Vietnam-Era Defense Secretary McNamara Dies Robert S. McNamara, who had been in failing health for some time, died at his home, his wife, Diana, said. McNamara served as secretary of defense during the Vietnam War under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
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Vietnam-Era Defense Secretary McNamara Dies

Historian Robert Dallek Discusses McNamara's Life On 'Morning Edition'

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President Lyndon Johnson (left) presents outgoing Defense Secretary Robert McNamara with the Medal of Freedom on Feb. 28, 1968. McNamara's then-wife, Margy, is next to him. Getty Images hide caption

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President Lyndon Johnson (left) presents outgoing Defense Secretary Robert McNamara with the Medal of Freedom on Feb. 28, 1968. McNamara's then-wife, Margy, is next to him.

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Associated Press

President Johnson attends a 1967 meeting flanked by Secretary of State Dean Rusk (left) and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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President Johnson attends a 1967 meeting flanked by Secretary of State Dean Rusk (left) and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.

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Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara (left) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor confer with President Kennedy on Jan. 25, 1963, in the White House Cabinet Room. Robert Knudsen/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library/AP hide caption

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Robert Knudsen/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library/AP

Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara (left) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor confer with President Kennedy on Jan. 25, 1963, in the White House Cabinet Room.

Robert Knudsen/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library/AP

Robert S. McNamara, the longest-serving defense secretary in history and a divisive symbol of the Vietnam War, died early Monday at his home in Washington. He was 93.

Family members said he died in his sleep at about 5:30 a.m. No cause of death was given. His wife, Diana, told Reuters, "His age just caught up with him."

McNamara served as defense secretary under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Although he had careers in business and finance, he was primarily known for his role in the escalation of the Vietnam War.

McNamara came to Washington in 1961 to serve in Kennedy's Cabinet after being president of the Ford Motor Co. As defense secretary, he helped direct the buildup of troops in Southeast Asia, overseeing the escalation of conflict that led to the deaths of 58,000 U.S. service members.

Opposition to Vietnam — often called "McNamara's War" by its opponents — ran so strong that even McNamara's son, a Stanford University student, protested against the war while his father directed it. At Harvard, McNamara once had to flee a student mob through underground utility tunnels.

McNamara left the Cabinet under pressure from Johnson in 1968. By then, he was so disillusioned that he himself criticized U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. He spent the rest of his life trying to explain the U.S. role in Vietnam and apologizing for his mistakes.

In 1993, after the Cold War ended, he began writing his memoirs, saying some of the lessons of Vietnam were applicable to the post-Cold War period. The book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, was released in 1995.

Recalling His Misgivings

McNamara disclosed that by 1967 he had misgivings about Vietnam. Despite those doubts, he had continued to express public confidence that the application of enough American firepower would cause the Communists to make peace. In that period, the number of U.S. casualties — dead, missing and wounded — went from 7,466 to more than 100,000.

"We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of our country. But we were wrong. We were terribly wrong," McNamara, then 78, told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of the book's release.

Years later, he became the subject of an Academy Award winning documentary, The Fog of War. In the film, he discussed the difficult decision-making process during the Vietnam conflict as well as his Pentagon role in the Cuban missile crisis.

In the Kennedy administration, McNamara was a key figure in both the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis 18 months later. The crisis was the closest the world came to a nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.

McNamara also served as World Bank president for 12 years. He tripled its loans to developing countries and changed its emphasis from large industrial projects to rural development.

After retiring in 1981, he championed the causes of nuclear disarmament and aid by the world's richest nation for the world's poorest.

McNamara was born June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, son of the sales manager for a wholesale shoe company. He majored in mathematics, economics and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.

When World War II began, McNamara was a professor at Harvard Business School. In 1943, he was commissioned an Army officer and joined a team of young officers who developed a new field of statistical control of supplies.

McNamara and his colleagues sold themselves to the Ford organization as a package and revitalized the company. The group became known as the "whiz kids," and McNamara was named the first Ford president who was not a descendant of Henry Ford.

Joining The Kennedy Administration

A month later, the newly elected Kennedy invited McNamara, a registered Republican, to join his Cabinet.

As defense chief, McNamara reshaped America's armed forces for "flexible response" and away from the nuclear "massive retaliation" doctrine espoused by former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. He asserted civilian control of the Pentagon and applied cost-accounting techniques and computerized systems analysis to defense spending.

Early on, Kennedy regarded South Vietnam as an area threatened by Communist aggression and a providing ground for his new emphasis on counterinsurgency forces. A believer in the domino theory — that countries could fall to communism like a row of dominoes — Kennedy dispatched U.S. advisers to bolster the Saigon government. Their numbers surpassed 16,000 by the time of his assassination.

Following Kennedy's death, Johnson kept McNamara in the Cabinet, believing McNamara was the best man to keep South Vietnam from falling to the Communists.

When U.S. naval vessels were allegedly attacked off the North Vietnamese coast in 1964, McNamara lobbied Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which Johnson used as the equivalent of a congressional declaration of war.

McNamara visited Vietnam — the first of many trips — and returned predicting that American intervention would enable the South Vietnamese, despite internal feuds, to stand by themselves "by the end of 1965."

That was a forerunner of a seemingly endless string of official "light at the end of the tunnel" predictions of American success. Each was followed by more warfare, more American troops, more American casualties, more American bombing, more North Vietnamese infiltration — and more predictions of an early end to America's commitment.

McNamara's first wife, Margaret, whom he met in college, died of cancer in 1981; they had two daughters and a son. In 2004, he married Italian-born Diana Masieri Byfield.

From NPR and wire service reports

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