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Profile: Robert McNamara
Positions that Robert McNamara has held:
- US Secretary of Defense (1961-1968)
Robert McNamara was a participant or observer in the following events:
Two days after an engagement with North Vietnamese torpedo boats (see August 2, 1964), Captain John J. Herrick of the USS Maddox sees two “mysterious dots” on his radar screen. He determines they are torpedo boats and sends an emergency cable to headquarters in Honolulu reporting that the ship is under attack. Honolulu quickly passes the report on to Washington. [Pilger, 1986, pp. 195] President Johnson meets with his advisers and decides that the US must respond. “We cannot sit still as a nation and let them attack us on the high seas and get away with it,” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara says. [Herring, 1986, pp. 121] A few hours later, a cable arrives from Captain Herrick, which reads: “Freak weather effects on radar and over eager sonar men . . . No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.” A little later, Herrick cables that though it was “a confusing picture,” he did believe that there had been an attack. [In 1985, Herrick will reveal that this judgment had been based on “intercepted North Vietnamese communications” which he had not seen.] Half an hour later, the White House receives a third cable from Herrick, in which the captain says he is now uncertain what had happened. But this last report is ignored and President Johnson announces in a televised address, “Renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply.” Meanwhile, US forces in Vietnam launch “retaliatory” air strikes against five North Vietnamese patrol boats and the oil facilities at Vinh. [Pilger, 1986, pp. 196; Herring, 1986, pp. 121; Ellsberg, 2003] The American media praises the president’s speech and actions. The New York Times states the following day that Johnson had gone to “the American people… with the somber facts.” And the Los Angeles Times urges its readers to “face the fact that the Communists, by their attack on American vessels in international waters, have themselves escalated the hostilities.” But time will reveal that there had been no attacks. US Navy squadron commander James Stockdale, who had been in the air at the time of the alleged attacks, will later recall: “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there… There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.” [Media Beat, 7/27/1994]
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Relations Committee hold closed hearings on the Gulf of Tonkin torpedo attacks (see August 2, 1964)
(see August 4, 1964). Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, who had received a tip from an unnamed Pentagon insider (not Daniel Ellsberg), asks US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara if the torpedo attacks might have been a response to operation OPLAN 34A which had conducted attacks on the North Vietnamese island of Hon Me on July 31 (see July 31, 1964). The Senator raises the possibility that the North Vietnamese may have thought the ship was supporting OPLAN 34A’s attacks. Morse suggests that McNamara should inquire as to the exact location of the Maddox on those days and what its true mission was. McNamara responds: “First, our Navy played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any…. The Maddox was operating in international waters, was carrying out a routine patrol of the type we carry out all over the world at all times. I did not have knowledge at the time of the attack on the island. There is no connection between this patrol and any action of South Vietnam.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971; Herring, 1986, pp. 122; Ellsberg, 2003]
Three stages of an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) flight. [Source: Missile Defense Agency]Defense Secretary Robert McNamara announces the US decision to deploy what he calls a “thin” anti-ballistic missile system, named “Sentinel,” designed to protect American targets against an accidental Soviet missile launch or a limited Chinese long-range ballistic missile attack. [Federation of American Scientists, 1/15/2008] The system is launched in response to a similar system deployed by the Soviet Union to protect Moscow and Leningrad. [Time, 6/5/1968] The system is based on a series of long-range radar installations and anti-missile missiles deployed in key areas throughout the US. It is designed as much to protect the Johnson administration from criticism leveled by hardline Republicans that it is “soft” on the Soviet-Chinese nuclear threat as it is to provide real protection from Soviet or Chinese missiles. The system will never be completed (see 1969-1976), though by some accounts, its limited rollout does encourage the Soviet Union to renew arms negotiations with the US. In 1968, Time magazine will observe, “The fact is that Sentinel was intended less as a truly effective defense system than as an expensive propaganda gesture for Soviet consumption.” [Time, 6/5/1968; Schwartz, 1998, pp. 286-288]
