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

Apart from giving NATO fits-Western Europeans became nervous at any hint that Washington was backing away from its commitment to respond without reservation to Soviet aggression-these Strangelove-ian exertions yielded next to nothing. After much hand-wringing, McNamara came to the same conclusion that Eisenhower had reached a decade earlier: As instruments of war, nuclear weapons possess no practical utility. According to his own subsequent testimony, McNamara eventually urged both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson that "they never, under any circumstances, initiate the use of nuclear weapons." The essence of nuclear strategy returned in the 1960s to what it had been in the 1950s: posture a willingness to go to the mat-and pray that the other side never calls your bluff.

In his memoirs, McNamara wrote that, "I had always been confident that every problem could be solved."2 Here, however, was a problem for which no amount of data could provide a solution.

KENNEDY AND those around him came to power reveling in the ostensibly dangerous waters into which the previous administration had allowed the ship of state to drift. Soon enough, they discovered real crises in numbers sufficient to confirm their fevered depiction of a nation besieged. Some of those crises came stamped "Made in the U.S.A." For starters, Eisenhower had bequeathed to his successor a rapidly maturing plan to overthrow Cuba's communist dictator Fidel Castro, using a "brigade" of CIA-trained Cuban exiles. All Kennedy had to do was to say go. But would the plan work?

In this one instance, McNamara, new to his job, did defer to the collective wisdom of the top brass, much to his subsequent regret. Asked by the president to assess Operation Zapata's prospects, the chiefs hedged: "timely execution of this plan has a fair chance of ultimate success and, even if it does not achieve immediately the full results desired, could contribute to the eventual overthrow of the Castro regime." By remaining silent, McNamara tacitly endorsed this artfully crafted assessment. In fact, members of the JCS had major reservations about the CIA plan. But they suppressed those doubts, assuming that if the exiles faltered the president was certain to order a full-scale U.S. invasion-their preferred course of action-even though Kennedy had plainly stated that he would not do so.

When the landing at the Bay of Pigs ended in a debacle, Kennedy publicly assumed full responsibility. In private, however, he blamed the chiefs. In his eyes, they had proven themselves unworthy of trust. For his part, McNamara vowed that henceforth he personally, not the generals, would always represent the views of the Department of Defense. After the Bay of Pigs, he never again hesitated to intrude into operational matters.

To be sure, going through the motions of consulting the JCS remained necessary for political reasons. For real guidance, however, McNamara relied increasingly on the defense intellectuals and brainy young Ph.Ds with whom he surrounded himself. In essence, these so-called "Whiz Kids" comprised what one observer called a "civilian-military general staff in OSD." To control the chiefs, McNamara effectively superseded them. He, not they, became the principal conduit of military advice proffered to the president. It was the inverse of a military coup.

The Bay of Pigs thus revealed and also exacerbated pre-existing civil-military dysfunction. In the years that followed, this dysfunction produced a cascade of defective policy recommendations. In subsequent crises, the United States avoided disaster in considerable measure because Kennedy, despite having promised to pay any price and bear any burden, showed an increasing aversion to risk. After Kennedy, however, came the deluge.

Faced with a possible communist takeover of Laos, for example, with even the normally bellicose chiefs unable to devise a plausible military option, McNamara urged intervention with U.S. troops. Should China or North Vietnam counter by sending in their own troops, the defense secretary coolly expressed a willingness "to initiate the use of nuclear weapons in order to prevent the defeat of our forces." Kennedy rejected this counsel and opted to neutralize Laos. "Thank God the Bay of Pigs happened when it did", he later remarked. "Otherwise we'd be in Laos by now-and that would be a hundred times worse."

October 1962 brought the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara fancied that the U.S. strategic build-up he was engineering "would send a message to the Soviets that emphasized deterrence rather than a second strike." The Kremlin read the message differently, however. Soviet leaders did not cotton to U.S. defense officials crowing about Soviet strategic inferiority. Converting Cuba into a Soviet military base appeared to offer an easy way to correct the imbalance.

