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IN RETROSPECT:
THE TRAGEDY AND LESSONS OF VIETNAM

ROBERT S. MCNAMARA WITH BRIAN VANDEMARK


1. My Journey to Washington:
June 9, 1916-January 20, 1961

(selections from pp. 22-25)

I had no patience with the myth that the Defense Department could not be managed. It was an extraordinarily large organization, but the notion that it was some sort of ungovernable force was absurd. I had spent fifteen years as a manager identifying problems and forcing organizations--often against their will--to think deeply and realistically about alternative courses of action and their consequences. My team and I were determined to guide the department in such a way as to achieve the objective the president had set: security for the nation at the lowest possible cost.

As I told a TV interviewer a month after starting the job: "The role of a public manager is very similar to the role of a private manager; in each case he has the option of following one of two major alternative courses of action. He can either act as a judge or a active leader. . . . I have always believed in and endeavored to follow the active leadership role as opposed to the passive judicial role."

Privately, I spoke much more bluntly about intending to shake things up. I made it clear that I was determined to subordinate the powerful institutional interests of the various armed services and the defense contractors to a broad conception of the national interest. I wanted to challenge the Pentagon's resistance to change, and I intended that the big decisions would be made on the basis of study and analysis and not simply be perpetuating the practice of allocating blocs of funds to the various services and letting them use the money as they saw fit.

We had to make sweeping changes to achieve these goals. It meant moving the senior civilian officials much deeper into the management of defense programs. As part of the process, we shifted from a one-year to a five-year planning period, a revolutionary change that has now spread across government. And we instituted the Planning, Programming, Budgeting System to clarify procurement choices. This system worked by forcing long-term cost and effectiveness comparisons across service lines for weapons systems, force structures, and strategies. Even the tenor of top-level meetings in the Pentagon had to change. They became far less routine and far more policy oriented.

One of the most important things we did was to change substantially what were called posture statements, the formal yearly reports to Congress by the secretary of defense. We began each with a statement of America's foreign policy objectives and then derived from those an analysis of the threats we would face in pursuing the objectives, the military strategy to be followed in the face of the threats, the force structure we would need to accomplish it, and the budgets required to support the force structure. This integration of foreign policy and the defense budget was absolutely fundamental. It is the only sound way to proceed. At the time there was much opposition to our approach. Many in the State Department, for example, believed we were usurping their function by preparing the written statement of U.S. foreign policy. But there was no other such statement. And what they did not know was that I asked Dean Rusk to review every word of it before I used it as the foundation of our military strategy and defense programs.

This all reflected an approach to organizing human activities that I had developed at Harvard and applied in the army during the war and later at Ford, and in the World Bank. Put very simply, it was to define a clear objective for whatever organization I was associated with, develop a plan to achieve that objective, and systematically monitor progress against the plan. Then, if progress was deficient, one could either adjust the plan or introduce corrective action to accelerate progress. The objective of the Defense Department was clear to me from the start: to defend the nation at minimal risk and minimal cost, and, whenever we got into combat, with minimal loss of life.

We immediately tackled a most urgent task--reexamining and redefining our nuclear strategy. The impetus grew out of a long-standing strategic debate. In the 1950s, contrary to the advice of some senior military leaders--for example, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor--the Eisenhower administration had relied increasingly on nuclear weapons for the national defense. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had summarized this doctrine of massive retaliation when he declared that the United States aimed to deter aggression by relying "primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate [with nuclear weapons] instantly, by means and at places of our own choosing."

The Kennedy administration worried that this reliance on nuclear weapons gave us no way to respond to large nonnuclear attacks without committing suicide. President Kennedy said we had put ourselves in the position of having to choose in a crisis between "inglorious retreat or unlimited retaliation." We decided to broaden the range of options by strengthening and modernizing the military's ability to fight a nonnuclear war. This involved a shift in doctrine from massive retaliation to what came to be know as flexible response, a strategy intended to reduce the risk of nuclear war. We were only partially successful in raising the nuclear "threshold." Our proposals were debated for five years by NATO, then accepted with substantial modifications.

In any event, in the early days of the administration we worked long hours developing plans to strengthen our forces. At the end of March, President Kennedy presented our blueprint in a special defense message to Congress. He asked for an additional $650 million for the Pentagon so we could put in place an array of measures to increase our ability to deter or resist nonnuclear aggression.


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