The Education of Robert McNamara
The second most powerful man in Washington is also the second most controversial, writes Douglas Kiker, the ATLANTIC’S Washington columnist. How six years in the Pentagon have changed Robert McNamara is detailed in these pages; how McNamara has changed the Pentagon is described, beginning on page 56, by his onetime special assistant.
BY DOUGLAS KIKER
WHEN he was a young man, Robert S. McNamara worked as a counselor at a boys camp. Today, as the Secretary of Defense, he is in charge of 4 million people and $175 billion worth of property, including 5000 nuclear warheads; he is managing a controversial war in Asia; annually he supervises the expenditure of over half the national budget — by the end of 1967, total defense spending in the six years he has run the Pentagon will be over 400 billion tax dollars, which is more than the five-year cost of World War II. Everybody agrees he is the second most powerful man in Washington.
Young men who work as counselors at boys camps possess a basic quality of innocence not usually associated with Secretaries of Defense. But McNamara remains a man of essentially innocent nature today. It is an innocence largely obscured by his achievement, his power, his energy, his intellect, his awesome ability, and his stern managerial manner. But there it is, it is pervasive, often it is charming. History may also show that it is dangerous.
McNamara is not only the second most powerful man in Washington today. He is also the second most controversial. He inspires emotional response. His friends are as passionate in their defense and praise of him as his enemies are violent in their denunciations.
Washington reporters are sharply divided in their opinion of him. Liberal columnists admire him and defend him. “He’s the biggest dove in the higher echelons of the Johnson Administration,”says one. “He resisted the bombing of North Vietnam to the very end. He was the chief advocate of the 1965 bombing pause. And he’s been arguing ever since that the bombing is not doing what it’s supposed to do. He’s dying to get this war over with.”
Reporters of all political persuasion who regularly cover the Pentagon have a different view of the man. “McNamara is a great national asset, but so is the hydrogen bomb,” says one. “Both of them must be utilized — and contained. He has a basic disregard for people. He has a contempt for the press and the people’s right to know. He’s very authoritarian. It’s a question of, ‘Poppa knows best, so shut up and take your medicine, Junior.’ ”
The big complaint is that McNamara has deliberately misled the press — and through them, the American people — on Vietnam; that by imposing secrecy and juggling facts and figures, he has obscured the true facts concerning both the progress and the cost of the war.
And, they say, the evidence is there for all to see. In January, 1962, McNamara described the situation in Vietnam as “encouraging.” In February it was “improving.” In September, 1963, it was “getting better and better.” In March, 1964, it had “significantly improved.” In May, “excellent progress” was being made. By November, 1965, the United States had “stopped losing the war.” By July, 1966, he was “cautiously optimistic.”
At one point, McNamara was so concerned about this criticism that he ordered analysts in the Department of Defense to make a careful study and tabulation of every statement he had ever made concerning Vietnam. Today his lieutenants maintain that “if you look at his list of statements, it works, and he comes out clean. They were always properly hedged.” His critics reply that the basic fact remains that the statements were designed to deceive. McNamara’s own position now is that except for one statement made on October 2, 1963, in which he predicted that all U.S. forces could be withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of 1965, he would not change “one word” of his public statements on the progress of the war.
CONGRESS equally is divided in its opinion of McNamara. The labyrinthine relationships which exist between the Congress and the Defense Department defy description. It is enough to say that one of McNamara’s major annual jobs — and the one he clearly despises most — is the preparation and presentation of congressional testimony.
One former high Administration offcial believes that the Defense Secretary tends “sometimes to overestimate the political pressure he’s under from Congress.” As an example, he cites McNamara’s decision to announce that fewer U.S. troops would be required in Vietnam in 1965. “He did that because he thought the Armed Services committees wouldn’t play ball with him otherwise.”
A former Pentagon official traces his difficulties with Congress to several varied causes: he “never sugars up these guys on the committees, although he knows it might make life easier,” he “is a sophisticated user of statistics and you’ve got to read the labels carefully,” he “knows he’s a hell of a lot sharper than anybody on the Hill,” and, “besides, nobody ever gave him high marks for political judgment.”
