Robert McNamara dies at age 93 (WP 6-7-09)
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Robert McNamara dies at age 93 (WP 6-7-09)

By Malcolm Rutherford and Demetri Sevastopulo

Published: July 6 2009 14:41 | Last updated: July 6 2009 14:41

Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam war, died on Monday morning in his home at the age of 93, his wife Diana McNamara told the Associated Press. McNamara, a hawk turned dove on Vietnam, wrote in his book “In Retrospect” that he was never quite sure whether he quit or was fired as US defence secretary. He had held the job for seven years. McNamara came to the conclusion that military victory was beyond the reach of the US and that the war was doing terrible damage to American society.

Certainly his resignation would have been embarrassing to President Lyndon Johnson who in 1967 was still contemplating seeking re-election. Johnson brokered a way round the problem, however, by helping to ensure that McNamara became president of the World Bank, a post he held for the next 13 years.

Robert Strange McNamara was a quintessential numbers man. The son of a shoe salesman, he was born in San Francisco on June 9, 1916. He studied economics, philosophy and mathematics at Berkeley, which was beginning to emerge as a world class institution, then moved to the Harvard Business School. The key subject was control accounting and it dominated much of his working life. McNamara always said that he saw mathematics as a process of thought “a language in which to express much, but certainly not all, of human activity”. Quantification was “a language to add precision to reasoning about the world”.

At Harvard, where he became an assistant professor of business administration, the business school signed a contract with the US Army Air Corps to train statistical control officers. It was just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. McNamara was spotted by Charles B “Tex” Thornton, the head of the air corps programme.

By 1943 McNamara was working with the US Eighth Air Force which was being established in Britain. By the end of the war, having served in the China-India-Burma theatre as well as the UK and the US, he was a lieutenant-colonel. His role was to advise on the statistics, logistics and limitations of aerial warfare.

When the war was over, Thornton proposed that the veterans of the aerial statistics programme should offer themselves as a team to a big company in need of reorganisation and modernisation. McNamara went along reluctantly: he had hoped to return to Harvard. Yet he agreed to accompany them to Michigan to see the 28-year-old Henry Ford II, who had just become President of Ford Motor Company, not then the sprightliest of American concerns. The team was hired en bloc and became known as the whiz kids.

At Ford, McNamara developed his phenomenal grasp of control accounting and attention to detail. He appeared, his colleagues said, to carry all the numbers in his head. Profits rose, the company won back market share it had previously lost to General Motors and in the summer of 1960 Henry Ford II asked McNamara to become president. He was formally elected by the board in October that year.

Just over a month later came the drama. McNamara was telephoned in his office by Robert Kennedy, brother of the President-elect, JFK, neither of whom McNamara had met. There was a request for him to meet their brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, almost at once. Shriver arrived at the Ford headquarters in Dearborn the same afternoon with an offer for McNamara to become secretary of the treasury.

McNamara turned it down on the grounds that he had no experience. The Kennedys' immediate fallback offer was secretary of defence which, after consultations with all concerned, McNamara accepted. (It was not, incidentally, the first time that the post went to an automobile executive: Kennedy's predecessor, Eisenhower, appointed Charles Wilson from General Motors.)

McNamara went from a salary of $400,000 a year plus stock options at Ford to $25,000 a year at the Pentagon. At the age of 44 he was the youngest ever defence secretary. President Kennedy was 43 and Robert Kennedy was only 35.

At the start it was not all Vietnam, and indeed never was. There was an early disaster in the Bay of Pigs, the abortive American attempt to encourage an uprising in Cuba through a naval incursion. McNamara went along with it: President Kennedy insisted on taking the blame; the plan had been largely inherited from the previous administration.

McNamara's approach to the Pentagon was much the same as it had been at the Ford Motor Company, except that it was a bigger job and he was at the top from the beginning. He set about cutting costs and reforming the organisation. He scorned the idea that because the Pentagon was so large, it could not be managed. He rejected the practice of allocating large sums of money to the various armed services to let them spend as they liked.

