The Other Legacy of Robert McNamara

June 10, 2016

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Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara’s birth. It is likely tempting to mark this week with a retrospective of contributions to U.S. policy during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the Vietnam War in particular. McNamara himself was deeply troubled by how the war there eventually spiraled out of control. His memoir from his time in the executive branch, In Retrospect, can be read as an exercise in absolution, in so far as it is permitted in public life. McNamara’s most lasting legacy, however, is not Vietnam. Rather, it is found in the introduction and cultivation of a body of knowledge that views national security problems, including that those related to conventional and nuclear war, as economic problems. The group of experts who specialized in this systematic quantification of national security issues – who almost overnight went from being policy analysts to policy makers under McNamara – also ushered in a radically different point of view on American nuclear strategy, a striking departure from the one advocated by the Eisenhower administration.

McNamara’s own – rather unusual – background set the stage for this radical departure from how U.S. the United States’ defense planning had been conducted before he was appointed Secretary of Defense in 1960. With a major in economics, and minors in mathematics and philosophy from Harvard, McNamara was recruited as a statistical control officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943, which had established a joint program with the Harvard Business School to manage the burgeoning logistics around the air war effort. The Air Corps’ air force statistical control program was managed by Charles B. “Tex” Thornton, an officer with close ties to an assistant secretary of war Robert A. Lovett. Thornton eventually convinced McNamara to join Ford Motor Company to aid in applying war-time management techniques to the reorganization of a large corporation. McNamara himself noted that this experience – of treating industrial and defense bureaucracies with the same set of analytical techniques – proved pivotal to Kennedy’s decision to appoint him as secretary of defense:

President Kennedy knew I would bring to the military techniques of management from the business world, much as my Harvard colleagues and I had done as statistical control officers in the war.

But beyond the obvious applications of relatively simple economics principles to budgetary and other allocation issues, economics was to play a much more fundamental role in defense planning in the United States – a role that was brought to the fore by the people McNamara appointed to the Pentagon, beginning with Charles Hitch, Director of RAND’s economics division. McNamara appointed him as the Pentagon’s comptroller and assistant secretary of defense. Hitch, in turn, brought in a motley group of specialists in operations research and microeconomics to the Pentagon. Indeed McNamara’s legacy there would be shaped by his own personality and intelligence as well as “the quality of people he recruited … and his readiness to back their initiatives,” in the words of historian Lawrence Freedman. Central to the approach of these “whiz-kids” was a unique world-view. Hitch wrote in a 1958 academic paper:

An economist naturally analyses military problems in terms of his accustomed conceptual framework, using the logic of choice with which we are so familiar. Military problems can be formulated as economic problems of maximization subject to constraints. […] Military and other government officials possess no such conceptual framework.

McNamara himself echoed this belief. He noted that the objective of the Department of Defense was “to defend the nation at minimal risk and minimal cost, and, whenever we got into combat, with a minimal loss of life.” National security, in other words, is an optimization problem to be solved. This was a radical formulation. RAND Corporation analysts – trained as mathematicians, physicists, and economists – had developed for almost a decade and a half, under the aegis of the Air Force, an arsenal of analytical techniques to solve military-relevant optimization problems.  Under McNamara, these techniques took a prominent role in American  defense. But McNamara’s team was to be no mere assistants to the generals. Instead, they would bring new ways of thinking about conflict, grounded in the emerging mathematical theory of rational choice. The then-nascent science of microeconomics, in turn, would establish tight links between the act of making rational choices and optimizing given goals.

One conceptual framework that grew out of rational choice theory which RAND analysts brought to the Pentagon was that of game theory – the mathematical study of strategic behavior, and the foundation of modern microeconomic theory. Game theory would often suggest counter-intuitive solutions. An example given by Hitch in a 1955 paper was that of optimal deployment of additional air defenses: Does one use them to defend previously-undefended targets? Or does one use them to further fortify existing ones? Intuition would suggest the former. Game-theoretic calculations suggested the latter.  Between dealing with the young Turks proposing solutions often running counter to honed and cherished intuitions – and entrenched beliefs – and responding to McNamara’s impatient and sharp memorandum (one recipient acidly noted that a Japanese general in the same situation would have committed hara-kiri) the men in uniform were aghast. As former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force General Thomas White complained in 1963:

I don’t believe a lot of these often over-confident, sometimes arrogant young professors, mathematicians, and other theorists have sufficient worldliness or motivation to stand up to the kind of enemy we face.

One such theorist – a “defense intellectual,” as McNamara’s “whiz-kids” came to be known – was William Kaufmann, a former student of Bernard Brodie. Along with Hitch’s deputy Alain Enthoven, RAND analysts had long advocated a counterforce, or “no-cities,” nuclear strategy in contrast to the massive retaliation strategy of the Eisenhower administration that saw the credible capability to attack Soviet civilian targets (“a countervalue strategy,” in jargon) as a sufficient deterrent to a Soviet nuclear or even conventional first strike. At RAND, Kaufmann noted, counterforce had achieved the status of a “developed theology.”

