Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara

Robert Strange McNamara was born in San Francisco on 9th June, 1916. He graduated from the University of California with a degree in economics and philosophy in 1937. Two years later he obtained a master's degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. After working for Price Waterhouse he he took up a teaching post at Harvard Business School.

During the Second World War McNamara he joined the United States Air Force and served under Curtis LeMay and saw action in Britain, India, China, and the Pacific. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and promoted to lieutenant colonel before leaving in April 1946.

McNamara now joined the Ford Motor Company. According to Harold Jackson: " Instead of returning to Harvard, and with his reputation as an administrator, he joined nine of his military colleagues in a team offering management expertise to commercial organisations. Henry Ford II, whose motor company was in deep trouble at the time, took up the team's offer and let its members loose on a root-and-branch shake-up of his firm. The so-called whiz kids were deeply unpopular with other executives, but their reorganisation and decentralisation of Ford was later cited as one of the business triumphs of postwar America."

McNamara gradually worked up the company ladder. He was appointed as assistant general manager of the car division. Later he became a group executive. By 1960 McNamara was the first person from outside the family of Henry Ford to become president of the company. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed McNamara as Secretary of Defense of the United States.

In the last few months of the administration of Dwight Eisenhower, the Air Force began to argue that it needed a successor to its F-105 tactical fighter. This became known as the TFX/F-111 project. In January, 1961, McNamara, changed the TFX from an Air Force program to a joint Air Force-Navy under-taking. On 1st October, the two services sent the aircraft industry the request for proposals on the TFX and the accompanying work statement, with instructions to submit the bids by 1st December, 1961. Three of the bids were submitted by individual companies: the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, the North American Aviation Corporation and the Boeing Company. The other three bids represented team efforts: Republic Aviation & Chance Vought; General Dynamics Corporation & Grumman Aircraft; and McDonnell Aircraft & Douglas Aircraft.

It soon became clear that Boeing was expected to get the contract. Its main competitor was the General Dynamics/Grumman bid. General Dynamics had been America’s leading military contractors during the early stages of the Cold War. For example, in 1958 it obtained $2,239,000,000 worth of government business. This was a higher figure than those obtained by its competitors, such as Lockheed, Boeing, McDonnell and North American. More than 80 percent of the firm’s business came from the government. However, the company lost $27 million in 1960 and $143 million in 1961. According to an article by Richard Austin Smith in Fortune Magazine, General Dynamics was close to bankruptcy. Smith claimed that “unless it gets the contract for the joint Navy-Air Force fighter (TFX)… the company was down the road to receivership”.

General Dynamics had several factors in its favour. The president of the company was Frank Pace, the Secretary of the Army (April, 1950-January, 1953). The Deputy Secretary of Defense in 1962 was Roswell Gilpatric, who before he took up the post, was chief counsel for General Dynamics. The Secretary of the Navy was John Connally, a politician from Texas, the state where General Dynamics had its main plant. When he left the job in 1962 he was replaced by another Texan, Fred Korth. According to author Seth Kantor, Korth, the former president of the Continental National Bank of Fort Worth, Texas, only got the job as Secretary of the Navy after strong lobbying from Lyndon B. Johnson. A few weeks after taking the post, Korth overruled top Navy officers who had proposed that the X-22 contract be given to Douglas Aircraft Corporation. Instead he insisted the contract be granted to the more expensive bid of the Bell Corporation. This was a subsidiary of Bell Aerospace Corporation of Forth Worth, Texas. For many years Korth had been a director of Bell. The chairman of the company, Lawrence Bell, was a fellow member of the Suite 8F Group.

Korth also became very involved in discussions about the TFX contract. Korth, was the former president of the Continental Bank, which had loaned General Dynamics considerable sums of money during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Korth later told the John McClellan committee that investigated the granting of the TFX contract to General Dynamics “that because of his peculiar position he had deliberately refrained from taking a directing hand in this decision (within the Navy) until the last possible moment.”

As I. F. Stone pointed out, it was “the last possible moment” which counted. “Three times the Pentagon’s Source Selection Board found that Boeing’s bid was better and cheaper than that of General Dynamics and three times the bids were sent back for fresh submissions by the two bidders and fresh reviews. On the fourth round, the military still held that Boeing was better but found at last that the General Dynamics bid was also acceptable.” Stone goes on to argue: “The only document the McClellan committee investigators were able to find in the Pentagon in favour of that award, according to their testimony, was a five-page memorandum signed by McNamara, Korth, and Eugene Zuckert, then Secretary of the Air Force.”

McNamara justified his support for General Dynamics because “Boeing had from the very beginning consistently chosen more technically risky tradeoffs in an effort to achieve operational features which exceeded the required performance characteristics.” The TFX program involved the building of 1,700 planes for the Navy and the Air Force. The contract was estimated to be worth over $6.5 billion, making it the largest contract for military planes in the nation’s history.

On 24th October, 1962, Seth Kantor reported in the Fort Worth Press that: “General Dynamics of Fort Worth will get the multibillion-dollar defence contract to build the supersonic TFX Air Force and Navy fighter plane, the Fort Worth Press learned today from top Government sources.”

This was confirmed the following month when the Pentagon announced that the TFX contract would be awarded to General Dynamics. Henry M. Jackson was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate Government Operations Committee and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He learned that: “Boeing’s bid was substantially lower than its competitor’s. Reports indicated Boeing’s bid was $100 million lower on an initial development contract and that the cost difference might run as high as $400 million on the total $6.5 billion procurement.”

