Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara’s birth. It is likely tempting to mark this week with a retrospective of contributions to U.S. policy during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the Vietnam War in particular. McNamara himself was deeply troubled by how the war there eventually spiraled out of control. His memoir from his time in the executive branch, In Retrospect, can be read as an exercise in absolution, in so far as it is permitted in public life. McNamara’s most lasting legacy, however, is not Vietnam. Rather, it is found in the introduction and cultivation of a body of knowledge that views national security problems, including that those related to conventional and nuclear war, as economic problems. The group of experts who specialized in this systematic quantification of national security issues – who almost overnight went from being policy analysts to policy makers under McNamara – also ushered in a radically different point of view on American nuclear strategy, a striking departure from the one advocated by the Eisenhower administration.
The debate about counterforce versus countervalue targeting is far from over, at least in the minds of nuclear analysts in Asia. It is possible that China is upgrading its DF-5 missile system with MIRV capability – a development that calls China’s no-first-use policy into question. Very recently, a Stimson Center report on Beijing’s move towards MIRVs raised the possibility of New Delhi also following suit. In many ways, the growing debate in New Delhi on a possible revision of Indian nuclear strategy mirrors the one in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. India – like America under the Eisenhower administration – currently has, as official doctrine, a posture of massive retaliation (coupled to a no-first-use policy). As the Sino-Indian rivalry grows in the backdrop of a shift in China’s strategic-weapons capabilities, it is conceivable that India will be forced into seriously examining nuclear-warfighting as an option. Interestingly, an unnamed former commander of the Indian Strategic Forces recently cited McNamara’s repudiation of counterforce as a reason why India too will be reluctant to go down the path RAND analysts had long advocated. But the challenge – and opportunity – for New Delhi is not in replicating the final decisions of the Kennedy administration regarding the role of the nuclear deterrent, but in using the same analytical techniques which were used to arrive at these decisions in the first place. In the end, McNamara’s legacy lies not in the choices his Pentagon made, but in the ways such choices were formulated and examined.
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