Field Marshal McNamara

Field Marshal McNamara

Mini Teaser: Managing the Pentagon and managing wars are two different things, a lesson Robert McNamara learned the hard way.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

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.

A promise to reinvigorate U.S. national-security policy had defined Kennedy's presidential campaign. Making good on that promise meant transforming the armed services, making them more flexible and responsive-in a word, useable. In that same State of the Union address, Kennedy emphasized the necessity of having at hand "forces to respond, with discrimination and speed, to any problem at any spot on the globe at any moment's notice." Yet transformation required that his administration first gain effective control of the Pentagon. These twin tasks-establishing jurisdiction and then spurring reform-defined Secretary McNamara's mandate.

Nearly forty years after he left office in 1968, opinion about McNamara remains sharply divided. Some Americans, especially Vietnam veterans or aging anti-war activists, see him as genuinely malignant. Others, especially those keen to keep alive the myth of Camelot, view him as a tragic figure-a brilliant, well-intentioned public servant brought down by events beyond his control. This volume-the first of two on the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) during the McNamara years-tells a different story. Although the authors seem only dimly aware of the indictment that they hand down, it reveals McNamara to have been merely incompetent, someone spectacularly ill-suited for the responsibilities with which he was charged.

GRANTED, THE challenges facing the Kennedy Administration were real enough, especially when it came to asserting authority over the Pentagon. Since the end of World War II, civilian control of the military had become an iffy proposition.

By 1961, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had emerged as a de facto fourth branch of government. For public consumption, the chiefs carefully conveyed the appearance of being deferential to their civilian masters. For their part, presidents made a show of being really in charge. The reality was much more complicated. During the Truman and Eisenhower years, as the United States had committed itself to maintaining a permanently large, globally deployed military establishment, the JCS had evolved its own national-security agenda, overlapping with, but by no means identical to, the president's. In pursuit of that agenda, the chiefs had carved out broad prerogatives, their writ extending well beyond strictly military matters. Faced with policies to which they objected, they became adept at going around the president to cut deals with Congress. They ignored or re-interpreted directives not to their liking. They leaked and lobbied with impunity. More often than not, and especially on matters related to weapons procurement and overall spending, they got what they wanted.

In his farewell address-well-regarded today, largely ignored when first delivered-Eisenhower tacitly acknowledged that the "military industrial complex" had eluded his control. McNamara took his post intent on bringing the chiefs to heel. He would not permit them to obstruct or undermine the president's agenda. When it came to questions of basic policy, he, not they, would call the shots.

The animating spirit of the New Frontier emphasized pragmatism, flexibility and centralization. To these McNamara added his own fillip. A product of Harvard Business School who by 1960 had become president of Ford Motor Company, he saw truth as a quantifiable commodity. To McNamara, numbers and their manipulation held the key to wisdom. Combine enough data with the right analytical tools and sound decisions would result. "To this day", he wrote years later, "I see quantification as a language to add precision to reasoning about the world."1

Immediately upon taking office, the new secretary acted on this conviction. He began by imposing on the Pentagon a stringent new management system. Admirers hyped this "McNamara Revolution" as a device to improve efficiency and enhance cost-effectiveness. Yet the revolution's underlying purpose was to shift power from the military services to the OSD.

In policy debates, generals and admirals habitually relied on assertions of professional judgment and expertise as their trump card. McNamara's Planning, Programming and Budgeting System (PPBS) removed that option. Henceforth, decision-making about buying or scrapping weapons, about expanding or contracting forces would employ a new logic. For the JCS, PPBS was so much mumbo-jumbo. Yet until old soldiers and old salts learned to crunch numbers, their votes wouldn't count for much.

McNamara promised to provide "aggressive leadership-questioning, suggesting alternatives, proposing objectives, and stimulating progress." PPBS put him in the driver's seat. Where exactly did he drive?

The McNamara Ascendancy offers two answers to this question. The first answer relates specifically to nuclear strategy, an abiding preoccupation for McNamara. The second relates to the various crises in which he served as a key presidential advisor. Regarding the former, the hapless McNamara drove around in circles, his principal achievement being to stir up angst among America's allies. Regarding the latter, after several failed attempts, he managed to fling himself and the U.S. military off a cliff.

At the moment when the Kennedy Administration took office no issue loomed larger than the perceived threat of nuclear war. On the campaign trail, Kennedy had charged that the United States was fast falling behind the Soviets, especially in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Democrats derided Eisenhower's strategy of massive retaliation as crude and obsolete. Kennedy promised to strengthen the U.S. nuclear arsenal and to provide a persuasive new rationale for America's nuclear posture.

In fact, the so-called "missile gap" was non-existent. In both missile technology and overall striking power, the United States in 1961 enjoyed a substantial advantage over the Soviet Union. Just a week after Kennedy's January 30 State of the Union address of that same year, McNamara himself acknowledged this publicly, to the considerable embarrassment of the White House.

Still, expressing the administration's activist bent required a further expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, with priority given to accelerating the deployment of solid-fueled Minuteman ICBMs and increasing the number of missile-launching Polaris submarines. U.S. nuclear forces were strong, but making them stronger still was an imperative. Nor was this all for show: In 1961, McNamara explicitly expressed his conviction that those forces were eminently usable. "Our nuclear stockpile is several times that of the Soviet Union", he bragged in September, "and we will use either tactical weapons or strategic weapons in whatever quantities wherever, whenever it's necessary."

Such saber-rattling aside, McNamara wanted it known that the new administration's nuclear policies marked a sharp break with the past. The whole concept of massive retaliation was "useless", he insisted. Intent on providing the president with a wide array of options for employing American military might, McNamara set out to think his way through the unthinkable.

Uniformed officers, especially those assigned to Strategic Air Command (SAC), had a fairly straightforward concept for waging nuclear war: Whenever the president gave the word (or earlier if need be), they were going to blow the Reds to smithereens. Appalled by SAC's cavalier approach, McNamara took it upon himself to devise an alternative that would give the Soviets a stake in avoiding a world-ending holocaust while ensuring above all that he and the president retained ironclad control over the actual employment of U.S. forces.

Immersing himself in projections about accuracy, survivability, destruction, aftereffects and Soviet intentions, he endorsed or toyed with a wide range of permutations, each one intended to make nuclear war more calibrated, discriminating and humane. As Lawrence Kaplan and his collaborators write, "controlled response had an almost mantra-like ring to McNamara and his circle, as if through appropriate incantations it might solve all manner of strategic issues." Each incantation came with its own distinctive label: "finite deterrence, flexible response, graduated response, controlled response, counterforce, counter-cities, no-cities, full first strike, first strike, second strike, negotiating pauses, assured destruction, damage limiting." None of these withstood close scrutiny. Each proved to have a shelf life of about six months.

Essay Types: Book Review