Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Robert S. McNamara (1963–1968): Secretary of Defense

Robert Strange McNamara was born in San Francisco, California, on June 9, 1916, to Robert James McNamara, a wholesale shoe industry executive, and Clara Nell NcNamara. He was educated in public schools before going on to receive a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley; he earned an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School in 1939.

McNamara spent a year working for Price Waterhouse and Company before returning to Harvard to teach at the Business School from 1940 to 1943. While at Harvard, he also instructed Army Air Corps officers in statistical techniques and war management. He later went to England to aide the Air Corps with efforts to support bombing operations.

He continued to support the war effort through his statistical and management efforts. Following the close of hostilities, McNamara returned to the United States and joined a group of young military officers, later called the "whiz kids," who helped turn around the financially troubled Ford Motor Company. McNamara served as general manager and vice president of Ford's automotive division during the 1950s and in 1960 became the first man outside the Ford family to be named president of the Ford Motor Company. Later that year, President-elect John Kennedy asked McNamara to join his cabinet, despite the latter being a registered Republican.

McNamara became the secretary of defense in January 1961. In that post, he brought the military under greater and more centralized civilian control. In doing so, he enlarged his staff and moved to centralize decision-making authority. McNamara also created the Defense Intelligence Agency to assess intelligence operations of all three military branches. In addition, he established the Defense Supply Agency to standardize the purchasing of items between the three military branches.

McNamara also helped to develop the policies of "second strike capability" and "flexible response." Later, during the Lyndon Johnson administration, McNamara became the prime architect of America's strategy in Vietnam, believing that the build up of conventional forces as a part of "flexible response" capability would enable the military to deal more effectively with communist guerrillas. Vietnam became an all-consuming preoccupation during the Johnson years, however, leading McNamara, in 1968, to leave office as secretary of defense.

He became president of the World Bank the following year, a post he held until 1981. McNamara remained active with nonprofit groups such as the Ford Foundation, the Brookings Institution, and the Barbara Ward Fund. He also continued to work independently on issues such as the threat of nuclear arms, the population explosion, world hunger, East-West relations, and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.