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Robert McNamara
McNamara pointing at a map of Vietnam during a press conference.
Photo: Library of Congress

Robert McNamara

1916 -

During the late '60s, many Americans change their opinion of the Vietnam War, gradually becoming opposed to the policies they once supported. What makes McNamara's reversal so remarkable is that he is the individual responsible for executing government policies in Vietnam from 1961 to 1968.

In 1960, President-elect Kennedy asks McNamara to be his Secretary of Defense. McNamara inherits the commitments of prior administrations, including agreements with South Vietnam. Squeezed by opposing forces, McNamara can't abandon Vietnam to the Communists-or allow hostilities to provoke open war with China. So he chooses a middle road, drawing the military into active war, but placing restrictions on targets and weapons. This half-engagement, known as McNamara's War, brings bitter complaints from antiwar and anti-Communist factions.

"I still think he must be a very tortured person because he hadn't really come clean."

Rev. William Sloane Coffin
radical clergyman, peace activist

President Johnson approves escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam. By 1966, McNamara supports administration policy in public, but privately doubts the war's progress. Intensified bombing fails to yield results, and the number of U.S. dead is climbing.

1967: The Turning Point

Disagreements with the Joint Chiefs of Staff become more frequent. McNamara doubts the optimism and honesty of military reports. He secretly asks the CIA for independent analyses (initiating a chain of events that leads to The Pentagon Papers).

In May, McNamara gives a private report to the President urging a political settlement to the war. Johnson rejects McNamara. Their rapport crumbles. On November 29, the President announces that McNamara will resign to become head of the World Bank.

In Retrospect

McNamara's 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, is a confessional of his guilt and remorse over his role in the war. Reactions to the book are divided, re-igniting the debate about U.S. interference in Vietnam.

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