On 12th December, Lyndon B. Johnson visited Forth Worth to join in the festivities at the General Dynamics plant. Congressman James Wright, the Texas Democrat representing the Fort Worth district introduced Johnson as the “greatest Texan of them all”. He pointed out that Johnson had played an important role in obtaining the TFX contract. Wright added “you have to have friends and they have to stick with you through thick and thin even if you do have merit on your side.”

During the McClellan's Permanent Investigations Committee hearings into the contract, Senator Sam Ervin asked Robert McNamara “whether or not there was any connection whatever between your selection of General Dynamics, and the fact that the Vice President of the United States happens to be a resident of the state in which that company has one of its principal, if not its principal office.” At this point McNamara was close to tears and commented that: “Last night when I got home at midnight, after preparing for today’s hearing, my wife told me that my own 12-year-old son had asked how long it would take for his father to prove his honesty.”

McNamara rejected the idea that Lyndon B. Johnson was involved in the decision but evidence was to emerge that he did play an important role in the awarding of the TFX project to General Dynamics. For example, William Proxmire found some interesting information on the TFX project while investigating the role played by Richard Russell in the granting of the C-5A contract to Lockheed. The C-5A was built in Marietta, Georgia, the state that Russell represented. The Air Force Contract Selection Board originally selected Boeing that was located in the states of Washington and Kansas. However, Proxmire claimed that Russell was able to persuade the board to change its mind and give the C-5A contract to Lockhead.

Proxmire quotes Howard Atherton, the mayor of Marietta, as saying that “Russell was key to landing the contract”. Atherton added that Russell believed that Robert McNamara was going ahead with the C-5A in order to “give the plane to Boeing because Boeing got left out on the TFX fighter.” According to Atherton, Russell got the contract after talking to Lyndon Johnson. Atherton added, “without Russell, we wouldn’t have gotten the contract”.

On 26th June, 1963, Clark R. Mollenhoff managed to interview Robert McNamara about his role in awarding the TFX contract to General Dynamics. McNamara claimed that Johnson had applied to political pressure on him concerning the contract. He admitted that he knew all about Fred Korth’s business relationship with General Dynamics and Bell Aerospace. He also revealed he was aware of Roswell Gilpatric’s role “as a lawyer for General Dynamics just prior to coming into government, the role of Gilpatric’s law firm in continuing to represent General Dynamics, and the amount of money Gilpatric had received from the law firm since becoming Deputy Defense Secretary”. However, he was convinced that this did not influence the decision made by Fred Korth and Roswell Gilpatric.

Several journalists speculated that Johnson and his friends in Texas had played a key role in obtaining the TFX contract for General Dynamics. When "reporters discovered that the Continental National Bank of Fort Worth, was the principal money source for the General Dynamics plant" in October, 1963, Fred Korth was forced to resign as Secretary of the Navy.

Hanson W. Baldwin believed that the main villain was Robert McNamara. In an article in the Saturday Evening Post, Baldwin wrote: “Mr. McNamara has pressured the Joint Chiefs of Staff to sign written statements testifying to Congress that the Administration’s defence budget is adequate. He has censored, deleted and altered statements to Congress by the chiefs of the services and their secretaries. He has downgraded, ignored, bypassed or overruled the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff… It places more and more power over the military-industrial complex in the hands of a few men in the executive branch of the government. The dollar volumes of military contracts amount to more than $20 billion annually, with billions more in backlog orders outstanding. The individual services no longer have the final power to contract… The awarding or cancellation of contracts… is now ultimately controlled by a very few men in the top echelons of the Defence Department.”

Johnson’s role in these events was confirmed when Don B. Reynolds testified in a secret session of the Senate Rules Committee. As Victor Lasky pointed out, Reynolds “spoke of the time Bobby Baker opened a satchel full of paper money which he said was a $100,000 payoff for Johnson for pushing through a $7billion TFX plane contract.”

In the final months of his administration, Dwight Eisenhower was mainly concerned with trying to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro in Cuba. He was also worried about events in Laos and Vietnam. However, according to David Kaiser (American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson and the Origins of the Vietnam War) Kennedy subtly changed foreign policy after he gained office. “Ironically, while Eisenhower’s supposedly cautious approach in foreign policy had frequently been contrasted with his successors’ apparent aggressiveness, Kennedy actually spent much of his term resisting policies developed and approved under Eisenhower, both in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. He also had to deal with the legacy of the Eisenhower administration’s disastrous attempts to create a pro-Western rather than a neutral government in Laos – a policy he quickly reversed, thereby avoiding the need for American military intervention there.”

Kaiser admits that he the Kennedy administration did increase the number of American military personnel in South Vietnam from 600 in 1960 to 17,500 in 1963. However, although he sincerely wanted to help the South Vietnamese government cope with the Viet Cong he rejected war as a way to do so. Kennedy’s view of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia was expressed clearly at his first ever press conference. When asked about Laos he expressed his intentions to help create “a peaceful country – an independent country not dominated by either side but concerned with the life of the people within the country.” This was a marked departure from Eisenhower’s policy of supporting anti-communist military dictatorships in Southeast Asia and the Americas.

This analysis of Kennedy’s foreign policy is supported by two of his most important aides, Kenneth O'Donnell and David F. Powers. In their book, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye: Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, they describe how on 19 th January, 1960, Dwight Eisenhower briefed John F. Kennedy on “various important items of unfinished business”. This included news about “the rebel force that was being trained by the CIA in Guatemala to invade Cuba.” O’Donnell and Powers claimed that: “Eisenhower urged him to keep on supporting this plan to overthrow Castro. But Eisenhower talked mostly about Laos, which he then regarded as the most dangerous trouble spot in Southeast Asia. He mentioned South Vietnam only as one of the nations that would fall into the hands of the Communists if the United States failed to maintain the anti-Communist regime in Laos.” Kennedy was shocked by what Eisenhower told him. He later told his two aides: “There he sat, telling me to get ready to put ground forces into Asia, the thing he himself had been carefully avoiding for the last eight years.”

