On this day in history, Robert S. McNamara began his new position as head of the World Bank. The previous November, he had announced that he was resigning from his office as Secretary of Defense to accept the World Bank appointment. The announcement came as the Vietnam War was becoming increasingly unpopular in the United States and abroad.
McNamara served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as the 8th defense secretary from 1961 to 1968. [The Department of Defense was only formed in 1949, in an amendment made to the National Security Act of 1947.) In McNamara’s obituary (he died in 2009 at age 93), the New York Times reported:
As early as April 1964, Senator Wayne Morse, Democrat of Oregon, called Vietnam “McNamara’s War.” Mr. McNamara did not object. “I am pleased to be identified with it,” he said, “and do whatever I can to win it.”
Back in 1972 he declared: “Every quantitative measurement we have shows we are winning this war.”)
Advising Johnson, McNamara provided false intelligence (that he called “iron-clad evidence”) about an attack on American warships by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964. Johnson used this information to get Congress to authorize the war.
Nevertheless, thirty years later (and after some 58,000 had died in the war), McNamara confessed in a memoir that the war was “wrong, terribly wrong.”
McNamara was involved in a number of other fiascos besides the huge one of the Vietnam War, including the disastrous Bay of Pigs and plans for using the U.S. military to overthrow the Castro government in Cuba. He was also assigned by Kennedy to come up with ways “to stir things up on the island with espionage, sabotage, general disorder” (per notes taken by Robert Kennedy). There are those who believe all this “stirring up” led Castro to plot revenge via the assassination of John Kennedy.
McNamara served for 13 years as president of the World Bank. His work there too has drawn heavy criticism. Nevertheless, at least he avoided the worst of the fallout from Vietnam, which fell heavily on President Johnson instead.