The Rationalist in Power

Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara

by Deborah Shapley
Little, Brown, 734 pp., $29.95


Anyone seeking an explanation of the initial success and ultimate disillusion of Robert McNamara should first examine the influence on him of a remarkable Texan named Charles Bates (“Tex”) Thornton. Thornton had been brought into the Army Air Corps by Robert Lovett, then assistant secretary of war for air, and Thornton revitalized its management and operation by evangelically preaching the gospel of statistical control. In the spring of 1942, when Robert McNamara was an instructor in the Harvard Business School, Dean Dunham advised him to join Thornton’s tightly knit “Stat Control” team composed of like-minded statistical experts (popularly called the “whiz kids”). By working with Thornton to extend statistical control throughout the Air Force, he could use the wisdom of the business school to improve America’s fighting abilities.

Stat control” consisted of more than acquiring and collating statistics. It was designed to make clear the “meaning of figures”—revealing a pattern that was not obvious to the untrained eye. In its application to the Air Force, for example, the system analyzed the combat experience of B-24s and B-17s and determined that the B-17 was the more effective airplane and that the production of B-24s could be curtailed. Then, after the Pacific war was well underway, stat control analysis showed that rather than send B-17s stationed in England to the Pacific, deploying B-29s could achieve a saving of approximately 70 percent in lives, airplanes, gasoline, and number of ground personnel.

Not only was stat control seen as essential to selecting the most effective equipment to use in a particular situation, but by scattering its officers throughout an organization, top management could provide itself with the means of assuring an honest flow of data to the top.

As World War II drew to an end, Thornton kept intact his collection of whiz kids (himself and nine other members of his stat control team) in the hope of peddling the talented group as a package to some American corporation in drastic need of restructuring and improved management. Since no corporation better fitted that description than the Ford Motor Company, the entire team went en masse to Ford.

In her excellent biography, Deborah Shapley describes McNamara’s career at Ford and how he rose to its presidency and reorganized the huge, complex corporation. In doing so she sets to rest the charge repeated by his enemies that McNamara was in any way responsible for the abortive launching of the Edsel automobile; he had, in fact, opposed the concept of the Edsel, and since he was at the time head of a competing division of the company he was not involved in its development. After the Edsel had been built he undertook to sell it, though he privately decided to phase it out as soon as possible.

Shapley’s book also describes the brief negotiations that took place before the newly elected John F. Kennedy appointed McNamara to the Defense Department. McNamara agreed to accept the job only if he was left free to run the department as he saw fit and to appoint whomever he chose to assist him. Nor, he insisted, would he accept any requirement that he attend parties. Because I worked closely with McNamara from 1961 to 1966, when he was secretary of defense, I found Shapley’s discussion of that period the most engrossing part of her book.

For me, McNamara’s practice of using comparative statistics as an instrument for analyzing and resolving problems did not come as a complete surprise. During the more than ten years that I had worked closely with Jean Monnet, the patron saint of European integration, Monnet continually admonished me that whenever I encountered a new problem I should begin by first making a bilan, or balance sheet. He had initially hit on that technique of analysis when, quite precociously in his early twenties, he had been appointed a French member of the Franco-British Executive dealing with the coordination of shipping and supplies in the First World War. There he had begun to perfect his method of using a balance sheet as an analytical device. As he later explained in his memoirs:

The balance-sheet of needs and resources, which ought to be the starting-point of all administrations, is often the last thing that administrations think of. That is why I knew that it would take the authority of Heads of Government and the confidence of some key officials to set up and operate the inter-Allied machinery that after long negotiations would produce a balance-sheet capable of being written on one sheet of paper…

Then he adds reflectively:

Balance-sheets of this sort had been milestones in my work; the strength of our fleets in 1916, of our air forces in 1940, of Allied and Axis military power in 1942, of the French economy in 1945, and of the six-nation European Community in 1950. Each time, the need for appropriate action became obvious once the balance-sheet was drawn up. *

McNamara’s approach roughly paralleled the method Monnet had developed in dealing with Europe’s problems. But though Monnet was, like McNamara, committed to the logic of numbers, he was never entirely captured by statistics, but combined their use with an inspired vision of the future and an impressively acute sensitivity to public opinion and political feasibility.

If the new statistical methodology were to be used to its full potential as a management tool, it followed that the managers should direct organizations from the top. Only by being able to view operations as a whole could they achieve maximum efficiency. In McNamara’s credo, efficiency provided the standard against which all managerial success must be measured. At Ford, McNamara pursued that goal with rigor and energy, acutely aware that its successful pursuit largely determined the firm’s competitive position in the marketplace. He claimed, in addition, that

Running a large organization is the same, whether it is the Ford Motor Company, the Catholic Church, or the Department of Defense. Once you get a certain scale, they’re all the same.

Because ultimate control of the company resided in the Ford family or its charitable foundation, it had been possible to concentrate the powers of direction at the top. But the Defense Department could never be made into a tightly run organization as had been possible at Ford. It was instead a loose confederation of diverse and mutually competing interests, which sometimes formed crude ad hoc alliances by means of mutual back-scratching. The department was not subject exclusively to the orders of the president but was also beholden to Congress, which alone provided the funding and could turn off—or turn down—the tap whenever it wished.

