Lawrence S. Kaplan, Ronald D. Landa and Edward J. Drea, History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Vol. V: The McNamara Ascendancy, 1961-1965 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2006), 664 pp., $49.00.
AFTER TEN days in office President John F. Kennedy reported to the American people on the state of the union. Outlining the "harsh enormity of the trials" lying just ahead, the president minced no words. "Our problems are critical. The tide is unfavorable." Already dire, the situation was rapidly getting worse. "Each day the crises multiply. Each day their solution grows more difficult. Each day we draw nearer the hour of maximum danger."
This emphasis on looming disaster-implying a need for fresh, bold leadership-had helped get Kennedy elected. Now it was becoming something more. Not for the last time in American history, promoting an atmosphere of unprecedented crisis served as a ploy to enhance executive authority while leaving the Constitution nominally intact. Crying havoc provided a rationale for concentrating political power in the Oval Office and in the hands of a few trusted lieutenants.
Among those the president turned to, no one was more important than Robert Strange McNamara, Kennedy's choice for secretary of defense. After all, the crises ostensibly multiplying daily came in the form of threats to national security. Danger lay abroad. If the nation had any hope of survival, it lay in erecting more effective defenses to prevent the dogs of war from slipping their leash.