To Defense Secretary McNamara the overriding fact of life is the existence of nuclear weapons and he is realistic about them. This April, McNamara caused a furor in Washington by remarking, off the record, that the US was not pledged not to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam--He then had to go on the record to say this: "I think it's perfectly apparent there's no military requirement for the use of nuclear weapons in the current situation. And no useful purpose can be served by speculation on remote contingencies." Nevertheless, he has shaped military strategy to try to ensure that the Great Deterrent won't have to be used.
In November 1963 McNamara said: "Since World War Two, the expansionist impulse of the Communist bloc is clear, but equally clear is its desire to avoid direct confrontation with the military forces of the free world." This, in one sentence, is the basis for the entire McNamara strategy. As a result of McNamara's efforts, the US with its 416 Polaris missiles, 800 Minutemen and 54 Titans, as well as its 933 intercontinental bombers, has a military superiority over Russia of "approximately 3 or 4 to 1," and the Russians seem to have dropped right out of the arms race. So now China fills McNamara's strategic foreground. "It will be 10 years before China can launch any substantial number of intercontinental ballistic missiles against this country," he says. The task meantime is to check China's expansionist impulse, if possible without using nuclear weapons. He thinks it has to be done, and can be.
"To defend Southeast Asia we must meet the challenge in South Vietnam," he says. The South Vietnamese had 4,000 casualties last month. There are 14 million South Vietnamese. For US-size population the corresponding monthly toll would be 6,000 casualties: an insupportable rate of loss. Yet if the war is lost McNamara believes the Communists will then push on, in Laos and into Thailand, and "the US will have to face this same problem all over again in another place or permit them to have all Southeast Asia by default."
Well, why not? Why shouldn't China have "hegemony" over Southeast Asia? The Chinese Communists might exercise the same tight control as Russia had over Eastern Europe in Stalin's time. But China still couldn't attack India, the great prize, without confronting US nuclear might. Even over Southeast Asia, Chinese control probably would weaken in time--say, four or five decades--as has the Russian grip on Eastern Europe. Why should the US run great risks to save Southeast Asia from Communism?
McNamara's thinking on this seems twofold. First, the US--and its allies--have 1 moral responsibility. They ought to use the power which they have, to try to prevent it. Second and more earthy, to permit it is an unacceptable risk to the present balance of world power. And the chances of being able to hold China in check without nuclear escalation, until the regime has mellowed into a Khrushchevian, coexistence phase, are still good enough for the US to take the risk of getting involved in a land war in Asia.
Evaluation of risks as acceptable and unacceptable is bedrock to McNamara's strategy. For instance, he is fully alive to the delicate insecurities that beset Russia's present leaders and the danger of Vietnam eroding the tentative detente between Russia and the US. But the risk of serious Soviet involvement in the fighting in Vietnam seems, at the moment and by a hairsbreadth, less than the chances that US persistence may compel Hanoi to call on the Russians to renew their proposal for an international conference. McNamara feels it is his business to weigh such risks and chances against each other, before giving the President military advice. He evidently believes the Vietnam war can continue without ruining the detente. He also balances short views and long views. Thus it would not be surprising if he thinks that the US, while holding China in check and waiting for her to mellow, ought to be probing her intentions by all possible means, including whatever first-hand knowledge can be obtained by having our man in Peking, not just a spy satellite 100 miles above it.
In the responsible exercise of power, the US must have allies. American public opinion will ultimately reject the notion of the US being the only cop on the beat. Such a view presumably accounts for McNamara's frequent exhortations; to Australia and Japan to spend a lot more of their growing wealth on defense, and to Britain to keep her army on the Rhine as well as continuing her role from Aden to Hong Kong even though she now is without an empire. The Australians have proved receptive, the Japanese are very dubious. The British bemoan their economic troubles and resent having to buy their missiles, bombers and fighters from the US. McNamara has offered to make arms buying a two-way trade, by dropping the 50 percent price advantage that limits US arms purchases from abroad, and is probably prepared to go even further than that to keep the British pulling their heavy oar.
The very nature of modern war means that the allies of Ihe US have to be closely bound. Plans have to be agreed upon in advance for the possible use of nuclear weapons. There has to be complete coordination.
If France or any other country insists on having its own plan of attack, the US may have to formally advise Moscow that it dissociates itself in advance from that country's bombs or missiles. McNamara's British counterpart, Denis Healey, wants to scale down the British army on the Rhine, and would like an assurance that the US will permit use of tactical nuclear weapons with little or no delay if the Russians attack. But, though McNamara has put enough "tactical" warheads into Europe to make a bang more than 10,000 times the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined, imagine what that would do to Europe. McNamara prefers to emphasize that, including the British and the six US divisions there, NATO has more combat troops in Europe than the Soviet bloc and so could successfully fight a conventional war for a time.
