Nineteen sixty was coming to a close. Nikita Khrushchev was boasting that the Soviet Union was cranking out rockets "like sausages" that would help his country "bury" the United States. America had elected a promising president-elect poised to meet the danger. But even some of John F. Kennedy's staunchest supporters were worried about his youth and meager foreign-policy experience.
To reassure the anxious, the president-elect considered reappointing Dwight Eisenhower's defense secretary, Thomas Gates. Kennedy's notion was to keep Gates on for a year, bring in his brother Bobby as No. 2 at the Pentagon, then bump RFK up to the top job. But advisers warned him that no cabinet member could function, even for a year, under the scrutiny of a subordinate who also happened to be the president's brother. JFK turned instead to Robert McNamara, who died last week in Washington, D.C., at the age of 93.
The president-elect did not know the newly appointed chief of Ford Motor Co., but quickly deemed him "just the right man." Given his narrow margin of victory in November, Kennedy wanted to reach across the aisle, and McNamara was at least nominally a Republican. JFK was impressed that, in their initial meeting, McNamara told him he didn't want the job—and had the temerity to ask whether Kennedy had actually written Profiles in Courage.
JFK believed the Pentagon's biggest challenge would be deciding how to allocate the huge increase in defense spending the president-elect felt was necessary to overcome the "missile gap" he (erroneously) thought had left the American military trailing the Soviets—and to reduce what he considered America's overreliance on strategic nuclear weapons. Once on the job, McNamara ably tackled those two assignments—most notably when he helped Kennedy resist an effort by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to order up a full-fledged invasion of Cuba during the missile crisis of 1962.
What Kennedy could not know, however, was that the most important task facing the secretary of defense in the 1960s would be advising the president on the use of American military force to respond to North Vietnam's bid to seize the South. For this role, McNamara was fatally miscast. With his misplaced faith in a "rational" military response, he advised JFK to launch a carefully calibrated escalation of force against Hanoi, believing the pressure would persuade Ho Chi Minh to fold. McNamara knew little about Southeast Asia, and made no conspicuous effort to learn more. His penchant for numbers left him ill-equipped to understand that some human motivations cannot be quantified or predicted. As a result, he drastically underestimated the Viet Cong's determination.
JFK was so enchanted with McNamara that at the time of his death in Dallas, he was secretly plotting to make him secretary of state. By contrast, Bobby Kennedy privately considered McNamara "the most dangerous man in the cabinet, because he is so persuasive."
President Lyndon Johnson proved far more vulnerable than JFK to McNamara's powers of argument. Strangely insecure about his foreign-policy prowess (military affairs, after all, had been one of his congressional specialties), LBJ was certain that McNamara and other Eastern-educated JFK appointees possessed some genius he could never match. Knowing that LBJ was still nervous about seeming to stray from Kennedy's legacy, McNamara assured Johnson that JFK would have escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam, had he lived. During one of their taped telephone conversations in January 1965, Johnson felt compelled to warn his defense secretary to disregard Washington rumors that he was planning to ditch the American commitment there and "put the Vietnam War on Kennedy's tomb."
Two years later, McNamara's strategy of gradual escalation in Vietnam was going down in flames. The president concluded (with some evidence) that his defense secretary was privately colluding with his archenemy, RFK, to demand that LBJ wind down the war. McNamara's apostasy provoked the angry and suspicious Johnson to defy his enemies and keep reinforcing his "stand in Vietnam."
McNamara might have been the right man for the job—but not in the 1960s, a decade that demanded qualities he simply did not possess. How different our history might have been had JFK entrusted the Pentagon to his brother Robert, whose sensitivity to national motives, allergy to conventional wisdom, and willingness to abandon lost causes might have helped him to stem U.S. escalation in Vietnam. America's adventure in Vietnam and McNamara's central role in that tragedy are a powerful reminder of what a difference one presidential appointment can make.