The catchword most often associated with Robert S. McNamara’s seven years as Secretary of Defense was “systems analysis.” Yet the greatest deficiency in the book which brings together his most important public papers during those years is his incapacity for analyzing systems, though of another order. No one would guess from these antiseptic pages that there are such things as militarism, or a military-industrial complex, or just plain politics, and that they represent systems, i.e., inescapable relationships which affected the problems McNamara faced in the Pentagon and the decisions he made.

McNamara voices all the stereotypes of liberal humanitarianism, but he keeps them free from the grime of reality. He argues for wider public knowledge and participation in defense problems, and says we must not be frightened away by their complexity. But the only complexity with which he deals is the minor one of weaponry. He omits the other and greater social complexities in which decisions of weaponry are enmeshed. He reminds one of a mid-Victorian novelist writing without mention of sweat or sex.

Let me cite two simple but fateful decisions—one at the very threshold, the other at the end—of his stewardship. Both sharply raised the tempo of the arms race, and involved—as he himself admits—billions of wasted dollars without in any way adding to national safety; indeed, they magnified the dimensions of peril. One was his surrender to Kennedy on the missile gap, the other was his surrender to Johnson on the anti-ballistic missile. Both represented the victory of politics over reason, and of military-industrial interests over real considerations of security. An informed public would have been a powerful ally against both decisions; and McNamara tried in some degree to marshal it. But how can an effective opinion be created if men as able as McNamara are squeamish about telling the full truth?

There is a striking difference between this farewell message by the ablest civilian manager our military establishment ever had and those of our two greatest soldier presidents. That difference in the end may prove a disservice, outweighing all the managerial and budgetary reforms with which McNamara is credited. Washington in his Farewell Address warned against the danger to liberty in “an overgrown military establishment” and Eisenhower provided a graphic new term for an old problem when he warned against the “military-industrial complex.” These two warnings provide fundamental insights into basic institutional dangers, and the warnings were given weight because they came from such honored military men.

But McNamara after seven years of wrestling with the military bureaucracy nowhere even uses the term or touches on the meaning of militarism as a social phenomenon. On the contrary, he is so blind to the intrinsic nature of military establishments and the mentality they develop that he advocates new social missions for the Pentagon, particularly in education! He seems unaware of the social consequences when he proposes to apply on a larger scale at home those “civic action” military programs we have helped to launch in Latin America. “Quite apart from the projects themselves,” he says of this Latin experience, “the program powerfully alters the negative image of the military man as the oppressive preserver of the status quo.” This is public relations, not social engineering. It may change the image in glossy North American publications, but not the reality in Latin America.

McNamara seems unaware that the fruit of all this civic action our Marines began to launch a half century ago has been a succession of Neros like Somoza, Batista, and Trujillo. The same tough-guy types and the same authoritarian temperaments are bred by our own—and every—military establishment. It does not speak well for McNamara that after so many turbulent years of close association with these men McNamara seems to have missed the point. This master of quantification seems poorly equipped for factors which escape measurement—like the quality of men and institutions. His proposal that the Pentagon move into social problems has now been taken up by his successor, Clark Clifford, a better political operator but without McNamara’s enormous energy and grasp of detail. In a speech September 26 Clifford said he had asked his aides to draw up for the new administration plans under which the military services could help “in alleviating some of our most pressing domestic problems.” This is the road to Argentina and Peru.

The most striking example of McNamara’s shortsightedness in this area lies in his attitude toward the concept of the military-industrial complex. A certain complacency, perhaps conceit, leads McNamara to gloss it over. Several years before Eisenhower launched the famous phrase, Lt. Gen. James M. Gavin, after his retirement in 1958 as Chief of Research and Development in the Pentagon, touched on the fierce pressures the arms manufacturers, with their allies in Congress and the military, are able to exert. In his book War and Peace in the Space Age, he said it took “the judgment of Solomon and no little political fortitude” to resist them. McNamara seems so confident that he possessed both that, in a farewell newspaper interview he gave the Associated Press (Washington Star, Feb. 4, 1968), he dismissed the dangers against which Gavin warned. His interviewer, Saul Pett, asked McNamara whether he shared Eisenhower’s concern about the military-industrial complex. “I don’t,” McNamara replied, “as long as the Secretary of Defense operates as he should, examining all the factors of a problem and making decisions on his own analysis, regardless of the pressures applied to him.”1 The reply is not really responsive. It does not touch on the problem—the pressures which prevent the Secretary from operating “as he should.”


