The McNamara I Knew

In 1961 at the start of the Kennedy administration, I went to work for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Just as FDR attracted a small army of bright young lawyers and domestic policymakers to his New Deal in 1932, McNamara (who had insisted as a condition of taking the Pentagon job that President Kennedy give him authority to make all appointments in the department) recruited an energetic young team to wrestle with the Pentagon behemoth.

The press quickly dubbed the group McNamara’s “whiz kids.” I was proud to be among them, but to the top military brass, “whiz kids” was a term of disdain.

McNamara was determined to control a fractious department that no secretary had yet mastered. When I arrived as a young lawyer, Cy Vance told me, “Bob intends to reorganize the Pentagon from top to bottom. Your job is to find legal authority for whatever he wants to do.”

Known for his extraordinary intelligence, McNamara was also a shrewd political manager. From day one, all White House requests had to go through his office. When he set deadlines for comments on his reorganization proposals, he never extended them. To set the stage for consolidating procurement of common items in a Defense Supply Agency, in order to strengthen the department’s bargaining power, he had me hang on peg boards in his conference room all the hats, belts, shirts, ties, underwear and even toilet seats of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps as a backdrop for his meeting with the service chiefs. After a few seconds of embarrassment, everyone knew that the Defense Supply Agency would be established.

McNamara was devoted to the Kennedys. When the president was assassinated and Robert Kennedy picked the gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, McNamara said, “Joe, I want to tie up that land for President Kennedy so that no one can ever take it away. I want to make damn sure we own it.”

“It’s in the middle of Arlington Cemetery.”

“I don’t give a damn. Get a title search made. Write a legal opinion nailing the title down. I want to sign the deed that sets this land aside forever.” (Ramsey Clark, then head of the Justice Department’s Lands Division, did the title search.)

Several minutes later, McNamara called again. “Mrs. Kennedy wants an eternal torch above the grave. Set up a temporary one so it can be lit at the burial. Make sure the temporary gas pipe is deep enough so some woman in spike heels can’t puncture it,” he said.

I watched the war consume Bob McNamara. From being the most hawkish adviser, McNamara gradually changed; in the fall of 1967 he went public with his doubts about the effectiveness of bombing in Southeast Asia. By that time I was working in the White House, and President Lyndon Johnson told me, “That man can’t take this pressure of the war. I’ve got to make Vietnam my war, not McNamara’s. I need him functioning.”

In late 1967, after a Cabinet meeting, Bob stopped by my office and said, “I may be recommended to head the World Bank. If so, don’t tell the president I’m indispensable.”

In early 1968, I got a call from journalist Robert Novak. “The Financial Times says McNamara is being considered for the World Bank. Anything to it?” I fudged an answer and called Bob. “Tell the president I’m on the way over to see him,” he said. That day McNamara and the president holed up in the Oval Office until late afternoon, when they issued an exchange of resignation letters.

“To this day,” Bob told me a few months ago, over the last dinner I had with him and his wife, Diana Masieri, “I don’t know whether I quit or was fired.”

Joseph A. Califano Jr., chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, served in the Pentagon from 1961 to 1965. He was President Lyndon Johnson’s special assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969.