The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective

The death earlier this year of former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara caused me to reflect on my brief time as a “whiz kid” in McNamara’s Systems Analysis office. SA was run by assistant secretary of defense Alain Enthoven, a quintessential whiz kid who was only 30 when he began his eight-year reign as the Pentagon’s “doubting Thomas.”

My own days as a minor whiz kid ran from July 1967 to March 1969, that is, from late in McNamara’s regime (January 21, 1961 – February 29, 1968), through the interregnum of Clark Clifford (March 1, 1968 – January 20, 1969), and into the early months of Nixon’s appointee, Melvin Laird (January 22, 1969 – January 29, 1973). SA’s influence dwindled sharply upon McNamara’s departure from the Pentagon, but SA had been very powerful until then, for three reasons.

First, of course, SA was a key ingredient of McNamara’s management
“revolution,” which came straight from the playbook of RAND — the Air Force’s influential think-tank. McNamara recruited Charles Hitch from RAND to serve as comptroller of the Department of Defense. Hitch — a leading proponent of the use of planning, programming, and budgeting systems (PPBS) and co-author of the “bible” of systems analysis, The Economics of Defense in the Nuclear Age — brought with him Alain Enthoven, who began as deputy assistant aecretary of defense for systems analysis in 1961 and was elevated to assistant secretary of defense for SA in 1965. (For a recounting of McNamara’s love affair with RAND-ites and their techniques, see “Early RAND and the McNamara Revolution,” which begins on p. 4 of the RAND Review, Fall 1998. A Time magazine piece from 1962 about McNamara’s “whiz kids” profiles five top McNamara aides, including two RAND-ites, Enthoven and Henry Rowen.)

A second, closely related reason for SA’s power was its central position in McNamara’s decision process. SA exercised its power mainly through the so-called draft presidential memorandum (DPM). DPMs, which originated in SA, took the form of lengthy memos from the secretary of defense to the president, none of which — as far as I know — actually went to the president. DPMs were, in fact, vehicles for obtaining and recording McNamara’s decisions on major program issues. Each DPM treated a broad set of issues (e.g., force structure, force mix, manning levels, major procurement programs) in a particular mission area (e.g., strategic forces; tactical air forces, naval forces, and land forces). For each of the dozen or so issues addressed in a DPM (e.g., the number and mix of amphibious ships), the responsible SA analyst(s) would (in about a page) summarize the sponsoring service’s proposed program and the analytical basis for the service’s position, criticize the service’s analysis (usually by focusing on critical but debatable assumptions and the inevitable uncertainty of cost estimates), briefly discuss alternatives (almost always less ambitious and expensive than the service’s proposal), recommend one of them, and give a tabular comparison of the alternatives, using simple figures of merit chosen for the purpose of making the recommended alternative look good. (We called it “tablesmanship.”) The coup de grace often would be a “clinching” reason for approving SA’s recommended (less-expensive) alternative (e.g., the unlikelihood of another amphibious assault on the scale of the landing at Inchon, given the location of approved planning scenarios). DPMs would be sent to the services and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for comment. After some back and forth, decision versions would go up to McNamara, who almost always chose the alternatives recommended by SA.

In sum, we SA civilians played “gotcha.” We did it because we were encouraged to do it, though not in so many words. And we got away with it, not because we were better analysts — most of our work was simplistic stuff — but because we usually had the last word. (Only an impassioned personal intercession by a service chief might persuade McNamara to go against SA — and the key word is “might.”) The irony of the whole process was that McNamara, in effect, substituted “civilian judgment” for oft-scorned “military judgment.” McNamara revealed his preference for “civilian judgment” by elevating Enthoven and SA a level in the hierarchy, 1965, even though (or perhaps because) the services and JCS had been open in their disdain of SA and its snotty young civilians.

A third reason for SA’s power, and its ability to play “gotcha,” was the essential lack of structure in the Department of Defense’s PPBS. For all of the formality and supposed rigor of the system, it lacked an essential ingredient: budget constraints against which the services could submit realistic program proposals. Budget constraints had existed de facto under Eisenhower and were to exist de jure under Nixon. In fact, Melvin Laird introduced a decision process built around fiscal constraints soon after taking office, on the recommendation of a former subordinate of Enthoven’s who stayed on as acting assistant secretary for about a year into Laird’s regime.

In any event, because McNamara didn’t give the services budget targets, the services were effectively encouraged to ask for a lot more than they could get. That incentive was reinforced by the reorientation of the defense program toward “flexible response” in the 1960s. Each service, naturally, sought a piece of the new action, and — lacking fiscal guidance — each of them did the sensible thing by asking for a lot more than it was likely to get. Under such a system, SA was bound to look good, and SA analysts were bound to make the services look bad by playing “gotcha.” It turns out that I didn’t have the stomach for it, which is why I left SA after 20 increasingly depressing months.

And that brings me to the players and their “tone.” What did the SA staff look like?

– There were a lot of youngish civilians, like me, who were bereft of military service and may never have seen a military unit or military equipment, except in a parade. Many of the young civilians had Harvard MBAs, and they were notorious, even within SA, for their brashness and rudeness.

– There was a smaller cadre of lightly less-young civilians, imported from other parts of DoD and the defense industry. Their SA experience lent them a certain cachet that they could trade on for advancement in government and industry.

– There were many junior officers with ROTC commissions who had deferred their active service to pursue graduate degrees. Because of those degrees, they were snatched up by SA instead of being sent to Vietnam. They were really civilians, at heart, who happened to carry military ranks.

– Most of the major components of SA had one or two “service reps” — senior officers nominated by the services. Some of them were dead-enders with nothing to lose (which worked against their sponsoring services). Others (notably the Navy reps) were rising stars who (a) tried to keep SA “honest” and (b) kept their sponsoring services informed of what SA was up to.

– The higher echelons were populated by “seasoned” civilians, with military analysis experience at places like RAND and the aerospace industry. One such senior civilian exemplified the tone of SA. He wrote a white paper in which he discussed (among other things) the role of amphibious forces in defense strategy. In the course of that discussion, he pointedly and sneeringly referred to amphibious forces as “ambiguous forces.”

In my 20 months at the Pentagon, I came to understand the essential difference between Systems Analysis, as it was in McNamara’s day, and outfits like the Operations Evaluation Group, a Navy-sponsored civilian organization. SA, to put it baldly, existed to work against the services. OEG, by contrast, existed (and exists) to work with a service, to help it make the best use of its forces and systems. There is no doubt in my mind that the contributions of OEG were (and are) far more valuable to the nation’s defense than the “contributions” of SA, which may well have harmed it.

Analysis per se is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s like a loaded gun, in that its goodness or badness depends on who wields it and for what purpose.