Defense Secretary During Vietnam Build-up Dies at 93
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 6, 2009 The defense secretary who presided over the department during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the U.S. involvement in Vietnam died today.
Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara works at his desk in the Pentagon on March 17, 1961. McNamara, who served under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, died July 6, 2009, at 93. DoD photo by Army Master Sgt. Frank Hall
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Robert S. McNamara, the nation’s eighth defense secretary who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, died here following a long illness. He was 93.
McNamara became defense secretary on Jan. 21, 1961, and served as such during the coldest part of the Cold War. In 1962, the Soviet Union began building missile sites in Cuba. The sites would have Soviet nuclear missiles capable of hitting any city in the United States in minutes. President John F. Kennedy and his advisors challenged Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev.
McNamara was a member of the small group of advisors called the Executive Committee who counseled Kennedy on the matter. In the view of many historians, the United States and the Soviet Union came closer to a nuclear war during this time than at any other in history. McNamara supported the president’s decision to quarantine Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from bringing in more offensive weapons. During the crisis, the Pentagon placed U.S. military forces on alert, ready to back up the administration’s demand that the Soviet Union withdraw its offensive missiles from Cuba.
Vietnam was the major issue for McNamara. During the Kennedy administration, U.S. involvement in South Vietnam was limited to American Special Forces advisor teams and their support. The numbers of U.S. troops in Vietnam reached 17,000 by the time Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.
In 1964, the so-called “Gulf of Tonkin incident” – in which North Vietnamese ships fired on U.S. Navy vessels – caused President Lyndon B. Johnson to retaliate by bombing North Vietnam. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving the president the authority to increase the number of U.S. troops and missions in South Vietnam.
The number of American troops in South Vietnam hit 485,000 by the end of 1967, and it reached almost 535,000 by June 1968.
McNamara loyally supported the war in Vietnam, but grew disillusioned. By 1966, he questioned whether the war could be won by deploying more troops to South Vietnam and intensifying the bombing of North Vietnam. McNamara traveled to Southeast Asia many times to assess the war first-hand. North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive, launched in February 1968, was a strategic victory for the enemy. American servicemembers won every battle, but the heart had gone out of U.S. determination to win the war.
By the end of the Tet Offensive, McNamara had resigned, leaving office on Feb. 29, 1968. Johnson presented him with both the Medal of Freedom and the Distinguished Service Medal.
McNamara was born June 9, 1916, in San Francisco. In 1937, he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in economics and philosophy, and he earned a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard in 1939. In 1940, he married Margaret Craig, who founded the Reading is Fundamental program in the 1960s and died in 1981. He entered the Army Air Forces as a captain in early 1943 and left active duty three years later with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
After the war, McNamara joined the Ford Motor Co. as manager of planning and financial analysis. He rose through the ranks and was named the president of Ford on November 9, 1960. Less than five weeks after becoming president of Ford, McNamara accepted Kennedy’s invitation to join his Cabinet. After leaving the Pentagon, he served as president of the World Bank.
The former defense secretary is survived by a son, Robert Craig; two daughters, Margaret Elizabeth and Kathleen; and his wife, Diana Masieri Byfield, whom he married in San Francisco in 2004.