Archive Resources on Robert S. McNamara

Robert S. McNamara

Robert Strange McNamara, one of the most recognizable and controversial figures of the Vietnam War, served as the Secretary of Defense under both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. His policies changed the way that the military operated and also shaped the strategy of the Vietnam War.

Robert S McNamara was born on June 9, 1916 in San Francisco, California. He graduated from Berkeley with a B.A. in Economics and Philosophy and received an M.B. A from Harvard in 1939. During World War II he served as an analyst in the Army Air Force studying the missions of the B-17 bombers in Japan. He left the military in 1946 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

After serving in the military, McNamara began working for the Ford Motor Company helping to reorganize, modernize and expand the company introducing safety features like the seat belt and dished steering wheel and adding the popular Ford Falcon and a completely redesigned Lincoln Continental to Ford’s lineup. In 1960 Ford Motor Company made him the first non family member ever to serve as president of the company. Shortly after becoming the CEO, President John F. Kennedy asked McNamara to become his Secretary of Defense.

McNamara served as the Secretary of Defense from 1961 – 1968. During his tenure he applied his business and management strategies to reorganize the military command and streamline their equipment development and procurement system in an effort to develop the most cost effective and efficient weapons and materials for the military. He required the Air Force to use the Navy’s F-4 Phantom and the A-7 combat air craft in a cost cutting effort to save the taxpayers the money of developing the Air Force a combat aircraft program of their own. Along the same reasoning, he developed a plan for a new fighter the F-111, a multipurpose tactical fighter usable by all of the service branches. The F-111 met with much criticism and the Navy eventually abandoned its use, however the Air Force used it successfully for over 20 years.

He supported the Vietnam War and its escalation and he applied statistical analysis and metrics as a way to measure the effectiveness of the troops fighting the war. He switched to using enemy body counts instead of territory or land based objectives to measure the American’s success in the war. Unfortunately this body count metric led to a war of attrition, a policy of inflicting massive casualties on the enemy until they have no choice but to surrender; not an effective strategy for winning the Vietnam War. He began voicing doubts about the war as early as 1965 and eventually resigned his position in 1968 due to his disillusionment with the war.

After leaving the Pentagon, he took over as President of the World Bank. During his tenure, he invested their assets and expanded their programs available to help developing countries around the world. After his retirement from the World Bank in 1981, McNamara lectured and advocated reducing the amounts of nuclear weapons in the world’s arsenals. He died July 6, 2009 at his home in Washington, D.C.

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This subject guide is meant to give the user a broad overview of the collections most relevant to Robert S. McNamara research. More collections may be available inside the Virtual Vietnam Archive. Click on the links to the moving images, photographs or oral histories to view the material through the subject guide. Clicking on a finding aid will send you to a document describing an entire collection with either a box or folder level listing of the collection's contents. The finding aid will give you a general idea of what is contained in the collection.

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Here are some terms that are closely associated with Robert McNamara.

McNamara Line - In 1967 McNamara proposed creating a barrier across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam. Instead of creating an actual wall, which would be too costly in both materials and manpower, the barrier would have two components: high tech listening devices and vibration detectors and a compliment of more traditional military weapons like land mines and barbed wire. The Line, designed to deter the PAVN army from crossing the DMZ, also served as a warning system to the Americans who could then direct artillery shells and missiles to the enemy crossing the line. The program met with many problems and after the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968 the military commanders determined that the manpower necessary to lay the sensors and land mines were better used elsewhere.

Project 100,000 – Also known as McNamara’s 100,000, Project 100,000 was a controversial plan to provide remedial training to recruits who could not pass the military’s physical or written aptitude tests. This program was created for two reasons: first to provide men from disadvantaged backgrounds with the training needed for them to succeed in the military and later in civilian life; second to provide more troops for the military to relieve the pressures of the draft quotas. The program was instituted in 1966 and 40,000 men were brought into the military with a goal set of 100,000 men per year after that. The project was accused of being racist because almost 40% of the new standards men, as they became known, were African American and about 75% of all new standards men ended up in the Marine Corps, guaranteeing that a higher percentage of them ended up in combat roles as compared to non new standard men. In 1971 the program ended when Congress stopped basing military quotas on aptitude test scores.

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