According to David Kaiser, it was not only the CIA and the Pentagon who wanted him to send troops to Laos and Vietnam. Members of his own administration, including McNamara, Lyndon B. Johnson, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and Roswell Gilpatric, were also strongly in favour of Eisenhower’s policy of “intervention in remote areas backed by nuclear weapons”.

Kaiser suggests the reason for this was that “these civilians were all from the GI generation, and to varying degrees they saw themselves as continuing the struggle against aggression and tyranny that had dominated their youth.” However, it has to be remembered that Johnson, McNamara and Gilpatric had all played an important role in the ensuring that General Dynamics got the TFX contract. Is it possible that they had other motives for involving the United States in a long-drawn out war?

Kennedy continued with his policy of trying to develop “independent” Third World countries. In September, 1962, Souvanna Phouma became head of a new coalition government in Laos. This included the appointment of the left-leaning Quinim Pholsena as Foreign Minister. However, Kennedy found it impossible to persuade Ngo Dinh Diem to broaden his government in South Vietnam.

Kennedy continued to resist all attempts to persuade him to send troops to Vietnam. His policy was reinforced by the Bay of Pigs operation. Kennedy told his assistant secretary of state, Roger Hilsman: “The Bay of Pigs has taught me a number of things. One is not to trust generals or the CIA, and the second is that if the American people do not want to use American troops to remove a Communist regime 90 miles away from our coast, how can I ask them to use troops to remove a Communist regime 9,000 miles away?"

In April, 1962, Kennedy told McGeorge Bundy to “seize upon any favourable moment to reduce our involvement” in Vietnam. In September, 1963, Robert Kennedy expressed similar views at a meeting of the National Security Council: “The first question was whether a Communist takeover could be successfully resisted with any government. If it could not, now was the time to get out of Vietnam entirely, rather than waiting.”

The decision by John F. Kennedy to withdraw from Vietnam was confirmed by John McCone, the director of the CIA: “When Kennedy took office you will recall that he won the election because he claimed that the Eisenhower administration had been weak on communism and weak in the treatment of Castro and so forth. So the first thing Kennedy did was to send a couple of men to Vietnam to survey the situation. They came back with the recommendation that the military assistance group be increased from 800 to 25,000. That was the start of our involvement. Kennedy, I believe, realized he'd made a mistake because 25,000 US military in a country such as South Vietnam means that the responsibility for the war flows to (the US military) and out of the hands of the South Vietnamese. So Kennedy, in the weeks prior to his death, realized that we had gone overboard and actually was in the process of withdrawing when he was killed and Johnson took over.”

On 1st April, 1963, the attempt by Kennedy to create an all-party coalition government in Laos suffered a terrible blow when Quinim Pholsena, the left-wing Foreign Minister, was assassinated. As David Kaiser has pointed out: “In light of subsequent revelations about CIA assassination plots, this episode inevitably arouses some suspicion.”

It would seem that Laos was not the only country where Kennedy was trying to develop a coalition government. According to Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann, in the early months of 1963, a plan was put into action that would result in a palace coup led by “one of Castro’s inner circle, himself a well-known revolutionary hero.” Waldron and Hartman argue that the “coup leader would be part of the new Provisional Government in Cuba, along with a select group of Cuban exiles – approved by the Kennedys – who ranged from conservative to progressive.”

Kennedy told Mike Mansfield in the spring of 1963 that he now agreed with his thinking “on the need for a complete military withdrawal from Vietnam”. After the meeting with Mansfield, John F. Kennedy told Kenneth O’Donnell that when he pulled out of Vietnam in 1965: “I’ll become one of the most unpopular Presidents in history. I’ll be damned everywhere as a communist appeaser. But I don’t care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m re-elected. So we had better make damned sure that I am re-elected.”

On 10 th June, 1963, Kennedy made a commencement address at the American University. “In a speech written in the White House without Pentagon or State Department clearance, Kennedy called specifically, and for the first time, for a whole new attitude towards the Soviet Union and a greater effort for true peace.” Nine days later Kennedy discussed a new proposal by the State Department to take overt military action against North Vietnam. Kennedy was told that the Pentagon wanted to start bombing North Vietnam and the mining of North Vietnamese ports.

As David Kaiser points out, Kennedy refused to approve this plan: “Ever since assuming the Presidency, Kennedy had received a long series of proposals for war in Southeast Asia from the State and Defence Departments. Rejecting them all, he had established the goals of a neutral regime in Laos and an effort to assist the South Vietnamese against the Viet Cong.”

Kennedy continued to have problems from the leaders of the military. On 9th July, 1963, General Maxwell Taylor explained to the National Security Council that individual Joint Chiefs did not believe that an atmospheric test ban would serve the nation well. Sixteen days later, Averell Harriman, Andrei Gromyko and Lord Hailsham signed the atmospheric test ban in Moscow.

On 14th August, Ngo Dinh Diem was informed that the U.S. government would be unable to continue their present relationship if Diem did not issue a statement reaffirming a conciliatory policy towards the Buddhists and other critics of his regime. Ten days later, Ted Szulc of the New York Times reported that “policy planners in Washington” had reached the stage where they would prefer a military junta in South Vietnam to a government ruled by Diem.