THE military-industrial complex has been a reality ever since war, in the latter part of the last century, became big business. It made its debut in the naval rivalry which enriched steel and shipbuilding companies in England and Germany and helped to bring on World War I. The power of the military-industrial alliance has grown with the cost of armaments and the magnitude of military spending since World War II. It is embodied in a network of trade associations that link the defense industries to the Pentagon. Like many of the corporations themselves, these organizations are staffed by a multitude of retired generals and admirals. Their pressures distort military decision and national policy. No doubt McNamara overcame these pressures in many intra-mural controversies, as in the shelving of the nuclear powered airplane, the Skybolt missile, the RS-70 supersonic bomber, and the Dynasoar program. But from an overall point of view, the military-industrial complex never had it so good as in the McNamara years. Eisenhower’s last military budget was $44 billion; McNamara’s last was almost twice that amount. The monster fattened even as McNamara strove mightily to keep its nose clean in public. It might even be said that he saved it from its own excesses. He was more its nursemaid than its master.

If the President backs the Secretary of Defense, McNamara asked his AP interviewer in what was intended to be a clincher, “how can the military-industrial complex get to him?” He said he was backed by both Kennedy and Johnson, as no doubt on many occasions he was. But he did not mention their failure to back him in two of his most momentous decisions. It was the political power of the military-industrial complex operating through the Presidency which forced McNamara against his better knowledge and judgment to acquiesce, when he took office, in the costly fraud of the “missile gap”; and which also forced him, as he left office, to participate in the nonsense about building a “thin” anti-missile defense against China. Yet nowhere in the index nor in the chaste pages of his book, The Essence of Security, is there any reference to the military-industrial complex. The nearest that McNamara comes to this indelicate fact of life in the Pentagon is when he writes, “Every hour of every day the Secretary is confronted by a conflict between the national interest and the parochial interests of particular industries, individual services, or local areas.” This is flutteringly vague. No one would guess from that pallid little sentence, or anything else in the book, what enormous pressures the arms lobby can generate or the major occasions on which they overwhelmed McNamara himself. Yet to repeat the phrase McNamara chose as title of his book, “the essence of security” lies not so much in any external enemy as in controlling these interests and the momentum of the arms race from which they profit. This is what we most need defense against.

It may be urged on McNamara’s behalf that these are official speeches in which he could not afford to be wholly candid. But so were Washington’s and Eisenhower’s. In any case the excuse implies that the Secretary was unable, as a prisoner of forces stronger than himself, to tell the whole truth. But this excuse attests to the power of the institutional forces whose potency he disparages. Now that he is out of the Pentagon, he could have touched upon them in a preface, but perhaps the admission would have been too much for his pride. McNamara is at bottom a bright schoolboy who hates to have anything less than A-plus on his report card; his idealized image is the No. 1 Whiz Kid. To admit the realities would be to admit that he was not wholly capable of mastering them.

THE fact is that McNamara arrived in Washington an innocent country lad from the bucolic simplicities of the automobile business. He seemed never to have heard that dirty eight-letter word politics. He discovered on reading the secret reports when he took office that there was no missile gap, and proceeded in all fresh innocence and enthusiasm to tell this to the press as if it were glad tidings, as indeed it was or should have been. Had he done a little systems analysis, of the kind which comes easily to politicians who never heard of computers, he would have realized that he was stepping into a complicated situation in which the facts and the truth were minor considerations. He was giving aid and comfort to the enemy, i.e., the Republican Party. McNamara’s press conference put Kennedy’s new Secretary of Defense squarely behind Eisenhower who had declared only three weeks earlier in his last State of the Union message, “The ‘bomber gap’ of several years ago was always a fiction, and the ‘missile gap’ shows every sign of being the same.” It also undercut one of Kennedy’s principal campaign themes, and, as any sophisticated observer would surmise, threatened to upset a network of understandings between the Democratic Party and the aviation lobby, “contracts”—as the politicians say—whence many campaign contributions had flowed.


