Page last updated at 15:47 GMT, Monday, 6 July 2009 16:47 UK

Ex-Pentagon chief McNamara dies

Nick Higham looks back on Robert McNamara's career

Robert McNamara, who served as US defence secretary during the Vietnam war and the Cuban Missile Crisis, has died aged 93.

Mr McNamara, who served under presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, was also an architect of the US policy of nuclear deterrence.

After leaving the Pentagon he became president of the World Bank.

His wife Diana said he had suffered failing health for some time and died in his sleep at home in Washington DC.

Before taking up the post as Pentagon chief in 1961, Mr McNamara was the president of Ford Motor Company, turning the company around in the post World War II era.

He is most closely associated with overseeing the involvement of the US in Vietnam from 1961 to 1968.

Robert McNamara
1916: Born in San Francisco
1946: Hired by Ford Motor Company
1961: Appointed US defence secretary
1968: Became President of the World Bank
1981: Retired

Mr McNamara became to many anti-war critics the symbol of a failed policy that left more than 58,000 US troops dead.

Even his son, as a Stanford University student, took part in protests against the war while his father was running it.

However, in his 1995 memoirs In Retrospect: The Tragedies and Lessons of Vietnam, Mr McNamara wrote of his regret over his Vietnam role.

He described the war as "terribly wrong" owing to a combination of the anti-communist climate of the times, mistaken assumptions of foreign policy and military misjudgements.

He spoke frankly about the Vietnam war and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 2003 documentary "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara."

With the US in the first year of the war in Iraq, it became a popular and timely attraction and won an Oscar for best documentary feature.

Bombing criticised

In 1967 Mr McNamara criticised the decision to bomb North Vietnam in retaliation for strikes on US bases in the south.

President Johnson decided to remove him the following year, offering him the presidency of the World Bank. When he left office he was the longest-serving US defence secretary.

In his new role, Mr McNamara devoted great energy to improving life in rural communities in developing countries.

He believed it was a more promising path to peace than the build-up of arms and armies.

John F Kennedy, Robert McNamara and Vice President Johnson in March 1961
Mr McNamara, centre, worked under John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson

After retiring in 1981, he championed the cause of nuclear disarmament.

Lawrence Korb, a former US assistant secretary of defence, told US broadcaster WGBH that he had been brave to admit that the war was a terrible mistake.

But it was something for which he was never forgiven, he said.

"I can't remember a public official with the courage to confess error and explain where the country went wrong," said Mr Korb, who was a friend of Mr McNamara.

"It bothered him for the rest of his life. People forget that after he left the Pentagon he ran the World Bank and did an awful lot in terms of dealing with poverty and hunger around the world.

"Then he dedicated the rest of his life to trying to do something about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but it's all been lost because of the Vietnam era."

Obituary: Robert McNamara
06 Jul 09 |  Americas
Winning hearts and minds in Vietnam
30 Oct 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Kennedy: The enduring allure
19 Nov 03 |  Americas


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