Kennedy also gave the order for the withdrawal of 1,000 American personnel by the end of 1963. In order to achieve maximum press coverage, the plan involved taking the men out in four increments. General Maxwell Taylor spoke out against this policy and argued that the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed no withdrawal of troops should take place “until the political and religious tensions now confronting the government of South Vietnam have eased.”

In an interview with Walter Cronkite on 2nd September, John F. Kennedy clearly stated his policy on Vietnam: “I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it.” Kennedy then went on to criticize Diem’s “repressions against the Buddhists”.

On 9th September, Henry Cabot Lodge met with Ngo Dinh Diem and threatened him that aid would be cut-off unless Ngo Dinh Nhu left his government. Yet according to a New York Times story, the CIA continued to back Nhu. This included John Richardson, the Saigon CIA station chief disbursing a regular monthly payment of $250,000 to Nhu and his men. Four days later, Lodge suggested that Richardson should be ordered back to Washington as “he symbolized long-standing American support for Nhu.” John McCone defended Richardson and objected to the idea that he should be replaced by someone like Edward Lansdale.

John F. Kennedy met with Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor on 2nd October, 1963. Kennedy told McNamara to announce to the press the immediate withdrawal of one thousand soldiers from Vietnam. Kennedy added that he would “probably withdraw all American forces from Vietnam by the end of 1965”. When McNamara was leaving the meeting to talk to the White House reporters, Kennedy called to him: “And tell them that means all of the helicopter pilots too.” In his statement to the press McNamara softened the President’s views by stating that in his judgment “the major part of the U.S. military task” in Vietnam could be “completed by the end of 1965.”

Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu were murdered on 1st November, 1963. The news reached Kennedy the following day. According to David Kaiser, Kennedy “left the room in shock”. Despite this news, Kennedy made no move to change or cancel his troop reduction. As his aides, Kenneth O'Donnell and David F. Powers pointed out: “The collapse of the Diem government and the deaths of its dictatorial leaders made the President only more sceptical of our military advice from Saigon and more determined to pull out of the Vietnam War.”

It has been suggested by William Colby, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon that Kennedy had ordered Diem’s assassination. There is no evidence for this view. In fact, the behaviour of Diem was giving Kennedy a good excuse to withdraw support for his government. Kennedy knew that Diem was incapable of providing a coalition government that would gain the support of the South Vietnamese people. Robert Kennedy argued against the assassination of Diem as it would leave the government in the “hands of one man that we don’t know very well.” The Kennedy brothers were aware that the man who took control in South Vietnam would probably be no better than Diem at establishing a coalition government. The assassination of Diem was therefore not part of Kennedy’s policy to withdraw from Vietnam.

John F. Kennedy never disguised the fact that he held some responsibility for the death of Ngo Dinh Diem. On 4th November he dictated his thoughts on the assassination. He made it clear that he was against the assassination. He pointed out that others, including his brother, were against the idea. He blames Henry Cabot Lodge, Averell Harriman, George Ball, Roger Hilsman and Mike Forrestal for promoting the idea. However, he acknowledges that he should have made it clearer that the assassination of Diem was unacceptable.

Robert Kennedy gave an account of his brother’s views about Diem in an interview recorded in 1964: “He (John Kennedy) would have liked to have gotten rid of Diem if he could get rid of him and get somebody proper to replace him. He was against getting rid of him until you knew what was going to come along, whether the government that was going to replace it had any stability, whether it would, in fact, be a successful coup... We had the difficult problem that, in fact, people had been encouraged to have a coup and now to pull the rug out from under them meant their death. That complicated the problem. And then what really brought the coup on - I guess, from what I've read since then - is the fact that Diem planned a coup himself, a fake coup: He was going to pick up all these people and arrest them and say they were participating in a coup and then execute them.

After the assassination of John F. Kennedy McNamara continued in the post under Lyndon B. Johnson. The main change that Johnson makes to Kennedy’s policies concerns his foreign policy. As David Kaiser points out in American Tragedy, Johnson returned to Dwight Eisenhower policy “which decided upon a militant response to any new Communist advances virtually anywhere on the globe.”

One of Johnson’s first decisions was to move Kennedy’s Ambassador to Mexico, Thomas C. Mann, to the post of Under Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs. Mann, a fellow Texan, had held liberal views during the early 1950s, he had for example, argued against the CIA overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. However, by 1963, he shared the Eisenhower/Johnson view of international communism.

Lyndon B. Johnson showed little interest in either negotiating with, or removing, Fidel Castro. As he told Dean Rusk, Maxwell Taylor and John McCone on 2nd December, 1963, South Vietnam is “our most critical military area right now.” David Kaiser points out that Johnson “never seriously considered the alternatives of neutralization and withdrawal.” Kaiser adds: “Johnson, in short, accepted the premises of the policies that had been developed under Eisenhower – premises whose consequences Kennedy had consistently refused to accept for three years.”

Johnson also opposed Prince Sihanouk’s new proposal for a conference on Cambodian neutrality. Johnson feared this would encourage Thailand and South Vietnam to follow the neutral policy that had been with Kennedy’s encouragement, achieved by the government in Laos. He also rejected suggestions by Mike Mansfield for a truce in Vietnam as he did not want “another China”. Mansfield replied, that the “United States did not want another Korea either”.

Johnson told General Paul Harkins, commander of the U.S. military assistance in South Vietnam, that it was necessary to “make clear that the US will not accept a Communist victory in South Vietnam and that we will escalate the conflict to whatever level is required to insure their defeat.” According to Stanley Karnow, Johnson told the joint chiefs at a White House reception on Christmas Eve 1963, "Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war."

