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He Couldn't Micromanage Vietnam

THE two key words in Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's bright business lexicon were "quantification" and "commonality." Quantification meant the mastery of the exact sum of all the parts. Commonality was the art of knowing which parts had enough in common to be mass produced.

In Deborah Shapley's splendid biography "Promise and Power," McNamara is a great paradox of a man - ruthless and soft, charming and insufferable. Shapley gives many vivid glimpses of how he went about his lifelong quest for the two vital segments.

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One incident in his Pentagon days can stand for many. It involved the development of the TFX, the all-purpose fighter plane that he sponsored to meet the needs of both Navy and Air Force. It took place at his office in 1965. Present were the top military chiefs and intelligence experts, and the heads of Grumman Corporation and General Dynamics as well:

"The blueprints for the plane were spread out all over the rug in his office. The men ... stood around awkwardly, trying to offer suggestions and feeling inept, when, to their amazement, McNamara got down on his hands and knees in his pressed trousers and began crawling over the plans ... calling out instructions that he imagined could force this bird to fly."

The search for the TFX had begun when McNamara first took the Defense Department post in 1961. The irony was, as Shapley puts it: "to make his philosophic point about commonality, simplicity, and efficiency, [he] picked an unworkable set of common requirements, and hence a very sophisticated piece of hardware." The TFX was all McNamara's dreams in microcosm, a metaphor for his extraordinary life. The TFX never flew.

Shapley describes McNamara's Irish-Catholic upbringing under modest circumstances in the San Francisco Bay area and his fierce drive to succeed, which began at the University of California, Berkeley. By the time he reached the Harvard Business School, this drive was so strong that he asked to room alone to concentrate better on his studies.

He had come East needing something deeper, a mission. And he found a field of specialization he would make his own and use to change three institutions, and, arguably, the United States, writes Shapley. The three institutions were the Ford Motor Company, the Department of Defense, and the World Bank.

In researching the book, Shapley had many interviews with McNamara and access to much fresh material. McNamara did not review the final draft but simply checked the direct quotations for accuracy. He amplified his oral histories for her and further clarified his testimony at Gen. William Westmoreland's libel trial against CBS in 1984. The result is a biography that is in no way authorized or official. But in its narrative power, evenhandedness, and compassion, the book admirably fulfills its high purpose .

The Ford years were headlong ones. McNamara flattered Henry Ford II and sought to meet all his wishes and whims. He learned to dominate meetings as he had long wished to do, wearing his Phi Beta Kappa key "on days when he wanted to be particularly fearsome; it glittered there like a small, poisoned dagger." He was bearish on the Edsel car and weathered its debacle. His own creation, the Falcon, was a hit, and its vast "commercial success catapulted McNamara into that charmed circle of industry leaders wi th a proven success, a car ... that makes an impact on the national psyche." When Ford took over the chairmanship of the company in 1961, McNamara became president. Thirty-four days later he answered President Kennedy's call to become secretary of defense.

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McNamara and his devoted wife, Margy, soon became part of the Kennedy team and the Camelot legend. He was the voice of caution in the Cuban missile crisis, urging blockade rather than invasion of the island. He convinced his new master that the atom bomb could only serve as a deterrent and never actually be used, and that a flexible response to attack was NATO's best chance of survival. In January 1963, McNamara made a flying trip to Vietnam, which led him to believe that Ngo Dinh Diem's regime, bolstere d by US military advisers, had the situation in hand.

Then, with the assassinations of Diem and Kennedy, the sky darkened. The core of the book and the heart of the matter is McNamara's involvement in the quagmire of the Vietnam War. The new forms of quantification became the body count and the number of US troops. With the body count rising steadily and the troops pouring in by the thousands, how could the United States lose?

Lyndon Johnson proved to be an even more admiring and demanding boss than Kennedy was. By 1965, McNamara became convinced that the war was unwinnable. But there never seemed to be a right moment to tell LBJ or the American public. So he urged the president to keep up the pressure, and lied to the American people about the state of the war. Was fear of red China's entry the dominant reason the US fought on? Or was it the hope that a political track could be opened up and the war ended by negotiation? Did McNamara, the perfect No. 2 man, feel that he had to tell Johnson what the president wanted to hear?

You may not agree with all of Shapley's answers. She does point out how McNamara grew more and more distressed until LBJ eased him out by making him head of the World Bank. The last part of the biography is a lively account of his great service in this new post. Quantification lent itself to meeting the needs of the poor and hungry. (But he remained aloof and abrupt with most of his colleagues. One newspaperman wrote, "He loves humanity more than he loves human beings.")

There are tragic overtones in the life of this most interesting man. Like Icarus in the legend, and former Secretary of Defense James Forrestal in real life, Robert McNamara flew too near the sun. But he survived to become a respected senior statesman.

With her eye for detail and her scrupulous, far-reaching research, Shapley has produced what should stand up as one of the most exciting biographies of the year.

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