Robert McNamara dies at 93

Robert S. McNamara, probably the most influential (and most controversial) secretary of defense in U.S. history, passed away this morning.   Because of his role in the Vietnam war, Mcnamara will likely be remembered as an archetypal cold warrior. In his retirement however, McNamara became an outspoken advocate of nuclear disarmament. His cover story from ...

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WASHINGTON, : US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (C) and US Army chief-of-staff General Maxwell Taylor (L) confer 24 September 1963 at the White House in Washington, DC, with US President John F. Kennedy prior to their visit to South Vietnam to review US military efforts. The US government has advised 21 September South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem to remove his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu from office. As police chief, Nhu was responsible for the crackdown on Buddhist leaders after religious demonstration against the Diem regime. (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

Robert S. McNamara, probably the most influential (and most controversial) secretary of defense in U.S. history, passed away this morning.

 

Robert S. McNamara, probably the most influential (and most controversial) secretary of defense in U.S. history, passed away this morning.

 

Because of his role in the Vietnam war, Mcnamara will likely be remembered as an archetypal cold warrior. In his retirement however, McNamara became an outspoken advocate of nuclear disarmament. His cover story from the May/June 2005 issue of Foreign Policy remains a must-read on the topic, particularly given today’s talks in Moscow:

Among the costs of maintaining nuclear weapons is the risk—to me an unacceptable risk—of use of the weapons either by accident or as a result of misjudgment or miscalculation in times of crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated that the United States and the Soviet Union—and indeed the rest of the world—came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear disaster in October 1962.

Indeed, according to former Soviet military leaders, at the height of the crisis, Soviet forces in Cuba possessed 162 nuclear warheads, including at least 90 tactical warheads. At about the same time, Cuban President Fidel Castro asked the Soviet ambassador to Cuba to send a cable to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stating that Castro urged him to counter a U.S. attack with a nuclear response. Clearly, there was a high risk that in the face of a U.S. attack, which many in the U.S. government were prepared to recommend to President Kennedy, the Soviet forces in Cuba would have decided to use their nuclear weapons rather than lose them. Only a few years ago did we learn that the four Soviet submarines trailing the U.S. Naval vessels near Cuba each carried torpedoes with nuclear warheads. Each of the sub commanders had the authority to launch his torpedoes. The situation was even more frightening because, as the lead commander recounted to me, the subs were out of communication with their Soviet bases, and they continued their patrols for four days after Khrushchev announced the withdrawal of the missiles from Cuba.

The lesson, if it had not been clear before, was made so at a conference on the crisis held in Havana in 1992, when we first began to learn from former Soviet officials about their preparations for nuclear war in the event of a U.S. invasion. Near the end of that meeting, I asked Castro whether he would have recommended that Khrushchev use the weapons in the face of a U.S. invasion, and if so, how he thought the United States would respond. “We started from the assumption that if there was an invasion of Cuba, nuclear war would erupt,” Castro replied. “We were certain of that…. [W]e would be forced to pay the price that we would disappear.” He continued, “Would I have been ready to use nuclear weapons? Yes, I would have agreed to the use of nuclear weapons.” And he added, “If Mr. McNamara or Mr. Kennedy had been in our place, and had their country been invaded, or their country was going to be occupied … I believe they would have used tactical nuclear weapons.”

I hope that President Kennedy and I would not have behaved as Castro suggested we would have. His decision would have destroyed his country. Had we responded in a similar way the damage to the United States would have been unthinkable. But human beings are fallible. In conventional war, mistakes cost lives, sometimes thousands of lives. However, if mistakes were to affect decisions relating to the use of nuclear forces, there would be no learning curve. They would result in the destruction of nations. The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons carries a very high risk of nuclear catastrophe. There is no way to reduce the risk to acceptable levels, other than to first eliminate the hair-trigger alert policy and later to eliminate or nearly eliminate nuclear weapons. The United States should move immediately to institute these actions, in cooperation with Russia. That is the lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Mcnamara also discussed topic at length in Errol Moris’ superb 2003 documentary, The Fog of War, much of which is available on YouTube:

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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