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Vietnam War-Era US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara Dead at 93


Robert McNamara, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense who often is considered the architect of American strategy during the Vietnam War, has died. Family members say he died Monday at his home here in Washington at the age of 93.

In 1961, Robert Strange McNamara left a high-paying job as president of the Ford Motor Company to become Secretary of Defense and served during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

From the day he arrived on the Washington scene, McNamara's slicked-back hair, rimless glasses and trim figure made him instantly recognizable.

He brought to his job at the Pentagon a wealth of experience. Born in San Francisco, California in 1916, McNamara was considered a brilliant student at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

McNamara earned an MBA at Harvard Business School. During World War II, he served in the United States Army Air Corps, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he and some colleagues offered their services as statistical control experts. They became known as the Wiz Kids, were hired by Ford and soon developed a reputation for managerial excellence.

But it was McNamara's involvement with America's role in Vietnam for which he will be most remembered. He is considered one of the prime architects of a policy that eventually led to the deaths of more than 58,000 American military personnel.

In 1964, shortly after President Johnson took office, McNamara was considered a hawk. Here is how he put it at the time:

"The South Vietnamese are willing to carry on their own fight," said McNamara. "We are providing economic assistance. We are providing military training with logistical support. We're not carrying the brunt of the fighting."

That posture would change dramatically and McNamara supported America's fast, escalating participation in the conflict. By June 1968, more than 500,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam.

McNamara and other important policy makers subscribed to what was called "the domino theory".

"If the communists were to control South Vietnam, almost surely, eventually, their control would extend through Southeast Asia and there would be a ripple effect as far west, probably, as Pakistan and as far east as the Philippines and, certainly, to the south, through Indonesia," he said. "It will be a long struggle. It is a mean, frustrating war, but it can be won. We propose to help the Vietnamese to win it."

McNamara served as Secretary of Defense longer than anyone else. He was a key figure in the Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union. He supported the Bay of Pigs invasion, which failed when a Cuban exile group, with support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, failed to overthrow Fidel Castro.

It was not until 1995, with the publication of McNamara's memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, that the former defense secretary admitted the failure of the policy he once passionately defended.

"President Kennedy, [Secretary of State] Dean Rusk, I, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had all fought in World War II," said McNamara. "[Winston] Churchill said the late response of the West to Hitler cost millions of lives in World War II. We were determined that there would not be a late response to communist aggression in the [19]50s and '60s. We believed that the communists were seeking to take over the world. Let me tell you, there was some evidence of that. In August of 1961, while I was Secretary [of Defense], the Soviets sought to take West Berlin. A year later, in October '62, they put nuclear missiles into Cuba. We came very close to nuclear war. In June of '67, they sought to back Egypt to eliminate Israel. So, there were threats. But, I think, we misjudged them in Southeast Asia. We were wrong."

By 1968, McNamara was beginning to have doubts about the Vietnam War, but he failed to persuade the president or hard-line advisors at the White House to moderate their policies.

McNamara resigned his position at the Pentagon and was named president of the World Bank, a position he held for the next 13 years.

At the World Bank, he launched a campaign against poverty and directed a major expansion of financial commitments to poor nations.

Still, he continued to be troubled by his Vietnam experience and the impact it had on his family.

"It brought two ulcers to my wife and an ulcer to my son - tremendous tension," he said. "And it's understandable. It was a problem without solution."

McNamara was criticized for not admitting error in his Vietnam policies until many years after leaving the Pentagon. His memoir was not published until 20 years after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

But McNamara said he thought the time was finally right to discuss events that took place so many years before.

"I think my associates and I acted in accordance with what we thought were the traditions, principles and values of this nation," said Robert McNamara. "But we were wrong. Therefore, I think we owe it to future generations to explain why, to try to draw the lessons so we won't make the same mistakes again. That's the purpose."

Robert McNamara was the subject of an award-winning 2003 documentary The Fog of War. The film's makers suggested that previous portrayals of McNamara as an arrogant, hawkish technocrat are not borne out in recordings of his interactions with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

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