Lessons from the Life of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara


Last year I attended the Entrepreneurial Bootcamp for Veterans at Purdue University, I met some incredible people. One of those I met was my friend Juan. An immigrant from Venezuela who came to the United States at 19 not knowing a word of English.

He learned flawless English, went to Law School at Ohio State and served in the US Army as a Staff Judge Advocate. Besides a harrowing tour in Iraq, he was responsible for setting up a program that instructed almost all the countries of Latin and South America about military law. He is an incredible guy.

Every day we would talk about issues, national security, running a small business and the beauty and tragedy of the American justice system. It was like hanging out with the Stephen Hawking of Liberal Arts. He has a brilliant mind.

He gave me an awesome movie that changed the way I looked at the one of my favorite subjects- The Vietnam War.

The Fog of War

‘The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara’ is a 2003 Errol Morris documentary. Using interviews with Robert McNamara and archival footage, it is a personal account and intimate dialog all it once.

Fog of War 11 Lessons

McNamara explains the process of examining the experiences of his long and controversial period as the United States Secretary of Defense. The film talks about periods of his personal and public life.


McNamara‘s family was Irish and he grew up in California. McNamara went to the University of California in Berkeley. He graduated in 1937 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics with minors in mathematics and philosophy. He then attended Harvard Business School and earned an MBA in 1939.

He taught analytical approaches used in business to officers of the United States Army Air Forces (USSAF). He joined the USAAF as a captain in early 1943, serving most of World War II with its Office of Statistical Control. One major responsibility was the analysis of U.S. bombers’ efficiency and effectiveness.

After the war, McNamara was one of the “Whiz Kids” who helped rebuild Ford Motor Company after World War II. He briefly served as Ford’s President before becoming Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy.

McNamara Kennedy
McNamara and President Kennedy

He was the longest serving Secretary of Defense at over seven years under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

He was a key adviser to President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1963.

Vietnam War

McNamara was a prime architect of the Vietnam War. He repeatedly overruled the Joint Chief of Staff on strategic matters.

During Kennedy’s administration, McNamara supported the President’s decision to increase American involvement in Vietnam.

Under President Johnson, he began to suspect that American aims in the growing war were futile. He urged the President and his advisors to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict. Under pressure to win the war before withdrawal, Johnson asked McNamara to step down in 1967.

McNamara later published his memoir entitled ‘In Retrospect,’ in which he reflects on American foreign policy mistakes in Vietnam. “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why,” McNamara, writing in his 1995 memoir.

mcnamara Vietnam map
McNamara and a map of Vietnam


McNamara is an interesting case study of leadership. A man who tried to use business paradigms on an unpopular war.

He was an eyewitness to some of the seminal events in contemporary American history. He was the leader of the most powerful military force during one of America’s most violate periods.

He gave out ten lessons on what he learned from being up-close and personal with two Presidents as a Secretary of Defense. His experience and insider perspective can teach us a lot.

Robert S. McNamara’s Ten Lessons

Lesson 1- The Human Race will not eliminate war in this century, but we can reduce the brutality of war- the level of killing- by adhering to the principles of a “Just War,” in particular to the principle of “proportionality.”

Lesson 2- The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of nations.

Lesson 3- We are the most powerful nation in the world- economically, politically, and militarily- and we are likely to remain so in the decades ahead. But we are not omniscient.

If we cannot persuade other nations with similar interests and similar values of the merits of our proposed use of that power, we should not proceed unilaterally except in the unlikely requirement to defend directly the continental US. Alaska and Hawaii.

Lesson 4- Moral principles are often ambiguous guides to foreign and defense policy, but surely we can agree that we should establish as a major goal of US foreign policy and, indeed, of foreign policies across the globe: the avoidance in this last century of carnage- 160 million dead- caused by conflict in the 20th century.

Lesson 5- We, the richest nation in the world, have failed in our responsibility to our poor and to the disadvantaged in the world to help them advance their welfare in the most fundamental of terms of nutrition, literacy, health and employment.

Lesson 6- Corporate executives must recognize there is no contradiction between a soft heart and a hard head. Of course, they have responsibilities to stockholders, but they also have a responsibility to their employees, their customers and to society as a whole.

Lesson 7- President Kennedy believed “the primary responsibility” of a president- is to keep a nation out of war, if at all possible.

Lesson 8- War is a blunt instrument by which to settle disputes between or within nations, and economic sanctions are rarely effective. Therefore, we should build a system of jurisprudence based on the International Court- that the US has refused to support- which would hold individuals responsible for crimes against humanity.

Lesson 9- If we are to deal effectively with terrorists across the globe, we must develop a sense of empathy- I don’t mean “sympathy” but rather “understanding”- to counter attacks on the Western World.

Lesson 10- One of the greatest dangers we face today is the risk that terrorists will obtain access to weapons of mass destructions as a result of the breakdown of the Non-Proliferation Regime. We in the US are contributing to that breakdown.