In February, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson removed Roger Hilsman as Assistant Secretary for the Far East. Hilsman, who had been in charge of Kennedy’s Vietnam policy, had been a loyal supporter of neutralization. Hilsman was replaced by William Bundy, who shared Johnson’s views on military involvement in Vietnam.

In an interview for the 1999 CNN Cold War documentary on the Vietnam War, Hilsman explained Kennedy’s policy during 1963: “First of all, from the beginning, he was determined that it not be an American war, that he would not bomb the North, he would not send troops. But then after …you remember the Buddhist crisis in the spring of '63, this convinced Kennedy that Ngu Dinh Diem had no chance of winning and that we best we get out. So, he used that as an excuse, beat on McNamara to beat on the JCS to develop a withdrawal plan. The plan was made, he approved the plan and the first one thousand of the sixteen thousand five hundred were withdrawn before Kennedy was killed. If he had lived, the other sixteen thousand would have been out of there within three or four months.”

Roger Hilsman went onto explain how Johnson changed policy towards Vietnam: “Well, what Johnson did was, he did one thing before he expanded the war and that is he got rid of one way or another all the people who had opposed making it an American war. Averill Harriman, he was Under Secretary of State, he made him roving ambassador for Africa so he'd have nothing to do with Vietnam. Bobby Kennedy, he you know, he told Bobby Kennedy that he ought to run for governor of Massachusetts, you see. Bobby confounded him by running for the Senate… He wanted to get rid of me, Lyndon Johnson did. Well, Johnson's a very clever man. When he wanted to get rid of Grenowski, who was the Postmaster General, he offered him the chance of being the first American ambassador to Poland. he offered me... he found out that I'd spent part of my childhood in the Philippines, and he tried to persuade me to become ambassador to the Philippines, but that was just to keep me quiet, you see and so instead I went to Columbia University, where I could criticize the war from outside. Johnson was a very clever man, so the first thing he did was he nullified or got rid of all the people - and he knew as well, he knew who were the hawks and who were the doves… Johnson literally transferred, fired, drove out of government all the people that were really knew something about Vietnam and were opposed to the war."

Robert Komer sent a memo to McGeorge Bundy showing concern about Johnson’s decision to reverse Kennedy’s foreign policy. He complained that this new “hard line” would “increase the chances that in addition to the Vietnam, Cuba, Cyprus, Panama and other current trials – will be added come summer Indonesia/Malaysia, Arab/Israeli, India/Pakistan crises which may be even more unmanageable.”

On 2nd March, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson telephoned Robert McNamara, to prepare a statement on Vietnam. Two days later, McNamara issued a statement rejecting withdrawal, neutralization, or American ground troops. This was discussed with the five Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Maxwell Taylor argued for “the progressive and selective attack against targets in North Vietnam”. General Curtis LeMay advocated an immediate “hard blow”. Johnson replied he did “not want to start a war before November”.

Later that month, a group of generals, with the approval of Johnson, overthrew João Goulart, the left-wing president of Brazil. This action ended democracy in Brazil for more than twenty years. Once again, Johnson showed that his policy was to support non-democratic but anti-communist, military dictatorships, and that he had fully abandoned Kennedy’s neutralization policy.

In June, 1964, Henry Cabot Lodge, resigned as ambassador of Saigon. McGeorge Bundy gave Lyndon B. Johnson six recommendations for his successor: Robert McNamara, Robert Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, Roswell Gilpatric, William Gaud and himself. Johnson rejected all the names on the list and instead selected General Maxwell Taylor. Bundy complained bitterly that Johnson had appointed a military man. However, Johnson, who was determined to have a war in Vietnam, replied that the ambassador of Saigon would soon be a “military job” and that Taylor was “our top military man”.

Lyndon B. Johnson always intended to wait until after the election in November, 1964, before beginning the war against North Vietnam. Public opinion polls showed that the American people were overwhelmingly against sending combat troops to South Vietnam. Most leading figures in the Democratic Party shared this view and had told Johnson this was a war he could not win as China was likely to send troops into Vietnam if the country was bombed or invaded.

Johnson’s strategy changed when Barry Goldwater won the Republican Party nomination in July. Goldwater had been arguing that Johnson had not been aggressive enough over Vietnam. When interviewed by Howard K. Smith on television, Goldwater argued that the United States should start bombing North Vietnam. Smith suggested that this “risked a fight with China”. “You might have to do that” Goldwater responded.” On other occasions, Goldwater had insisted that atomic weapons should be used in Vietnam.

Johnson was now free to trigger a war with North Vietnam. He therefore gave permission for OPLAN 34A to be executed. This was a new operations plan for sabotage operations against North Vietnam. This included hit-and-run attacks along the North Vietnamese coast. On 30th July, the American destroyer, the Maddox, left Taiwan for the North Vietnamese coast. On 2nd August, the Maddox opened fire on three North Vietnamese boats, seriously damaging one boat but not sinking it.

Later that day the incident was discussed by Lyndon B. Johnson, Dean Rusk, George Ball, General Earle Wheeler and McNamara’s new deputy, Cyrus Vance. As a result of the meeting, Vance approved new attacks on North Vietnam beginning on the night of 3rd August.

Soon after entering North Vietnamese waters on 4th August, Captain John J. Herrick of the Maddox reported that he was under attack. However, later he sent a message that raised doubts about this: "Review of action makes reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather reports and over-eager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual sightings by "Maddox". Suggest complete evaluation before further action." David Kaiser argues that “exhaustive analysis of the evidence makes it impossible to believe that any attack occurred that night.”