McNamara insists that he rather enjoys his congressional appearances because he likes debate, but there is other evidence to indicate that his dread of the annual ordeal is almost an emotional one. According to one report, a year ago, anticipating the problem, his eyes grew misty and his voice trembled with deep emotion as he confided to friends, “I’m going to have trouble. They’re out to get me.” He spoke gloomily of the torment of sitting through hours of hostile questioning and predicted that his principal tormentor would be House Armed Services chairman Mendel Rivers. “I don’t trust that man. He’ll stab me in the back the first chance he gets,” he said.
Every year McNamara goes through what has become an almost ritualistic preparation for his congressional appearances. His staff prepares analyses of every statement he has made since he took office on every conceivable subject that might be challenged by Congress. Supplied with a foot-high stack of loose-leaf binders jammed with statements and carefully phrased answers to every conceivable question which might be asked, he studies until late into the night and gets up as early as 5 A.M. for further cramming. Finally, he submits himself to “murder sessions” with his assistants.
McNamara knew well in advance this year that his big challenges in Congress would come from two issues: the question of producing an antiballistic missile system and the cost of the war in Vietnam.
McNamara gave President Johnson his final recommendation on the anti-ballistic missile months ago, well before Congress reconvened. His position is that it makes no sense to try and develop a “thick” system designed to protect the United States from nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. It would cost at least $40 billion, and with it in operation, at least 50 million Americans still would perish in an all-out Soviet attack. His belief is that the best defense against the Russians is the threat of massive retaliation — which the United States already possesses — and the best hope is that some future accord on a ban of such anti-missile systems may be reached.
Recently McNamara revealed that the Soviet Union has begun work on an anti-missile system, and it soon became obvious that intense pressure would be placed on Johnson to start all-out production of a U.S. system in reply. McNamara strongly recommended that no system be built, but told the President that if political pressure became too great, a compromise solution might be to ask for $1 billion to start work on a “thin” system. This would ultimately cost $5 billion and would provide limited protection to major cities against the crude, but operational, long-range missiles Red China is expected to have within ten years.
McNamara told friends, “It’s now a political decision, and the question is, Can the President stand the heat from people like Dick Russell?” In his State of the Union address the President indicated that the decision is being put off for now.
The ABM quarrel is a grammar-school-yard shoving contest compared with the year-long controversy over Vietnam. McNamara’s problem is that he is getting it from all sides, and he must be careful in answering one challenge not to leave himself open to another coming from an opposite direction.
Congressional hawks, such as South Carolina Senator J. Strom Thurmond, who returned from a two-week tour of Vietnam wearing a green beret and proclaiming that he still believes the war there could be won in ninety days, wanted to know why in thunder the United States didn’t escalate the Northern bombing. Congressional doves, led as usual by Senate Foreign Relations chairman William Fulbright, read Harrison Salisbury’s dispatches from Hanoi in the New York Times and demanded just the opposite. And the Republicans said, for a change, why don’t you tell the truth about how much the war is costing.
McNamara knows he must defend himself, his Department, and the Administration against such charges. But he believes they are motivated by politics and emotion, not fact. He argues that last year’s budget was submitted at a time of supreme uncertainty in Vietnam, when 100,000 troops had just been ordered into action. He maintains that he gave Congress full, fair notice that the budget represented an “arbitrary figure” and that a sizable supplemental request probably would follow. The decision to fight now and pay later, he says, was predicated upon the Korean experience, which produced billions of dollars worth of surplus and featured annual defense appropriations of such huge, unrealistic amounts that the Army was able to supply itself for four years afterward without additional money. “All I say to you on the question of candor and credibility is, read the record,” McNamara says.
McNamara is fortunate in one respect this year. The Republican Party is playing a waiting game until events and a clearer view of the growingnational mood determine its ultimate position on Vietnam. But party leaders are convinced they do have a good reserve issue in the charge that the Administration deliberately misled the American people last year regarding the true cost of the war and will mislead them again this year.
A MAN should be able to kick off his shoes and loosen his tie when he gets home from work like that, but McNamara enjoys no such luxury at the Pentagon. It is just as well to state the matter bluntly: the American military establishment doesn’t like Robert McNamara, never did like him, and never will like him. He has been there for six years now, and there is every reason to believe he will still be there a year from now — and the year after that. When he took the job back in 1961, he announced publicly that he was obligating himself to serve eight years — two full presidential terms — because he had concluded that true effectiveness in the job could be attained only through long-term service.
Be that as it may, the military still considers him an occupation force. His flag of power still flies. But the military believes the day eventually will come when that flag will be hauled down, and McNamara and all of McNamara’s men will leave, as all invaders must, sooner or later. And, oh, will that be a happy day; the brass will jig in the corridors.
What McNamara did at the Department of Defense is monumental. He took management control of the national defense effort away from the military and placed it in the hands of a civilian bureaucracy, which he created and which operates at his command. “The question today,” one critic says, “is no longer whether there is civilian control over the military, but whether there is public control over the civilians in the Pentagon.” Others have described McNamara as “a civilian on horseback.”
McNamara’s achievement is even more impressive when two other facts are taken into account. First, he rode into town alone, like Gary Cooper hired to clean up a rowdy cow town; he brought no one from the Ford Motor Company with him, not a single personal assistant, not even a secretary. Second, he achieved his managerial revolution within existing law; in fact, one of his first moves back in 1961 was to order Deputy Defense Secretary Cyrus Vance, then the Pentagon’s general counsel, to determine just how much change could be made within the law. As it turned out, there was quite a bit.
McNamara made no attempt whatsoever to effect his changes through the existing Pentagon bureaucracy. Instead, he superimposed a new bureaucracy, one in which the assistant secretaries became the apostles and “cost effectiveness” the new gospel. And any fool, say McNamara’s admirers, can see that it works.
It might work for McNamara, that singular man, but what happens when McNamara leaves and some lesser mortal takes his place? Will it go on working, or will the whole organizational house of cards come tumbling down? (Ford is still in business, his defenders retort. Besides, they maintain, the McNamara system is designed amply to take into account human frailty.)
“Cost effectiveness,” “long-range budgeting,” “mission planning,” “task sequence networks,” and all that sound impressive, say the critics. But it is a system devised by a group of “pipe-smoking, treesfull-of-owls types” (as retired Air Force Chief of Staff General Thomas D. White once described them) who really don’t know anything about waging war. It certainly didn’t produce any miracles in Vietnam, did it? (What McNamara has done in Vietnam is miraculous, answer his friends. He has waged a war halfway around the world without the invocation of emergency powers.)
There are other charges. The Defense Department has become “overcentralized.” The morale of the military has been demolished. The new bureaucracy has contributed to lengthening delays in the development and production of new weapons systems. McNamara’s whiz kids believe the technological revolution is over and thus are reluctant to spend big sums on new research. And, to boot, they are all a bunch of pacifists at heart who believe that continued development of more sophisticated weapons impedes chances of broader arms limitation pacts.
THERE is no evidence that McNamara is affected by such criticism. “He handles problems one at a time. Once a decision is made, he’s on to the next thing,” says a Pentagon aide. “He’s an activist. He’d rather decide. To him, no decision represents a decision — to do nothing,” says Califano. His faith in the facts — once he decides what the facts are — is unshakable, says a former Administration official.
On major defense problems, McNamara makes his own analysis and arrives at his own conclusions — no matter who else might be working on them. This leads to charges of “arrogance,” and sometimes leads to controversy such as that which has surrounded the TFX contract. McNamara is aware of the dangers, but believes a Defense Secretary who acted otherwise would be superior in name only. In this connection, there are those who defend McNamara’s appreciation of political realities. “You need to define the terms,” says a friend. “If it means that you do what you believe to be in the public interest, then you must say he’s been a good politician.”
It’s that brain, of course, that awesome mind that resides directly behind that slicked-back hair and those rimless glasses. His is a brilliance which awes everyone — everyone, without exception — who comes into contact with him.
“He’s as brilliant as any man I’ve ever known,” says former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers. “He’s incomparably the strongest man in the Administration,” says a high White House official. “Sometimes when I’m talking to Bob McNamara late at night, and I hear him going along like a machine, boom, bang, boom, everything in order, I feel like it’s all I can do to keep up and pretend I’m understanding,” President Johnson has remarked to friends. On another occasion, asked his opinion of McNamara, the President looked away, thought for some time, then said slowly, “He’s the most capable man I’ve ever known, I think.”
“All his life Johnson has admired and respected two kinds of men, men of power and powerful men,” a friend of the President explains. “By men of power, I mean people like Sam Rayburn, big oilmen, people like that. By powerful men, I mean men who are just powerful by nature — men like McNamara.”
Johnson often invites his Defense Secretary and Mrs. McNamara to spend weekends at Gamp David and the LBJ ranch. On occasion, when Mrs. Johnson is out of Washington, Johnson has been known to phone McNamara at home and invite himself over to dinner. And the rumor persists that Johnson seriously considered him for Vice President in 1964, until organized labor complained. Democrats charged that this would be an admission that no one within the party was capable of filling the position, and political advisers convinced him that McNamara would add no strength to the ticket because he and Johnson both appealed to the same group of voters.
Johnson’s friendly attitude toward McNamara exists despite the fact that McNamara’s closest friend in Washington is Senator Robert Kennedy. “McNamara and Bobby are very much alike. They’re birds of a feather. Both are energetic, hard drivers,” says one mutual acquaintance. “It’s an avuncular friendship,” says another. “Yeah, but which one’s the uncle?” asks a disinterested observer. Everybody agrees that McNamara, especially with Bill Moyers gone, is the best available honest broker between Johnson and Kennedy.
“He’s impersonal with Bobby when it comes to issues of policy,” one source says. “He never talks about his relations with Kennedy to Johnson,” a White House aide reports. And he speaks of his relations with Johnson to no one. “I don’t even know if he discusses them with Cy Vance. It’s just a closed shop,” says one Pentagon official.
Everybody agrees that McNamara is one of the President’s principal advisers today on general policy. But no one is exactly sure anymore just how much weight the President gives to his advice. This is because he sometimes speaks in terms of two McNamaras — McNamara the manager and McNamara “the perfesser.” And sometimes Johnson scoffs at the “perfesser.”
It may be that Johnson has concluded that Professor McNamara lacks political savvy. If that is the case, it is a conclusion Mr. Johnson shares with many others who know McNamara.
“Try to tell him he’s a political figure in a controversial political cause, and he just doesn’t dig it,” says a former White House aide. “McNamara’s gifts, though considerable, bear no relation to the world of politics. And he hasn’t learned. Politics really don’t interest him,” says a noted political scientist. “He’s got bad political antennae. Because of that, I don’t think he would make a very good Secretary of State,” says another. “His is not a subtle political mind,” says a man who has worked with him. “Not in the sense of being aware that his beautiful reasoning on an issue fails to solve the other guy’s political problem.”
It IS Professor McNamara whose energetic pursuit of intellectual interests brings smiles to the faces of those who know and like him. “If you told him to read Joyce, don’t be surprised to hear him quoting passages from the Dubliners to you a week later. You never know when he’s going to spring a slightly arcane piece of literature on you.” Another friend tells of a recent Washington dinner party which was graced by an exceptional number of beautiful women in alluringly low cut gowns. “Bob wasn’t there. He was invited but he stayed home because he had invited a visiting Harvard professor in to discuss sex education.” It is Professor McNamara who regularly protested to Adam Yarmolinsky when he was his special assistant at the Pentagon, “You aren’t bringing enough interesting people in to see me.”