Finally, the department was, in practice, still run both by and for America’s separate military services—the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and, at least in the design of weapons, the Coast Guard. Each of these services was a separate barony with its own history, hagiography, ballads, and legends. Each had accumulated its own passionate constituency. Thus, in turn, not only the Congress but each barony was under constant pressure from powerful lobbies and cabals—including, to name only a few, munitions makers, veterans’ organizations, environmental groups, and state governments that competed fiercely for the location of defense facilities, including the stationing of troops.

Had McNamara taken over the Defense behemoth in a time of relative peace, he might have been able to control it to the point where he could drive it in whatever direction he wished regardless of bureaucratic sabotage and resistance. But he undertook that responsibility at a time when the country was still oppressed by the menacing uncertainties of the cold war and increasingly inflamed by an unpopular regional war.

To command the department in such an era of multiple dangers demanded incisive action and, as I shall point out, such action stirred resentments long latent, which dangerously festered as the Vietnam War appeared to a progressively larger percentage of the population as unwinnable. In time of war, the emphasis shifted from such matters as managing military bases and procuring weapons to planning battles, which the military chiefs regarded as strictly their own province.

At the same time, McNamara’s policies provided the military leadership with a tailor-made excuse for failure. Both company and field grade officers fell back on the bromide that war was an “art” requiring a mystical feeling for “strategy,” and was incompatible with excessive emphasis on “efficiency.” War is inherently illogical and there was no way that McNamara’s approach, relying as it did almost exclusively on objective reasoning, could resist or even long deflect the power of collective habits, history, and emotion.

A more politically sensitive official than McNamara might have blunted this professional jealousy, but among his weaknesses, as Shapley notes, was his all too obvious disdain for whatever organizations he was seeking to manage. He never tried, for example, to conceal his low opinion of the military services and the practices each had followed in the past. It was only natural, therefore, that McNamara should become an object of the contempt expressed by professional military leaders for interfering “outsiders” and “amateurs.” McNamara had not only never fired a gun in combat but—almost more unforgivable—he showed both ignorance of and disrespect for the manner in which the services had traditionally fought wars.

With his staff of experts trained in his own management techniques, McNamara undertook as a first major task to overhaul the jerry-built structure of the department in order to assure that its major decisions were securely in the hands of the specially trained civilians he had assembled. He succeeded in rationalizing much of the redundant Pentagon bureaucracy, to the point where his precision and closely knit logic led Senator Goldwater to refer to him admiringly as “an IBM machine with legs,” while the press portrayed him as “Supermac.”

He first tried to assure himself that America’s current nuclear policy made sense. As presidential campaigns normally do, the 1960 campaign had tended to concentrate on a handful of quirkish issues—of which the most troubling and dangerous was the existence of an alleged “missile gap” that existed between US and Soviet forces. After the initial shock of the Sputnik, that allegation was made much of and the danger of such a gap was solemnly endorsed by several rising public figures. Henry Kissinger, for example, categorically stated: “There is no doubt the missile gap exists.”

Up to then serious official discussions had been concealed by the almost opaque curtain of “security,” but soon after he took office, McNamara pushed away that curtain and exposed the issue to critical inquiry. He found that there was no missile gap of the kind that had been claimed, but that the greatest source of vulnerability on the American side was the chance that the Soviets could successfully attack American bombers; he therefore speeded up production of the Navy’s Polaris system that was based on a 1,200-mile submarine-launched ballistic missile. Submarines could stay submerged for weeks, yet surface and knock out Soviet targets on command from Washington.

He then set about developing a logical doctrine for the use of the nuclear arsenal. That soon led him to study and then revise the so-called Single Integrated Operating Plan (SIOP) which had been left over from the Eisenhower administration. In case of a presumably imminent nuclear attack, SIOP, among other presidential options, provided for the United States to launch a preemptive first strike at the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe, with an estimated loss in lives of 285 million Russian and Chinese killed, and millions more in Eastern Europe. The other three options were nearly as catastrophic.

McNamara rejected the plan as fantastic. He undertook to make changes in the SIOP so that the President could order something less than all-out war. It took one and a half years to draw up a guide for the military and to reprogram weapons and communications, so that the final revised SIOP was not ready until June 1962. But his changes vividly showed that McNamara understood better than most Americans that a nuclear exchange would be catastrophic. By a careful process of reasoning he rejected Eisenhower’s defense policy of “massive retaliation.” Under his guidance, the Kennedy administration then considered a policy of limiting nuclear strikes to “counter-force targets”—striking the military forces of the other side and avoiding the bombing of cities and the mass killing of civilians. But Kennedy and McNamara himself soon concluded that limited nuclear war was an illusion and that counterforce targeting was deeply destabilizing. McNamara finally settled on the least destabilizing doctrine—that of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).

That doctrine required that each side should be unquestionably capable of imposing total damage on the other even after absorbing a first strike—or, in other words, that both sides should have nuclear arsenals so large and well protected that each had an assured second strike capacity.

Quite obviously such a concept of mutual deterrence would be frustrated if either side devised some means to insulate its territory from the other’s threat of destruction. Thus, the logic of McNamara’s commitment to Mutual Assured Destruction meant that he must oppose all antiballistic (ABM) systems.

