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Robert McNamara, architect of Vietnam war he later questioned, dies

WASHINGTON — Robert S. McNamara, the former secretary of defense whose record as a leading executive of industry and a 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 Monday (July 6, 2009) at 93.

Diana McNamara said her husband died at his home in Washington. She did not give a cause of death.

Mr. 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, Mr. McNamara was president of Ford Motor Co. For 12 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.

After his retirement from the World 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.

But 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, Mr. 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, Mr. McNamara disclosed that by 1967 he had deep misgivings about Vietnam and that he and his colleagues were "wrong, terribly wrong" to pursue the war as they did. But during the war, he had continued to express confidence in public that the application of enough U.S. firepower would cause the communists to make peace.

He elaborated on his misgivings on Vietnam in Errol Morris' Academy Award-winning 2003 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.

From the day in 1961 when he burst upon the Washington scene as a political unknown selected by Kennedy to be secretary of defense, Mr. McNamara's trim figure, slicked-back hair and rimless glasses made him recognizable.

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 the have-not nations. In retirement, he avoided celebrity-for-hire appearances on the lecture circuit and television talk shows.

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 the 1995 memoir.

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 Mr. 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.

The harshest critic of all, journalist and author David Halberstam, describing Mr. McNamara's trips to Saigon, wrote in The Best and the Brightest that Mr. McNamara, the ultimate technocrat, was "a prisoner of his own background … unable, as indeed was the country which sponsored him, to adapt his values and his terms to Vietnamese realities."

Publication of his 1995 memoir opened some kind of intellectual floodgate for Mr. McNamara; he developed a virtual fourth career of organizing and participating in seminars about the war — about who did what and why, and about how doing something else might have meant, if not a different outcome, at least less death. In 1999 he published a book about this quest for the truth about the war, with a title signaling that he did not find it: Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy.

Robert Strange McNamara was born June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, where his father was sales manager for a wholesale shoe company. He demonstrated academic brilliance from the time he was in elementary school and at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied economics and philosophy. After graduation in 1937, he went to the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, where he earned his MBA degree in 1939. Soon after, he married a former classmate, Margaret Craig, who died in 1981. The couple had three children.

As a professor at the Harvard Business School when World War II started, Mr. McNamara helped train Army Air Corps officers in cost-effective statistical control. In 1946, he left the service and joined with nine other statistical control experts who offered their services as a group to various corporations. This resulted in all 10 being hired as a team by Ford Motor Co. The group revitalized the company and became known as the "whiz kids."

In 1960, Mr. McNamara was named the first Ford president who was not a descendant of Henry Ford. He had been president only a month when Kennedy invited Mr. McNamara, a registered Republican, to join his Cabinet. He stayed in the defense post for seven years, longer than anyone else since the job's creation in 1947.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

fast facts

'Terribly wrong'

In his 1995 memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara said he and his senior colleagues were "wrong, terribly wrong" to pursue the Vietnam 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 President Lyndon B. Johnson around.

Robert McNamara, architect of Vietnam war he later questioned, dies 07/06/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 7, 2009 6:28am]
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