Despite this, President Johnson immediately ordered “a firm, swift retaliatory strike” against North Vietnamese naval bases. He ordered the bombing of four North Vietnamese torpedo-boat bases and an oil-storage depot that had been planned three months previously. Johnson then went on television and told the American people that a total of nine torpedoes had been fired at American ships and as a result he had ordered a retaliatory strike. Warned by Johnson’s announcement, the North Vietnamese managed to bring down two American planes, killing one pilot and capturing the other.

Congress approved Johnson's decision to bomb North Vietnam and passed what has become known as the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by the Senate by 88 votes to 2 (Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening) and in the House of Representatives by 416 to 0. This resolution authorized the President to take all necessary measures against Vietnam and the National Liberation Front (NLF).

As James Reston pointed out in the New York Times: “The Congress was free in theory only. In practice, despite the private reservations of many members, it had to go along… it had the choice of helping him or helping the enemy, which is no choice at all.” He then added, as a result of this resolution, who could be trusted with this enormous new power – Johnson or Goldwater?”

As David Kaiser has argued convincingly in his book, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson and the Origins of the Vietnam War: “By initiating 34A attacks and simultaneously authorizing DeSoto patrols, the administration had brought about one brief military confrontation between North Vietnamese and American forces. The second spurious attack had then become the pretext for retaliation, a congressional resolution authorizing war, and the movement of additional U.S. air assets into South Vietnam.”

By 1967 Robert McNamara was convinced that the war was unwinnable. When he was unable to convince Johnson to seek a diplomatic solution he resigned and became president of the World Bank (1968-81). When he joined the organisation principal function was to provide cheap funds for developing nations. McNamara soon discovered that "the main effect of such schemes was to enrich local elites and leave millions as deprived as ever."

McNamara was determined to impose conditions on future loans to ensure their benefit was spread more equitably. The effect of his financial initiative was that an institution that had been lending about $1,000m a year when he joined was disbursing $12,500m a year when he left. The bank's total commitment to developing nations rose in those 15 years from $13,000m to $92,000m. Some 70 per cent of the new loans went on projects designed to assist rural development.

In his autobiography, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995), McNamara expressed his regret for his role in the Vietnam War. He wrote: "We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."

McNamara was also critic of the nuclear arms race and admitted that his principal regret as Secretary of Defense was his recommendation to Kennedy to proceed with the Bay of Pigs operation, something that "could have been recognized as an error at the time."

McNamara is also the author of The Essence of Security: Reflections in Office (1968), One Hundred Countries, Two Billion People: The Dimensions of Development (1973), Blundering into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age (1986), Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy (1999) and Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing and Catastrophe in the 21st Century (2003).

McNamara gave a long interview to Errol Morris about the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 2003 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.

Robert McNamara died on 6th July, 2009.

Primary Sources

(1) Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995)

We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."

(2) Robert McNamara interviewed on CNN in June 1996.

The domino theory... was the primary factor motivating the actions of both the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations, without any qualification. It was put forward by President Eisenhower in 1954, very succinctly: If the West loses control of Vietnam, the security of the West will be in danger. "The dominoes will fall," in Eisenhower's words. In a meeting between President Kennedy and President Eisenhower, on January 19, 1961 - the day before President Kennedy's inauguration - the only foreign policy issue fully discussed dealt with Southeast Asia. And there's even today some question as to exactly what Eisenhower said, but it's very clear that a minimum he said... that if necessary, to prevent the loss of Laos, and by implication Vietnam, Eisenhower would be prepared for the U.S. to act unilaterally - to intervene militarily.

And I think that this was fully accepted by President Kennedy and by those of us associated with him. And it was fully accepted by President Johnson when he succeeded as President. The loss of Vietnam would trigger the loss of Southeast Asia, and conceivably even the loss of India, and would strengthen the Chinese and the Soviet position across the world, weakening the security of Western Europe and weakening the security of North America. This was the way we viewed it; I'm not arguing (we viewed it) correctly - don't misunderstand me - but that is the way we viewed it. ...

There were three groups of individuals among his advisers. One group believed that the situation (in South Vietnam) was moving so well that we could make a statement that we'd begin withdrawals and complete them by the end of 1965. Another group believed that the situation wasn't moving that well, but that our mission was solely training and logistics; we'd been there long enough to complete the training, if the South Vietnamese were capable of absorbing it, and if we hadn't proven successful, it's because we were incapable of accomplishing that mission and therefore we were justified in beginning withdrawal. The third group believed we hadn't reached the point where we were justified in withdrawing, and we shouldn't withdraw.

Kennedy listened to the debate, and finally sided with those who believed that either we had succeeded, or were succeeding, and therefore could begin our withdrawal; or alternatively we hadn't succeeded, but that ... we'd been there long enough to test our ability to succeed, and if we weren't succeeding we should begin the withdrawal because it was impossible to accomplish that mission. In any event, he made the decision (to begin withdrawing advisers) that day, and he did announce it. It was highly contested...

Kennedy hadn't said before he died whether, faced with the loss of Vietnam, he would (completely) withdraw; but I believe today that had he faced that choice, he would have withdrawn rather than substitute US combat troops for Vietnamese forces to save South Vietnam. I think he would have concluded that US combat troops could not save Vietnam if Vietnam troops couldn't save it. That was the statement he in effect made publicly before his death, but at that time he hadn't had to choose between losing Vietnam, on the one hand, or putting in US combat troops on the other. Had he faced the decision, I think he would have accepted the loss of Vietnam and refused to put in US combat troops.

