Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Robert McNamara died Monday at the age of 93. Not a lot will be written about him because he is reviled by the left for his role in the Viet Nam war, and reviled by others for his mismanagement and failures. I am one of the latter. McNamara throughout his career held himself in higher regard than those around him did. He felt his intelligence trumped all, even when he was barking up the wrong tree. Prior to being tapped by Jack Kennedy for Defense Secretary, he was President of Ford. He came to Ford as one of a dozen or so intellectuals Henry Ford II surrounded himself with when he realized he wasn’t the brightest bulb on the block. McNamara was largely responsible for the Edsel, a one size fits all concept the public would flock to because it was a Mercury sized product (big is better) that could be sold at a Ford price. It flopped and was killed in one of shortest production runs ever, just over two years. (Note: There is a lot of revisionist history about McNamara’s support for the Edsel. Countless recent articles and obituaries have him “actively opposed” to the Edsel, one even that he tried to sabotage it by pricing it too high. At the time of the Edsel launch in September 1957 he had been the president for 2 years of the Ford Division, the division that was responsible for it. Had he wanted to kill the Edsel, there is no doubt he could have. He didn’t. Contemporaneous writings do not indicate such doubts. At the time of the Mustang launch in 1964, countless articles compared Ioccaca’s success with the Mustang to McNamara’s failure with the Edsel. Only recent articles talk about his "opposition") For all his intellectual prowess he had trouble with details. When the Air Force wanted to reopen the production line for the F-105 in 1961, McNamara wanted the Air Force to buy the more capable Navy F4H Phantom II instead (actually one of his better decisions). During hearings, the Air Force referred to it as the F-110, their designation for the F4H (Navy designations were sequential by manufacturer, in this case H for McDonnell, the Air Force’s strictly sequential). This confused McNamara no end. Solution: He changed the designation system. Early on he looked for economies from commonality, not a bad concept but often impractical. One challenged service pride, by proposing common belt buckles for all services. Government contracted belt buckles of that era cost between 8 and 12 cents each, but with about 5 million a year, it would save some $150,000. The services were up in arms. McNamara and his whiz kids had no concept of service pride, where enlisted Marines often opt to pay for their own custom fitted dress uniforms at great expense, and they weren’t about to wear a brushed nickel buckle from the Air Force. Fortunately reason prevailed, but the incident spawned an ongoing torrent of underground and back channels communications about the Secretary. And it wasn’t positive. Early in his tenure rumors abounded that McNamara wanted to eliminate the Navy’s aircraft carriers and turn all aviation over to the Air Force. This was rejected, but instead McNamara mandated new carriers not be nuclear powered. This was based on a flawed Rand study that showed a nuclear task force would cost a miniscule 1% more than a conventional. The study was skewed to favor conventional propulsion as well as McNamara’s desires. It used a 20 year lifetime for a carrier (carriers built in that era actually stayed in commission over 45 years) and assumed no combat operations, only peacetime. Within three years we would discover how flawed the study was. To conduct flight ops from Yankee station off of North Vietnam, especially on hot, humid and calm summer days, carriers had to operate at full speed for sufficient wind over deck to launch. Because of the fuel consuming high speeds, carriers had to be refueled every 48 hours, necessitating a constant tanker train just to keep the carrier going. Eventually the nuclear powered Enterprise was brought over from the Atlantic Fleet to help alleviate the problem. His decision was invalidated after he left office. All carriers since then have been built with nuclear power. The communication revolution during the Vietnam War allowed command and control to be shifted from the field to Washington, which McNamara took full advantage of. Targets in the north were selected and planned in Washington with number of sorties, time over target together with other such minutia as bomb size and fuzing. Often this led to ridiculous situations as when the Navy had to beg to delay launches to allow the morning haze to burn off so they could find their targets. During much of the war, two targets were selected each week, one for the Air Force and one for the Navy. 100 sorties a day were allowed for each service. While this made life in the Pentagon simpler and predictable, it played havoc in the field. On the first day of a new target the North Vietnamese knew the target for the week. With this knowledge they moved their deadly anti- aircraft defenses to the new target, safe in the assumption no other target would be chosen for 6 days. My personal belief is we could have significantly altered the course of the war had we mined the port of Haiphong in 1967 or 8. We eventually did in 1972, but by that time we were committed to pulling out, and used it as a bargaining chip, not to win the war. There were massive amounts or military supplies entering that port to keep the war effort going in the south. Mining is a passive form of warfare that puts the onus on the ship’s owner and skipper. Nothing blows up unless a skipper decides to challenge the embargo. But McNamara opposed mining, mistakingly thinking it would bring China into the war by diminishing the Soviet role. But that totally ignores the antipathy caused by 850 years of occupation of Vietnam by the Chinese. McNamara’s efforts to quantify the tides of war, something he developed as an assistant to General LeMay during the fire raids on Japan, led to the use of body counts to evaluate our success in Vietnam. This often spawned needless and sometimes intentional collateral damage to inflate the counts. It also gave support to those opposing the war. I could keep going on, but I won’t other than to say Robert McNamara’s ineptness was a major factor in our defeat in SE Asia. The loss of our presence there eliminated any threat to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces in Cambodia. Shortly after our departure they took over and slaughtered a third of Cambodia's population, nearly 2 million lost souls.