On the occasion of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s 100th birth anniversary last month, I wrote an essay on McNamara and the rise of economics as a conceptual tool for war-planning. The piece was published in War on the Rocks.
Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara’s birth. It is likely tempting to mark this week with a retrospective of contributions to U.S. policy during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the Vietnam War in particular. McNamara himself was deeply troubled by how the war there eventually spiraled out of control. His memoir from his time in the executive branch, In Retrospect, can be read as an exercise in absolution, in so far as it is permitted in public life. McNamara’s most lasting legacy, however, is not Vietnam. Rather, it is found in the introduction and cultivation of a body of knowledge that views national security problems, including that those related to conventional and nuclear war, as economic problems. The group of experts who specialized in this systematic quantification of national security issues – who almost overnight went from being policy analysts to policy makers under McNamara – also ushered in a radically different point of view on American nuclear strategy, a striking departure from the one advocated by the Eisenhower administration.