McNamara the “perfesser” has a side to him, too, and that is McNamara the moralist — the Presbyterian elder who manages the most awesome war machine in history, and who worries a lot about it. A few months back, he glanced out his office window at the Pentagon and saw that a group of ministers had set up a picket line to protest the war in Vietnam. Forthwith he invited them up for coffee.
The clergymen told McNamara that they were there to protest the killing in Vietnam. McNamara told the clergymen, “You know, there are two ways to kill a man. You can kill his body, or you can kill his soul. I’d rather kill a few thousand bodies than kill fourteen million souls in Vietnam.”
And there is other evidence of such tortured rationalization. For example, here is McNamara, sitting before a fire on a snowy evening at a friend’s house, musing: “If you read Toynbee, you realize the importance of a democracy learning to cope with a limited war. The greatest contribution Vietnam is making — right or wrong beside the point — is that it is developing an ability in the United States to fight a limited war, to go to war without the necessity of arousing the public ire. In that sense, Vietnam is almost a necessity in our history, because this is the kind of war we’ll most likely be facing for the next fifty years.”
The manager, the professor, the moralist, the liberal (“I’ll give McNamara credit for this,” Georgia’s Senator Richard Russell once said. “He’s no phony. He truly believes in integration.”) — the man has managed to isolate these conflicting qualities most of his life. It is not so easy now.
Last summer McNamara went to Montreal and made a speech which produced headlines and raised eyebrows. His broad theme was that true security depends on good relations between nations and never can be secured through the procurement of military hardware; if a Pax Americana is to be imposed, it must be through generosity and good works, and not through the force of arms. Later he remarked to friends, “That speech gave me another year or so on the job. I was so frustrated I had to give it.”
In November McNamara went to Cambridge, to participate in an off-the-record session at Harvard’s Kennedy Institute, and the overall impression he created was unfortunate. On his way through campus the university police car in which he was riding was blocked by anti-war demonstrators who sat down in the street. Campus police, sure they would jump to safety at the last moment, wanted to drive slowly into them, but McNamara would have none of that. “Goddamn it, let me out of here,” he shouted. He climbed on the hood of an adjacent auto and calmly agreed to submit to questions for five minutes. The crowd quickly grew in size, and when he attempted to talk he was interrupted with catcalls of “murderer” and “fascist.” At that, he lost his temper, grabbed a portable loudspeaker, and shouted, “I spent four of the happiest years at the Berkeley campus doing some of the same things you’re doing here. But there was one important difference. I was tougher and more courteous. And I was tougher then, and I’m tougher now.”
Later that same day he raised Harvard hackles when he protested that demonstrators, preoccupied with Vietnam, were neglecting social injustice here at home. “Why is Harvard so silent about the Negro problem?” he asked. “Why aren’t you rioting about that?”
“He’s a very spoiled man, I thought,” said one person who heard that defense. “The remarks about Negroes . . . seemed to me to be part of an attitude of defensiveness and self-justification by a man who is being called a fascist and doesn’t much like it. His unspoken presumption was, we’ve got the Vietnamese problem in hand, so why don’t you stop presuming to kibbitz. And anyway, I’m a dove. Why do you make me the villain when it’s Dean Rusk?”
He adds: “As I reflect on it, it’s indefensible and even a little outrageous. It’s presumptuous because he presumes to say what ‘we’ liberals ought to be fighting for (quickly wrapping himself in the civil rights toga) without granting the right of liberals or anyone to oppose the war as a disastrous course for America to be following. McNamara always wants to label arguments about Vietnam ‘morality’ arguments. In his arrogance and righteousness he allows very little to the substance of opposition arguments. It’s a defensive debate tactic.”
It also is inconsistent with the fact that McNamara often has voiced private complaints that liberals fail to involve themselves in Defense Department matters until it is too late, which lets the hawks fill the vacuum.
But the sour truth which liberals now must pour sugar over and somehow swallow is that Robert McNamara the “perfesser” is their only principal advocate within that tight little group of desperate men who make the decisions about Vietnam. McGeorge Bundy is giving money away at the Ford Foundation. George Ball is opening will boxes. And Bill Moyers is publishing a big, fat suburban newspaper on Long Island.
