietnam and Diem’s regime were winning the war; McNamara confirmed this in 1962, when on a visit to Saigon he publicly declared that “every quantitative measurement shows we are winning the war.” Of course, McNamara’s numbers totally missed the human dimension. They could not predict the impact of morale, the fatal weaknesses of Diem’s regime, the cultural factors that affected Vietnam. Casualty ratios, the occupation data sent him by the American commanders, the weight of supplies and resources, the number of boots on the ground – all this meant the South Vietnamese HAD to be winning. And he believed it. The numbers couldn’t lie.

Those on the ground knew the difference. People like Colonel John Paul Vann, who witnessed the disastrous South Vietnamese defeat at Ap Bac in January 1963, came back to tell their superiors that the strategy was just not working, that the numbers were lies, that the ARVN would not fight for Diem. McNamara dismissed these concerns: Vann was full of anger and emotion, not a serious person like himself or his like-minded appointees. Vann was quietly forced into retirement. No, the Americans just had to hold the course. We were winning, after all.

Despite the Defense Secretary’s repeated insistence that victory was just over the horizon, the situation was in fact deteriorating. Diem’s corrupt regime was viewed as the major impediment, and the Kennedy administration indicated that they might give the green light for the generals to overthrow Diem. McNamara disagreed due to his insistence that everything was fine, but in November 1963 Kennedy gave the green light, Diem was overthrown, and Vietnam truly began to collapse.

In the meantime, McNamara had come to serve another master. The assassinated Kennedy and newly sworn President Lyndon B. Johnson could not have been more different people, and McNamara’s closeness with the Kennedys made him the odd man out in Johnson’s new administration – but Johnson quickly latched onto McNamara. He was Bob! So smart, so gifted, so talented…Johnson listened to everything that Bob McNamara said. So when McNamara visited Vietnam in March 1964, he came back to tell Johnson that the situation was falling apart. Based on his calculations, without American troops in the country South Vietnam would fall to the Communists.

It’s hard to understand exactly where this logic chain began, but McNamara’s increasing pressure to commit more and more resources to Vietnam became a constant in 1964 and 1965. He became convinced both of the righteousness and of the ultimate success of American efforts. The United States was the great military power of the world; there was nothing it could not do. McNamara had never believed in limits. For a self-made man like himself, anything seemed possible, and he projected this confidence onto his nation and the Defense instrument he wielded. As long as you had data, you had information; information bred knowledge; knowledge bred power. With enough data you could do anything. But what if the data was wrong? Hell, what if the very premises that the data collection was based on were wrong? To Robert McNamara, this was impossible. Facts didn’t care about your feelings! Facts didn’t care about morale, politics, ideology, culture, or any of that unserious liberal arts shit.

By April 1964, they were already calling it McNamara’s War, a label he embraced. "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". In August 1964, when the Navy destroyer USS Maddox claimed to have been attacked by North Vietnamese vessels but later confirmed that it was a false alarm, McNamara placed pressure on them to change their story. He viewed this is a lever to gain political pressure for continued American commitment to Vietnam, and fudged the reports and falsified data to produce the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident.” The Tonkin Incident was used by President Johnson, who believed what Bob McNamara told him, to gain a Congressional mandate to commit American troops to Vietnam. McNamara believed he was lying for a good cause, that Americans needed a push to commit to a war they HAD to win to stop Communism. Public opinion could be fabricated – just like data points, when necessary.

They sunk deeper. In early 1965, McNamara encouraged Johnson to commit troops to Vietnam and to begin the strategic bombing of the North, with all the reports showing that with enough pressure the North would crack. After X amount of casualties and Y amount of industrial damage, product Z would occur. Johnson acquiesced only to the bombing, but even Operation Rolling Thunder failed to produce the desired result. McNamara did not take the failure of the bombing as a sign that North Vietnam was not going to crack, but concluded that troops were NECESSARY. Needed. Essential. The data could not be wrong.

Throughout 1965 and 1966, Robert McNamara oversaw the flooding of American troops into Vietnam. Just as with everything else in his career, he employed statistical analysis, but this time on an unforeseen scale. How did one define victory? How did the United States know they were winning? Statistics, of course. McNamara concluded that the Viet Cong could field X number of fighters, and that success could be measured by how many were killed each month. Simple formula! The “body count” became a feature of Vietnam, with success measured monthly by the number of enemy dead that the Americans reported. These were numbers McNamara could throw in anyone’s face: look, we killed Y number this month, at this rate the war will be over by 1967. Forget that the commanders could falsify reports, forget that the Viet Cong were recruiting more fighters all the time, forget that units had every incentive to report more enemy dead than they actually counted. The data could not be wrong.