This in turn necessitated moving against much of the conventional wisdom at the time, for ABMs were then being fanatically promoted by a powerful cult of supporters, among them Edward Teller, though even the most extreme of them would presumably have rejected Ronald Reagan’s later extravagant fantasies of missiles mounted on space platforms destroying any approaching nuclear missiles.

McNamara thus had a tough fight on his hands to support his conception of Mutual Assured Destruction. In the end, exaggerated intelligence reports of an alleged Soviet ABM system surrounding Moscow compelled the President to overrule him and insist on ABMs. But in the long run, Mutual Assured Destruction with all its implications became the established doctrine.

With the passion for efficiency he had developed at Ford, McNamara also tried to introduce “commonality” in new weapons systems so that the different branches of the service would not be wastefully procuring similar weapons. That goal was not, however, shared by the services. It had long been a tradition that each insisted on having equipment especially designed for its needs, even though that meant extravagant duplication. The question first arose when McNamara directed that a single fighter-bomber be designed to serve the purposes of both the Navy and the Air Force. The basic prototype that resulted was the TFX (subsequently the F-111), a plane loudly faulted by both services.

In retrospect, it is not at all clear that McNamara’s insistence on commonality was the sole reason for the plane’s final rejection; it might have had a chance at acceptance had service experts been more involved in the planning and design of the plane and had the Pentagon accepted the bid of Boeing, which the services favored, rather than that of General Dynamics. In any event, the services combined to give commonality a bad name, and each service continued to demand a plane of its own.

It is difficult to draw a clear lesson from this experience. Commonality made obvious sense; the evidence against it now available depends chiefly on the gossip or testimony of disenchanted service experts. Although the TFX suffered no more than the usual mishaps during its trial flights, each of the services continued to point out the plane’s defects in agitating for one of its own. Yet the evidence is still far from conclusive. If the principle of commonality failed with the TFX, it was largely vindicated by experience with the F-104, which though designed by the Navy was, on McNamara’s insistence, adopted by the Air Force. In addition to his efforts to achieve common procurement, McNamara also got rid of some of the Pentagon’s wasteful budgetary practices.

In the present period of shrinking military expenditures, the question of commonality is already being debated in the Congress, and as usual the services are violently opposing it. Why should the United States build four types of weapon and even maintain four different air forces, when one should do the job? I have long been convinced that history is likely to prove McNamara more right than wrong, even though he might have better succeeded with the TFX had he handled the matter less imperiously.

The episode of the TFX represents a situation where, in spite of intense effort, the encrusted culture of the armed services remained impervious even to McNamara’s sharp axe. Formed like a coral reef out of the accretion of decades of loyalties and traditions, that culture survived his most severe battering.

Though his reliance on quantification may in the end have sometimes distorted McNamara’s judgment, it reinforced the impression that he could organize his thoughts quickly. That ability enabled him to have a dominant part in the discussions when the EXCOM (executive committee of the National Security Council) engaged in its secret review during the week following the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba. His opinion reinforced that of others in restraining the hawks who advocated “surgical strikes” and who, if not opposed, would have powerfully pressed President Kennedy to react in a violently irrevocable way.

In the end, of course, the President rejected an air strike, which would have done irretrievable damage. Instead, he settled on a quarantine designed to stop the shipment of missiles and launching equipment into Cuba. By avoiding any immediate violent action, the quarantine might permit time for diplomacy again to take over.

The conditions for that quarantine were contained in a “Proclamation of Interdiction of the Delivery of Offensive Missiles to Cuba.” The EXCOM, on which I served as undersecretary of state, had that document drafted with extreme care so as to avoid the possibility that naval personnel in the excitement of encounter might precipitate an incident that would necessarily involve major American intervention. The proclamation stressed that force should

not be used except in case of failure or refusal to comply with directions…after reasonable efforts have been made to communicate them to the vessel or craft, or in case of self-defense. In any case force shall be used only to the extent necessary.

The proclamation made clear, for example, that tankers need not be stopped, since they would not be carrying missiles.

McNamara insisted on being sure that the Navy did not go off half-cocked. That involved persuading Admiral Anderson, the chief of naval operations, that the object was to send a political message to Khrushchev, but at the same time to avoid any action that might be humiliating for the Russians. McNamara therefore asked a series of questions about how the Navy would conduct itself if a ship started through the line, and he insisted on making sure that each ship had a Russian-speaking officer on board. Admiral Anderson responded by simply picking up a copy of Navy regulations and saying: “It’s all in here.” When McNamara insisted on a more lucid answer, Anderson said: “Now, Mr. Secretary, if you and your deputy will go back to your offices, the Navy will run the blockade.” Despite this abrasive encounter, however, a half hour after McNamara had returned to his office, Anderson sent an emissary asking for a full list of McNamara’s questions and for a detailed statement of his concerns.

That is the story roughly as Shapley recounts it, but as McNamara reported it to us at the time, he was both outraged at the admiral’s insensitivity and revolted by the mindless qualities of naval tradition; he made his contempt for the admiral’s answer emphatically clear. McNamara’s orders had come, of course, from the President, as the commander in chief, and they worked. If, as Shapley concludes, his orders to Anderson resulted in “wrecking the trust of the Navy,” that was largely Anderson’s fault for speaking condescendingly to his civilian chief before he knew what he was talking about.


