US Vietnam war architect Robert McNamara dies


June 18, 2010 Updated Jul 6, 2009 at 6:11 PM EDT

Robert McNamara, the US secretary of defense whose broad career as an industry leader and a global financial aid revolutionary was overshadowed by his role as key architect of the Vietnam war, died Monday aged 93.

From 1961 to 1968, McNamara oversaw the escalation of US combat efforts in the highly divisive Vietnam war that became known as one of the biggest military blunders in US history -- a conflict McNamara himself came to describe as "terribly wrong."

He was an early advocate of counter-insurgency operations and a primary architect of Cold War nuclear policy.

A trained economist, he also helped turn around the Ford auto company in the post-World War II era and then used his talents to improve the image of the World Bank during his long tenure as president from 1968 to 1981.

Current World Bank president Robert Zoellick, confirming the news, said in a statement Monday that McNamara was a "figure who left his mark on history."

McNamara "shaped the bank as no one before him," Zoellick said, adding he was a "great voice for the poor" and one of his most important contributions was "his foresight to open relations between the bank and China at a crucial time in that country's development."

Brilliant, certain of himself and a whirlwind of energy, McNamara was a key member of president John F. Kennedy's cabinet.

But in later years McNamara came to regret his Vietnam role, although he remained silent until publishing his controversial 1995 memoirs "In Retrospect: The Tragedies and Lessons of Vietnam."

Top US officials "who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation," McNamara wrote.

"We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."

But his term as defense secretary did not start out that way, when at 44 he was called upon by Kennedy.

"I don't object to its being called McNamara's war," McNamara wrote of Vietnam in 1964. "I think it is a very important war and I am pleased to be identified with it and do whatever I can to win it."

Under McNamara's watch the US military role in Vietnam escalated from a few hundred Americans advising South Vietnam's military to some 17,000 soldiers by 1964.

And US involvement in the war escalated even more dramatically following the Gulf of Tonkin incident that year, in which, based on suspect intelligence reports, the US alleged North Vietnamese torpedo boats had fired on two US destroyers.

President Lyndon B. Johnson -- who took over when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 -- ordered retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnam, and by mid-1968 the number of US soldiers sent to fight in Vietnam had risen to 535,000.

"If it was anyone's war in those early periods, it wasn't LBJ's war, it wasn't (top US general) Maxwell Taylor's war. It was McNamara's war," Barry Zorthian, who headed Vietnam operations for the US Information Service, the government's public diplomacy arm, told AFP Monday.

"He was very controversial," added Zorthian.

By the time the war ended in 1975 more than 58,000 US soldiers had been killed, as well as more than three million Vietnamese from the North and South and around 1.5 million Laotians and Cambodians.

But McNamara had already left as defense secretary, resigning in 1968 after years of clashes with Johnson and the top military brass and facing a growing anti-war movement at home.

"McNamara gradually became skeptical about whether the war could be won" by sending in more troops and intensifying the bombing, reads his official Pentagon biography.

Robert Strange McNamara -- the odd middle name was his mother's maiden name -- was born June 9, 1916 in San Francisco, California, the son of a wholesale shoe firm sales manager.

He studied economics and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, then obtained a masters degree in business administration at Harvard.

McNamara entered the US Army Air Force in 1943. Poor eyesight prevented him from flying, so he worked at an office analyzing the efficiency of US bombing raids.

After the war he was one of 10 ex-Air Force statisticians that Henry Ford II hired to turn around his automotive company. The team, dubbed the Whiz Kids, turned Ford into the second most popular US auto brand.

McNamara shot up the ranks and become company president -- the first ever outside of the Ford family -- in November 1960.

In 1968, when he left the Pentagon, McNamara went on to head the World Bank, focusing the institution on representing the needs of its developing member countries.

McNamara is survived by his wife whom he married in 2004, and a son and two daughters from a previous marriage.

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