McNamara and Europe
What McNamara nevertheless seems to be chiefly up against, in Europe, is the Europeans' strong disinclination to get involved in old-fashioned land fighting--hence in part perhaps European alarm over American tactics in Southeast Asia-coupled with no less strong insistence that the US constantly renew its pledge to defend Europe with nuclear weapons if need be. The Europeans may now regard the six US divisions on the continent less as a fighting force than as a hostage to US nuclear intent. But the danger as McNamara appears to see it is that if the British Army on the Rhine, for instance, were to be further scaled down, the other European troops of NATO except perhaps the Germans would simply melt away.
Yet at the other end of the spectrum, the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons persists. Though Britain has offered to pool its nuclear weapons in an Atlantic force that would include the nonnuclear Germans, France is building its own independent nuclear force de frappe. Besides, there are now nine countries which do not have nuclear weapons but are probably capable of producing them (Australia, Belgium, Canada, India, Israel, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and West Germany). China's possession of the bomb may yet compel India to go ahead and become nuclear power in spite of grave economic weakness which, in the US view, is India's real Achilles Heel. The US last year stopped pushing the concept of a European nuclear navy with mixed crews, because the Europeans couldn't agree about it, but the notion has not been dropped. McNamara seems to regard a multilateral nuclear force as a possible antidote to proliferation; the Germans by joining would voluntarily put a brake on their nuclear ambitions. India in the future may be the nucleus of an Eastern MLF. This month in Paris, in a probably vain attempt to keep France actively participating in NATO, McNamara suggested that decisions on nuclear strategy should be reached by the key defense ministers of Europe: the British and French, Germans and Italians, Belgians and/or Dutch.
The broad outlines of McNamara's strategy have perhaps received less attention than his rows with Congress, Three times Congress has refused his request for a shelter program against fallout. McNamara in turn has rejected Congressional demands for a $15-billion B-70 bomber program, as well as for military pay raises beyond what he thinks justified, and for more nuclear-powered navy ships. The last refusal so infuriates Congress that the whole House of Representatives last month approved when the Armed Services Committee, after insisting that the Defense Department is "our creature to direct and guide," declared that next year it will seek authorization for another nuclear-propelled carrier "regardless of any foreseeable circumstances, technical, fiscal or other."
McNamara has also been embroiled with the Army Reserve and National Guard and with Air Force hero General Curtis LeMay. McNamara's critics charge that he is good with charts of organization and "inanimate objects," but not with people. Instead of being praised for integrity for resisting Congressional demands he thinks imprudent or wasteful, McNamara is often accused of lacking political savvy. His gluttony for facts and for long working hours has become legend. It's said that he is a walking computer who carries innumerable statistics in his head, and that he makes his staff arrive early and leave late and he himself is always the first to reach his desk and the last to leave the Pentagon. The story goes that once he telephoned an assistant at home, at 6:30 in the morning. The man's wife took the call and had the wit to ask sweetly, "You mean my husband hasn't reached his office yet?" But from the critics McNamara gets no A's for this sort of thing either. They simply say that he isn't afraid of hard work, but "he is not really interested in ideas and has to have everything quantified."
This dim view of McNamara is evidently not shared by President Johnson, who is known to have said solemnly, more than once, "I thank God every night for Bob McNamara."
Shortly before his death President Kennedy was heard to observe that in his opinion McNamara had "a real future in politics," and last year there was discussion of McNamara as the possible Vice President, on the score that he would make the best President if there were an emergency succession. McNamara himself has never breathed an indiscreet word about a possible political future, in spite of his supposed lack of political savvy. He likes to depict himself as simply a man acting under orders.
The truth is that when he is sure he is right, which is often, nobody, perhaps not even the President, is likely to make McNamara act contrary to his conviction. Yet more than once he has been wrong. In October 1963 he and General Maxwell Taylor reported to the President that in Vietnam "the major part of the US military task can be completed by the end of 1965, although there may be a continuing requirement for a limited number of...training personnel." Last year, on his fourth trip to Vietnam, McNamara staggered everyone by giving candy to kids and shouting to crowds "Vietnam muon nam" (Vietnam forever) in an apparent bid to hustle popular support for Premier Khan, who soon fell.
Actually McNamara's volatility on that occasion ought not to have surprised anyone. The legend of the colorless computer is false. With visitors to his enormous Pentagon office he is usually relaxed, amiable, talkative; at social gatherings he introduces himself to strangers with simple, "I'm Bob McNamara." But this affability never blurs the sharp edges of a compelling personality. McNamara is a man of decidedly strong views, particularly about strategy and, since they overlap, about foreign policy. People in the State Department grumble that he "runs off with the ball," and wish Dean Rusk wouldn't let him. Dean Rusk tactfully insists that State and Defense enjoy a beautifully harmonious relationship. But McNamara's people in the Pentagon complain that they are frustrated by the State Department's indecisiveness and lack of contingency plans. The implication is that State could do with some of McNamara's streamlining.
McNamara, just turned 49 this month, might one day replace Rusk as Secretary of State. McNamara seems to have no other route to the political summit, unless perhaps on some future occasion he got picked as someone's Vice President (Robert Kennedy and he are on excellent terms). Technically, McNamara is or was a Republican. But, when President Kennedy made his remark about McNamara having a real future in politics, Mr. Kennedy added: "I mean of course in the Democratic Party."
By Alex Campbell