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Robert McNamara: A Vietnam Legend

by Margot Bordelon

On November 11, 1918, McNamara was only two years old, yet he would recall for the rest of his life the moment when World War I, "the war to end all wars," was finally over. McNamara entered first grade in 1922, and attended school in a one-room, wooden shack. His beginnings were humble, yet his resolve to make something of himself was anything but modest. He applied to several universities for higher education but settled on Berkeley: "I went to 'Cal' because it was the only first-rate university I could afford. Tuition was fifty-two dollars a year." He went on to graduate studies at Harvard, and a year after receiving his MBA, McNamara became the youngest assistant professor in the University’s history. In December 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. McNamara immediately volunteered and began working in the Statistical Control Division of the U.S. Air Corps. World War II was the first large-scale military operation during which the compilation of research data was used to improve tactical planning efficiency. McNamara, a brilliant statistician, was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. His most prominent mission of the war was strategizing an effective way to fire bomb Tokyo. Success in the planning resulted in massive devastation and enormous casualties, which tested him ethically. "What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" McNamara wondered whether he would have been tried as a war criminal if the allies had lost the war. In 1946, McNamara was hired by the Ford Motor Company, where he quickly rose through the ranks to the position of company president, a prestigious position no one outside the Ford family had held before him. His time as Ford’s president was short-lived, however; five weeks after his ascendancy, McNamara accepted an offer to serve as Secretary of Defense for the Kennedy administration, a position he would hold through two administrations for the next seven years. McNamara’s defining moment came early, with the military action in Vietnam. Things started out small – in the fall of 1961, Vietnam was far from a priority for the Kennedy administration. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis, however, brought the Cold War to a new level. According to McNamara, the Kennedy administration "operated on two premises that ultimately proved contradictory. One was that the fall of South Vietnam to communism would threaten the security of the United States and the Western world. The other was that only the South Vietnamese could defend their nation, and that America should limit its role to providing training and logistical support." After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, McNamara found that incoming President Lyndon Johnson wanted to extend America’s military involvement in South Vietnam. JFK had been wary about increasing involvement, but McNamara believed that LBJ "felt more certain than President Kennedy that the loss of South Vietnam had a higher cost than would the direct application of the U.S. military force, and it was this view that shaped him and his policy decisions for the next five years. He failed to perceive the fundamentally political nature of the war." In 1964, it was reported that North Vietnamese forces had attacked American ships in international waters – the authenticity of which continues to be a hot point of contention. When LBJ announced to the American people that there had been a second attack (which later proved to be false), he asked Congress to pass The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving him complete authority to take the nation to war if he saw fit. McNamara supported the decision at the time, not realizing the extent to which it would be used. "Congress recognized the vast power the resolution granted to President Johnson, but it did not conceive of it as a declaration of war and did not intend it to be used, as it was, as authorization for an enormous expansion of U.S. forces in Vietnam – from 16,000 military advisers to 550,000 combat troops. Securing a declaration of war and specific authorization for the introduction of combat forces in subsequent years might well have been impossible; not seeking it was certainly wrong." The president’s decision to utilize this resolution would ultimately leave 58,000 Americans dead and 304,000 wounded. On November 1, 1967, Robert McNamara sent a top-secret memorandum to President Johnson recommending that the U.S. cut back its military operations in Vietnam. McNamara never heard back from the president, and by the end of the month, it was announced that McNamara would leave the office of Secretary of Defense to become president of the World Bank. He left in February of 1968 and was later that year awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For further information, check out: McNamara, Robert S. and VanDeMark, Brian. In Retrospect, the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Times Books, New York, 1995.Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, 2003.