Time To Rethink McNamara's MAD Legacy

In a Nov. 17, 1961 file photo, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara holds a news conference at the Pentagon. Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara died Monday, according to his wife. He was 93. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges, File)
AP Photo/Harvey Georges
Michael Anton is senior editor at the Kauffman Foundation and served as special assistant for national security affairs to President George W. Bush.

Nearly all of the voluminous commentary on the death of Robert McNamara has focused on his conduct of the Vietnam war. This is as inevitable as it is natural. Vietnam was not merely McNamara's Egyptian campaign, Austerlitz, Moscow retreat, and Waterloo all rolled into one. It was also the defining event of the generation whose members are even now busy writing his obituaries.

But there is another side to McNamara's legacy--one largely forgotten by history but arguably more relevant today than the Vietnam war. McNamara spearheaded a revolution in America's nuclear posture whose effects are largely still with us. Indeed, most of his first three-plus years at the Pentagon were consumed by a comprehensive rethinking of nuclear strategy.

"No single public figure," wrote British historian Lawrence Freedman in his exhaustive (and exhausting) study The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy,"has influenced the way we think about nuclear weapons quite as much as Robert S. McNamara." Penned in 1981, those words remain true. Whether the ideas McNamara helped put in place fit the world we now inhabit--whether they made sense at the time--are eminently debatable questions. And, incidentally, ones that no one is debating.

Robert McNamara became secretary of defense in January 1961 at age 44 (only one SecDef--Donald Rumsfeld, in his first outing in 1975--has been younger). McNamara had no relationship with the new president, and his defense experience totaled four years of ROTC and three years as an Army Air Corps officer running statistical analyses on procurement and logistics--something like just-in-time inventory avant la lettre. Skeptical of the offer, he warned John F. Kennedy that he hadn't kept up with military affairs since 1946. Kennedy brushed aside the concern with the remark that there was no school for presidents either. He wanted McNamara for his agile mind.

And agile it was. Everyone remembers the phrase "whiz kids" as a term of abuse used against McNamara and the coterie of intellectuals he brought to the Pentagon as advisers. But its origins go back to the team McNamara assembled to run complex analyses of the World War II air force. McNamara managed to keep most of his team together after the war, and to sell its services to the highest bidder--the Ford Motor Company, as it turned out.
Bringing their number-crunching skills ruthlessly to bear, they managed to shake the moribund, money-losing automaker to its foundations and turn it around. By 1960, McNamara was president of the company--the first ever from outside the family.

He spent less than two months in the job before being tapped by Kennedy for the Pentagon, where he was immediately immersed in roiling, secretive, and highly technical debates over America's nuclear weapons -arsenal: how it should be configured, where it should be deployed, if--and when--it should be used.

McNamara took to the grisly subject with relish. As Fred Kaplan wrote in The Wizards of Armageddon, his history of nuclear strategy,"From the beginning of his tenure in the Pentagon, Robert McNamara was fascinated with nuclear weapons--horrified by their awesome destruction, yet eager to find a way to bring them under some sort of rational control."

As different as his new job was from running a car company, McNamara quickly found that the Defense Department of 1961 shared something with the Ford of 1946: Its approach to its core mission was a shambles.
That core mission was to deter Moscow from launching an invasion of Western Europe, or a strategic attack on NATO bases overseas or the American homeland, and--if deterrence failed--to stop any Soviet advance and make their adventurism far more costly than any gains. Enshrined thinking on how best to do this was, to put it mildly, unsubtle.

With the advent of nuclear weapons, the military's youngest branch--the Air Force--became its de facto"senior service," the one whose budgets were never questioned, whose every request was treated as urgent. The Air Force had the bomb, and the bomb was the guarantor of peace. The Air Force was also the home of the Strategic Air Command, by far the most important military unit in the U.S. armed forces, and the personal fiefdom of General Curtis LeMay for nine years--a tenure whose length has never been equaled in the modern military.

Famous for his bombing campaigns against Japan--which destroyed half the developed areas of more than 60 cities--LeMay had absolute faith in the value of strategic bombing to win wars by destroying enemy infrastructure and industry and undermining morale. The war plan cooked up by his staff officers--jokingly nicknamed"Operation Sunday Punch," after a WWII bombing campaign in Normandy--was nothing more complex or discriminating than an all-out attack on every significant target in the Soviet Union (later expanded to include Eastern Europe, China, and North Korea). Whatever card the Soviets might play, this was the only one the U.S. military was prepared to play in response.

