Robert S. McNamara

Robert S. McNamara (born 1916) was a business executive, U.S. secretary of defense, and president of the World Bank.

Robert Strange McNamara was born in San Francisco on June 9, 1916, the son of Robert James McNamara, sales manager for a wholesale shoe company, and the former Clara Nell Strange. Educated in the public schools of Piedmont, California, McNamara proved an excellent student, achieving a straight "A" average at Piedmont High School. He continued his education at the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in philosophy and economics and earned the unusual distinction of being elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the end of his sophomore year. Following graduation in 1937, he was admitted to Harvard University's Graduate School of Business Administration. Two years later, after compiling a superb academic record, he was awarded the M.B.A. degree.

Military Career

In 1939 McNamara accepted a position in the San Francisco office of the accounting firm Price Waterhouse & Company. He returned to Harvard the following year as an assistant professor of business administration. With U.S. entry into World War II, McNamara volunteered for the Navy; his poor eyesight, however, prevented him from entering into active duty. Instead, McNamara remained in Cambridge and in 1942, as part of a special arrangement between the Harvard Business School and the U.S. Army, taught a course for Army Air Force officers. He also served as a special consultant to the Army Air Forces on the establishment of a statistical system to help monitor and control wartime logistical problems.

In 1943 he took a leave of absence from Harvard to serve with the Army Air Forces in England. While there he applied his accounting and statistical expertise to the B-17 bomber program, in the process earning a commission as a temporary captain in the Army Air Forces. He also worked on the development of the B-29, the long range bomber that was to play a critical role in the final years of the war. His role included working on the problem of flying the b-29 bombers from India to their forward bases in China and their targets in Japan without running out of fuel. Subsequently McNamara served with the Army Air Forces in India, China, and the Pacific and was released from active service in April 1946 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. For his wartime service McNamara was awarded the Legion of Merit.

Success as Business Executive

Upon release from the military, McNamara initially intended to return to Harvard University. However, Col. Charles B. Thornton, who had worked with McNamara during the war, presented him with a more intriguing possibility. Thornton induced McNamara to join a group of statistical control specialists who were planning to apply the skills developed during their wartime service to the corporate world. Late in 1946 the financially plagued Ford Motor Company hired these nine so-called "Whiz Kids" as a unit. McNamara soon proved himself the most adept of the group; he rose rapidly through Ford's corporate hierarchy.

Initially named manager of the company's planning and financial offices, by 1949 McNamara had become comptroller. In August 1953 he was promoted to assistant general manager of the Ford division. Two years later he was elected manager of the Ford division, and in 1957 he advanced to vice-president in charge of all car and truck divisions, was elected to the board of directors, and was named to the company's powerful executive and administration committees. On November 9, 1960, McNamara succeeded Henry Ford 2nd as president of the Ford Motor Company, becoming the first non-family member to occupy that position. Ironically, he was to serve as Ford's president only for about one month before being offered the position of secretary of defense by President-elect John F. Kennedy.

During his years with Ford McNamara established a reputation as a brilliantly innovative manager. He helped modernize the company by setting up a comprehensive corporate accounting system. In addition, he helped increase sales; introduced the popular Falcon, one of the first compacts; and pioneered in the installation of seat belts and other safety features. By 1960 Ford ranked as the third largest industrial concern in the United States.

Secretary of Defense

McNamara was sworn in as secretary of defense on January 21, 1961. At considerable personal loss he had previously disposed of all his Ford Motor Company stock and stock options in order to avoid any possible conflict of interest. Kennedy wanted someone to manage the world largest bureaucracy and his choice of McNamara seemed logical. He continued to serve as secretary of defense until his resignation in 1968. During those years he solidified his reputation as a financial and managerial wizard while also emerging as one of the top national security and foreign policy advisers to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

His main task, McNamara explained to a New York Times correspondent the day after taking the oath of office, was "to bring efficiency to a $40 billion enterprise beset by jealousies and political pressures while maintaining American military superiority." He was assisted in reorganizing the Pentagon by many of the "whiz kids" who accompanied him from Ford. McNamara and his "whiz kids" established elaborate controls over department resource use, closed down uneconomical military based and refused to spend funds for weapon systems of which he did not approve. He consolidated seven of the Defense Department's assistant secretaryships under five aides, while creating a new Office of Management Planning and Organization Studies.