Shapley’s account of America’s progressive submersion in the swamp of Vietnam is skillfully presented and it does not reflect particularly well on MacNamara’s record, but then few came out of the story very well. Long before the conclusion of the Eisenhower administration the Viet Cong, supplied and directed by Hanoi, were making major inroads in the South; the young Senator John F. Kennedy stated in a speech that Vietnam represented

the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone of the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the red tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam.

It was, he said, not only “a proving ground for Asia,” but “a test of American responsibility and determination in Asia,” since

if we are not the parents of little Vietnam then surely we are the godparents. We presided at its birth, we gave assistance to its life, we helped to shape its future.

By the time he became president four years later, Kennedy had begun to speak in far less strident tones. By then the Viet Cong, with help from Hanoi, had already taken over large sections of the southern part of the country and our rhetoric was being put to the test. In October 1961, President Diem called on the United States to sign a bilateral defense treaty; on October 13 he asked for United States combat troops and a substantial amount of equipment. In response, President Kennedy, with McNamara’s acquiescence, dispatched to Vietnam a fact-finding team headed by General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow. The recommendations of that team were to substantially increase American involvement.

Under the 1954 Geneva Accords, the United States had maintained in Vietnam an advisory group limited to the seven hundred men specified in the treaty language, but the Taylor-Rostow mission now recommended that our country should introduce a military force into South Vietnam to raise national morale and perform logistical tasks “in support of military and flood relief operations,” to conduct combat operations necessary for self-defense and for security of the area in which it was stationed, provide emergency reserves to back up the Vietnamese armed forces “in the case of a heightened military crisis,” and “act as an advance party of such additional forces as may be introduced.”

One statement I found most remarkable in the Taylor-Rostow report was that “the risks of backing into a major Asian war by way of South Vietnam are present but … not impressive,” since, among other things, North Vietnam was “extremely vulnerable to conventional bombing.” America, the report stated, should use that vulnerability as “a weakness which should be exploited diplomatically in convincing Hanoi to lay off SVN.” The mission recommended that the initial size of our force should not exceed eight thousand, but that we should not undertake that initiative unless “we are prepared to deal with any escalation the Communists might choose to impose.” Were we to follow those recommendations, I had no doubt whatever that, as I remarked to my staff at that time, we would be “heading hell-bent into a mess.”

In November, however, McNamara advised the President that we should accept the Taylor-Rostow recommendations. McNamara conceded that the struggle might be prolonged, but we could assume, he said, that the maximum United States forces required on the ground in Southeast Asia would “not exceed six divisions or about 205,000 men”—another instance of McNamara’s confidence in statistical estimates.

The President watered down McNamara’s recommendation by deciding that we should introduce “as speedily as possible … units of modest size for the direct support of the South Vietnamese military effort.” But he made no decision with regard to sending larger units, noting that they would “greatly increase the probabilities of Communist Bloc escalation.”

At the beginning of 1963, a failure of the South Vietnamese forces to engage in combat near the small village of Ap Bac reinforced Washington’s low opinion of their competence. Not only did it demonstrate to some astute American reporters on the spot that United States units had already become far more involved in fighting than was publicly understood, but it vividly disclosed the incompetence and lack of courage of the Vietnamese leaders.

Meanwhile, affairs were not going well on the South Vietnamese home front. Toward the middle of 1963 there was Buddhist unrest in protest against the killing of nine Buddhist civilians by South Vietnamese soldiers who were breaking up a local religious celebration. In response a Buddhist monk, or “bonze,” poured gasoline over his own head and burned himself to death. That was the beginning of a series of self-immolations which Diem’s vicious and vindictive sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, referred to as “bonze barbecues.” Instead of seeking to conciliate the Buddhists as Washington was urging him to do, Diem, under the malign influence of the Nhus, began a savage attack against the Buddhists. That, in turn, led to suggestions by some of Diem’s generals that they remove him from office.

In September 1963 McNamara again went to Saigon, this time with General Taylor. The report they made to the President was that the United States should announce plans to withdraw almost all of the total deployment of 16,000 military advisers by the end of 1965, the target date McNamara had earlier agreed to in July 1962. On October 2, the President’s press secretary announced that a thousand advisers would leave by December 31, 1963.

I did not at the time and I do not now understand why the White House chose that early date for such an announcement, since McNamara knew from his inspection on the spot that the war was not going at all well and the South Vietnamese army was still badly in need of training. McNamara himself later suggested that it was because Kennedy and he were determined to withdraw by that fixed date, whether or not the Vietnam forces were in shape to continue the struggle, and the announced partial withdrawal was intended to prepare the way for that extrication. But I saw little evidence at that time that the President had made that decision. He and McNamara may have merely been hoping that such an announcement would be reassuring to the American people while at the same time putting pressure on Diem.

In spite of some confusion about the extent to which America might have encouraged the coup that finally took place, nothing occurred until November 1, 1963, when a group of dissident generals seized control of the government and assassinated Diem.

I personally never felt that Diem’s death and the ensuing comic procession of “strong men” who seized the trappings of power in Saigon materially affected the outcome of the war. Diem was hopelessly incompetent and irretrievably under the influence of the Nhus; so long as their corrupting power remained, no serious resistance by the South Vietnamese regime could be expected.


After President Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson concentrated his first efforts on clearing up the accumulated Kennedy programs on which Congress had not yet moved effectively. Meanwhile, he was laying the foundation for his Great Society legislation and had little time to devote to Vietnam, although he was constantly in touch with McNamara about how the war was proceeding. Johnson, however, was caught in a dilemma; he strongly favored our pushing the war as hard as possible, while at the same time he did not want the war’s budgetary costs to jeopardize his Great Society programs. The White House announced that Kennedy’s policies for Vietnam would continue.

Meanwhile, McNamara took off for Saigon from Paris after the December 1963 NATO meeting. Landing in Saigon, he was appalled to find that General Harkins had distorted the reports on which he had optimistically based the plan for US troops to withdraw by the end of 1965. His trip on the whole was extremely disillusioning. Yet, as Shapley recalls, on returning to Washington he still assured reporters of his optimistic view of the progress that would be made in the war during the coming year, though admitting that the situation in South Vietnam continued “grave.” McNamara’s disappointment was intensified when the Saigon government failed to achieve its promised mobilization while talking high-flown nonsense about attacking North Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs continued with their plans for “punitive” air strikes against the North. That was done with McNamara’s approval, though he said he was determined to control the result.

At the same time, McNamara continued to be disturbed at the thought that a major air campaign against North Vietnam might bring the full North Vietnamese army across the demilitarized zone and even draw in the Chinese. Thus he concluded that the most we should undertake was a “limited air war” that would “not bring in Communist Chinese air or North Vietnam or Communist Chinese ground forces.” McNamara seemed to be endorsing the view that America could fight a limited war with managed risk.

What gave immediacy to his plans was the report in August 1964, that a US destroyer, the Maddox, was attacked in the Tonkin Gulf. The destroyer (engaged in what was called a “DeSoto Patrol”) sent a message that it had been pursued by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. A day later the Maddox resumed its DeSoto Patrol along with another destroyer, the Turner Joy.

On the morning of Tuesday, August 4, 1964, McNamara was advised by the President that US intelligence had intercepted a North Vietnamese message giving the coordinates of two “enemy” ships and ordering its own boats “to make ready for military operations.” That information was promptly passed on to Admiral Sharp, commander of the US forces in East Asia. At about the same time the commander of the besieged ship, Captain Herrick, reported that he was “under continuous torpedo attack.”

President Johnson ordered retaliatory action to be taken. But to satisfy himself before acting, McNamara telephoned Admiral Sharp, allowing him two hours to confirm the attack. Precisely on that deadline (6:07 PM Washington time) Sharp signaled, “I have satisfied myself” that an attack had occurred. Once the planes had delivered their munitions on targets on the North Vietnamese mainland, President Johnson announced on television that action was underway.

Shapley writes that during this period (she is imprecise on the timing) Captain Herrick of the Maddox began to have second thoughts about whether an attack had in fact occurred and he advised Washington: “Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.” It is, however, by no means clear that that message was available in Washington on August 4. I vividly remember that on that day there seemed no doubt in the highest circles, including the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon, that the Maddox had actually been attacked. In any case, this reported attack was used to justify the Tonkin Bay resolution of August 7, drafted by the administration, in which Congress authorized unlimited use of US force in Southeast Asia—a failure on everyone’s part to observe constitutional procedures for declaring war.

The DeSoto Patrols were resumed in September, and on September 18 one of our destroyers was attacked. However, after sifting the evidence and noting particularly the lack of any intercept substantiation, the President decided that there was no basis for action.

Nevertheless, soon thereafter, McNamara proposed the DeSoto Patrols be sent out again “to show the flag and prove to Hanoi and the world that we are not intimidated.” The project was briefly discussed; there was general acquiescence around the table; and the President indicated his approval to go forward. I had said little during the discussion, but I now spoke up:

Mr. President, I urge you not to make that decision. Suppose one of those destroyers is sunk with several hundred men aboard. Immediately, there will be a Congressional investigation. What would your defense be, since everyone knows the DeSoto Patrols have no intelligence missions that couldn’t be accomplished just as well by other means at far less risk? [That was probably not true.] The evidence would strongly suggest that you sent those ships up the Gulf only to provoke attacks so we could retaliate. Just think what Congress and the press would do with that. They’d say you deliberately used American boys as decoy ducks, and you threw away lives just to have an excuse to bomb. Mr. President, you couldn’t live with that.”

No one spoke. Then the President turned to McNamara: “We won’t go ahead with it, Bob. Let’s put it on the shelf.”

In the history books, the decision not to pursue McNamara’s advice to attack is mentioned briefly. Two or three days after the incident, following one of our Cabinet Room meetings, the President took me into the small room off the Oval Office which he used for his favorite one-on-one discussions. Then he indulged in one of his impassioned soliloquies (a device he often used to let off steam). In the course of his comments he referred with disdain to the latest Tonkin Gulf incident: “Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish!” But by then he had the Tonkin Bay resolution on the books.


As events caused the cumulative attrition of McNamara’s faith in the war’s success, he became increasingly eager to find a political means of extrication. During that period he repeatedly suggested to my more liberal friends, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that since the war was unwinnable, the administration must try to work out a settlement that would save America’s face.