Intellectually, he changed the theory of nuclear warfare. Previously, it had been widely believed that the best way of deterring a conventional attack was the threat of massive nuclear retaliation. As the Soviet nuclear capability advanced and it became possible to target nuclear weapons more accurately, McNamara recognised that the old theory was mutually suicidal. He changed the doctrine to flexible response, whereby there would be a greater reliance on conventional forces, leaving nuclear weapons to be used, if at all, as a last resort. That was controversial at the time, and certainly not popular with the government in Britain, yet by and large the McNamara theory has so far passed the test of time.

Thus in Washington McNamara became a whiz kid in his own right. He was probably closer to the President than anyone except Robert Kennedy. And when the President was assassinated in 1963, McNamara became almost as close to President Johnson.

Vietnam was his undoing. The Americans slid into the conflict gradually. Their commitment to support South Vietnam went back to President Truman, and was reinforced by Eisenhower, then Kennedy, then Johnson. They believed that there was an expansionist communist threat from China, to some extent backed by the Soviet Union. (There was little overt evidence then of the Sino-Soviet split.) They thought that if South Vietnam fell to the Communists, the rest of South East Asia would follow. It was known as the domino theory, first proclaimed by Eisenhower in 1954.

That was the conventional wisdom of the time, and for some years McNamara accepted it. As he pointed out later, America had very few experts on South East Asia, so hardly anyone seriously challenged it. Even Senator William Fulbright, later one of the harshest critics, supported the initial involvement.

The trouble was “in for a dime, in for a dollar”, and ultimately billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. Although the basic policy was to help South Vietnam to help itself by providing American training and equipment, the South Vietnamese proved unable or unwilling to do so. The American involvement thus became deeper and deeper.

McNamara realised this more quickly than most. He did so largely from numbers. He saw that American bombing raids on North Vietnam did not reduce the north's ability to move supplies to the south, and he refused to sanction bombing close to the north's border with China for fear of wider repercussions. He also realised that American, and especially student, opinion would turn against the war.

Most of those reservations were put first in private within the administration from 1965 onwards. In public he was still seen as a hawk. His decisive memo to President Johnson to bring the war to an end was delivered in May 1967.

Johnson declined to accept the advice, but took the hint that he had a troubled defence secretary on his hands. He knew that McNamara had been approached about the presidency of the World Bank and he facilitated the appointment. On November 27 1967 the Financial Times produced a scoop: McNamara was going to the Bank.

He stayed for 13 years or two and a half terms. At the start he said that the Bank's lending should double over the next five years. In the event it rose from under $1bn to $11.5bn when he left. The Bank's professional staff rose from 900 to 2,300. His principal concerns were poverty, especially rural poverty, energy programmes in developing countries and the international debate on population growth. The Bank became known as McNamara's bank rather more felicitously than Vietnam which was known as McNamara's war.

McNamara was more recently compared with Donald Rumsfeld, the controversial Bush administration defence secretary who oversaw the Iraq war until his dismissal in 2006. Asked in a 2005 interview with the FT, whether the men were friends, McNamara replied only that their wives played tennis. In response to the same question, however, Rumsfeld said the men were friends.

In his latter years, McNamara was sometimes spotted walking to conferences in Washington in casual clothes and running shoes as he quietly campaigned for a more sensible US policy on nuclear arms policy. In the FT interview, he said it was “insane” that the US had 2,000 nuclear weapons on a 15-minute hair-trigger alert, a policy that existed since his tenure at the Pentagon.

While McNamara later changed his judgement on Vietnam, he was reluctant to publicly criticise the Iraq war. He refused to discuss Iraq with the FT but conceded in his book “In Retrospect” that many of the same lessons from Vietnam applied to Iraq.

McNamara married Margaret (Marg) Craig in 1940 and the couple had a son and two daughters. In 1945 both the McNamaras had polio, she more seriously than her husband. One of the reasons why he chose to go to Ford rather than back to Harvard may have been that the salary would help to pay her medical fees. Marg died in 1981, the year McNamara left the World Bank. McNamara is survived by his second wife, Diana Masieri Byfield, whom he married in 2004

The late Malcolm Rutherford was the FT’s chief political commentator


Gửi lúc: 43:39:0 7/7/2009
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