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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Robert McNamara’s Logical Legacy

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J. Peter Scoblic

When Robert S. McNamara, the former secretary of defense and so-called architect of the Vietnam War, died this summer at the age of 93, he left behind a fraught legacy.

As a statistician, HarvardBusinessSchool professor, and Ford Motor executive, McNamara had developed a reputation by his early 40s for almost robotic efficiency and logic. Soon after he joined the Pentagon, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) called him “an IBM machine with legs,” and he meant it as a compliment. Before long, however, that friendly caricature turned critical. Opponents argued that McNamara’s embrace of rationalism—his seeming fetish for numbers and charts—impeded rather than enhanced his ability to apprehend reality. Yet, if McNamara misunderstood Vietnam, and he certainly did, his rationalism was not the problem. In the final decades of his life, having never lost faith in his powers of analysis, he turned them to a singular and complex problem: the lessons of his own life.

To his credit, if not to the satisfaction of his critics, McNamara spent years wrestling with the mistakes he made in Vietnam. At times, however, it seemed that the harder he looked, the further his understanding receded. In 1995 he published In Retrospect, in which he famously acknowledged that he and his comrades in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had been “wrong, terribly wrong.” He spent the next years probing deeper, traveling to Hanoi to meet with his erstwhile enemies in an attempt to shed light on the war and what could have been done differently. Yet, when he published a book about his investigations, it was tellingly titled Argument Without End, a reference not only to Vietnam but to the nature of history itself. And, when he agreed to be interviewed by filmmaker Errol Morris, the resulting documentary was titled (again tellingly) “The Fog of War” and it concluded by emphasizing incomprehensibility. Asked if he felt guilty about the war, McNamara demurred: “I don’t want to go any further with this discussion. It just opens up more controversy. I don’t want to add anything to Vietnam. It is so complex that anything I say will require additions and qualifications.”

McNamara’s record on arms control provides both further complication and welcome simplicity to this knotty history. As secretary of defense, McNamara played a key role in clarifying the nature of nuclear deterrence and codifying that understanding in international law. In his retirement, he went further, arguing for steps toward nuclear disarmament. Admittedly, many once-hawkish statesmen have gravitated toward abolitionism in their later years, for example, Paul Nitze. McNamara came by his nuclear philosophy not suddenly or in penance for earlier sins, as many suspected he had regarding his re-examination of Vietnam, but rather as the result of that quality for which he was so often derided: reason.

Shifts in Doctrine

When McNamara took over the Pentagon in 1961, U.S. military policy relied on the threat of an all-out nuclear strike to deter or respond to a Soviet attack of any kind. In concrete terms, this meant that if the Red Army were to attack West Germany, for instance, the United States would respond by launching 3,500 weapons at civilian and industrial targets not only in the Soviet Union, but also in the rest of the Communist bloc. The upshot was that hundreds of millions of Russians, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans would have died.

In essence, this was the nuclear extension of the strategic bombing campaigns that the United States had visited on Germany and Japan during World War II, campaigns in which McNamara had assisted. When Gen. Curtis LeMay was bombing and ultimately firebombing Japanese cities in an effort to eliminate that country’s industrial capacity, McNamara’s job as a young Army officer was to make the process more efficient. LeMay subsequently led the Strategic Air Command (SAC), but in 1961, when McNamara saw how SAC planned to use the nuclear arsenal, he was appalled. In addition to the strategy’s obvious moral defects, the problem was that enough Soviet nuclear weapons might survive the onslaught, leaving the U.S.S.R. able to cripple the United States in retaliation. Were the Soviets to invade Western Europe, McNamara wanted to be able to provide the president with options other than unimaginable nuclear holocaust that could lead to the United States’ own destruction.

Following the guidance of his rationalist brethren at the RAND Corp., the famed think tank brimming with mathematicians and game theorists, McNamara found an alternative in the doctrine of counterforce, whereby the United States would try to limit a nuclear exchange by initially targeting only enemy military forces. The idea was to hold Soviet cities hostage to a follow-on strike in an attempt to control escalation and prevent retaliation. As McNamara said on June 16, 1962, in his famous “No Cities” speech, “[Our] principal military objectives, in the event of a nuclear war stemming from a major attack on the [NATO] Alliance, should be the destruction of an enemy’s forces, not his civilian population.” Nuclear weapons, then, were to be used much like conventional weapons. The implication was that the United States could employ them to force an end to hostilities on its terms—that is, to win.

McNamara soon concluded, however, that counterforce was unlikely to control escalation; it would instead almost certainly provoke devastating retaliation. He reasoned that any attempt to build enough weapons such that the damage of a retaliatory strike would be acceptably limited would undoubtedly be met by a similar buildup from the Soviets, who would insist on maintaining the deterrent that comes from the ability to inflict unacceptable pain. The soundness of that logic was reinforced by a Pentagon study showing that no combination of civil defenses, missile defenses, and offensive superiority could limit damage in any meaningful sense against an adversary willing to build up its arsenal. Additionally, McNamara realized that efforts to gain advantage would simply destabilize the situation, encouraging futile attempts to “win” or self-defeating attempts to “not lose” by launching first. By 1967, he had lost faith in counterforce, and he gave a speech emphasizing deterrence via the maintenance of “a highly reliable ability to inflict unacceptable damage upon any single aggressor or combination of aggressors at any time during the course of a strategic nuclear exchange, even after absorbing a surprise first strike.”

McNamara did not reverse the course of U.S. nuclear policy. Counterforce continued to guide U.S. war plans because, in a conflict, it was still better to have options than to resort immediately to massive retaliation. Furthermore, McNamara increased the size of the U.S. strategic arsenal by more than 5,000 warheads, announced a limited national missile shield to defend against Chinese attack, and advocated the development of missiles with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, whose accuracy and attractiveness as targets made them first-strike weapons. None of these moves comported with his emphasis on deterrence.

