July 6th, 2009
05:35 PM ET

Robert McNamara: an original 'Whiz Kid'

Robert McNamara meets with President Kennedy in the Oval Office in 1963. He died, Monday, at the age of 93.

Robert McNamara meets with President Kennedy in the Oval Office in 1963. He died, Monday, at the age of 93.

Tim Darling

For those who don't know how Robert McNamara ended up at Ford and then came to Defense Secretary in the 60's, you may be surprised to learn that he first became known as one of the "Whiz Kids" of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. He and his colleagues revolutionized logistics and production systems in ways that that now permeate the military, industrial and business world. If you ever wondered how the Pentagon could get the right spare part, and make sure it arrives at the right sand dune in the Iraqi desert to fix some M-1 tank, the Whiz Kids helped build that logistical support system.

His statistical and quantitative perspective greatly influenced (some say doomed) the U.S. effort in Vietnam.

For a quick synopsis of the authoritative book on McNamara and the rest of the Whiz Kids, read here.

-Scott Spoerry, CNN

On one side of the Atlantic in 1939, Robert McNamara was celebrating his Harvard MBA graduation by backpacking around Europe when Hitler invaded Poland. He stopped at a train station in Berlin and asked for a ticket to Italy. “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” he was asked. He didn’t. He would later joke that a future Secretary of Defense was in the middle of the enemy’s capitol at the start of the greatest war of the 20th century without even knowing it!

Robert McNamara was the head of the Ford vehicle division and was one of the earliest proponents of safety in automobiles. Bob believed that Ford had a responsibility to its customers in 1955 that was years ahead of its time. Ralph Nader would not take up this battle until 1965. He put seatbelts in his cars and advertised safety features, which ostracized him from the Detroit community that didn’t want to scare its customers.

When he first met JFK to discuss the Secretary appointment, he asked the President-elect only one question: “Did you write Profiles in Courage?” The book had impressed McNamara. It adeptly dealt with the conflict between principles and expediency but Bob had heard rumors that it was ghost-written and wanted to make sure he was working for an honest man. JFK was surprised by the question but answered in the affirmative.


soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Rob in San Diego

    Mr Anderson Cooper.

    Just read the CNN comment policy and it stated that the blog may or may not appear on this blog. That is fine. Just wanted you to know how the regular American people feel about different issues that are presented to CNN and how it affects our lives. My husband has talked about Mr McNamara for 35 years and I thought I needed to get this off my chest, (so to speak). You are a young man and do not know exactly what went on during this time period. We do. Just to give you a different perspective on the Amercan way of life from the regular folks... PS...my daughter, who is 31 years old thinks you are a hottie..whatever that means. Didn't even know that she watches CNN.

    July 7, 2009 at 4:01 am |
  2. Rob in San Diego

    WOW careful... read the other comments. Thought he was already dead!! Guess only the good die young!!! My husband was in the Viet Nam war era and never had much positive feelings towards this man. My husand is a disabled veteran now. ..or should I say he has been disabled since 1974. He says they did call McNamara the "whiz kid" but he didn't do much to help the regular GI. Guess you have to be in the trenches to understand where you are and where you have been. Doubt that Mr Mac was ever anywhere to understand what all those young men were doing and fighting for ...was to keep him and his family's safe.. Good night Mr McNamara. My husband also has MBA elect...and has been in logistics for several years. What are his chances? Sorry, he hasn't done any backpacking around the world as yet... but has done extensive travelling around the globe., Sec, of State or Sec of Def perhaps!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Book in works... like everyone else in the country.

    July 7, 2009 at 3:41 am |
  3. Laura S

    Fog of War is a great documentary, i enjoyed it very much and it was an eye opener. I have been shocked today by how many never heard of Robert McNamara. Someone asked me who he was, I told them and followed it up with telling them they must check out Fog of War

    July 6, 2009 at 11:47 pm |
  4. marcia blackburn

    puggles, I'm truly impressed. Finally someone who knows something.

    July 6, 2009 at 11:38 pm |
  5. puggles

    As the "whiz kid" who helped revitalize Ford 1/2 century ago by ditching the Edsel (among other things), it's too bad no one asked him to comment on the state of the US auto industry in this downturn.

    McNamara correctly identified the Military Industrial Complex and the might of that giant ship and how almost unstoppable it is. McNamara was appointed as Sec Def in the usual goal of reorganizing that bloated bureaucracy. But like so many, he got sucked in the vortex. DoD, the Pentagon is like quick sand. If you fight too hard you will be pulled under and if your are lucky, you might actually escape with your life. But once entered, you must tread lightly and carefully in an attempt to "walk away", but this almost obviates any possibility of changing the environment itself.

    July 6, 2009 at 9:25 pm |
  6. Annie Kate

    JFK's administration and cabinet was referred to as the "best and the brightest" – Robert McNamara was one of JFK;s chief advisors during the Cuban Missile Crisis and later served other presidents with the Vietnam War. He was a good public servant and will be missed. I send his family my condolences on his death this morning.

    July 6, 2009 at 7:55 pm |
  7. Linda B., Ga.

    I'd be interested to see some comments from some US Vietnam War Vets that served under him. He's wasn't thought of tooooooooo highly, by the people serving, at the time.....

    July 6, 2009 at 7:17 pm |
  8. Tim Gibson

    The use of Agent Orange does not make a person a whiz kid, or does it!

    July 6, 2009 at 6:10 pm |
  9. Michael C. McHugh

    Too bad the US didn't take Ho Chi Minh up on his offer of an alliance in 1945-46, which few Americans ever knew about. All he wanted was to keep the French and the Chinese out, which is why he was willing to be an Asian Tito and ally of the US. It would have been far better for all concerned if someone had at least answered all his letters back then.

    July 6, 2009 at 5:15 pm |