The roof fell in on McNamara. Next day Pierre Salinger told the press that he was speaking with Kennedy’s approval in terming McNamara’s finding “absolutely wrong.” It is a pity there is no record of what went on between Kennedy and McNamara. The latter must have been startled to discover that in Washington facts counted for so little; his discovery, after all, was far from sensational. Even my little Weekly, in an issue which went to press a week before the McNamara backgrounder (which was restricted to a select few) had called attention to evidence that there was no missile gap, including a report by Britain’s Institute of Strategic Studies. This credited Russia with only 35 ICBM’s as against the 400 to 500 figure given in the exuberant leaks to the press from Air Force Intelligence and the aviation lobby. Perhaps the facts marshalled by McNamara in a White House showdown explain why Kennedy himself, the day after Salinger’s “absolutely wrong,” scaled down his own rebuke to “premature.” But six weeks later in his first budget message to Congress, Kennedy unabashedly declared, “It has been publicly acknowledged for several years that this nation has not led the world in missile strength,” and launched a huge missile buildup, though authoritative figures from the outgoing Republicans showed we were not only ahead in long-range missiles but had ten times as many vehicles (missiles and bombers) capable of reaching Russia with nuclear weapons as Russia had capable of reaching the US. Now in his new book McNamara lifts the curtain just a little on that farce and ever so gingerly calls it a mistake. This is in the chapter based on his San Francisco speech of September, 1967, which was supposed to be sensationally candid. McNamara said of that 1961 decision:

Our current numerical superiority over the Soviet Union in reliable, accurate and effective warheads is both greater than we had originally planned and much more than we require. How this came about is a significant illustration of the intrinsic dynamics of the nuclear arms race…. In 1961 when I became Secretary of Defense, the Soviet Union had a very small operational arsenal of intercontinental missiles. However, it did possess the technological and industrial capacity to enlarge that arsenal very substantially…. We had to insure against such an eventuality by undertaking a major buildup of our own Minuteman and Polaris forces…. But the blunt fact remains that if we had had more accurate information about planned [my italics] strategic forces, we simply would not have needed to build as large a nuclear arsenal as we have today…. I am not saying that our decision in 1961 was unjustified; I am saying that it was necessitated by a lack of accurate information.

This apparent candor covers a network of deceptions. If the reader will go over McNamara’s passage carefully, he will see that he not only admits there was no missile gap but admits he knew it at the time. He falls back on the excuse that we had no “accurate information” on what the Soviets planned in the way of future production. But that is not how the Kennedy Administration told it at the time. The public was told that we were behind; that there was a missile gap. Ralph Lapp, in his penetrating new book, The Weapons Culture,2 puts it plainly when he writes, “There was no missile gap but it was not politically expedient to admit this fact. Instead, the myth was perpetuated and the arms race accelerated.” Kennedy, “having campaigned on a missile gap platform apparently found it politically necessary to commit the nation to more missiles than Mr. McNamara believed to be enough for strategic deterrence.” All this was due to the power of the military-industrial complex, which Lapp’s book explores and whose potency McNamara denies.

The inadequacy of McNamara’s account becomes more striking if one checks back on those given in Sorenson’s Kennedy and Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days. The former says that the U-2 flights disclosed that Khrushchev’s first ICBM had proven “too costly, too cumbersome and too vulnerable a weapon for mass production,” and that he had settled “for a very few of these missiles” while he tried to develop a better ICBM. Schlesinger writes that while the “missile gap” had “withered away” by the time the first Kennedy budget was prepared, it nevertheless provided for more missiles than did the extensive program already launched under Eisenhower. Schlesinger says “the White House staff…wondered whether the new budget was not providing far more missiles than national security required.” He is protective of Kennedy and blames McNamara for the increase. Schlesinger says that McNamara

did not believe that doubling or even tripling our striking power would enable us to destroy the hardened missile sites or missilelaunching submarines of our adversary. But he was already engaged in a bitter fight with the Air Force over his effort to disengage from the B-70, a costly high-altitude manned bomber rendered obsolescent by the improvement in Soviet ground-to-air missiles. After cutting down the original Air Force missile demands considerably, he perhaps felt that he could not do more without risking public conflict with the Joint Chiefs and the vociferous B-70 lobby in Congress. As a result, the President went along with the policy of multiplying Polaris and Minuteman missiles.

This shift of blame to McNamara strains one’s credulity. But what it adds up to is that Kennedy and McNamara built more missiles than they thought we needed in order to appease the Joint Chiefs and the aviation lobby for the cancellation of the B-70. This is a very different decision-making process than that portrayed by McNamara in the Pett interview and in The Essence of Security. “The blunt fact,” to use McNamara’s phrase, is that it was not lack of accurate information, nor in this case “the intrinsic dynamics of the arms race,” but the dynamics of the political system and the military-industrial complex which led us to over-build.

Another point and another revelation is in order before we leave this McNamara account of what happened. McNamara went on to another misleading half-disclosure:

Furthermore, that decision in itself, justified as it was, in the end could not possibly have left unaffected the Soviet Union’s future nuclear plans…. the Soviet reaction is in part a reaction to our own buildup since the beginning of the 1960s. Soviet strategic planners undoubtedly reasoned that if our buildup were to continue at its accelerated pace, we might conceivably reach in time a credible first-strike capability against the Soviet Union. That was not, in fact, our intention…. But…the result has been that we have both built up our forces to a point that far exceeds a credible second strike capability.

THIS IS only half the story. The whole story is that, after the U-2 incident, the Russians knew that we knew the truth about the missile gap. They hoped the new Administration would not unleash a new phase in the arms race by acting as if there were a missile gap. They tried to open talks with the new Administration on this problem but met with what may have sounded to them like nuclear double-talk. We owe this revelation to another passage (p. 301) in Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days. McNamara’s account has to be read against Schlesinger’s:

The Soviet Union watched the arrival of the new administration with marked interest. Khrushchev, who had given up on Eisenhower after the U-2 incident and the collapse of the Paris summit in May, 1960, seized several opportunities to semaphore his hopes for Kennedy. His messages to Harriman and others after the election were followed by a Pugwash meeting on disarmament in Moscow in December [1960]…. Walt Rostow and Jerome B. Wiesner, who were among the Americans at the Moscow meeting, saw V. V. Kuznetsov of the Soviet Foreign Office…. In the course of their talk Kuznetsov mentioned the campaign furor about a “missile gap” and suggested that, if the new administration went in for massive rearmament, it could not expect the Russians to sit still.

So Kennedy and McNamara knew at the time they made their decisions that they were choosing between the appeasement of military-industrial pressures at home and a chance to avert a sharp and costly step-up in the arms race with the Russians. The American public may have been in the dark but both sides understood the cost entailed if the new Administration gave in to the missile gap propaganda. This again is very different from the picture drawn by McNamara.

Rostow’s reply to the Russians, as reported by Schlesinger, must have made the Russians feel that we took them for fools. “Rostow replied,” Schlesinger writes, “that any Kennedy rearmament would be designed to improve the stability of the deterrent, and the Soviet Union should recognize this as in the interests of peace; but Kuznetsov, innocent of the higher calculus of deterrence as recently developed in the United States, brusquely dismissed the explanation.” It is hard to know whether Schlesinger wrote this tongue-in-cheek. The “higher calculus of deterrence” must have seemed to Kuznetsov sheer cant, a high-falutin new synonym for the low arithmetic of domestic arms-lobby politics, which was threatening to develop a US first strike capacity rather than a stable deterrent. This, and not the lack of accurate information, is why both sides find themselves with far more destructive capacity than they need. McNamara’s account is far from being as candid as it appears to be.

This is even more true when McNamara comes to discuss the ABM, the anti-ballistic missile. The definitive and final word on the missile-to-shoot-down-a-missile was said by General Omar Bradley in a little noticed and undeservedly forgotten speech he made at St. Alban’s3 in Washington, in 1957. “Missiles will bring anti-missiles,” General Bradley predicted, “and anti-missiles will bring anti-an i-missiles” until this “whole electronic house of cards” collapses; the only way out is “accommodation in a world split by rival ideologies” even if at the cost of “such sacred traditions as absolute national sovereignty.” McNamara’s argument against the ABM is on a less lofty plane. It is in the realm of hardware rather than philosophy. McNamara argues that the enemy may easily over-whelm our batteries of anti-missiles by adding to the number of attacking missiles or the number of warheads they carry. Both sides would step up their missiles and anti-missiles in this mad arithmetic and still find themselves where they started. McNamara’s powerful presentation of this argument may be found in Chapter Four as reprinted from his San Francisco speech against the ABM.

But if the text of the speech as delivered is compared with the text reprinted as Chapter Four of the book, one finds that the book omits—almost as if he were ashamed of it and preferred to forget it—that portion of the speech which embodied his backdown under pressure from Johnson, and his acquiescence in a “thin” ABM system, ostensibly aimed only at China. That portion of the speech has been relegated to an appendix, which includes the admission in the original speech, “The danger in deploying this relatively light and reliable Chinese-oriented ABM system is going to be that pressures will develop to expand it into a heavy Soviet-oriented ABM system. We must resist that temptation firmly.” The advice seems ironic from a man who had just succumbed to the first step away from his own better judgment and in the direction of a new and destabilizing chapter in the nuclear arms race.

FEW READERS of the McNamara book will realize that Chapter Four is the relic of a retreat from the very argument it presents and a surrender to the pressures of the military-industrial complex. These had been building up for years. In 1959, Eisenhower rejected a recommendation by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the US build an anti-ballistic missile defense. The wisdom of that rejection had been underscored by McNamara himself only nine months before his backdown. On January 23, 1967, at the annual Senate “military posture” hearing he testified that if Eisenhower had gone ahead with that ABM system, the Nike-Zeus, in 1959 at an estimated cost of $13-14 billion, “most of it would have had to be torn out and replaced, almost before it became operative, by the new missiles and radars of the Nike-X system.” The lesson he tried to drive home was, “By the same token other technological developments in offensive forces over the next seven years may make obsolete or drastically degrade the Nike-X system as presently envisioned.” A few weeks later, to emphasize the point, the Defense Department disclosed that the US had spent $20 billion since World War II on missile systems never completed or out of service because of obsolescence. Their military value was nil but the social waste and the private profit were enormous.

In that portion of the San Francisco speech which remains in Chapter Four, McNamara cites the fact that the Science Advisers of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, and the Directors of Research and Engineering at the Pentagon under his Secretaryship and those of his two Republican predecessors had all advised against the deployment of an ABM system. They all saw in it “a senseless spiral upward of nuclear arms.” But in 1967 Nixon and the Republicans in Congress, allied with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were pressing an ABM gap against the Democrats as the Democrats and the military had pressed a missile gap against the Republicans six years earlier. Johnson gave in to that pressure. Ralph Lapp in his book says of this what McNamara should have said in his: “If a US President authorizes a $5 billion Sentinel system to protect himself from Republican charges of failing to insure the nation’s security, then one might just as well junk all the elaborate systems of defense analysis that we possess.”