An exhaustive study of the US’s involvement in Vietnam since 1945 is completed. The study was ordered in early 1967 by then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, partly to determine how the situation in Southeast Asia had gotten so out of hand. The study, entitled “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967,” is by the “Vietnam Study Task Force,” led by Leslie H. Gelb, the director of Policy Planning and Arms Control for International Security Affairs at the Pentagon, and comprised of 36 military personnel, historians, and defense analysts from the RAND Corporation and the Washington Institute for Defense Analysis. The study is huge, composed of 47 volumes and spanning 7,000 pages of material. It covers the time from 1945, when Vietnam was under French colonial rule, through the 1968 Tet Offensive. The study conclusively shows that each US administration, from Harry S. Truman through Lyndon B. Johnson, had knowingly and systematically deceived the American people over the US’s involvement and interventions in the region. Historian John Prados will later observe that the study, later dubbed the “Pentagon Papers” after it is leaked by RAND analyst and task force member Daniel Ellsberg (see September 29, 1969 and March 1971), represents “a body of authoritative information, of inside government deliberations that demonstrated, beyond questioning, the criticisms that antiwar activists had been making for years, not only were not wrong, but in fact, were not materially different from things that had been argued inside the US government.” [Moran, 2007]
The New York Times publishes excerpts from a secret Pentagon study leaked by Daniel Ellsberg of the RAND Corporation to journalist Neil Sheehan. Ellsberg had worked in the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The study, later known as the “Pentagon Papers,” had been commissioned by McNamara and completed in 1968. It focused on how policy and tactical decisions had been made during the war. Between 30 and 40 writers and researchers participated in the 40-volume project, producing 3,000 pages of analysis and compiling 4,000 pages of original documents. After the Times publishes its first article on the papers, the US government goes to great lengths to block additional stories. But on June 30, the US Supreme Court rules in a 6-3 decision in favor of the New York Times. [New York Times, 6/13/1971; National Security Archives, 6/29/2001; Vietnam Veterans of America, 4/15/2004] The June 13 Times article reports that the Pentagon Papers included the following conclusions:
“That the Truman Administration decision to give military aid to France in her colonial war against the Communist-led Vietminh ‘directly involved’ the United States in Vietnam and ‘set’ the course of American policy.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971]
“That the Eisenhower Administration’s decision to rescue a fledgling South Vietnam from a Communist takeover and attempt to undermine the new Communist regime of North Vietnam gave the Administration a ‘direct role in the ultimate breakdown of the Geneva settlement’ for Indochina in 1954.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971]
“That the Kennedy Administration, though ultimately spared from major escalation decisions by the death of its leader, transformed a policy of ‘limited-risk gamble,’ which it inherited, into a ‘broad commitment’ that left President Johnson with a choice between more war and withdrawal.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971]
“That the Johnson Administration, though the president was reluctant and hesitant to take the final decisions, intensified the covert warfare against North Vietnam and began planning in the spring of 1964 to wage overt war, a full year before it publicly revealed the depth of its involvement and its fear of defeat.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971]
“That this campaign of growing clandestine military pressure through 1964 and the expanding program of bombing North Vietnam in 1965 were begun despite the judgment of the Government’s intelligence community that the measures would not cause Hanoi to cease its support of the Vietcong insurgency in the South, and that the bombing was deemed militarily ineffective within a few months.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971]
“That these four succeeding administrations built up the American political, military and psychological stakes in Indochina, often more deeply than they realized at the time, with large-scale military equipment to the French in 1950; with acts of sabotage and terror warfare against North Vietnam, beginning in 1954; with moves that encouraged and abetted the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diuem of South Vietnam in 1963; with plans, pledges and threats of further action that sprang to life in the Tonkin Gulf clashes in August, 1964; with the careful preparation of public opinion for the years of open warfare that were to follow; and with the calculation in 1965, as the planes and troops were openly committed to sustained combat, that neither accommodation inside South Vietnam nor early negotiations with North Vietnam would achieve the desired result.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971]
