On this day in 1960, Robert McNamara becomes the president of the Ford Motor Company. He would hold the job for less than a month, heading to Washington in December to join President John F. Kennedy’s cabinet. McNamara served as the secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson until he resigned in 1968. That year, he became the president of the World Bank, a job he held until 1981.
At the end of World War II, Ford was in tatters. Henry Ford was still in charge, but he was getting old and increasingly senile; furthermore, since he had made no secret of his pacifist, anti-Semitic and anti-union convictions, many people were reluctant to do business with him or to buy one of his cars. The company had been steadily losing money since the stock market crash of 1929, and by 1945 it was losing about $9 million every month.
At GM and Chrysler, by contrast, business was booming. In order to catch up, in September 1945 Henry Ford’s wife and daughter-in-law presented the elderly man with an ultimatum: make 28-year-old Henry Ford II (the elder Ford’s grandson) the company’s president, or his mother would sell her controlling stake in the company to the highest bidder.
Left without much choice, the elder Ford gave in and put his grandson in charge. Right away, Ford II hired 10 “Whiz Kids,” including McNamara, all straight out of the Army Air Corps and all with training in economics and statistics from places like Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and Princeton. These “Whiz Kids” managed to streamline the company and make it profitable again, in part by creating a sleek new look for Ford cars. The company’s ’49 coupe, with its “spinner” grille, slab sides and integrated fenders, was an immediate hit.
In all, McNamara spent 14 years at Ford, before heading to Washington, D.C., where he served under both Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson. McNamara was a key advisor to Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis and is credited with using his management skills to help the Pentagon function more efficiently. He is also known as an engineer of America’s Vietnam War policy under both Kennedy and Nixon, an often-criticized role that he later discussed in the 2003 documentary The Fog of War.
McNamara left the Pentagon in early 1968, and then spent 12 years as head of the World Bank.
He died on July 6, 2009 at 93 years old.