Throughout the famous 13 days, McNamara, doubtless with Kennedy's approval, marginalized the joint chiefs. General Maxwell Taylor, a Kennedy loyalist brought out of retirement after the Bay of Pigs, was the only JCS member to participate regularly in secret White House deliberations. During the crisis, the president met with the other chiefs exactly once. They tried goading their commander-in-chief into attacking Cuba. He ignored them.

If the generals were downright bloodthirsty, the advice offered by OSD was not much better. Along with key subordinates like Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze, McNamara himself initially favored pre-emptive air strikes to destroy the Soviet installations and likely nuclear storage sites in Cuba. The president resisted such suggestions, instead ordering a naval blockade to prevent additional Soviet personnel and equipment from arriving.

But how to secure removal of the missiles and bombers already in Cuba? The JCS favored an ultimatum followed by the use of force. When the Soviets shot down a U-2 over Cuba, they urged retaliation. McNamara joined them, calling for "a major air strike." Once again, Kennedy demurred. Using his brother Robert to open up a secret negotiating channel, he offered inducements for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to back down. If the Soviets withdrew their offensive weapons from Cuba, Kennedy promised not to invade the island and to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles threatening the Soviet Union from Turkey. This was the deal that averted Armageddon.

THROUGHOUT THE missile crisis, Kennedy's military and civilian advisors gave him plenty of opportunities to cross over the brink. He repeatedly deflected their advice, choosing compromise instead. When it came to Vietnam, however, the hawks-with McNamara in the vanguard-finally got their way.

In South Vietnam, the Kennedy Administration inherited both a commitment and a mess. The OSD's principal achievement was to make things worse.

McNamara saw Vietnam as an attractive venue in which to test the administration's ideas for devising new ways to employ U.S. non-nuclear military capabilities. With the chiefs keen to invade North Vietnam and be done with it, the Whiz Kids conjured up various alternatives, all based on the expectation that the United States could prevail through cleverly conceived half-measures: nation-building, counterinsurgency, covert activities and reprisal air attacks to "signal" U.S. resolve. Among the techniques attracting McNamara's personal attention was defoliation-killing vegetation to deny sanctuary to Viet Cong guerrillas. According to the authors of this volume, the defense secretary "found its possibilities intriguing, particularly its susceptibility to measurement."

Never, apparently, did the supremely analytical McNamara question whether South Vietnam actually deserved to rank as a vital U.S. interest: That remained a given. The challenge was to devise the right formula for turning things around in Vietnam the way that McNamara had turned things around in Detroit during the 1950s. In the words of journalist David Halberstam, the pursuit of victory found "the quantifier trying to quantify the unquantifiable."

He was nothing if not tenacious. With the situation in Saigon fast unraveling after the successive assassinations of November 1963-first President Ngo Dinh Diem, then Kennedy-McNamara remained adamant that "we can still win, even on present ground rules." The JCS vehemently disagreed: "We are swatting flies when we should be going after the manure pile", complained General Curtis LeMay, the air force chief of staff.

In fact, it gave the chiefs no little satisfaction to see the defense secretary get his comeuppance in Vietnam. As General Wallace Greene, the Marine Corps commandant, sniffed in May 1964: "Up until now, McNamara has pretty much field-marshaled the entire effort in Southeast Asia, and, with the place starting to fall apart, his whiz-kid-Ford-Motor-Company management techniques apparently aren't paying off." In place of management techniques, the chiefs argued for marching on Hanoi the way that American armies had once marched on Richmond or Berlin. Real war-one in which soldiers called the shots-implied a shift in the overall balance of civil-military authority. Achieving victory in Vietnam on the generals' terms held the promise of repealing the McNamara Revolution back in Washington.

The defense secretary was no more inclined to give in to the chiefs than to Ho Chi Minh. If American soldiers were to fight in Vietnam, they would do so on McNamara's terms. Such a war would be calibrated, discriminating, humane and under his direct control.

In January 1965, with Lyndon Johnson elected president in his own right, the moment to initiate such a war had arrived. Along with National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, McNamara urged the president to send U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam. To persist in playing an "essentially passive role", they wrote in a co-authored memo, "can only lead to eventual defeat and an invitation to get out in humiliating circumstances."

Essay Types: Book Review