Death of the Whiz Kid

Robert Strange McNamara, 1916-2009.

Robert McNamara in 1964

Robert Strange McNamara, who died today at age 93, was the personification of postwar America, the original and ultimate “whiz kid” who rose to power on the firm belief that arms and rationality can solve all problems—and tumbled to tragedy as the illusion shattered in the fields of Vietnam.

His ascent traced a path through Harvard Business School, where he was the youngest professor in its history; the Army Air Forces, where he pioneered the use of statistics to maximize the efficiency of bombing raids over Japan; Ford Motor Co., where he was promoted to president; and finally, in 1961 at age 44, to President John F. Kennedy’s secretary of defense.

At the Pentagon, he hired a team of young “systems analysts” from the RAND Corp., the nation’s leading think tank, and subjected the military budget, the nuclear-war plan—everything within his domain—to the statistical methods that he’d mastered with a brash confidence in the rightness of his views.

His early decisions transformed military politics, and almost entirely for the better. Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, a former five-star general who knew well his brother officers’ outsized appetites, had placed harsh limits on how much the armed services could spend but almost none on what they could buy. As a result, the defense budgets in the 1950s were teeming with redundancies and parochial pet projects. McNamara killed scads of these programs—to the horror of the generals, who had never been so challenged by civilians—saving tens of billions of dollars at no detriment to security.

(The generals reacted by recruiting their own systems analysts, so they could challenge McNamara on his own terms. The math, it turned out, could be massaged to yield almost any conclusions. But no longer could the service chiefs justify a cherished weapons program by merely declaring it to be a “military requirement.”)

McNamara also imposed some discipline on the nuclear-weapons establishment. When Kennedy took office, the Strategic Air Command’s official nuclear-war plan called for launching the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal—3,423 bombs and warheads, totaling 7,847 megatons of explosive power, which, it estimated, would kill 285 million Russians and Chinese and millions more in Eastern Europe—if the Soviets invaded West Germany, even if they hadn’t fired any of their own nukes first. The U.S. Air Force and Navy were planning to build thousands more nuclear weapons over the next several years to keep up with projections of an arms race.

With Kennedy’s support, McNamara altered the war plan to allow for “limited” nuclear attacks—and funded a buildup of non-nuclear forces in Europe—so that, in case of a Soviet invasion, the president might have options other than “surrender or holocaust.” He also put the nuclear command structure under much tighter control. (Until then, the nightmare scenario of Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe—a mad general launching a nuclear war without presidential authority—was technically plausible.) He reined in the military’s desires for a much-expanded arsenal (though not to the degree that his own analysis dictated). And privately he told his closest aides that he would never advocate a nuclear first strike.

But then, after Kennedy was killed and Lyndon B. Johnson became president, came the escalation in Vietnam—and the unwinding of everything that McNamara, and many Americans, believed.

At first, McNamara and his entourage blithely assumed that war, like everything else, could be rationally analyzed and tightly controlled, without the need for much insight into the enemy’s aims, motivation, or culture. On May 22, 1964, three months before the Gulf of Tonkin crisis, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, sent Johnson a memo (reproduced in the Pentagon Papers), informing him of a “small, tightly knit group” that was preparing an “integrated political-military plan” to broaden the war through “graduated action against North Vietnam.” He went on:

The theory of this plan is that we should strike to hurt but not to destroy, and strike for the purpose of changing the North Vietnamese decision on intervention in the south. This is easier said than done, but McNamara has confidence that we have the military means as long as we have the political will.

Two days later, a memo signed by McNamara, Bundy, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk urged Johnson to “use selected and carefully graduated military force against North Vietnam” for as long as the North’s leaders refused to back down. John McNaughton, McNamara’s closest assistant, described the concept in a memo as “Progressive squeeze-and-talk. Present policies plus an orchestration of communications with Hanoi and a crescendo of additional military moves against infiltration targets, first in Laos and then in [South Vietnam], and then against other targets in North Vietnam. The scenario would be designed to give the U.S. the option at any point to proceed or not, to escalate or not, and to quicken the pace or not”—as if Camelot’s best and brightest could precisely calibrate the pace of conflict and escalation.

In April 1965, a month after the launching of “Rolling Thunder,” the massive U.S. bombing campaign against North Vietnam, McNamara wrote that “it will take more than six months, perhaps a year or two, to demonstrate VC [Viet Cong] failure.” Ten years and more than 59,000 U.S. fatalities later, it became clear that the VC had never paid much attention to his delicately crafted signals and crescendos.

Long before then, by no later than the spring of 1966, McNamara knew the plan was doomed and came to doubt his own intellectual foundations. That May, in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he regretted “the almost ineradicable tendency to think of our security problem as being exclusively a military problem.” The man who two years earlier had warned Johnson that Vietnam must be “regarded as a test case of U.S. capacity to help a nation meet a Communist ‘war of liberation,’ ” now said that it was “a gross oversimplification to regard Communism as the central factor in every conflict throughout the underdeveloped world” and that the United States “has no mandate from on high to police the world and no inclination to do so.”

From that point on, his support for the war slackened; when reporters posed critical questions, his famously cool facade crumbled; he identified increasingly with student protesters. (In his days as the president of Ford, he chose to live not in Detroit but in nearby Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, where he took part in intellectual reading groups.)

In November 1967, he told Johnson that the bombing should cease, that it was useless as a bargaining chip. “McNamara’s gone dovish on me,” Johnson complained to a friend in the Senate. Later that month, McNamara resigned or perhaps he was fired—it has never been clear which—and he was named president of the World Bank. He told friends that it was more satisfying to be working for the development of nations than for their destruction. He also began to speak out against nuclear weapons and, several years later, wrote essays calling for global disarmament.

Still, he waved off questions about Vietnam. Not until publication of his memoirs in 1995, two decades after the war ended, did McNamara publicly admit that it had always been a mistake. In The Fog of War, Errol Morris’$2 2003 documentary about the former defense secretary, McNamara recited some of the lessons he learned in office, one of which was, as he put it, “Rationality will not save us”—a notion that the McNamara of 40 years earlier would have dismissed as absurd. Another lesson was that military power should never be used unilaterally.

Until the end, he misremembered—some would say he lied about—certain aspects of his history. He claimed that he helped JFK work toward a peaceful solution to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when Kennedy’s secret White House tapes reveal that after the first few days he advocated attacking the Soviet missile sites, even at the risk of a broader war. He said that LBJ pushed him to escalate in Vietnam, when Johnson’s secret tapes reveal that the pushing went both ways. He once told me, when I interviewed him for a book about nuclear strategy (The Wizards of Armageddon, 1983), that he would never have approved the multiple-warhead missiles known as MIRVs—although declassified documents show that he signed off on the program from its inception.

Someday someone will write a great biography of McNamara. It will be the story not only of his life but of the vast tangle of contradictions and cataclysms that marked America in the 20th century and beyond.