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Book Reviews

Book Reviews




The McNamara Strategy and the Vietnam War: Program Budgeting in the

Pentagon, 1960-1968. By Gregory Palmer. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978.

169p.; tables, notes, bibliography, index. $15.95.)


Recently a research fellow at the Institute of United States Studies at the

University of London, Gregory Palmer has written an important critique of

rationalism in American strategy, and especially in the McNamara Pentagon.

Published in Greenwood's Contributions in Political Science series, and perhaps

for that arbitrary reason not on display at the Organization of American Historians

convention or advertised in recent historical periodicals, this book holds significant

interest not only for political scientists but for historians of recent American

politics, foreign policy, military affairs, and especially of the Vietnam involvement.

Palmer set out to "look at intellectual origins of the McNamara strategy, show

how it came to dominate defense policy after 1960, and reveal how it influenced the

escalation of the American military intervention in Vietnam. In discussing those

intellectual origins he surveys the influences of classical theorists such as Jomini,

Clausewitz, and Mahan; this discussion forms the least satisfactory portion of the

work, and by all odds the least important. The real strength and excitement of the

book lie in treatments of the implantation of McNamara's methods in the defense

establishment and their effects in policy and warfare.

Palmer argues that rationalism-typified in the calculated choice between

alternatives-characterizes the American strategic tradition. McNamara and his

associates in the 1960s gave traditional rationalism a twist, making "the concept of

security a function in international relations analagous to that of utility in

economics." This permitted the fundamental calculations of national security

policy, admittedly imprecise in their traditional use, to be approached with the logic

and methodology which, perhaps, has made economics "the dismal science." For

with McNamara came the Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System of

Charles Hitch, the systems analysis of Alain Enthoven, cost-effectiveness, cost

efficiency, cost reduction, and reorganization of defense programming to permit

output measurement usable for the other analytic techniques.

According to Palmer, the results were nearly catastrophic. For the methods and

measures of the new rationality isolated military and strategic decisions from

essential political context. In a well-reasoned argument, too intricate to summarize

in a brief review, Palmer suggests that the McNamara strategy brought rigidity and

lack of choice rather than its announced goal of flexibility in American strategic

calculus and, indeed, in military operations. In turn, and on the basis of misleading

assumptions and models of decision, the strategy's methods forced escalation.

This book offers unusual and valuable insights into American strategic thought,

defense organization, and the effects of their interplay in the Vietnam War. It has

minor flaws, to be sure, and it will not compel agreement on all points. But it is as

close to essential reading as any book yet to have come in the growing Vietnam War



Naval War College                                     Thomas H. Etzold