Secretary of State Dean Rusk is no warmonger. But he insists that sooner or later the United States must forcefully challenge the concept of Communistic “wars of liberation,” and Vietnam is as good a place as any.
The military never wanted this war, and many people fail to give them credit for warning of the consequences. But the strategic necessities involved in a war of containment arc naturally alien to the instinct, native to any good military leader, to conquer once battle is joined. (And it must be remembered that the current members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all have taken office during the McNamara regime. Among them are no Curtis LeMays, no men who speak, as LeMay once did, of the desirability of “nuking the Chinks.”)
At the White House resides Walt Whitman Rostow, the special assistant for national security affairs. When McGeorge Bundy left the position, Johnson and Rusk reportedly agreed on one thing: “Neither wanted another, second Secretary of State operating in the White House basement.” McNamara blocked a move to replace Bundy with Robert Komer, a National Security Council staff member who subsequently became the President’s special assistant for Vietnam pacification. McNamara, among others, recommended Moyers for the post. But Johnson blocked that.
Nobody has still quite figured out how Rostow got the job, because Rusk studiously ignored his existence when he was chairman of the State Department’s policy planning council. McNamara evidently thought that others would block this appointment; Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith called the President twice to protest it. But Johnson chose him, and the choice upset the delicate balance of power within the council which makes the decisions on Vietnam.
“I think it’s reassuring to Johnson to have an Eastern Establishment professor talk his language and assure him everything’s going well,” says one source who is familiar with the situation — and who wouldn’t be a source very long if his identity were made known. “The President likes him,” he says. “Rostow shores up his confidence with the notion that a number of historical inevitabilities are occurring in Asia, all of which are good, and Vietnam — although it’s a painful point along life’s way — really doesn’t matter.”
As for McNamara, this same source says, “I regard him as a great sane voice on Vietnam. He’s the one man in government who can say ‘Wait a minute’ and make it stick, and about the only guy left who’s willing to try it. I trust him. He’s not soft on Hanoi. But the integrity of his mind won’t permit him to say yes to people who say that one and one equals three. Even if he doesn’t win, he imposes restraint.”
All this suggests an inevitable question: If McNamara feels this way about Vietnam, why didn’t he fight harder, earlier, to prevent the situation from developing to its present state? The explanations one receives when one asks that question are varied. “He procrastinated in the early sixties, until just before the fall of Diem, when Kennedy sent him there on an inspection trip. When he came back, he had rejected the military’s position that we were winning. But he made a statement to the opposite as a sop to the generals.”
Or, “He was going along with the idea that we could lick it. He didn’t get into the vital, nonmilitary aspects of it until quite late because he thought this was State’s business, and he didn’t get deep into operations until 1965.”
Or, “His judgments have always been pessimistic. But the political decision was not to quit.” Or, “McNamara and Johnson both believed a little more pressure and it might work. Then they were in so deep they couldn’t get out.” Or, “McNamara constantly studies kill ratios, desertion rates, things like that, and never has understood why the situation there has not yielded to the judicious application of reason and resources.”
No matter now, says one White House source: “McNamara may not be your kind of dove, but he’s the only dove you’ve got, and, buddy, you better believe it.” But can a Secretary of Defense who increasingly stands in isolated, philosophical objection to the policy decisions he must implement on the field of battle long endure?
Doesn’t it smack of a dangerous innocence — either that or an ultimate intellectual hypocrisy — on his part to presume that he can? Doesn’t the “perfesser’s” left hand really know what the Pentagon master’s right hand is doing?