(3) Denis Healey, The Guardian (26th March, 2004)

His (Robert McNamara) greatest weaknesses were his passion for numbers and his belief that wars could be won by bombing alone. We used to have breakfast together in Brussels before every meeting of NATO defence ministers. I once asked him how things were going in Vietnam. "Just fine," he replied. "Next month we'll be dropping twice the tonnage of bombs we are dropping this month."

In fact, the excessive use of bombers in Vietnam turned the whole of the local population against the west. At exactly the same period, when Britain was engaged in the "war of confrontation" against Indonesia, I refused to let the RAF drop a single bomb from an aircraft, relying wholly on fighting in the Borneo jungles with Gurkhas and our Special Forces - the SAS and SBS.

As a result, whereas millions of civilians were killed in Vietnam, and America lost the war there, in Borneo Britain won the war with fewer casualties than on the roads over a Bank Holiday weekend - probably the reason why in Britain nobody now remembers the war of confrontation, while Americans will never forget Vietnam...

Yet with all his faults, McNamara was the best defense secretary America has known since the second world war, who made a unique contribution to global security.

(4) Nick Higham, Robert McNamara (6th July, 2009)

Robert McNamara, who served as US defence secretary during the Vietnam war and the Cuban Missile Crisis, has died aged 93.

Mr McNamara, who served under presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, was also an architect of the US policy of nuclear deterrence.

After leaving the Pentagon he became president of the World Bank.

His wife Diana said he had suffered failing health for some time and died in his sleep at home in Washington DC.

Before taking up the post as Pentagon chief in 1961, Mr McNamara was the president of Ford Motor Company, turning the company around in the post World War II era.

He is most closely associated with overseeing the involvement of the US in Vietnam from 1961 to 1968.

Mr McNamara became to many anti-war critics the symbol of a failed policy that left more than 58,000 US troops dead.

Even his son, as a Stanford University student, took part in protests against the war while his father was running it.

However, in his 1995 memoirs In Retrospect: The Tragedies and Lessons of Vietnam, Mr McNamara wrote of his regret over his Vietnam role.

He described the war as "terribly wrong" owing to a combination of the anti-communist climate of the times, mistaken assumptions of foreign policy and military misjudgements.

He spoke frankly about the Vietnam war and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 2003 documentary "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara."

With the US in the first year of the war in Iraq, it became a popular and timely attraction and won an Oscar for best documentary feature.

(5) The Huffington Post (6th July, 2009)

Known as a policymaker with a fixation for statistical analysis, McNamara was recruited to run the Pentagon by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 from the presidency of the Ford Motor Co. He stayed seven years, longer than anyone since the job's creation in 1947.

His association with Vietnam became intensely personal. Even his son, as a Stanford University student, protested against the war while his father was running it. At Harvard, McNamara once had to flee a student mob through underground utility tunnels. Critics mocked McNamara mercilessly; they made much of the fact that his middle name was "Strange."

After leaving the Pentagon on the verge of a nervous breakdown, McNamara became president of the World Bank and devoted evangelical energies to the belief that improving life in rural communities in developing countries was a more promising path to peace than the buildup of arms and armies.

A private person, McNamara for many years declined to write his memoirs, to lay out his view of the war and his side in his quarrels with his generals. In the early 1990s he began to open up. He told Time magazine in 1991 that he did not think the bombing of North Vietnam - the greatest bombing campaign in history up to that time - would work but he went along with it "because we had to try to prove it would not work, number one, and (because) other people thought it would work."

Finally, in 1993, after the Cold War ended, he undertook to write his memoirs because some of the lessons of Vietnam were applicable to the post-Cold War period "odd as though it may seem."

"In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam" appeared in 1995. McNamara disclosed that by 1967 he had deep misgivings about Vietnam - by then he had lost faith in America's capacity to prevail over a guerrilla insurgency that had driven the French from the same jungled countryside.

Despite those doubts, he had continued to express public confidence that the application of enough American firepower would cause the Communists to make peace. In that period, the number of U.S. casualties - dead, missing and wounded - went from 7,466 to over 100,000.

"We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of our country. But we were wrong. We were terribly wrong," McNamara, then 78, told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of the book's release.

The bestselling mea culpa renewed the national debate about the war and prompted bitter criticism against its author. "Where was he when we needed him?" a Boston Globe editorial asked. A New York Times editorial referred to McNamara as offering the war's dead only a "prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late."

McNamara wrote that he and others had not asked the five most basic questions: "Was it true that the fall of South Vietnam would trigger the fall of all Southeast Asia? Would that constitute a grave threat to the West's security? What kind of war - conventional or guerrilla - might develop? Could we win it with U.S. troops fighting alongside the South Vietnamese? Should we not know the answers to all these questions before deciding whether to commit troops?

He discussed similar themes in the 2003 documentary "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara." With the U.S. in the first year of the war in Iraq, it became a popular and timely art-house attraction and won the Oscar for best documentary feature.

(6) Walter Pincus, The Washington Post (7th July, 2009)

Robert S. McNamara's last message to his wife, Diana, was typical, no nonsense. "No funeral/memorial service" was the way it began.

But he continued, "I leave this earth believing that I have been blessed with a wife, children and friends who have brought me love and happiness beyond compare." To this not-very-religious man, "Heaven . . . will be to remain in their hearts and memories as warm and close as we were in life."

My wife and I were among those lucky enough to be among those friends. Over 20 years, we had many dinners together, often followed by Kennedy Center symphonic concerts for music we all loved. A little over three months ago, at one of his last public outings, we had lunch together at the Cosmos Club with our wives. He was lucid but frail. Hopeful about initial steps taken by President Obama on nuclear weapons, but fearful about the nation's growing involvement in Afghanistan - a situation so much like Vietnam.

Nuclear weapons and Vietnam were the way he and I first met, but back in the 1960s, it was in a totally different context. During an 18-month sabbatical from journalism, I worked for Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Over those months, then-Defense Secretary McNamara was first an architect of the successful U.S. response to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and, the next year, a proponent of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty. In the fall of 1963, McNamara and Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor recommended a reduction of U.S. troops acting as trainers in Vietnam because they thought the war was going well and that -- another belief that turned out to be wrong - they could use the reduction to force the leaders of South Vietnam to reform their government.

Later, however, McNamara presided over not just the buildup of the U.S. nuclear arsenal but also the enormous enlargement and public justification of the Vietnam War, actions that were destructive abroad and here at home. Those decisions in the 1960s haunted him until the day he died.

Initially, with his move from the Pentagon to the World Bank, he appeared to want to make up for a destructive past with a creative future. But those 13 years of trying to do good for the less fortunate around the world did not shake the demons still within him. Neither did the books he wrote or co-wrote about the war. Introspection took hold in the 1990s, as he tried to understand others' sharp criticism of his books, in which he initially disclosed his privately voiced opposition to the war while still at the Pentagon.

But it was in his interviews with filmmaker Errol Morris, which became the Oscar-winning 2004 documentary "The Fog of War," and during the many conversations he had with students who had seen the film, that he began to find peace with himself.

In the film, McNamara said, "At my age, 85, I'm at an age where I can look back and derive some conclusions about my actions. My rule has been try to learn, try to understand what happened. Develop the lessons and pass them on."

"Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning" was one lesson headlined in the Morris film that has direct application to today. "What makes us omniscient?" asked McNamara, referring to Vietnam but also looking at the world then around him. "Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning."

(7) Harold Jackson, The Guardian (7th July, 2009)

One of Kennedy's major campaign issues had been America's supposed "missile gap" with the Soviet Union. McNamara, once confirmed by the Senate, conducted an urgent inquiry into how this gap could be closed. At his first press conference he was asked about his findings and responded briskly that the gap was really heavily in America's favour. The Republicans went crazy, some even demanding that the election be rerun.

Such hiccups apart, the new secretary settled in to take control of the military bureaucracy that had burgeoned during the Eisenhower years. The Pentagon had 3.5 million people in uniform and 1 million civilian staff. Its annual expenditure was higher than the national budget of any other Nato country and it was a maze of warring fiefdoms. However, the strategic posture of this vast empire, which McNamara accused of "buying every bright, shiny new gadget that comes along", was to meet any external attack with massive nuclear retaliation. This doomsday approach made no sense to McNamara and he set about reorientating America's defence policy and persuading other members of Nato to concentrate on building up their conventional forces.

He secured funds from Congress to augment US ground forces by 300,000 and to equip them for rapid deployment around the world. He also rationalised procurement policies to stop one service spending vast sums on items only marginally different from those used by another. Along with these changes he restructured the US nuclear arsenal to give the country what he called a "second strike capacity". The prospect of mutual annihilation, he argued, would effectively curb any temptation for Moscow to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack.

Not long after this realignment had begun, McNamara became increasingly embroiled in the war in Vietnam, stemming from Kennedy's belief that America's reputation with Nato and the non-aligned world would be undermined if it seemed unwilling to protect a small Asian nation from communist subversion. By the time of Kennedy's assassination in 1963 this doctrine had brought 10,000 American "advisers" to South Vietnam. When President Lyndon B Johnson took office, he retained McNamara at the Pentagon and repeatedly sent him to assess the military and political situation on the ground. As McNamara freely acknowledged later, his belief in the domino theory in South-East Asia – that a communist victory in Vietnam would lead to the successive collapse of all surrounding governments – was "limited and shallow".

America became mired ever more deeply in the conflict. A year into Johnson's presidency the number of American troops had doubled. The following year saw a further fourfold increase and American deaths reached 500. By the time Johnson decided to leave the White House, more than 180,000 American troops were involved and 16,000 had been killed. (By the time of the Paris Accords in 1973, the American toll reached 58,181, the South Vietnamese army's about 200,000 and the North Vietnamese army's and Viet Cong guerrillas' about 900,000. Vietnamese civilian deaths totalled more than one million.)

As the anti-war movement swelled, protesters began to dub the conflict "McNamara's war". He was constantly reviled in public. Once, while lunching with his wife during a Christmas break in Colorado, another diner came to their table to scream: "Baby burner. You have blood on your hands." He acknowledged in his memoirs, In Retrospect (1995), the emotional strain such incidents generated. In fact, his own disenchantment with the war was growing rapidly. He had argued for some time that only the Saigon government could offer a political solution. The Thieu regime's continued vacillation and corruption convinced him that it was time for America to disengage.

On 1 November 1967 he expressed his reservations in a confidential memorandum to President Johnson. "I never received a reply," he recalled later. "Four weeks later President Johnson announced my election as president of the World Bank and my departure from the defence department at an unspecified date. I do not know to this day whether I quit or was fired." In spite of the initial military resistance to his structural and doctrinal reforms at the Pentagon, his departure brought widespread expressions of regret. One of the most fervent came from the army's chief of staff, General Harold Johnson, who said that McNamara was the only defence secretary who had ever actually run the Pentagon.