The late Robert S. McNamara, famed secretary of defense who played a controversial role in the escalation of the Vietnam War, is widely known for his connections to the nation’s capital. But his ties to Ann Arbor go often times unnoticed.
Before he moved to Washington D.C. in 1961, McNamara resided at 410 Highland Road, a quiet street off of Geddes Road. McNamara lived there with his family from 1949 to 1960 and had a strong presence in the University community, regularly attending University football and hockey games. McNamara was even considered for the position of University president in 1966.
The McNamaras lived a “peaceful life with free weekends,” according to a February 27, 1966 Detroit Free Press article. They were devout members of the First Presbyterian Church, participated in civic enterprises — they were among the first residents to sign a covenant designed to end racial discrimination in the sale of local real estate — and supported both political parties in local government. They “lived the good and modest life devoid of status symbols,” the article said.
Once a month, the McNamaras would participate in a discussion group with notable Ann Arbor and University figures, according to a July 25, 1966 U.S. News and World Report article. The group included University president Harlan Hatcher, Economics Prof. Paul McCracken and Niel Staebler, an Ann Arbor businessman who later became Democratic State Chairman.
McNamara first moved to Ann Arbor after taking a position Ford, where he was responsible for three successful car models, including the four-passenger Thunderbird, the Falcon and the Comet.
At the time, most Ford executives lived in the mansions of Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills. McNamara surprised many when he instead chose to live in Ann Arbor, where he commuted 76 miles to Ford Headquarters in Dearborn every day.
During his time with the auto company, McNamara and a group of colleagues became labeled the “whiz kids” for their innovative automotive designs. McNamara worked his way to the top of the Ford hierarchy, and by 1960 became the first company president that was not directly related to Henry Ford.
When President John F. Kennedy tapped McNamara in 1961 to serve as secretary of defense, just a little more than a month after he became president at Ford, McNamara reportedly gave up a $400,000 yearly salary for $25,000, according to a Detroit Free Press article.
Moreover, McNamara’s career swop would cost him additional earnings in stock. In a December 14, 1960 Ann Arbor News article, McNamara said his decision to accept the position as secretary of defense and forego his post at Ford would cost him about $3 million in profits over the first three to four years, which is the amount he thought he would have earned from Ford stock.
The Detroit Free Press reported in a March 5, 1967 article that McNamara was able to afford his new home in Washington D.C. from $618,730 in bonuses that he earned from 1957 to 1960 from his deferred payment account at Ford.
In a March 5, 1967 Detroit Free Press article, Margaret Carter, McNamara’s eldest daughter who was 25 years-old at the time, said that the move to Washington D.C. would cost her family a more private life in the academic setting of Ann Arbor.
“If (my father) took the job it meant giving up our house in Ann Arbor, a change of environment, a certain loss of privacy” she said.
Carter added that she knew McNamara would accept his position as secretary of defense because “he (was) a man who likes to serve.”
After being away from Ann Arbor for almost a year and a half, McNamara returned to his former hometown to deliver the 1962 commencement speech on June 16 to a crowd that included over 3,800 students. McNamara was awarded a Doctor of Laws honorary degree, along with nine others, including Robert Frost and Theodore Roethke.
In his address, McNamara stressed that a strong European-American deterrent force would make “aggression unthinkable,” according to a June 26, 1962 Michigan Daily article. He also suggested that U.S. nuclear strategy should focus its attack on enemy military forces, and not on the civilian population.
“That is to say, principal military objectives, in the event of a nuclear war stemming from a major attack on the NATO Alliance, should be the destruction of the enemy’s military forces, and not of his civilian population,” McNamara said.
McNamara passed away on July 6 in his Washington home at the age of 93.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.