The Air Force's predilection for indiscriminate strategic bombing was implicitly endorsed by the Eisenhower administration, though for entirely different reasons. Ike wanted to keep military spending down and had no interest in trying to keep up with Soviet conventional forces. So he sought to balance Soviet conventional superiority with American nuclear superiority. The doctrine came to be called"massive retaliation" and was laid out in a speech and article by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1954. Dulles argued that since the United States could not possibly defend every frontier that the Soviets could threaten, and since the West did not wish forever to remain on the defensive as the Communists nibbled away the free world's perimeter, any Soviet provocation risked the full might of the American arsenal.

A team of "defense intellectuals"--most of them working under an Air Force contract at the RAND Corporation--shot this doctrine, and the war plan behind it, full of holes. But the Air Force (and especially LeMay) didn't want to hear it. Not until McNamara became secretary did their ideas gain a real hearing.

McNamara swept aside "massive retaliation," arguing that it was fundamentally destabilizing because it was not credible. Given America's wartime behavior, it was impossible to believe that the United States would respond to small brushfire wars, half a world away, with an all-out nuclear attack. Threatening something that no one would believe was worse than useless. To that end, he introduced the fuzzier but less inherently bellicose doctrine of "flexible response" and oversaw a modest build-up of conventional forces, designed to be able to meet aggression in a more proportionate manner.

McNamara also took to heart several RAND studies--serially ignored by the Air Force--which showed that the forward deployed bombers vital to the success of"Sunday Punch" were shockingly vulnerable to a Soviet surprise attack and moved ahead with building the modern "strategic triad" of bombers, ICBMs, and submarines to ensure a credible second-strike capability that would make a crippling surprise first strike much less tempting. He endorsed a version of what the RAND people called "counterforce"--that is, targeting Soviet nuclear and other military forces rather than cities, partly in an attempt to limit the damage those forces could do to Europe and to the U.S. homeland, and partly so as to hold Soviet cities hostage to further strikes and use that threat as a bargaining chip.

Perhaps McNamara's most lasting positive legacy with respect to nuclear doctrine was his integration of the nuclear forces of the military's branches. In the earliest days of the bomb, this was not an issue; only the Air Force had the asset. But with the advent of the Polaris submarine-launched missile and the"tactical" nuclear weapons meant for battlefield use, the other services grabbed their piece of the bomb--and the budgets that went with it. Each branch had its own doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons--with all the potential for miscalculation and chaos that engendered. Eisenhower began the process of service-wide integration, but McNamara saw it through.

Nearly every decision regarding nuclear weapons that McNamara made was based on the same kind of data-laden analysis he had pioneered during World War II and used to turn around Ford. What served him so well in these endeavors proved disastrously inapt to the war in Vietnam--and led to his undoing.

But the rest of the story is not so simple. McNamara was convinced that, even with budgetary concerns, by crunching the numbers in the right way, he could arrive at the optimal force. To the uniformed planners,"counterforce" required an ever growing nuclear arsenal, to match the potentially limitless number of Soviet military targets. Not prepared to give way, McNamara set arbitrary numbers of weapons"needed"--he capped ICBMs at 1,054, a level that remained in force until the Reagan years--and redesigned strategy around those numbers. He found the answer in "assured destruction"--later immortalized as "mutual assured destruction" or MAD.

Here was a strategy eminently suited to systems analysis. Simply calculate the destructive power needed to assure the destruction of the other side, leave a little margin for error, and build just that much and no more.

A number of policy implications followed--among them the abandonment of any attempt at civil defense and the demonization of missile defense as inherently destabilizing to the system.

Ronald Reagan abhorred MAD and tried valiantly, if unsuccessfully, to sweep it into the dustbin of history. Today, nearly eight years after opting out of the ABM treaty, the United States is still woefully behind on developing defenses against ballistic missiles, and as a matter of policy will pursue only defenses against "limited" threats (i.e., a small number of missiles fired by a third world power). Despite facing the very real threat of nuclear terror in an American city, no serious consideration has been given to civil defense since the early 1960s.

The George W. Bush administration was better on these issues than the current one--President Bush did, after all, put more energy into missile defense than any president since Reagan. But he also spent a great deal of political capital on backward-looking, if probably harmless, arms agreements with Russia. Strangely, for a president who viscerally felt the danger of further massive terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, he made no attempt (at least not in public) to rethink strategic doctrine in light of the threat of nuclear terror.

But Bush's record is sterling compared with President Obama's. Under the new administration, the fate of U.S. antimissile interceptors in Europe is in doubt. Like Reagan, Obama has embraced the noble vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Unlike the former president, he seems to believe that the goal can be accomplished by a combination of talk and unilateral demonstrations of goodwill by the United States. And he cancelled a program to update and secure the reliability of the U.S. arsenal.

In the meantime, that old standby MAD is supposed to keep the peace. Who, exactly, is being deterred from doing what, by virtue of being threatened with what, are questions that are never asked. Instead, we continue to rely on the faulty answers formulated by Robert S. McNamara nearly 50 years ago.

By Michael Anton
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard