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…

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