- The McNamara Ascendancy, 1961–1965, vol. 5 of History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense
This is a massive piece of scholarly work. That is its great strength and that is its great weakness. It is not quite what Lyndon Johnson used to call "granny's nightshirt," covering everything; but the scope is encyclopedic, held up by detailed research in all the records of meetings and testimony, memos, cables, transcripts, and reports that one expects from a top-of-the-line official history. At the same time, however, and for the same reasons, it sometimes loses sight of its subject; and it never quite supports its very reasonable thesis: that, in his day, Robert McNamara was the most effective Secretary the Department of Defense (DOD) had had and is likely the most effective leader the department has ever had.
The authors make clear their qualified respect for McNamara, and they make one aware of just how remarkable a figure he was when he first arrived in Washington. He was by no means the first industrialist to head up dod; but he believed in and insisted upon scientific, systematic management in ways that his predecessors had not. For better and worse, the cool expression of his quantitative reasoning created its own charisma in Washington. He was an unexpected choice; but he not only fit in with Kennedy's New Frontiersmen, he became their archetype.
The book is at its best when it is describing the most arcane material. McNamara conceived of the budget as the central element in planning and implementing defense policy. As defense spending soared, he sought to control the costs he blamed on obsolete management and interservice rivalry. He came into office armed with his own capabilities and objectives for efficient management. He had, and used, the authority recently granted the Secretary of Defense under the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958. His methods showed results and became standard operating procedure even among his detractors in dod. Nevertheless, McNamara's innovative use of quantitative analysis, the demanding schedules for reports that he promulgated, and his impatience with the turf battles inside the services and Congress alienated as many or more than they impressed. The chapters on dod's budgets (battles which McNamara largely won) and on the TFX—an effort to create a single fighter plane for both the Air Force and Navy (a battle he lost)—are models of political-administrative history.
The McNamara Ascendancy is less satisfying when discussing the crises, policies, and policymaking of the crowded Kennedy years. The authors make very full use of the detailed sources they had available, but the chapters suffer from the same tunnel vision that afflicted the principals who created the documents. Some detailed chapters suffer from the absence of context and perspective. Traditional historical interpretations too often trump new scholarship. More to the point, some chapters provide detailed, but well-worn narratives of critical events and lose sight of McNamara and his office for pages and pages. Readers could, I think, learn a lot about the role of dod and its Secretary in policymaking and crisis management that is not included in this volume. McNamara's long life and his recent willingness to discuss his government service have also revealed that his businesslike demeanor concealed a deeply passionate spirit; an exploration of how that personality operated while McNamara was in office is also, sadly, missing from this volume. [End Page 1312]
Nevertheless, The McNamara Ascendancy is very useful for its administrative and managerial history of the transitional and transformational years it covers.