Fast Facts: Robert McNamara

Brief Bio:

• McNamara was defense secretary from 1961 to 1968.

• Served under two Presidents: Kennedy & Johnson.

• He was the Architect of the Vietnam War.

• He stayed in the defense post for seven years, longer than anyone since the job's creation in 1947.

• He was the architect of the US policy of nuclear deterrence.

• He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and received his M.B.A. from Harvard University Graduate School of Business.

• He taught at Harvard before being commissioned during World War II as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving until 1946.

• In 1943 he was commissioned an Army officer.

• In 1946 McNamara joined the Ford Motor Co. as part of a team of statistical control experts.

• He first came to prominence as one of the "Whiz Kids" who revitalized Ford Motor Co. after World War Two.

• He became the first non-family member to serve as president of the Ford Motor Company, in 1960.

• At Ford his rapid rise culminated in his appointment to the presidency of the company in 1960.

• McNamara was secretary of defense under two presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, serving from 1961 until 1968.

• As defense chief, McNamara reshaped America's armed forces for "flexible response" and away from the nuclear "massive retaliation" doctrine.

• He then resigned to become president of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, known as the World Bank, and remained until 1981.

• After retiring in 1981 he championed the causes of nuclear disarmament and aid by the richest nation for the world's poorest.

• His writings include The Essence of Security: Reflections in Office (1968), Blundering into Disaster: Surviving the First Century in a Nuclear Age (1986), and In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995).

Cuban Missile Crisis

• Served as Secretary of Defense under Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis.

• In the Kennedy administration McNamara was a key figure in both the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis 18 months later.

• The crisis was the closest the world came to a nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.

• Robert S. McNamara: "We avoided nuclear war by the narrowest of margins."

• Kennedy convened an executive committee that included Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, former ambassador to Moscow Tommy Thompson, and Special Council to the President Theodore Sorensen.

• McNamara pushed for diplomacy, fearing an all-out nuclear exchange.

• He asked Kennedy “to consider the consequences [of a strike]."

• For McNamara the reason why war was avoided 40 years ago was sheer accident.

• He said, “At the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war.”

Vietnam War

• In 1964, he had been a strong supporter of stepping up U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

• When U.S. naval vessels were allegedly attacked off the North Vietnamese coast in 1964 McNamara lobbied Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

• The war became known as "McNamara's War."

• More than anyone else except possibly President Lyndon Johnson, McNamara became to anti-war critics the symbol of a failed policy.

• At Harvard McNamara once had to flee a student mob through underground utility tunnels.

• McNamara later unsuccessfully advised President Lyndon B. Johnson that the U.S. should try to find a diplomatic rather than a military solution to the war.

• He made several fact-finding visits there in the early days of the U.S. military buildup.

• He predicted American intervention would enable the South Vietnamese to stand by themselves "by the end of 1965." That was an early forerunner of a seemingly endless string of official "light at the end of the tunnel" predictions of American success.

• In late 1967 he criticized the decision to bomb North Vietnam in retaliation for strikes on U.S. bases in the south. Johnson decided to remove him the following year.

• By the time the Vietnam War ended 58,000 Americans had been killed.

• McNamara published a book in 1995 critical of our involvement in Vietnam.

• The book was titled In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam and published by Times Books.

• McNamara placed much of the blame for the mistakes of Vietnam squarely on himself and others in government at the time, including President Johnson.

• In the book, McNamara wrote that he and other U.S. officials had been "wrong, terribly wrong" about Vietnam.

• The best-selling mea culpa renewed the national debate about the war and prompted bitter criticism against its author.

• Academy Award winning documentary, "The Fog of War." In the film, he discussed the difficult decision-making process during the Vietnam conflict as well as his Pentagon role in the Cuban missile crisis.