Robert S. McNamara (pronounced MacNamara) died on Monday, July 6, 2009, at the age of 93. His wife said he died in his sleep.

In his storied career he was the first non-Ford president of the Ford Motor Company, Secretary of Defense under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and became president of the World Bank. President Kennedy apparently considered McNamara to be the smartest man he had ever met. He became the epitome of the 1950s efficiency expert.

Robert McNamara was an early achiever. He was an Eagle Scout and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He received a BA in Economics from Cal, Berkeley in 1937, with minors in mathematics and philosophy. The math helped him in his system analysis for the military in World War II, evaluating the effects of Allied bombing. His philosophy showed up in his speeches.

At Ford, he opposed production of the Edsel, considered to the all-time stinker clinker in automotive history, and ended the program in 1959. He backed the popular Ford Falcon, which was small, simple and inexpensive to produce. He favored small cars and introduced safety measures into the Ford line, and redesigned the Lincoln into the Lincoln Continental, which became an icon of the Sixties. Had he stayed at Ford, he would have enjoyed a brilliant career and retired a happy, wealthy, uncontroversial man.

In 1960, president-elect Kennedy offered McNamara a cabinet position at Treasury or Defense. McNamara turned down the Treasury post and reluctantly accepted the position of Secretary of Defense. Early on, he agreed with Kennedy that the U.S. needed a more flexible approach in international crises than massive retaliation and worked on the concept of flexible response. This flexibility might have saved the world from nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and remember well the case Adlai Stevenson laid out at the United Nations, aiming his long pointer at blowups of U-2 spy plane photos of Russian medium range ballistic missiles stationed in Cuba. We all knew the photos were real.

McNamara downplayed the advantage missiles gave the Russians and restrained hawkish American admirals from attacking Russian submarines patrolling near Cuba. He removed Admiral Anderson, Chief of Naval Operations, from his duties. As it was, U.S. naval vessels apparently dropped depth charges near the Russian subs as a warning to stay from the blockade zone. Had any of those subs been damaged, they had orders to fire nuclear-tipped torpedoes, which the U.S. was unaware of at the time. “We came very, very close to war,” during the crisis, McNamara said, only learning of the torpedoes years later. That might have been Robert McNamara’s finest service to his country. Other accounts give the Russian submarine captain more credit for defusing the submarine issue.

Unfortunately for McNamara, the Vietnam War became the biggest bone on his plate at Defense, and it stuck in his throat for the rest of his life. Early in the Johnson presidency, it became known as “McNamara’s War.” And early on, showing his usual good sense about projects, he saw the difficulty of winning in Vietnam and told President Johnson that he had only a 50-50 chance of winning, at best. He was torn between giving his honest assessment of the war and not wanting to give aid and comfort to the enemy. Half a million American soldiers went to war on his watch. More than 16,000 died. McNamara wanted to limit the number of U.S. troops sent to Vietnam, at least, as a way of containing the war. But it was also President Johnson’s war, and Johnson did not want to lose it. Johnson fired McNamara in November of 1967, just after he oversaw the relatively bloodless March on the Pentagon, refusing requests to use gas and bayonets against the demonstrators. (See my reminiscences of that event “The 1967 March on the Pentagon.”)

McNamara was silent on the subject of Vietnam for many years until he published his memoirs in 1995. He appeared on talk shows as a contrite man, explaining how he had misunderstood Ho Chi Minh as a Stalinist, missed entirely the nationalist character of the war, and overestimated the threat that the North Vietnamese presented to American security. He was obviously deeply haunted by the Vietnamese civilian loses from the bombing and spreading of Agent Orange, which also crippled thousands of American soldiers. His guilt over Asian deaths extended back to the firebombing of Japan, in which he assisted, resulting in the estimated deaths of 900,000 Japanese civilians. He considered that he might be a war criminal. He spoke out against the Iraq War.

In a curious way, McNamara’s career as Secretary of Defense mirrored that of Albert Speer, an architect by trade, who was tapped by Hitler to become Minister of Armaments for the Third Reich. He was one of the few Nazis to express remorse at the Nuremberg Trials, and spent 20 years in prison for his war crimes, dying a free man at age 76.

At the World Bank, McNamara channeled resources into efforts to alleviate world poverty and effectively evaluate the use of bank funds. He had sufficient strength and goodness in him to remarry at the age of 88 after his first wife’s death.

Robert S. McNamara was a cold war warrior in the top ranks after World War II. These were men who appreciated the fruits of victory and understood the costs of war. He inherited General Eisenhower’s vision of the Domino Theory in Southeast Asia, and lived to see that, in fact, the dominoes did not quite fall in a line. The Vietnamese army played regional hegemon in limiting the damage of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and China briefly invaded Vietnam, a country it had aided during the Vietnam War.

For a man who wore glasses, he saw more clearly than most of his peers the limits of American power. What he could not see quite so clearly, though his son protested the Vietnam War, was the perspective of youth. For those of us who were drafted during the Vietnam War, there was very little enthusiasm for it. We did not feel threatened by the Viet Cong, and as a thought system, international Communism seemed like a thing of the past. We were the duck and cover generation. We were the first generation born under the threat of nuclear weapons, and that threat far overshadowed any concern we might have had about who governed Vietnam. The Vietnam War was bad news, irrelevant, a waste of lives and time, as far as many of us were concerned. The Vietnamese themselves didn’t seem to care much for it either, especially the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves in the streets of Saigon, in protest against their U.S.-backed government.

I close with relevant lines from my book The Endless Evolving Trilogy – A Poem Cycle.

What could you do when the siren wailed,
hunched beneath your grade school desk,
waiting for the windows to fly in?
The Bomb itself was the enemy.

Not Us, not Them. No tread of foreign troops.
Nothing to rally courage, no patriot’s cheer.
Only the disastrous blast, disinterested wind.
Who would ever know in a hundred years
whose hand first touched the button?

In that drill the movement was born.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.