Birthday: June 9, 1916
Died At Age: 93
Sun Sign: Gemini
Also Known As: Robert Strange McNamara
Born in: San Francisco, California
Famous as: Former United States Secretary of Defense
Spouse/Ex-: Diana Masieri Byfield (m. 2004), Margaret Craig (m. 1940; d. 1981)
father: Robert James McNamara
mother: Clara Nell Strange McNamara
children: Robert Craig McNamara
Died on: July 6, 2009
place of death: Washington, D.C.
U.S. State: California
City: San Francisco, California
Founder/Co-Founder: Defense Intelligence Agency
education: University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University
awards: Legionnaire of Legion of Merit
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Medal of honor Dag Hammarskjold
Four Freedoms Award
Legion of Merit
Who was Robert McNamara?
Robert Strange McNamara was an American business executive and politician who served as the eighth Secretary of Defense under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He is known for playing a vital role in leading the US into the Vietnam War. Before he started his career as a business executive, McNamara had served in the World War II in the US Army Air Forces. Later, he was hired by Henry Ford II along with other Air Force veterans to work for Ford Motor Company. He also served as the President of Ford for some time, after which he was appointed the Secretary of Defense. After McNamara grew skeptical of the fruitfulness of committing US soldiers to Vietnam, he eventually resigned as Secretary of Defense and became the President of the World Bank. Serving for over seven years, he is known for being the longest serving Secretary of Defense. Later, as the President of the World Bank, he shifted the bank’s focus to reduction of poverty. After he retired, he served as the trustee of several organizations such as the California Institute of Technology. He passed away in his sleep in his home at the age of 93.
Childhood & Early Life
Robert McNamara was born on 9th June 1916 in San Francisco, California. He was the son of Robert James McNamara, the sales manager of a wholesale shoe company. His mother’s name was Clara Neil McNamara.
He studied at the Piedmont High School in Piedmont from where he graduated in 1933. Later, he attended the University of California, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics, with minors in philosophy and mathematics, in 1937. He later earned an MBA from Harvard Business School.
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Robert McNamara worked in the accounts firm Price Waterhouse for a year. He then returned to Harvard as an assistant professor of accounting. He was the youngest and highest paid assistant professor of his time.
During the World War II, he decided to take a break from the university and help his country in the war. He entered the US Army Air Corps in 1943. He put his sharp analytical skills to work in the Office of Statistical Control.
Ford Motor Company
In 1946, Charles Thornton, a colonel under whom Robert McNamara had served, made a group of ten officers to go into business together. Around this time, it was published in a magazine that Ford Motor Company was in need of serious reform. Impressed by the team Thornton had formed, Henry Ford II hired the entire group, including McNamara.
Known as the “Whiz Kids,” the team helped the company—which was going through a financial crisis—reform its administration through modern planning, strict organization, and stringent management control systems.
McNamara, who had started as the manager of planning and financial analysis, slowly advanced to top-level management positions. He became the first president of the Ford Motor Company to be outside of the Ford family.
Secretary of Defense
After winning the presidential election in 1960, John F. Kennedy first offered the post of Secretary of Defense to Robert A. Lovett. Lovett, however, declined the offer and recommended McNamara instead.
McNamara officially took over the post in January 1961. Kennedy wanted him to reorganize the country’s defense program. McNamara helped establish the country’s Planning, Programming and Budgeting System (PPBS). He emphasized the need for traditional troops as well as military hardware and improved weapons systems.
McNamara eventually became one of Kennedy’s most trusted men, and the president regarded him as the star of his team. He became one of the few members of the Kennedy government to work and socialize with the president.
He also played an important role in the Cuban Missile Crisis and served as a member of EXCOMM, the body of US government officials who helped to defuse the crisis.
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He managed to gain control of Pentagon operations as well as the military bureaucracy, and he continued to encourage the modernization of the armed forces. He also restructured budget procedures and cut costs by refusing to spend money on what he considered unnecessary weapons systems.
During the Johnson administration, Robert McNamara supported increasing the US involvement in the Vietnam War after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, in which the US ships were attacked by North Vietnamese vessels. This was met with retaliation by US President Johnson who ordered air strikes against the North Vietnamese naval bases.
The Viet Cong, a militant communist government that opposed the US backed government in South Vietnam, soon began taking military action. The US responded by extensive bombing in the north and by deploying as many as 500,000 troops in the South.
McNamara was criticized by many in the peace movement, as he was one of the major strategists behind the war. Some were also critical of the information he conveyed about Vietnam.
McNamara himself started having doubts about whether the US would be able to secure victory over the communists by sending more troops. He travelled to Vietnam several times in order to understand the situation and was, therefore, reluctant to send more troops as requested. Years later, he stated that his support of the war was due to his loyalty to the administration.
He ordered a study of the US military involvement in the Indochina Peninsula in 1967. The highly sensitive final report was, however, leaked to the press and eventually published as ‘The Pentagon Papers’. It contained many revelations about the extent of the involvement of the US in the Vietnam War.
The papers also revealed that President Johnson had the US forces engage in covert warfare as well against the North Vietnamese forces in 1964. McNamara eventually decided to quit his position as the Secretary of Defense as he had become disillusioned with the Vietnam War.
A few other sources say that McNamara departed because the president himself wanted him to quit. McNamara left the office on 29th February 1968. After his departure, he published ‘The Essence of Security’ where he discussed different aspects of his tenure as well as his position on basic national security issues.
Robert McNamara became the President of the World Bank in April 1968 and held the position till June 1981, when he reached 65 years of age. During his years as the president, he gained fame for introducing several key changes. He was involved in numerous projects related to poverty reduction. He also oversaw the expansion of the bank’s lending capabilities. Currently, the World Bank has a scholarship program under McNamara’s name.
McNamara was named ‘Alumnus of the Year’ by the University of California in 1961.
In 1968, he received the ‘Medal of Freedom’ and ‘Distinguished Service Medal’ for his service towards his country.
On August 13, 1940, Robert McNamara married Margaret Craig, his teenage sweetheart. She was an accomplished cook and a former teacher. They had two daughters, Kathleen McNamara and Margaret Elizabeth Pastor, and one son named Robert Craig McNamara. His beloved wife passed away in 1981 after suffering from cancer.
He married Diana Masieri Byfield, a widow, in September 2004.
A film based on Robert McNamara, titled ‘The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the life of Robert S McNamara,’ was released in 2003. It was directed by Errol Morris. It won an Oscar for ‘Best Documentary Feature’.
McNamara passed away in his sleep at his home in Washington, D.C. on 6th July 2009. He was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.