- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary during the escalation of the Vietnam War who later recanted many of his military decisions and called the conflict a mistake, died early Monday at his Washington home.

Mr. McNamara, who had been in failing health, was 93.

Mr. McNamara was president of the Ford Motor Co. and a registered Republican when Democratic President Kennedy recruited him to run the Pentagon in 1961. He was known as a cerebral policymaker with a penchant for using statistical analysis in making decisions.

As a lead architect of the Vietnam War through early 1968, Mr. McNamara was loudly criticized for helping ramp up the military campaign. Critics derisively called the conflict “McNamara’s war;” it was the only American war to end in abject withdrawal.

Yet although he often disagreed with the White House and generals on war strategy and tactics, he routinely acquiesced to their desires.

“He wasn’t very dark on [the war], but I certainly wouldn’t say he was an optimist” about its chances for success, said Marc Selverstone, associate professor the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “McNamara was a guy who understood where his boss wanted to go and went in that direction.”

When Lyndon B. Johnson took office in late 1963 after the assassination of Mr. Kennedy, Mr. McNamara appeared to get along with the new administration, agreeing to its push to beef up U.S. military presence in Vietnam.

Mr. Johnson, during a telephone conversation with Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver in early 1964, praised his defense secretary by saying he “didn’t think there’s man in government as valuable as McNamara.”

“He just gives you the answers, and he gives you cooperation, and he’s a can-do fellow,” the president said. “He’s got imagination and drive.”

But that ingenuity eventually caught up with him, as Mr. McNamara and Mr. Johnson increasingly disagreed on how best to fight the war.

Their strained relationship came to an irreconcilable head, historians say, when Mr. McNamara drafted a memorandum in November 1967 suggesting that the United States halt bombing raids in North Vietnam and stop expanding military operations in neighboring countries.

“There certainly was evidence before [the memo] that McNamara was thinking a little bit differently than what the administration policy was, but that to me was kind of the breaking point,” said John Wilson, an archivist at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas.

When Mr. McNamara left stepped down in February 1968, he was disillusioned with the war and doubted its success, scholars say.

Mr. McNamara later said that he wasn’t sure whether he was fired or resigned.

“It wasn’t one of those real clear cut kind of things,” Mr. Wilson said. “It must have been fairly mutual. [Mr. McNamara] certainly didn’t raise a fuss about going.”

Soon after leaving the Pentagon, Mr. McNamara served as the World Bank president for 13 years. He tripled its loans to developing countries and changed its emphasis from large industrial projects to rural development.

After retiring in 1981, he championed the causes of nuclear disarmament and aid by the richest nation for the world’s poorest.

Mr. McNamara largely refrained from criticizing the Vietnam War until he released a memoir in 1995, when he called the war “terribly wrong.”

“In the waning days of his life, he tried very hard to try to have some of the lessons he learned from Vietnam be learned by present-day policymakers, and tragically most of those lessons did not seem to register - at least not with the Bush administration,” said Christopher A. Preble, director of Foreign Policy Studies at Cato Institute, a libertarian Washington think thank.

Mr. McNamara is credited with redefining the role of defense secretary during his seven years on the job. Before his tenure, the civilian post was handcuffed by limited budgets and chronic noncooperation from the military branches, Mr. Wilson said.

“He built up the office of the secretary of defense to the point where it had the ability to question budget submissions and things like that from the services,” Mr. Wilson said.

Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of the Mr. Johnson, on Monday offered Mr. McNamara’s family her family “condolences and love.”

“Under the most trying times he served as secretary of defense for two presidents and 200 million Americans,” she said in a statement released by the Johnson library. “He gave the nation the best of his considerable talents, doing what he thought was right with the information he had to do the right.”

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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