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Vietnam-Era Defense Secretary McNamara Dies

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana in 2002

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana in 2002

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara has died at the age of 93, likely to be remembered most as leading architect of America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

"His age just caught up with him," his wife Diana told Reuters. "He was not ill. He died peacefully in his sleep."

McNamara also forged brilliant careers in industry and international finance, but his painful legacy remains Vietnam.

More than anyone else except possibly President Lyndon Johnson, McNamara became to antiwar critics the symbol of a failed policy that left more than 58,000 U.S. troops dead and the nation bogged down in a seemingly endless disaster in Southeast Asia.

Pundits came to call the conflict "McNamara's War."

With his slicked-back hair and rimless glasses, he became a familiar face to the nation as one of "the best and the brightest" assembled by President John Kennedy to form his policy-making brain trust.

But he left the government in 1968 under pressure from Johnson. By then disillusioned with the war, McNamara had 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, becoming 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.

He first came to prominence as one of the "Whiz Kids" who revitalized Ford Motor Co. after World War II and ended his public career as president of the World Bank.

To those jobs, as well as defense secretary, the dynamic McNamara brought a driving ambition, a phenomenal memory for statistics and a quick, efficient grasp of facts.

McNamara was named defense secretary by Kennedy in 1961 and held the post longer than anyone before or since. He put his corporate organizational skills to use in trying to modernize the Pentagon during the Cold War.

Blocking Communism

But more and more, Vietnam became his focus. He made several fact-finding visits there in the early days of the U.S. military buildup, which Washington saw as the only way to block a communist takeover of Southeast Asia.

Theodore White, in his book "The Making of the President 1968," said McNamara argued behind the scenes that the United States must not slip quietly into the war -- that the decision must be brought before Congress and the issue debated openly.

But Kennedy authorized a small-scale increase in troop strength and, after his assassination in 1963, Johnson bowed to pressure from his generals and began a major buildup that finally had more than 500,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam.

McNamara, convinced the war could be ended by Christmas 1965, threw his energies into effective execution of Johnson's policies but miscalculated resistance to U.S. intervention both in Vietnam and at home.

In late 1967, he criticized the decision to bomb North Vietnam in retaliation for strikes on U.S. bases in the south. Johnson decided to remove him the following year, offering him the presidency of the World Bank.

In 1971, the classified and highly sensitive Pentagon Papers, an official record of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, were leaked to "The New York Times."

In "McNamara: His Ordeal in the Pentagon," Henry Trewhitt wrote that McNamara ordered the study to provide material that might help future generations avoid the mistakes made in Vietnam by intelligent, well-intentioned men like himself.

"When its contents broke in the press, however, his pleasure at seeing the record clarified was badly diminished by his shock that the two administrations (Kennedy and Johnson) had been deceitful about escalating the war," Trewhitt wrote.

McNamara was quoted as saying: "My God, does anyone think I would have commissioned this if reasonable men could conclude that it shows me to be a liar?"