When more American troops were required, McNamara asked Johnson to send the National Guard and Reserves, but Johnson refused to do so citing the political price. Instead, McNamara relied on the draft – and relied in particular on Project 100,000. This 1966 measure was a drastic lowering of the IQ standards for the draft, based on McNamara’s belief in technology. He believed that the war in Vietnam could be won through computerized analysis, and that the use of video tapes and new information learning systems could turn men of low learning ability into functional soldiers. Project 100,000 ended up sending 354,000 men to Vietnam who never would have gone under previous conditions. “McNamara’s Morons,” as they were unkindly called, suffered higher casualty rates and experienced greater psychological problems after the war than other soldiers. Many poor boys unfit for war never came back. Data points. Cogs in the machine. The data could not be wrong.

But the data was wrong. It was all wrong. No matter how many computer printouts showed high body counts …no matter that the bombing campaign had reduced electricity output by 85% in Hanoi in 1966…no matter that McNamara trimmed every expense to keep the costs of the war low…no matter that victory seemed just over the horizon…it wasn’t. And after a certain point even Bob McNamara had to realize it.

To admit that the data was wrong would be to undermine his whole disciplined, tight persona; it was what he relied on. So McNamara began to see the data that he hadn’t seen before. He began to acknowledge that yes, the war was a bloody failure, and sure, American boys and Vietnamese kids had died under the weight of bombs or by bullets or by fire, but worst of all the Vietnam War was no longer COST-EFFECTIVE. He began to spout new statistics, highlighting how the US inflicted $300 million of damage on North Vietnam for $900 million damage to their bomber aircraft. He suddenly realized that the Viet Cong could replace their losses, that security existed nowhere, that the South Vietnamese had actually gotten less effective over time. No matter how much he massaged the data, he could not hide from himself that he had been horribly, unforgivably wrong.

He began to break down. His teenage son called him a murderer. The protests got to him; he began to curse out student protesters, visibly shaken by their arguments and rejections of his numbers. He began to suffer visibly from the strain, showed up to work unshaven, suffered spasms. When Jackie Kennedy asked him to stop the killing in Vietnam, and when Bobby ran for the Democratic nomination on an antiwar platform, McNamara’s loyalties were torn. He began to talk like he had never talked before – to say the war couldn’t be won.

By November 1967, he submitted a memo to Johnson: freeze troop levels, stop bombing North Vietnam, and begin to withdraw. His steep decline in confidence caused Johnson to finally let go of this wunderkind, this man who had done so much to bring the Vietnam War into existence. On November 29, 1967, McNamara announced his impending resignation. He would step into the Presidency of the World Bank, a job at complete odds with his former position.

Why did McNamara turn against the war? A better question may be, why was he the only one? So many other people, so many of America’s best and brightest public servants, never questioned their decisions and maintained that they had done everything right. There are and were thousands of generals, State officials, and Defense officials that swore up and down that they made the right decision. If only X had happened, or Y hadn’t happened, America could have won Vietnam.

I think, personally, that McNamara was finally forced outside of his bubble. The humanist realization of the tragedy and catastrophe of Vietnam had finally overwhelmed his cool, logical, rational side. He had detached himself from the harm he did by converting people into numbers, and had gotten so good at it that it took several years to break free of that inertia. By the time he did, the damage had been done. McNamara left Defense a much different place than he found it, and the cold calculations of the Pentagon that remain today are a great deal his handiwork. Robert McNamara had remembered that he was a man, not a machine, too late to stop what he had unleashed.

Released from the purgatory of the Defense Department, Robert McNamara grew not only more humanist but downright contrite. Though a good act cannot wipe out a bad, McNamara did a great deal of good as head of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981. He targeted poverty reduction and pushed for increased birth control in developing countries. Though he never broke out of his statistical obsession, this time he used it to better ends, crunching the numbers to figure out how to get the most value for a dollar in the poor Third World.

His contrition came in the 1990s, when his memoir “In Retrospect” was published. He criticized his own conduct of the war, regarding it as “wrong, terribly wrong” – strange for someone once so self-assured, and strange for any memoir, which are usually self-justifying statements of narcissism. In 1995, McNamara visited Hanoi and received a surprisingly warm reception. He even talked with Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese Defense Minister during the Vietnam War. Observers noted that Giap spoke in leisurely tones of Vietnamese history, poetry, and culture, while McNamara repeatedly asked questions about numbers and figures. McNamara thought in the short term; Giap had always taken the long view.

In 2003, the same year that he warned the Bush Administration not to invade Iraq, McNamara sat for interviews for the documentary “The Fog of War,” where he once again expressed his regrets and mistakes about Vietnam. The man of numbers had never been able to quantify or account for the unknown or unknowable, that which lay past the Fog of War.

Sometimes we make decisions, and then our decisions turn around and make us. The road of logic is a terrible path without humanity to give us the light to see.

Robert McNamara died in 2009 at the age of 93.

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