Dr. Marvin Goldberger. [Source: Teises Institutas]One consequence of the Pentagon Papers’ publication (see March 1971) is a heavy social and academic backlash against scientists on the Jason Project. The “Jasons,” as they are sometimes called, are mostly physicists and other “hard” scientists from various universities who have worked as ad hoc consultants to the Pentagon since the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite in October 1958. Though most of the Jasons are strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, and the Pentagon documents tell of the Jasons’ ideas for “a real alternative to further escalation of the ineffective air war against North Vietnam,” the public focuses on the Jasons’ association with the government’s war effort. After the Papers’ publication, Mildred Goldberger, wife of scientist Marvin Goldberger, recalls that the Jasons’ “name was mud.” Jack Ruina, the head of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), which often worked with some of the Jasons, says that the Jasons became “the devil” in many eyes. Some of the scientists are publicly labeled “war criminals” and “baby killers,” some have their offices burgled and their homes vandalized, and many face serious questions about their motives and commitment to pure, objective science. Some of the scientists repudiate the Jasons’ work on behalf of the war effort; longtime member Goldberger tells one group of demonstrators, “Jason made a terrible mistake. They should have told [former Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara to go to hell and not have become involved at all.” Others refuse to discuss Vietnam and their work with the Jason Project in their seminars and classes; one, Murray Gell-Mann, is forcibly removed from a Paris university lecture hall after refusing to defend his work with the Jasons to his audience. Physicist Charles Towne accuses the universities of curtailing the Jasons’ freedom of speech. Some of the scientists are falsely accused of helping produce plastic fragmentation bombs and laser-guided shells; some of them are compared to the Nazi scientists who developed nerve gas for use in the concentration camps. A November 1974 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will sum up the debate: “The scientists became, to some extent, prisoners of the group they joined…. At what point should they have quit?” The decisions they faced were, the article will assert, “delicate and difficult.” [Finkbeiner, 2006, pp. 102-113]
Several hundred influential conservatives launch what they call “Peace Through Strength Week,” at a week-long conference in Washington, DC, held by the American Security Council (ASC—see 1978). The primary mission is to convince a majority of senators to vote against the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) arms-reduction treaty, which President Carter had signed five months before. Although the treaty sets equal limits on the number of nuclear missile launchers the US and the Soviet Union may possess, the conventioneers believe that, in the words of author J. Peter Scoblic, “it merely enshrine[s] American weakness in the face of a growing Soviet nuclear threat.” The convention is timed to coincide with Governor Ronald Reagan’s (R-CA) announcement that he is running for president, and borrows his signature phrase to describe his position on arms control.
'The SALT Syndrome' - The focal point of the ASC’s message is a half-hour film entitled “The SALT Syndrome.” Scoblic will describe it: “Set to a soundtrack fit for a horror movie, it featured image after image of missiles launching, submarines creeping, and nuclear weapons exploding, punctuated by commentary from retired generals and intelligence officials. The ‘syndrome’ was the American tendency to ‘unilaterally disarm,’ which had gripped Washington policy makers after the United States decided to follow [former Defense Secretary Robert] ‘McNamara’s theory of “no defense,” which is called “Mutual Assured Destruction.”’ The movie was a concise, vivid statement of conservative nuclear thought: MAD was a choice.” The movie tells its viewers that US citizens “play an important role in US strategy—that of nuclear hostage.” The film goes on to avow that the Soviets have produced far more missiles, long-range bombers, nuclear submarines, and various missile defenses than the US is willing to concede, giving the Soviets the capability of coercing the US into doing pretty much whatever they demand. “The movie,” Scoblic will write, “was a remarkable, and remarkably effective, piece of propaganda. It combined fact, exaggeration, and outright nonsense—one interviewee claimed the Soviet Union was on the verge of deploying particle beams that would shoot down all incoming missiles—to argue that the United States had left itself nearly helpless against a Soviet behemoth bent on world domination.” The film will play on American television stations some 2,000 times, and will reach, ASC chairman John Fisher will estimate, at least 137 million Americans.