Why then, my friends asked me, was I not working more closely with McNamara since we shared roughly the same objectives? My answer was that our strategy for reaching that objective was anything but the same. McNamara was seeking more a miracle solution than a rational compromise that might be achieved by negotiation. His hope of finding a political solution consisted, as I saw it at the time, largely in our being able to establish a channel to Hanoi. But here he missed the point. We already had many channels available; our weakness was that we had nothing to say through such channels. The administration had talked so long about the full achievement of its stated objectives that we had to a large extent locked ourselves in.

I had realized all along, and conceded it in government meetings, that any negotiated deal would certainly require US withdrawal, with a strong chance that Hanoi would take over—which, of course, happened after 1973 and many more years of ill-planned effort and tragic losses. I doubt very much that McNamara saw the reality as I did. For him, just getting into negotiation would create a sort of magic environment that would somehow produce a solution.

Toward the middle of 1966 I began to feel that McNamara was finding his post as secretary of defense an airless prison. The logic of numbers was a reassuring guide so long as the war was fought on logical principles, but the American public saw it in essentially human terms. McNamara became more and more conscious of what the stalemate in Vietnam was doing to a generation of American boys in the jungle and rice paddies. It was easy enough to forget this human dimension when discussing the progress of the war around the table in the Cabinet Room, but the crescendo of doubt that was infecting all public discussion reached such stridency that no one could ignore it.

To the extent that Lyndon Johnson came to share these doubts, it certainly did not result from the cacophony coming from protesters. He told me:

I don’t give a damn about those little pinkos on the campuses; they’re just waving their diapers and bellyaching because they don’t want to fight. The great black beast for us is the right wing. If we don’t get this war over soon they’ll put enormous heat on us to turn it into an Armageddon and wreck all our other programs.”

Because McNamara was a true believer in the logic of numbers he took pains to assure that his statistics were as accurate as possible. Because of my professional relations with the French government during the 1950s, I regularly talked with French military commanders enroute to or from Indo-China. They boasted to me of the military superiority of France’s military forces to those of their colonial enemy by using such terms as “body counts” and particularly “kill ratios.”

At the outset of our own involvement in Vietnam our military commanders were still using the same kind of grisly statistics to support their prognoses of ultimate victory. But though at first referring to such numbers, McNamara soon began to discount them heavily. From his inspection trips in Vietnam he had learned that if a North Vietnamese soldier were blown into five parts, each of those five pieces of anatomy might be listed as a separate “kill,” while the reports of American units involved in combat almost invariably overstated the kill ratio in America’s favor. I had learned during earlier experience with the US Strategic Bombing Survey that the commanders of flight units engaged in combat often exaggerated the damage they had done to enemy targets or the number of planes they had shot down. Thus, the statistics they reported tended to be sharply biased.

Dean Rusk had served in the State Department during a long period when the then secretary of state, Dean Acheson, and the secretary of defense, Louis Johnson, refused to speak to each other, and both he and McNamara were determined not to let that awkward situation be recreated. Instead, when confronted by any difficult issue, they would consult and develop a common policy to present to the President. That practice sometimes troubled me, for it seemed to deny the President the privilege of hearing conflicting views.

By way of parenthesis and solely as a matter of personal interest, I was astonished to read Shapley’s comment on my habitual practice of challenging every new phase of our Vietnam engagement:

Since Ball’s boss, Dean Rusk, did not protect and advance his right to be heard before the president. Ball was left, somewhat unfairly, to deal with McNamara and Bundy alone.

That is a misstatement of the facts. Dean Rusk (who disagreed with me diametrically on the war) is a man of unusual tolerance and understanding, to the point where he repeatedly assured me:

The President is as much entitled to your opinion as to mine. You should never hesitate to advance your own views.”

In commenting on Rusk’s attitude David Halberstam, in his book Th Best and the Brightest, quotes a undisclosed member of the administration as saying:

I cannot imagine McNamara letting Ball dissent like that if Ball were his deputy. Nor can I imagine George letting Rusk dissent if Ball had been Secretary and Rusk Under Secretary.”

Halberstam’s unnamed informant wa probably right on both counts.


Shapley has done a monumental tas of research, and she has been admirably painstaking in attempting to write the definitive biography of McNamara. If I offer any criticism of he assessment, it is that her emphasis on the unreliability of McNamara’s judgment and his dubious integrity reflects, without specific attribution and too uncritically, far too many canards circulated at the time. McNamara, as I have known him, is an instinctively straightforward man, but he was caught in a tangle of mutually contradictory motives: his loyalty to the President; his pragmatic determination to accomplish the objectives assigned him; and his belief in total rationality.

High on the list of his emotional and intellectual compulsions was his constant awareness that Lyndon Johnson was obsessed with establishing his Great Society—the economic and social programs on which he counted to assure himself a glowing place in history. To save the Great Society in 1965 and 1966, the administration had to keep at a low figure public estimates of funds needed for the war. McNamara thus followed Johnson’s directions that he take a more optimistic view of victory than he might have done otherwise. This was particularly the case when it came to making budget estimates and calling out the reserves. Preserving money for the Great Society required optimistic expressions about how soon the war could be concluded, and McNamara faithfully cooperated.

