Robert McNamara (June 9, 1916 – July 6, 2009) was the eighth and longest-serving U.S. Secretary of Defense, holding the office from 1961 to 1968 under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He was born in San Francisco, California, and attended UC Berkeley and Harvard Business School. McNamara served in the Air Force during World War II, after which he went to work for Henry Ford II at Ford Motor Company. Following a brief stint as Ford’s first president outside of the family, McNamara accepted appointment as Secretary of Defense.
During his time as Secretary of Defense, McNamara encouraged modernization, restructured budget procedures, and cut costs. He drove to change U.S. military strategy from Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” to a “flexible response,” which relied on America’s ability to engage in limited, non-nuclear warfare. McNamara played a large role in the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was a strong proponent of a blockade strategy over a missile strike.
McNamara’s handling of the Vietnam War is likely the most contentious of his acts as Secretary of Defense; initially, he supported increasing the military’s presence in South Vietnam, and was largely responsible for escalating America’s involvement in the war. Eventually, he became disillusioned with the war, and resigned his position in 1968.
Now, McNamara reflects on his past and the time he spent as Secretary of Defense. He discusses his philosophies on international conflict, and confronts both his accomplishments and mistakes.