Applying the techniques of systems analysis to the Pentagon's huge bureaucracy, McNamara inaugurated a planning-programming-budgeting system. This innovation enabled him to project the first five-year budget in the history of the Defense Department, a plan that he unveiled to Congress in January 1963. Much of his energy during his first few years at Defense was devoted to revitalizing America's conventional forces and moving away from what he viewed as an excessive reliance on nuclear deterrence during the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. He accepted the doctrine of "flexible response," which called for the development of a broad choice of deterrent forces, ranging from the nuclear to the anti-guerrilla.

Under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson U.S. military involvement in Vietnam increased steadily, and Vietnam ultimately became McNamara's principal preoccupation. Unquestionably, that divisive war was the most difficult—and controversial—episode in his career. The secretary of defense fully supported President Johnson's decisions for escalation, including the dispatch of American combat troops in 1965 and the inauguration of a massive bombing campaign that same year. Publicly, he continued to support the U.S. war effort until his resignation, and his public projections were almost unfailingly optimistic. Privately, however, McNamara began to express doubts about the war as early as November 1965, following a disappointing trip to Saigon. As his disillusionment grew, in 1967 the Defense secretary commissioned a study of American involvement in Vietnam, a project that eventually became known as the Pentagon Papers following its unauthorized release in 1971. Increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of American policy in Vietnam and at odds with Johnson, in early 1968 McNamara resigned to accept a position with the World Bank.

President of the World Bank

McNamara served as president of the World Bank for 13 years, from 1968 to 1981. Under his direction the bank became the world's largest and most important single source of international development assistance. When McNamara took office the bank was lending about $1 billion a day; by 1980 that figure had grown to $12 billion. During his last year with the institution it was supervising over 1,600 projects with a total value of approximately $100 billion in more than 100 developing countries. In his final address to the World Bank's board of governors, McNamara said that the most fundamental problem facing the world was the persistence of widespread poverty. "This World Bank—born out of the ruins of World War II—has grown into one of the world's most constructive instruments of human aspiration and progress," McNamara exclaimed. "And yet, it has only barely begun to develop its full potential."

Following his retirement from the World Bank in 1981, McNamara continued to write and speak on a broad range of public issues, including world poverty, development strategies, nuclear policy, and South Africa. He also served on a number of corporate and other boards, including Royal Dutch Petroleum, the Washington Post, Trans World Airlines, Corning Glass Works, Bank of America, the Ford Foundation, the Brookings Institution, and the California Institute of Technology.

After leaving the World Bank, McNamara became a strong critic of nuclear arms. He argued that the U.S. and Soviet officials should each maintain "a nuclear arsenal powerful enough to discourage anyone else from using nuclear weapons" and that "nuclear weapons have no military purpose whatsoever other than to deter one's opponent from their use."

During the 1980s McNamara devoted much of his time to writing books and articles delineating his position on nuclear arms proliferation, arms control, comprehensive test bans, restriction of antiballistic missiles. He also proposed the establishment of "new rules" of conduct that could provide each side the chance to pursue their own agenda through diplomacy rather than threat or use of force. He suggested that each side's military forces be restructured to be defensive and reduced in number; that they refrain from becoming involved in regional conflicts; and that they work together to solve regional and global problems peacefully.

In 1995, McNamara released a new book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in which he reveals that he lied to Congress and the American people about the causes for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. McNamara, while not entirely blaming himself, admits that his misunderstanding of Vietnam and Asian politics cost nearly 60,000 American lives. Many critics feel that the book is a self-serving way for McNamara to assuage his own guilt over his mishandling of the facts during the early years of the war. David Halberstam, author of The Best and the Brightest doesn't believe that McNamara understands what he did at all and stated, "the book is shallow and deeply disingenuous. For him to say 'we couldn't get information' borders on a felony, because he was creator of the lying machine that gave him that information. The point was to make a flawed policy look better."

Further Reading on Robert S. McNamara

A full-length biography is Deborah Shapley, Robert McNamara: Soldier of the American Century; A brief sketch of his career up to 1968 can be found in David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972); Two studies of his tenure as Defense secretary are: William W. Kaufmann, The McNamara Strategy (1964) and Robert M. Roherty, Decisions of Robert S. McNamara: A Study of the Role of the Secretary of Defense (1970); His involvement with the war in Vietnam has been treated in a large number of secondary works on that conflict, including George C. Herring, America's Longest War (1979) and Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (1983); McNamara is the author of The Essence of Security: Reflections in Office (1968) and One Hundred Countries, Two Billion People: The Dimensions of Development (1973); A compilation of his speeches has also been published as The McNamara Years at the World Bank: Major Policy Addresses of Robert S. McNamara, 1968-1981 (1981). Also see a review of In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in National Review, July 10, 1995.