By mid-1967 the costs could no longer be concealed. At the same time, the administration was being attacked for pursuing a “no-win” policy in refusing to resort to all-out bombing of the North, which McNamara resolutely opposed, while denying that the policy was in fact one of “no-win.” As Shapley tells the story, it is hard to acquit McNamara of evasiveness and of disingenuousness in his use of terms. But his expressed positions may still have been accurate statements of what was going on in his exhausted mind at that point.

In any event, McNamara’s belief that heavier bombing would not have achieved anything resembling true “victory” always seemed to me persuasive, and that conviction was convincingly proved, with Mr. Kissinger’s concurrence, by the Nixon administration. Hanoi would not have given up its ambition to control the South at that time, or, in all probability, at any time. When critics note that the “Christmas Bombing” of 1972 was followed by the conclusion of the Paris cease-fire agreement, the short answer is that all that bombing achieved was some very minor wording changes in an agreement loaded (inevitably, in my judgment) in Hanoi’s favor.

In testimony before a Senate committee in 1967 McNamara told Senator Thurmond that he was not following a “no-win” strategy and he quoted General Westmoreland, who had said that it was his opinion and that of General Wheeler and the other Chiefs that “we are winning and will continue to win.” McNamara argued to Shapley that in the last sentence of his statement to Thurmond he had deliberately quoted the opinion of West-moreland and the other generals but had not specifically adopted it as his own—a pettifogging explanation, I’m afraid.

Shapley also drew from him the explanation that he answered Senator Thurmond optimistically because he was counting on the success of negotiating efforts being made that summer through Henry Kissinger, who, with the encouragement of the US government, was having conversations with two Frenchmen who had old ties to Ho Chi Minh. McNamara claims that he hoped that this effort might achieve an honorable deal. In other words, though we might not have a victory, our military effort would have produced a tenable outcome. As facts have since disclosed, however, that was a flimsy excuse. Officers of the Defense and State departments, as is now well known, were then talking intermittently with Henry Kissinger but there was no serious discussion of his eventually making a trip to Hanoi.

In 1984, when called on to testify in a libel case brought by General West-moreland against CBS, McNamara reiterated his contention of a two-track objective. The war, he claimed, had been directed not merely to achieve a military victory, but also to create the conditions on which Hanoi would be prepared to accept a political solution. He admitted that by 1965 or 1966 he had concluded that the war was “militarily unwinnable” but that by making the North Vietnamese continue to suffer increasing damage the United States might persuade them to end the war on an honorable basis. Aside from these statements McNamara for years refused to talk about Vietnam. Finally, at a conference in Kyoto, Japan, in April 1991, he answered a newspaperman who asked how he could explain his support of the war by saying, for the first time I know of publicly: “I got it wrong.” On being further pressed by the correspondent for the London Observer he said: “My God, I said it was wrong.”

Shapley does not fully describe an important aspect of McNamara’s situation. When anyone holding a key position in the Johnson administration found himself in disagreement with a policy of the government, he faced a hard decision. He might publicly support official policy while quietly working within administration circles to change the President’s attitude, or he might resign and go public with his disagreement.

That was a particularly agonizing choice for McNamara. He has recently said that he lost hope in a military victory as early as 1964, but that seems an error of memory, since as late as January 27, 1965, he and McGeorge Bundy collaborated on a memorandum to the President recommending that America pursue a military solution in Vietnam.

McNamara furthermore could not absolve himself of responsibility for getting America into the Vietnam mess; the record was clear that, except for the President, he more than almost anyone else had led the country into it. Thus there was no way he could honestly establish that he had, from the beginning, doubted the chances for victory. Thus to resign and go public could leave him with the sense that he had deceived the President and those colleagues with whom he had been working in an atmosphere of high confidence. In addition, he would feel that he was betraying the American forces already taking casualties in the rice paddies and jungles, and thus any enemy victories thereafter would seem his responsibility.

Finally, McNamara had to assess carefully what he might accomplish by going public. The White House would certainly have tried hard to discredit anything he had to say. Had he chosen to resign the White House would, within hours, have begun leaking stories that the President had long been planning to dismiss him on the ground that “McNamara had lost his courage, and the President had been considering asking him to resign for some time.”

Yet I would not take the harshly judgmental attitude that Shapley does. That McNamara was undergoing intense intellectual and emotional turmoil seems clear, and if he tried to rationalize his expressions of an optimism that he personally doubted by relying on negotiations that Kissinger or others were undertaking, he was trying to make the best of a bad situation, even at the cost of stretching the truth. Presumably, he had been too responsive to the views of Lyndon Johnson, just as earlier, so Shapley reports, he had been influenced even against his own judgment by the views of Henry Ford.

Particularly poignant in McNamara’s case, as I have long seen it, is not only that America under his guidance had failed to win the Vietnam War but that this failure had caused him to lose faith in his fundamental belief—in the pure logic of numbers. That produced much the same trauma in his soul as in a Christian’s who had lost his faith in God. His constant dependence on quantification had largely accounted for his success up to then—first with the Air Force under Thornton, then at Ford. At the beginning of his term as secretary it had helped him rationalize the dishevelment at the Pentagon. That he could not wholly rely on it for the management of a war devastated him.

