Robert McNamara

By: Victoria Yates

Robert Strange McNamara was born on the 9th of June 1916 in Oakland, California. His unique middle name is in fact his mother's maiden name. He attended High School in Piedmont, California and graduated in 1937 from the University of California Berkeley with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and minors in mathematics and philosophy. He completed his master's degree from Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration in 1939. McNamara then worked in San Francisco for a year as an accountant for the firm Price Waterhouse before returning to Harvard. He taught Business, becoming the highest paid, youngest Assistant Professor at that time.  He was also involved in a program teaching analytical approaches used in business to officers of the Army Air Forces (AAF). In 1943 McNamara joined the army as a Captain, serving the majority of the war with the AFF's Office of Statistical Control. His principal work was the analysis of U.S. bombers' efficiency and effectiveness. In 1946 he left active duty at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel with a Legion of Merit.

McNamara then worked for the Ford Motor Company. Within Ford there were ten former World War II officers known as the “Whiz Kids”, of which McNamara was one. They were instrumental in helping the company stop its losses and implement modern planning, organization and management control systems. McNamara made rapid advancements within the company, reaching top-level management positions. He has been linked to the opposition of the planned Edsel automobile, eventually succeeding in ending the program in 1959. This was commonly seen as one of the biggest blunders in automobile history. He also placed great emphasis on safety standards, being involved in the introduction of both the seatbelt and the dished steering wheel that reduced the chances of the driver being impaled on the steering column. In November 1960 McNamara became the first President of Ford to come from outside the family of Henry Ford, having received substantial credit for Ford’s success in the postwar period.

Less than five weeks after McNamara took the position at Ford he became Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy Administration. Although not particularly knowledgeable in this area, McNamara immersed himself in the subject, learning quickly and implementing his own management philosophies. McNamara abandoned Eisenhower’s massive retaliation policy in favor of a flexible response strategy and called for an increase in the nation’s ‘limited warfare’ capabilities. He created both the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Defense Supply Agency - and established the Strike Command (STRICOM). Strike Command’s mission was “to respond swiftly and with whatever force necessary to threats against the peace in any part of the world, reinforcing unified commands or… carrying out separate contingency operations.” His actions in office effectively moved the control of the Intelligence function from the military to the Secretary of Defense. His tendency to take military advice less into account than his predecessors and to override military opinions made him unpopular with service leaders.

America’s initial role in the Vietnam War was in offering financial support, military advice, and covert intelligence gathering that expanded after the withdrawal of France in 1954. McNamara was instrumental in reporting the events of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964 that served as a pretext for escalated involvement in the Vietnamese conflict. In 1965 U.S. Armed Forces began bombing North Vietnam and entered into combat in South Vietnam. Although considered a ‘prime architect’ of the War and repeatedly overruling the Joint Chiefs of Staff on strategic matters he became seen as growing steadily more skeptical about whether the war could be won through increased troop deployment. He stated that he supported the Vietnam War out of loyalty to administration policy. Although Agent Orange was used while McNamara was in office he does not recall whether he had involvement in the decision to use it, nor, he claimed, was he aware of the medical dangers involved in its use.

After 1966 McNamara became increasingly controversial and his frequent differences with both the President and the Joint Chiefs were subject to much speculation. His 1967 call to freeze troop levels, stop bombing in North Vietnam, and for the US to hand over ground fighting to South Vietnam was rejected outright by President Johnson. Following this McNamara announced his resignation and he became  President of the World Bank, a post he served from 1968 to 1981.

At the World Bank McNamara was involved in shifting focus towards targeted poverty reduction. He negotiated increased funds and a more effective method of testing project effectiveness. Following his time at the Bank he continued to be involved in politics, urging the United States to pledge not to use nuclear weapons first in Europe in the event of hostilities. He has also delivered statements critical of the Bush administration. Recently a documentary film was made about the events of his life.

Although a controversial figure, few can doubt that McNamara had a great impact on key events in America’s history. He made significant and impressive contributions to both business and politics. Clearly he enjoyed leading on a grand scale without compromising his beliefs, ideas, and strategies. Throughout, he drove his concepts into action with intense dedication.