Life of Robert McNamara, Architect of the Vietnam War

Robert McNamara
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

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Robert S. McNamara (June 9, 1916–July 6, 2009) was a secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1960s and the chief architect and most vocal defender of the Vietnam War. He spent his later years as an elder statesman, apologizing for an escalation of the conflict that became known as "McNamara's War." He strove to redeem himself by helping the world's poorest nations.

Before his death in 2009, McNamara wrote about the failures that would became his legacy: "Looking back, I clearly erred by not forcing — then or later, in Saigon or Washington — a knock-down, drag-out debate over the loose assumptions, unasked questions and thin analyses underlying our military strategy in Vietnam."

Fast Facts: Robert McNamara

  • Known For: U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War
  • Born: June 9, 1916 in San Francisco, California
  • Died: July 6, 2009 in Washington, D.C.
  • Parents' Names: Robert and Clara Nell McNamara
  • Education: University of California at Berkeley, Harvard Business School
  • Spouses' Names: Margaret Craig (m. 1940–1981), Diana Masieri Byfield (m. 2004)
  • Children's Names: Robert, Margaret, Kathleen

Early Years and Education

Robert Strange McNamara was born on June 9, 1916 to Robert, the son of Irish immigrants, and Clara Nell McNamara. His father managed a shoe company in their hometown of San Francisco. The young McNamara was raised during the Great Depression, an experience that helped shape his liberal political philosophy. Later, he honed this philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied economics. Next, he studied business administration at Harvard University, then went on to work for Ford Motor Company. He served as Ford's president for a month until being tapped by President John F. Kennedy's administration in 1960 to lead the Pentagon.

Defending the Vietnam War

McNamara was vilified by opponents of the Vietnam War for his seemingly unflinching support of the conflict in public, distorting the reality of the war and misleading the president. He used the statistical analysis techniques he learned at Harvard to try to measure success on the battlefield. According to the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University, McNamara "switched to using enemy body counts instead of territory or land based objectives to measure the American’s success in the war...[which] led to a war of attrition, a policy of inflicting massive casualties on the enemy."

In private, McNamara's doubts about the mission grew along with the body count, and he questioned whether the war was actually winnable. Eventually, he raised such concerns with President Lyndon B. Johnson, with no success. McNamara resigned as secretary of Defense in 1968 following his failed attempt to both negotiate a settlement in the Vietnam War and convince Johnson to freeze troop levels and stop bombings. Clark Clifford, an adviser to Johnson, succeeded McNamara. McNamara went on to become president of the World Bank.

Famous Quotes

"I deeply regret that I did not force a probing debate about whether it would ever be possible to forge a winning military effort on a foundation of political quicksand. It became clear then, and I believe it is clear today, that military force - especially when wielded by an outside power - cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself."
"We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo - men, women and children. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"
"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."
"You don't ... correct a wrong by apologizing. You can correct a wrong only if you understand how it occurred and you take steps to ensure it won't happen again."

Later Career

McNamara served as the World Bank president for 12 years. He tripled its loans to developing countries and changed its emphasis from grandiose industrial projects to rural development.
After retiring in 1981, McNamara championed the causes of nuclear disarmament and aid for the world's poorest nations. He fought what he described as the “absolute poverty — utter degradation” in Africa, Asia and Latin America.


McNamara died on July 6, 2009, in Washington, D.C. His legacy will forever be intertwined with the Vietnam War and tainted by his loyalty to the presidents he served rather than the American people. The New York Times condemned McNamara in a devastating editorial, writing:

“Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen. Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”
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Murse, Tom. "Life of Robert McNamara, Architect of the Vietnam War." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Murse, Tom. (2020, August 27). Life of Robert McNamara, Architect of the Vietnam War. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "Life of Robert McNamara, Architect of the Vietnam War." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).