The Magazine

The MAD Legacy of Robert McNamara

It's badly in need of rethinking.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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Nearly all of the voluminous commentary on the death of Robert McNamara has focused on his conduct of the Vietnam war. This is as inevitable as it is natural. Vietnam was not merely McNamara's Egyptian campaign, Austerlitz, Moscow retreat, and Waterloo all rolled into one. It was also the defining event of the generation whose members are even now busy writing his obituaries.

But there is another side to McNamara's legacy--one largely forgotten by history but arguably more relevant today than the Vietnam war. McNamara spearheaded a revolution in America's nuclear posture whose effects are largely still with us. Indeed, most of his first three-plus years at the Pentagon were consumed by a comprehensive rethinking of nuclear strategy.

"No single public figure," wrote British historian Lawrence Freedman in his exhaustive (and exhausting) study The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, "has influenced the way we think about nuclear weapons quite as much as Robert S. McNamara." Penned in 1981, those words remain true. Whether the ideas McNamara helped put in place fit the world we now inhabit--whether they made sense at the time--are eminently debatable questions. And, incidentally, ones that no one is debating.

Robert McNamara became secretary of defense in January 1961 at age 44 (only one SecDef--Donald Rumsfeld, in his first outing in 1975--has been younger). McNamara had no relationship with the new president, and his defense experience totaled four years of ROTC and three years as an Army Air Corps officer running statistical analyses on procurement and logistics--something like just-in-time inventory avant la lettre. Skeptical of the offer, he warned John F. Kennedy that he hadn't kept up with military affairs since 1946. Kennedy brushed aside the concern with the remark that there was no school for presidents either. He wanted McNamara for his agile mind.

And agile it was. Everyone remembers the phrase "whiz kids" as a term of abuse used against McNamara and the coterie of intellectuals he brought to the Pentagon as advisers. But its origins go back to the team McNamara assembled to run complex analyses of the World War II air force. McNamara managed to keep most of his team together after the war, and to sell its services to the highest bidder--the Ford Motor Company, as it turned out.

Bringing their number-crunching skills ruthlessly to bear, they managed to shake the moribund, money-losing automaker to its foundations and turn it around. By 1960, McNamara was president of the company--the first ever from outside the family.

He spent less than two months in the job before being tapped by Kennedy for the Pentagon, where he was immediately immersed in roiling, secretive, and highly technical debates over America's nuclear weapons -arsenal: how it should be configured, where it should be deployed, if--and when--it should be used.

McNamara took to the grisly subject with relish. As Fred Kaplan wrote in The Wizards of Armageddon, his history of nuclear strategy, "From the beginning of his tenure in the Pentagon, Robert McNamara was fascinated with nuclear weapons--horrified by their awesome destruction, yet eager to find a way to bring them under some sort of rational control."

As different as his new job was from running a car company, McNamara quickly found that the Defense Department of 1961 shared something with the Ford of 1946: Its approach to its core mission was a shambles.

That core mission was to deter Moscow from launching an invasion of Western Europe, or a strategic attack on NATO bases overseas or the American homeland, and--if deterrence failed--to stop any Soviet advance and make their adventurism far more costly than any gains. Enshrined thinking on how best to do this was, to put it mildly, unsubtle.

With the advent of nuclear weapons, the military's youngest branch--the Air Force--became its de facto "senior service," the one whose budgets were never questioned, whose every request was treated as urgent. The Air Force had the bomb, and the bomb was the guarantor of peace. The Air Force was also the home of the Strategic Air Command, by far the most important military unit in the U.S. armed forces, and the personal fiefdom of General Curtis LeMay for nine years--a tenure whose length has never been equaled in the modern military.