The no-cities doctrine fit perfectly with the economists’ view of war: If the point of nuclear assets is not just to prevent war – which after all was predicated on a delicate balance of terror – but also to minimize loss of life including those of civilians if it ever broke out, why not neutralize the adversary’s capacity to strike first with nuclear weapons? If both the United States and the Soviet Union would shift to counterforce targeting (and McNamara believed that the Soviets might be inclined to do so if the United States did) civilian casualties on each side would be significantly lower. Implicit in this line of thinking was that rational actors, sharing the same set of preferences, would make the same choices – the driving belief of microeconomic theory. In any case, RAND theorists had already developed computerized war-games to map the counterforce strategy and found McNamara’s Pentagon more receptive to their then-novel theorizing.

Kaufmann had found a convert in McNamara soon after Kennedy took office in 1961. By the fall of 1961, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) – another RAND concept, driven by systems theory — was being revised to a posture of “flexible response” with counterforce as a driving component. This new plan, SIOP-63, would propose a graded escalation of nuclear war, and continue to shape American nuclear strategy through the 1960s.McNamara proposed counterforce as a cornerstone of American nuclear strategy at a NATO meeting in Athens in May 1962. He declared that “the principal military objective of the Alliance […] should be the destruction of the enemy’s military forces,” something he repeated at a speech at the University of Michigan a month later. A move towards counterforce targeting was also bolstered by the argument that the conventional gap between the Warsaw Pact countries and NATO was not as large as once estimated. McNamara’s analysts pointed out an obvious arithmetic problem, recounted by Freedman:

If a million American troops supported 16 combat divisions, how come that twice that number of Soviet troops supported 175 divisions? Either the Americans were terribly inefficient, or else Soviet divisions were a fraction of size of NATO divisions.

The conclusion was unanimous: Bolstering conventional defenses would go a long way in ameliorating Western Europe’s security problems. Dependence on deterrence under a posture of massive countervalue retaliation – and on nuclear weapons in general – was, in fact, unnecessary. McNamara suggested U.S. defense strategy in Europe put a premium on conventional war-fighting methods, an argument that failed to convince America’s European allies.

There were two additional – obvious – problems with counterforce, at the doctrinal level. First, counterforce targeting is only meaningful as a first-strike option. But this posture would create a use-it-or-lose-it pressure on the adversary and, thus, contribute to the possibility of escalation. Second, a posture solely based on targeting the adversary’s weapons systems, if it is symmetric, has the potential to trigger an arms race with each side developing better first-strike systems. In the end, economic considerations played a major role in McNamara’s decision to move away from nuclear-warfighting as a viable option. The Strategic Air Command demanded a wide array of counterforce strike capabilities including a new bomber, the B-70, and a new short-range missile, the Skybolt. By November 1962, McNamara was beginning to set aside the whiz-kids’ no-cities doctrine. But a first-strike counterforce capability would become an important part of U.S. nuclear strategy with the development of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV), beginning with the creation of Minuteman III missile in 1966.

The debate about counterforce versus countervalue targeting is far from over, at least in the minds of nuclear analysts in Asia. It is possible that China is upgrading its DF-5 missile system with MIRV capability – a development that calls China’s no-first-use policy into question. Very recently, a Stimson Center report on Beijing’s move towards MIRVs raised the possibility of New Delhi also following suit. In many ways, the growing debate in New Delhi on a possible revision of Indian nuclear strategy mirrors the one in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. India – like America under the Eisenhower administration – currently has, as official doctrine, a posture of massive retaliation (coupled to a no-first-use policy). As the Sino-Indian rivalry grows in the backdrop of a shift in China’s strategic-weapons capabilities, it is conceivable that India will be forced into seriously examining nuclear-warfighting as an option. Interestingly, an unnamed former commander of the Indian Strategic Forces recently cited McNamara’s repudiation of counterforce as a reason why India too will be reluctant to go down the path RAND analysts had long advocated. But the challenge – and opportunity – for New Delhi is not in replicating the final decisions of the Kennedy administration regarding the role of the nuclear deterrent, but in using the same analytical techniques which were used to arrive at these decisions in the first place. In the end, McNamara’s legacy lies not in the choices his Pentagon made, but in the ways such choices were formulated and examined.


Abhijnan Rej is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. A mathematician by training, he currently studies India’s national security problems through a game-theoretic lens. Twitter: @AbhijnanRej.

Image: PHC Harold Wise, U.S. Navy

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One thought on “The Other Legacy of Robert McNamara

  1. McNamara’s failure was in forgetting that people are Not numbers.

    Having read the book cited here I would also recommend Gen McMaster’s book concerning the subject: “Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam” by HR McMaster