President John F. Kennedy, left, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara… (Henry Burroughs -- Associated…)
Robert S. McNamara, 93, the former secretary of defense whose record as a leading executive of industry and chieftain of foreign financial aid was all but erased from public memory by his reputation as the primary architect of U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, died yesterday at his home in Washington. The family said he suffered a fall three years ago but did not provide a specific cause of death.
McNamara was secretary of defense during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In that capacity, he directed a U.S. military buildup in Southeast Asia during the critical early years of a Vietnamese conflict that escalated into one of the most divisive and bitter wars in U.S. history. When the war was over, 58,000 Americans were dead and the national social fabric had been torn asunder.
Before taking office as secretary of defense in 1961, McNamara was president of Ford Motor Co. For 13 years after he left the Pentagon in 1968, he was president of the World Bank. He was a brilliant student, a compulsive worker and a skillful planner and organizer whose manifest talents carried him from modest circumstances in California to the highest levels of the Washington power structure. He was said to have built a record of achievement and dedication in business, government and public service that few of his generation could match.
After his retirement from the bank in 1981, he maintained an exhausting schedule as director or consultant to scores of public and private organizations and was a virtual one-man think tank on nuclear arms issues.
More than 40 years after the fact, he was remembered almost exclusively for his orchestration of U.S. prosecution of the war in Vietnam, a failed effort by the world's greatest superpower to prevent a communist takeover of a weak and corrupt ally. For his role in the war, McNamara was vilified by harsh and unforgiving critics, and his entire record was unalterably clouded.
In his 1995 memoir of the war, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," McNamara said he and his senior colleagues were "wrong, terribly wrong" to pursue the war as they did. He acknowledged that he failed to force the military to produce a rigorous justification for its strategy and tactics, misunderstood Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, and kept the war going long after he realized it was futile because he lacked the courage or the ability to turn Johnson around.
He elaborated on Vietnam and the other events that shaped his life in Errol Morris's Academy Award-winning documentary "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara" (2003). He described how as a young man he had analyzed bombing operations under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay during World War II and in that job played a role in making the firebombing of dozens of Japanese cities "more efficient."
"We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo -- men, women and children," he told Morris. "LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost," he added. "But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"
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From the day in 1961 when he burst upon the Washington scene as a political unknown selected by Kennedy to be secretary of defense, McNamara's trim figure, slicked-back hair and rimless glasses made him instantly recognizable, a Washington monument whose interests covered everything from nuclear war to the fiscal health of local governments.
At the Pentagon, he reorganized the military bureaucracy, built up the country's nuclear arsenal and instigated a massive campaign to end racial discrimination in off-base housing.
At the World Bank, he was often described as "the conscience of the West" for his relentless efforts to persuade the industrialized world to commit more capital to improving life in have-not nations. In retirement, he avoided celebrity-for-hire appearances on the lecture circuit and TV talk shows, devoting his time to improvement of education, government and health in the United States and abroad.
As secretary of defense, he was a key figure in such major crises as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile confrontation with the Soviet Union. He changed the balance of nuclear forces in the world with the development of the multiple-warhead missile.
His reputation foundered in Vietnam. Many Americans held him largely responsible for the futile and humiliating military adventure there, a responsibility he accepted in a 1995 memoir of the war.
It was "McNamara's war," matching his technology, statistics, weaponry and organization charts against a peasant army from a small, impoverished country. The peasants won. In retrospect, it could be seen that McNamara's can-do, technological approach to military issues might have been perfectly suited to a conflict against the Soviet Union in Europe, but it led him into disastrous miscalculations in the jungles and paddies of Vietnam.