I have often speculated that McNamara had initially appraised the Vietnam imbroglio by measuring the resources of the United States both in highly advanced weapons and potential well-trained military personnel and found them to be x times greater than the same type of assets available to North Vietnam. Thus strategy, he had concluded, need consist merely in finding the most effective method to apply those resources to exploit our definitive advantage.

But, of course, his assessment was basically flawed. McNamara’s logic of numbers omitted elements of power that could never be quantified—and these proved more important than any advantage in physical resources. The unquantifiable elements included the history of Southeast Asia, the élan of the opposition, the impact of racial differences, Hanoi’s hatred of colonial powers and its ability to mobilize its people to fight and die, and the identification of the American forces with their French predecessors.


In retrospect, it seems only reasonable that McNamara should have welcomed the leadership of the World Bank when that post was offered him in 1967. The prospect that the appointment would insulate him from having to make further comments on the war may have been a reason for his accepting it, but in my view this was by no means the controlling reason. He saw the leadership of the bank as giving him a chance to help the peoples of the Third World. I talked with him at the time and commented that the bank had become muscle-bound. He replied with deep conviction that the bank had unused potential and that, with proper management, it could become an extremely important instrument through which a great many good things could be accomplished.

Until McNamara’s arrival, the bank had contented itself with lending funds for large-scale public works and had built its bureaucracy around that practice. During his tenure, he shifted the flow of funds from large-scale projects (which could, in the short term, benefit only the richer part of a population), and instead redirected a large part of them to diminish tragic poverty among the rural peoples, particularly by fully exploiting the potential of new agricultural methods.

I was at the time particularly impressed by his clear recognition of the appalling implications of the current rate of population growth and by his intention to concentrate the bank’s talents and energy on trying to stop trends that could lead only to catastrophe. Meanwhile, he enormously increased the bank’s lending potential and showed considerable wisdom and foresight in meeting the challenges precipitated by the Arab oil producers and OPEC. Contrary to the typically myopic view of Nixon and particularly of his treasury secretary, William E. Simon, that OPEC as a cartel could be broken by American pressure, McNamara took the Middle Eastern oil sheiks seriously. Thus, with America refusing further funds to the bank, he arranged for substantial loans from OPEC nations in the Middle East and from Venezuela.

That the bank made mistakes during McNamara’s tenure is no doubt true, but a great deal of the criticism of him has come from the interests with which he had always had to deal—those committed to the status quo. He may have fallen too much under the spell of President Julius Kambarage Nyerere of Tanzania, whose plans for state-sponsored community developments were on the whole disastrous. But he did raise the level of life of many of the world’s poor—particularly outside Africa.

Moreover, world agriculture was then undergoing a huge transformation. Combined with the traditional cyclical fluctuations that are endemic to food production—such as droughts and plagues—this made his task an enormously difficult one. But if one discounts the criticisms of those who held a different philosophy of management or who saw no hope in ever promoting the economic progress of the poorer elements of the third world, he showed both wisdom and courage in trying to give the world’s poorest peoples a better life and, as he put it, “fundamental human dignity.”

If McNamara’s ideas were contrary to the conventional wisdom then pervading the institution’s bureaucracy, he disregarded that minor annoyance as he had done at Ford and at the Defense Department. He insisted on imposing his own views, and by doing so he inevitably disenchanted the bureaucrats, thus creating another large claque of critics, many of whom welcomed the chance to spread evil tidings about McNamara. He had approached the leadership of the bank with the same management concepts he had applied in the Pentagon. And as with the Defense Department, he left the bank greatly improved in efficiency.

With Shapley’s final summing up of McNamara’s career, I have several quarrels. She dismisses his achievements at Ford with the disparaging comment that in 1981 Ford “was fighting for its existence almost as hard as it had back in 1946,” since Ford was losing market share to the Japanese. That, of course, confuses two problems. Ford’s difficulties in 1946 resulted largely from its failure to achieve the efficiencies which domestic competition then required. What McNamara accomplished in his tour at Ford before 1961 unquestionably prepared the company not only to meet tough domestic competition from the other members of the Big Three, but also to survive the foreign competition that later became the major problem of all the domestic auto manufacturers.

Nor, as I have noted, did the failure of the TFX totally discredit the principle of commonality; indeed, it is even more relevant today when Americans should be enjoying some peace dividend. Shapley also maintains that following McNamara’s tour at the World Bank the number of rural programs he had championed decreased in the mid-1980s. But she should address that criticism to his successors.

She concludes:

It will take a long time for these big institutions to recover from the ills of the era of mass-production management, for the imperviousness of the old system is one of its devastating traits.

That is not very convincing. McNamara did much lasting good for the operation of the Pentagon, just as he did for the World Bank.

How then should one sum up the qualities of Robert McNamara? James Reston of The New York Times assessed the capacities of this highly gifted man in a paragraph quoted by Shapley:

The issue about the Secretary of Defense…is his decisive efficiency in putting over dubious policies…. He is tidy, he is confident, he has the sincerity of an Old Testament prophet, but something is missing: some element of personal doubt, some respect for human weakness, some knowledge of history.

That, it seems to me, is a wise and considered appraisal of a remarkable public servant who, had America not been caught up in an unwinnable war, might by now have earned at least a second-row seat in the national Pantheon.

  1. *

    Jean Monnet, Memoirs (Doubleday, 1978), p. 127.