Millions of Dollars Raised to Fight SALT II - The film successfully solicits millions of dollars in contributions from concerned and frightened Americans, much of which will go to advertising efforts to combat SALT II. The ASC will outspend pro-treaty forces by a ratio of 15 to 1. [American Security Council, 3/30/1980; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 72-73]
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney takes a leading role in drawing up the plans for the US invasion of Iraq (see December 1990). He is appalled by what he calls the “lack of creativity” of the initial plans, drawn up by a number of senior generals. Cheney and Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell spend days poring over the plans, with Cheney pressuring both Powell and the generals to make wide-ranging changes. But the generals respect Cheney’s input. “He wasn’t a micromanager like McNamara,” one general later recalls, referring to former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who planned much of the US’s Vietnam strategies. “And he wasn’t arrogant like [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld. He wanted this one done right.”
Overwhelming Force - Cheney joins Powell in advocating the “enhanced option,” adding 100,000 more troops to the initial invasion force to bring troop strength up to nearly half a million US forces slated to go into Iraq. Powell and Cheney have no intention of being undermanned by Iraq’s large ground forces. And Cheney wants to slough off the remnants of what many call the “Vietnam syndrome.” He wants a resounding victory. “The military is finished in this society if we screw this up,” he tells Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar (see August 5, 1990 and After). While Powell and Cheney see eye-to-eye on most invasion-related issues, they do disagree on one fundamental issue: the possible use of the Army’s tactical nuclear arsenal (see Mid-August, 1990). (Nuclear weapons will not be used in the Iraq invasion.)
Limited Role of Congress? - Cheney sees no reason for Congress to have anything more than a peripheral role in the entire affair (see December 1990). Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein later write: “Despite the fact that going to war with Iraq would be a larger undertaking than the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Cheney argued that the president did not need the consent of Congress. He seemed more understanding of King Fahd’s polling of the royal family and calling Arab leaders (see August 5, 1990 and After) than he was of [President] Bush’s willingness to go to Congress for consent” (see January 9-13, 1991). [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 101-102]
The first lines of the declassified Northwoods document.
[Source: Public domain] (click image to enlarge)James Bamford’s book, Body of Secrets, reveals a secret US government plan named Operation Northwoods. All details of the plan come from declassified military documents. [Associated Press, 4/24/2001; Baltimore Sun, 4/24/2001; Washington Post, 4/26/2001; ABC News, 5/1/2001] The heads of the US military, all five Joint Chiefs of Staff, proposed in a 1962 memo to stage attacks against Americans and blame Cuba to create a pretext for invasion. Says one document, “We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington.… We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba. Casualty lists in US newspapers would cause a helpful wave of indignation.” In March 1962, Lyman L. Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the Operation Northwoods plan to President John Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The plan was rejected. Lemnitzer then sought to destroy all evidence of the plan. [Baltimore Sun, 4/24/2001; ABC News, 5/1/2001] Lemnitzer was replaced a few months later, but the Joint Chiefs continued to plan “pretext” operations at least through 1963. [ABC News, 5/1/2001] One suggestion in the plan was to create a remote-controlled drone duplicate of a real civilian aircraft. The real aircraft would be loaded with “selected passengers, all boarded under carefully prepared aliases,” and then take off with the drone duplicate simultaneously taking off near by. The aircraft with passengers would secretly land at a US military base while the drone continues along the other plane’s flight path. The drone would then be destroyed over Cuba in a way that places the blame on Cuban fighter aircraft. [Harper's, 7/1/2001] Bamford says, “Here we are, 40 years afterward, and it’s only now coming out. You just wonder what is going to be exposed 40 years from now.” [Insight, 7/30/2001] Some 9/11 skeptics will claim that the 9/11 attacks could have been orchestrated by elements of the US government, and see Northwoods as an example of how top US officials could hatch such a plot. [Oakland Tribune, 3/27/2004]
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