Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara (1916-2009) was an American businessmen and the United States’ longest-serving Secretary of Defence. His tenure lasted eight years (1961-68) under presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

robert mcnamara

Born in San Francisco, McNamara was the son of a shoe salesman descended from Irish immigrants. Robert McNamara was educated at Berkeley and Harvard, graduating in economics and accounting. He later returned to Harvard as a junior academic, teaching business studies for three years. In 1943, McNamara enlisted in the US Army Air Corps, where he worked in logistics and planning. He ended the war as a lieutenant colonel but without seeing combat.

After the war, McNamara was headhunted by the Ford motor vehicle company, where he played a leading role in modernising Ford’s post-war design, production and marketing. By the late 1950s, McNamara was being hailed as the saviour of Ford, and in late 1960 he became the first company president to be appointed from outside the Ford family.

McNamara’s stay as president of Ford was brief, however. Within weeks he was headhunted by new president John F Kennedy to serve as Secretary of Defence, an offer he accepted. McNamara became part of White House inner circle, forming friendships with the Kennedy brothers and providing advice on a number of policy areas.

In his defence portfolio, McNamara implemented a planning and budgeting regime that eliminated duplication and waste. He also modernised and reoriented Strategic Air Command (SAC), improving response systems, readiness and cost-effectiveness. Strategically, McNamara was an advocate of the Domino Theory and ‘mutually assured destruction’. He believed the US nuclear arsenal should exist as a deterrent rather than a first-strike weapon. McNamara also sought to minimise the chances of an accidental or spontaneous nuclear war by ensuring that major command decisions were in civilian rather than military hands.

Robert McNamara is perhaps best remembered for overseeing the US military build-up in Indochina and the first years of the Vietnam War. During Kennedy’s presidency, McNamara recommended a steady increase in the number of US military advisors in Vietnam. Under Lyndon Johnson, McNamara urged a targeted military deployment to eradicate the Viet Cong from South Vietnam.

By 1967, however, McNamara had become convinced that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. He urged a withdrawal of US forces but was overruled by Johnson. McNamara resigned from cabinet in early 1968 and soon after was appointed president of the World Bank. He held this office until his retirement in 1981. In 2003 McNamara appeared in a television documentary, The Fog of War, where he explained his decisions – and admitted his failures – during the Vietnam War.

McNamara died in Washington DC in July 2009, aged 93, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Citation information
Title: “Robert McNamara”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: October 17, 2018
Date accessed: August 17, 2022
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