Death of the whiz kid: Robert Strange McNamara, 1916-2009.

Bringing out the dead.
July 6 2009 6:33 PM

Death of the Whiz Kid

Robert Strange McNamara, 1916-2009.

Robert McNamara.
Robert McNamara in 1964

Robert Strange McNamara, who died today at age 93, was the personification of postwar America, the original and ultimate "whiz kid" who rose to power on the firm belief that arms and rationality can solve all problems—and tumbled to tragedy as the illusion shattered in the fields of Vietnam.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

His ascent traced a path through Harvard Business School, where he was the youngest professor in its history; the Army Air Forces, where he pioneered the use of statistics to maximize the efficiency of bombing raids over Japan; Ford Motor Co., where he was promoted to president; and finally, in 1961 at age 44, to President John F. Kennedy's secretary of defense.

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At the Pentagon, he hired a team of young "systems analysts" from the RAND Corp., the nation's leading think tank, and subjected the military budget, the nuclear-war plan—everything within his domain—to the statistical methods that he'd mastered with a brash confidence in the rightness of his views.

His early decisions transformed military politics, and almost entirely for the better. Kennedy's predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, a former five-star general who knew well his brother officers' outsized appetites, had placed harsh limits on how much the armed services could spend but almost none on what they could buy. As a result, the defense budgets in the 1950s were teeming with redundancies and parochial pet projects. McNamara killed scads of these programs—to the horror of the generals, who had never been so challenged by civilians—saving tens of billions of dollars at no detriment to security.

(The generals reacted by recruiting their own systems analysts, so they could challenge McNamara on his own terms. The math, it turned out, could be massaged to yield almost any conclusions. But no longer could the service chiefs justify a cherished weapons program by merely declaring it to be a "military requirement.")

McNamara also imposed some discipline on the nuclear-weapons establishment. When Kennedy took office, the Strategic Air Command's official nuclear-war plan called for launching the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal—3,423 bombs and warheads, totaling 7,847 megatons of explosive power, which, it estimated, would kill 285 million Russians and Chinese and millions more in Eastern Europe—if the Soviets invaded West Germany, even if they hadn't fired any of their own nukes first. The U.S. Air Force and Navy were planning to build thousands more nuclear weapons over the next several years to keep up with projections of an arms race.

With Kennedy's support, McNamara altered the war plan to allow for "limited" nuclear attacks—and funded a buildup of non-nuclear forces in Europe—so that, in case of a Soviet invasion, the president might have options other than "surrender or holocaust." He also put the nuclear command structure under much tighter control. (Until then, the nightmare scenario of Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe—a mad general launching a nuclear war without presidential authority—was technically plausible.) He reined in the military's desires for a much-expanded arsenal (though not to the degree that his own analysis dictated). And privately he told his closest aides that he would never advocate a nuclear first strike.

But then, after Kennedy was killed and Lyndon B. Johnson became president, came the escalation in Vietnam—and the unwinding of everything that McNamara, and many Americans, believed.

At first, McNamara and his entourage blithely assumed that war, like everything else, could be rationally analyzed and tightly controlled, without the need for much insight into the enemy's aims, motivation, or culture. On May 22, 1964, three months before the Gulf of Tonkin crisis, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, sent Johnson a memo (reproduced in the Pentagon Papers), informing him of a "small, tightly knit group" that was preparing an "integrated political-military plan" to broaden the war through "graduated action against North Vietnam." He went on: