Bound By Numbers: Robert McNamara Remembers

Robert S. McNamara Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Robert S. McNamara served as the Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  In 1967 McNamara changed his position on the war in Vietnam and began advocating a draw down of American troops in the war-torn region.  McNamara made his switch from war hawk to dove, unusual for a Secretary of Defense, based on a mathematical analysis of the deteriorating situation.  In his article, “Bound By Numbers: McNamara’s Attempt to Influence the Post-Vietnam War Discourse,” Brian Krussell relies on McNamara’s various post-war reflections to argue that the secretary’s perennial focus on numbers ultimately prevented him from ever truly coming to terms with his contributions to the American fiasco in Vietnam.   Though McNamara experienced a change of opinion that led to what appeared to be a principled resignation, Krussel contends that McNamara’s reversal “underlined a shift in calculation, not an emotional or moralist reassessment.”  Krussell also faults McNamara’s subsequent post-war apologies as being similarly detached. In reflections such as In Retrospect (1995) or the documentary The Fog of War (2003), McNamara attempted to explain his Vietnam-era mistakes in policy-making in ways which Krussel characterizes as “self-serving.” Rather than recognizing the inherent irrationality of war, McNamara continued to remain “bound by numbers” until the bitter end.

This article has been adapted from a paper originally submitted to Prof. Pinsker’s US Diplomatic History class (HIST 382) during fall semester 2009.

Go to “Bound By Numbers: McNamara’s Attempt to Influence the Post-Vietnam War Discourse” by Brian Krussell


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