It is these systems on which McNamara’s reputation is based. He betrayed them by acquiescing in the ABM in 1967 as he acquiesced in the missile gap build-up in 1961. This man, who prides himself on objective considerations of cost-effectiveness, and at the same time tries hard to live by liberal precepts, could have ended his term in office with honor by resigning on the ABM issue, as he might have resigned on the even more compelling issue of the continued bombing of North Vietnam. But Vietnam, his most traumatic experience and the scene of his most disastrous misjudgments, is barely mentioned in passing. The noblest effort of his career, his testimony of August 25, 1967, before the Stennis subcommittee of the Senate, in which he cogently argued the case against the bombing of the North, is not even included in his book, again as if he would like to forget it and to have it forgotten. McNamara is capable of writing that world-wide student unrest springs from “the fear that somehow society, all society—East and West—has fallen victim to a bureaucratic tyranny of technology that is gradually depersonalizing and alienating modern man himself.” How inspiring an example he might have set if he had himself defied this “bureaucratic tyranny” and resigned in protest against the bombing of the North, or the decision to embark on the ABM, with all the fateful consequences against which he himself warned! If loyalty to the bureaucratic and political team is to outweigh loyalty to mankind, what hope can there be? Certainly nothing McNamara can possibly do at the World Bank can begin to match what he might have done by a resignation on either or both of these issues.

The elaborate reasons McNamara gives in the appendix as to why it is all right to build a “thin” system against China though not a big one against Russia are a subterfuge. The advocates of an ABM regard the decision to build a “thin” $5-billion defense as the entering wedge for a big one which will cost from $40 to $70 billion. The idea of an ABM defense against China is best judged by comparing our nuclear power with theirs. “Our alert forces alone carry more than 2200 weapons” averaging more than one megaton apiece, McNamara disclosed in the San Francisco speech. As against this nuclear armada, the debates in Congress have revealed that our intelligence believes that by the mid-Seventies the Chinese may have four or five intercontinental missiles! The best reply to McNamara’s Chinese argument was the comment of Senator Russell, who favors a big ABM. “The Chinese are not completely crazy,” he said. “They are not going to attack us with 4 or 5 missiles when they know we have the capability of virtually destroying their entire country…. I don’t like people to think that I am being kidded by this talk of a defense against a Chinese nuclear attack.”

The ABM will prove the biggest military-scientific gravy train yet. A few days after the San Francisco speech, announcing that we would build the “thin” ABM against China, Senator Clark of Pennsylvania called the Senate’s attention to what happened in the stock market. He said the story was there. “Where is the ABM money going to go? Raytheon, up 4 and 1/8 to 91 and 1/8 on Monday, September 18, the day of the McNamara speech; Aerojet General, up 4 and 5/8 to 33 and 1/4 on the same day. Strong rising trends have been just as visible in other major ABM contractors—Thiokol, Martin Marietta and Sperry Rand. The vast new defense pork lunch wagon—maybe the biggest ever—has begun to roll, and the investors on the stock market know it.” The money needed “to rebuild our cities and heal the wounds in our society,” Clark protested, “is being drained off to build Armageddon instead.” These are the realities one will not find in McNamara’s book.

“There is a deeply held conviction among many people that technology advances in lock step with war—and that this is the only feasible avenue for technological innovation. But the farm tractor came long before the armored tank and the Wright brothers enjoyed no military subsidy. When the supersonic transport reached the development stage, the aircraft companies found that they could not borrow military technology to take shortcuts and save money on the new plan. In the case of the work undertaken for manned lunar flight, a program costing some $30 billion, much of the effort went to huge boosters, enormous tanks, pumps, and “freak out” engineering with little relevance to the civilian economy. While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration concentrated on getting men to the moon, metropolitan surface travel and city-to-city air travel clogged the available traffic lanes. The safety of air passengers was jeopardized as NASA spent less than 1% of its funds on aeronautics.”

—Ralph E. Lapp, The Weapons Culture

“The Long Island housewife who assembles tiny electronic components for a bomb-mechanism does not associate herself with a weapon that may bring death to some victim. She lives in her own microcosm and, if queried about her occupation, may shrug off the questioner with a reply, ‘a job is a job.’ The scholarly professor who probes the chemical secrets of certain compounds may fail to associate his research with destructive defoliants. The Senator who champions a $40 billion Nike-X defense will reject the charge that he is his own lobbyist, asserting that his only concern is with national security. The industrialist who mass-produces napalm may brush aside any qualms he may have with the contention that he simply fulfills orders given to him by his government…. If all are compliant and feel no responsibility, then our democracy is in jeopardy.”

—Ralph E. Lapp, The Weapons Culture

This Issue

November 7, 1968