There is no question that McNamara has had to indulge in compromise, that he has lost some battles, that he has uttered private concern about the very moves he has proposed or endorsed in the President’s Vietnam councils. But those who characterize him as a reluctant warrior, slowly being isolated by the combined aggressiveness of the Joint Chiefs, Secretary of State Rusk, and Walt Rostow’s perpetual memo-writing machine, are, for the most part, people who have not been close to the Vietnam decision-making process. Some of his wishful admirers, in striving to rebut the unfair claim that Vietnam is “McNamara’s war,” have tried to attach the equally unfair label “Rusk’s war,” but this serves neither the facts of the matter nor the decencies. The Secretary of Defense may have toned down some of the military’s proposals, but he has also either laid before the President or seconded every single step of escalation in Vietnam; for example, he advocated the bombing pause of 1965, but he also advocated the resumption of bombing. The fact is that “dove” and “hawk” in official Washington are labels that have become relative, and of only limited value.
But such gab is Washington’s substitute for a knowledge of the facts, and meanwhile, here is the Secretary of Defense. Here is a newspaper photo of him. He is posing on a ski slope at Aspen, and there is an unreal quality about it all, as if it were a cut-out joke pinned on the office bulletin board: the body, the uniform, the stance of a skier with a face of McNamara pasted on. “Life is essentially a chaotic process, and at best the attempt to organize it is only partially successful. I can organize more efficiently than anybody on earth,” the face seems to say.
Here he goes, up at 6 A.M., breakfast at six thirty with his wife (she calls him “Kip”), and sharply at six fifty (“He is punctual to the point of fetishism,” says a friend) out the door and into his limousine with a crisp “good morning” to the driver, off to the Pentagon for his morning go at squash racquets with Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman. Here he is, slowing down for a rare instant the rapid tempo of his speech to speak fondly of his children’s developing lives: daughter Margaret, married to a Yale Law student, works for the anti-poverty program in New Haven; daughter Kathleen is studying archaeology in Greece; teenage son Craig is a student at St. Paul’s School. Then — beep-beep — there he goes, off to the White House or a conference with the JCS, too busy to sit still for a proposed portrait by Andrew Wyeth’s son, Jamie.
There he was at the White House in December, 1964, when Army Captain Roger Donlon was awarded the Congressional Medal for bravery under fire in Vietnam. Johnson began the ceremony with a short speech in praise of McNamara, saying, “He represents to me in our civilian life what Captain Donlon represents in the military life — the very best in America.” McNamara then stepped to the podium and started reading the citation, and midway through the description of Donlon’s incredibly heroic acts, his voice faltered and grew husky and tears sprang to his eyes. He finished with great difficulty, and as the President stepped forward to pin the medal around the hardrock, impassive young officer’s neck, he was constrained first to place his arm around his Defense Secretary’s shoulders and give him a hug. Question: Exactly whom was McNamara weeping for?
Never mind, look at him now, at home briefly for the first time during the Cuban missile crisis. The world was poised at the near-brink of nuclear war, but his wife says the only sign of tension he exhibited was to complain that the house was too dusty. Can’t you see him, walking around the living room, wiping dust with a finger, thinking about flights of ICBM’s? (San Francisco high school friends recall his excruciating neatness. He was the boy in class who wore jackets, ties, and white shirts while the other kids dressed in sweaters and jeans.)
And here is President Johnson, relaxing with friends in Texas and amusing them with an amazingly good imitation of McNamara setting out to tell him that big, important cuts could be made in 1964 defense spending — if the President was willing to accept the political risks involved in closing some big bases and shipyards. “Mister President, I’m prepared to effect the savings if you’re prepared to back me up,” Johnson imitated him saying. “And think of all those rented houses,” Mrs. Johnson murmured in appreciation of the echo effect of the local economic losses involved.
Here he is, some say, desperate for expiation. Here he is, others say, insensitive to such as that, the ultimate, knighted member of the managerial class still dedicated to and challenged by the task of running the biggest organization in the world. “He’s dying to become a czar in domestic affairs,” some say. “That’s not true,” others say. “When he leaves Defense he’ll go to some university, or maybe a foundation.” This is a very tough guy for people to know.
The fact is, he has no plans. Such is his discipline that he believes he could not do his present job as well if he allowed himself the luxury of thinking about the future. He knows only that after all these years at the Defense Department he will have had enough of government for a while.