Mr. McNamara saw his central role as preventing nuclear war. During his tenure as secretary of defense, there were conflicts that could have escalated into nuclear war — the confrontation over Berlin, the Cuban missile crisis. All of this must be seen against the backdrop of the prevailing ideas of the time, the domino theory and the cold war.
Mr. McNamara became defense secretary in 1961. The Joint Chiefs were hawks. This is clear in reading the transcripts of the Cuban missile crisis; the generals speak to John F. Kennedy with derision, contempt and anger. When Mr. McNamara took office he discovered secret Pentagon plans for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.
He worried that the Joint Chiefs wanted nuclear war, and he was determined not to allow that to happen. From ’63 to about ’67, we had first-strike capacity and nuclear superiority against the Soviet Union. (In the words of George C. Scott in “Dr. Strangelove,” I’m not saying we wouldn’t have got our “hair mussed.” But we would have destroyed them.) After Kennedy’s death, he served that central role of keeping the Joint Chiefs in check. If true, he becomes not the villain of American history, but something quite different.
Morris’s movie about McNamara, The Fog of War, is terrific — highly recommended.
That’s McNamara below right, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the president and Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.