Nevertheless, McNamara’s recognition that the superpowers’ nuclear relationship was and would always be one of mutual assured destruction was crucial. It demonstrated the bankruptcy of “nuclear victory” and allowed for diplomatic efforts to increase nuclear stability. Although President Lyndon Johnson was unable to begin strategic arms control talks with Moscow before he left office, McNamara had laid the groundwork for President Richard Nixon’s pursuit and conclusion of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which codified mutual assured destruction.

McNamara also helped redirect U.S. nonproliferation policy. A few weeks after China’s first nuclear test in October 1964, Johnson appointed Roswell Gilpatric to lead a commission to study proliferation. Gilpatric, who had served as McNamara’s deputy at the Pentagon until that January, favored aggressive efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons; but many of his fellow commissioners, as well as senior officials such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, thought that the United States would benefit from allowing nuclear weapons to spread to certain friendly nations. McNamara, briefing the committee as secretary of defense, argued that the United States would not be able to control “selective proliferation” and that Soviet cooperation, which the United States needed, would not materialize if the United States allowed its allies to have nuclear weapons. He recommended a comprehensive test ban, a nonproliferation agreement, and security guarantees for non-nuclear-weapon states. McNamara’s briefing was persuasive, Gilpatric’s view carried the day, and ultimately the Johnson administration negotiated the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

After leaving the Pentagon in early 1968, McNamara joined the World Bank and, during his 13 years there, remained silent not only on Vietnam, to the chagrin of many, but also on nuclear policy. Not until he returned to private life in the early 1980s did he become vocal in his support for tighter restraints on nuclear weapons. He joined the board of the Arms Control Association and took part in other research and advocacy initiatives. In 1986, frustrated by the Reagan administration, he published Blundering Into Disaster, which reprised his argument that nuclear weapons could not provide military advantage. McNamara took particular aim at the Strategic Defense Initiative, which he saw as destabilizing and technologically far-fetched. He recommended talks with Moscow to reduce tensions and the size of the U.S. and Soviet arsenals. After the end of the Cold War, he continued to push for arms control; by the early 1990s, he was advocating steps toward nuclear abolition.

Working Out a Worldview

Combined with his advocacy of the Vietnam War, McNamara’s steady support for arms control makes for an unusual legacy, suggesting that he was pulled in two distinct ideological directions. His prosecution of the war implied a simplistic, Manichaean view of the Cold War, a view of communism as a monolithic enemy that had to be defeated lest it overwhelm the West. By contrast, his pursuit of strategic arms control implied a willingness to accept coexistence with the Soviet Union. The problem was not that McNamara’s rationalism took him in two different directions, but rather that reason alone was insufficient, and with Vietnam it took him much longer to arrive at an understanding that comported with the facts.

That calamitous delay was caused by a lack of expertise and the opportunity it provided for assumptions to flourish unchecked. To fight a war, especially a counterinsurgency, it is essential to understand the goals of one’s enemy, but by his own admission, McNamara knew almost nothing about Vietnam. Because he knew so little, he fell back on the pre-existing and widely shared assumption that the Vietnamese Communists were engaged not in a civil-war-cum-struggle-for-independence but rather an expansionist push on behalf of China and the Soviet Union. As ur-critic David Halberstam wrote in The Best and the Brightest, “The real problem was the failure to re-examine the assumptions of the era, particularly in Southeast Asia. There was no real attempt…to analyze Ho Chi Minh’s position in terms of the Vietnamese people and in terms of the larger Communist world, to establish what Diem represented, to determine whether the domino theory was in fact valid.” In this context, McNamara’s rationalism served not to reveal the truth but to wall it off, reinforcing previously held convictions until the United States was stuck in a quagmire.

When it came to the arms race, however, McNamara had few such convictions, for the simple reason that a nuclear orthodoxy had yet to solidify in 1961. True, many of McNamara’s contemporaries, especially conservatives such as Goldwater, applied their Manichaeism to the arms race, believing that victory in the Cold War required the ability to win a nuclear war. Yet, to his credit, McNamara immediately recognized that massive retaliation demanded re-examination. As more data came in about the Soviet ability to match U.S. forces, the offensive demands of counterforce, and the ineffectiveness of defenses, McNamara grew skeptical that escalation could be controlled and that a nuclear war could be won. In addition, during the Cuban missile crisis McNamara had seen that counterforce had offered no palatable options and that the threat of mutual destruction had done much to encourage a peaceful resolution. Unencumbered by rigid beliefs, McNamara’s reasoning and experience led him quickly to an understanding that has remained durable even as Vietnam has come to be seen as a mistake.

In his later years, McNamara refined his understanding of the nuclear balance through further dissection of the Cuban missile crisis, which showed how sane actors, behaving in what they believed to be their rational self-interest, could run headlong into irrational and potentially catastrophic predicaments. Ironically, McNamara’s emphasis on reason and analysis ultimately led him to an appreciation of the central role that irrationality played in international security. In 1993, he wrote, “It can be confidently predicted that the combination of human fallibility and nuclear arms will inevitably lead to nuclear destruction.” It was a sentence that seemed to encapsulate McNamara-ism perfectly, incorporating a hard-earned recognition of human weakness with an apparently undiminished assurance in his analytic acumen. It was an assurance that his critics would find grating and even offensive to the very end. One can only hope that he will be proven wrong.

J. Peter Scoblic is executive editor of The New Republic and author of U.S. vs. Them: Conservatism in the Age of Nuclear Terror. From 1999 to 2003, he was editor of Arms Control Today.