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Robert McNamara

Robert McNamaraAKA Robert Strange McNamara

Born: 9-Jun-1916
Birthplace: San Francisco, CA
Died: 6-Jul-2009
Location of death: Washington, DC
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Government

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: US Secretary of Defense, 1961-68

Military service: US Army Air Corps (1943-46)

Robert McNamara said that his earliest memory dated to 1918, when he was two years old. He remembered the shouts, music, and joyous celebrations of peace on Armistice Day, the end of the Great War -- then called "the war to end all wars", now called the First World War. His middle name was Strange, his mother's maiden name, and perhaps it was appropriate for the life McNamara would lead.

He was a statistical control officer in the Army Air Forces during World War II, entering the service as a Captain and leaving as a Lieutenant Colonel. He worked beside General Curtis LeMay in planning almost a thousand pre-atomic firebombings of 67 Japanese cities, calculating in advance the number of Japanese civilians who would die. "In a single night," McNamara remembered, "we burned to death 100,000 civilians -- men, women, and children in Tokyo." He said that LeMay once told him, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals."

McNamara's way with numbers yielded great success while he was an executive at Ford Motor Company. He was hired to oversee planning and financial analysis, scrutinizing details to increase efficiency, and eventually became the first man outside the Ford family to head the business. He became President of the company in 1960, but his tenure was brief, as he became Secretary of Defense under President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

In his time at the Pentagon, McNamara was credited with making the military more efficient, eliminating waste and redundancy (a claim made by most Secretaries of Defense). In the 2003 Errol Morris documentary The Fog of War, McNamara described himself as trying to help Kennedy avoid war with Russia during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, but the historical record clearly shows that for most of that tense October, McNamara was advising Kennedy to bomb Cuba, which almost certainly would have led to World War III.

As Secretary of Defense, McNamara publicly announced what he called a "no cities" nuclear strategy, meaning that if the US was attacked by Soviet nuclear weapons, America's retaliation would not target the enemy's civilian populations, but would instead target their military bases and installations. In private counsel with the President, however, he argued for the well-remembered "MAD" -- mutual assured destruction -- Cold War retaliation plans calling for first-exchange destruction of 20 to 25 percent of the Soviet Union's population and about half its industrial capacity. Of course, the USSR's "MAD" plans were similar.

McNamara was Kennedy's key military advisor as American involvement in the Vietnam war escalated dramatically in 1961 and '62, and after Kennedy's assassination he was a consistent advocate of escalation under Lyndon B. Johnson. At McNamara's urging, America's involvement in Vietnam grew from thousands of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to almost half a million. The death toll climbed, the protests grew louder, and alongside Johnson and later Richard M. Nixon, McNamara came to represent the war in people's minds.

He abruptly left the Johnson administration in 1968, and later became President of the World Bank. He dallied with the Trilateral Commission and Brookings Institution, and for decades generally played the role of elder statesman. In his writings and speaking engagements, he always remained silent about his concerns regarding the Vietnam war, until writing his 1995 book In Retrospect. Reconsidering his role, he acknowledged not only that the war was "wrong, terribly wrong," but that he had believed it was a mistake, even while he was Secretary of Defense. McNamara said he began having doubts in the mid-1960s, never about the morality of the war, but about whether it could be won.

The book's revelation made McNamara again as controversial as he had been in the 1960s. Pundits and ordinary people wondered, how could a Secretary of Defense send soldiers to a war he did not believe could be won? The war's legacy was 58,000 Americans killed, somewhere between two million and four million Vietnamese dead, and chaotic political protest and unrest at home, while McNamara had enjoyed sinecure at the World Bank and quiet retirement. Those who had opposed his policies wondered why it took him so many years to speak out, while former colleagues who were still alive saw him as a Benedict Arnold for ever expressing his doubts. In an editorial, the New York Times wrote that McNamara's book amounted to "stale tears, three decades late."

In a 2004 interview with Toronto's Globe & Mail, he was asked to comment on America's occupation of Iraq. Although he had been asked the question numerous times before, he had always demurred, but for some reason, this time the question triggered an angry response. "We're mis-using our influence," McNamara said. "It's just wrong what we're doing. It's morally wrong, it's politically wrong, it's economically wrong." He also offered his advice on how to prevent future Vietnam-like wars, arguing that the US should submit to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to govern wartime behavior and prevent atrocities, and that the details of US nuclear strategy should be publicly discussed and debated. "You'd be shocked if you knew what it was," he said.

Father: Robert James McNamara (shoe sales manager)
Mother: Clara Nell Strange
Wife: Margaret Craig (m. 13-Aug-1940, d. 1981, one son, two daughters)

    High School: Piedmont High School, Piedmont, CA (1933)
    University: BA Mathematics and Philosophy, University of California at Berkeley (1937)
    University: MBA, Harvard Business School (1939)

    World Bank President (1968-81)
    US Secretary of Defense (1961-68)
    Ford Motors President (1960-61)
    Ford Motors VP Car and Truck Divisions (1957-60)
    Ford Motors (1946-57)
    Member of the Board of Ford Motors (1957-60)
    America Abroad Media Advisory Board
    American Academy of Diplomacy Charter Member
    American Philosophical Society 1981
    Aspen Institute
    Atlantic Council Honorary Director
    Bretton Woods Committee
    Brookings Institution
    Center for Global Development Honorary Member
    Council on Foreign Relations
    Economists for Peace and Security Trustee
    Enterprise Foundation Board of Trustees
    National Committee on US-China Relations Board of Directors
    National Council for Science and the Environment Board of Directors
    Phi Beta Kappa Society
    Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity
    Trilateral Commission
    Urban Institute Trustee
    Presidential Medal of Freedom 29-Feb-1968
    Distinguished Service Medal 29-Feb-1968
    Funeral: Katharine Graham (2001)
    Irish Ancestry
    Risk Factors: Polio

    Countdown to Zero (25-Jan-2010) · Himself
    The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (21-May-2003) · Himself

Rotten Library Page:
Robert McNamara

Author of books:
In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam
The Essence of Security: Reflections in Office (1968, memoir)
Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century (2001, international affairs)

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