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Robert McNamara’s Feud with Admiral George Anderson

JFK and Admiral Anderson in the Oval Office, 29 October 1962

JFK meeting with Admiral George Anderson in the Oval Office on October 29, 1962. Kennedy had the tapes rolling.
Photo by Robert Knudsen | JFK Library

In this excerpt from a conversation that took place over a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara passed on something that Admiral Hyman Rickover had told him recently: that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Admiral George Anderson, the Chief of Naval Operations, had been insubordinate during the crisis. It was at the tail end of a longer discussion about the defense budget, Congressional hearings on the nuclear stockpile, and a proposed nuclear carrier.

As the conversation wound up, McNamara engaged in some score settling. Kennedy clearly wasn’t much troubled by McNamara’s charge. He knew well that McNamara and Anderson were engaged in a long-running feud–it had even spilled out into press reports.

Tension between the two had started almost as soon as McNamara took office. Well before the crisis, Anderson had become resentful of McNamara’s so-called whizz-kids meddling in navy affairs.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis that the tension ratcheted up markedly. Anderson did his best to prevent what he viewed as interference by the Secretary of Defense in naval operation of the quarantine. “We did not want, and I had it pretty well set up, to prevent any intrusion by McNamara or anybody else in the direct operations of any ship of squadron or anything of the sort,” he explained later. Among the precautions he took was handpicking his most trusted senior officers to maintain a round-the-clock watch in the CNO’s office when Anderson wasn’t there.1

One particular incident became notorious after it was later leaked to the press. As Anderson relayed the story:

One incident occurred. We knew where one of these particular submarines was located. We had that information from the most highly classified intelligence that the navy had at the time. We were very anxious to preserve that intelligence, and very few people know about this type of intelligence. We had a destroyer sitting on top of this submarine.

One evening, McNamara, [Roswell] Gilpatric, and an entourage of his press people came down to flag plot and, in the course of their interrogations, they asked why that destroyer was out of line. I sort of tried to pass it off because not only were there some of McNamara’s people there who were not cleared for this information, but some of my own watch officers were not cleared for it in the general area of the flag plot. After some discussion, I said to McNamara–he kept pressing me, ‘Come inside,’ and I took him into a littler inner sanctuary where only the people who had clearance for that particular type of classified information were permitted and I explained the whole thing to him and to his satisfaction, as well.

He left, and we walked down the corridor, and I said: ‘Well, Mr. Secretary, you go back to your office and I’ll go to mine and we’ll take care of things,’ or words to that effect, which apparently was the wrong thing to say to somebody of McNamara’s personality.2

And while McNamara might have been engaged in score settling in his conversation with Kennedy, he was not far off-the-mark in characterizing Anderson’s hawkish views. Anderson felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he himself later explained, that “we should use this particular crisis to solve the Cuban problem.” By that, he meant regime change in Cuba.3

In the winter and spring of 1963, when Anderson publicly disagreed with McNamara’s defense budget in congressional testimony and criticized his stance on the controversial TFX fighter plane, relations between the two became even worse.

During the summer of 1963, McNamara pushed for Anderson to be fired. Kennedy resisted an outright firing but decided not to reappoint Anderson as CNO and instead send him to Lisbon as the U.S. ambassador to Portugal. He took up the post in August.

It’s not clear precisely when this conversation took place, but based on the recordings around it and the president’s schedule, it was probably either November 8 or 12, 1963.

Tape 120/A56, President’s Office Files, Presidential Recordings Collection, John F. Kennedy Library. Transcript by David Coleman.

Also published on Medium.


1. “The Reminiscenses of Admiral George W. Anderson Jr, U.S. Navy (Retired),” volume 2, (Annapolis, Maryland: U.S. Naval Institute, 1983) p.495.
2. “The Reminiscenses of Admiral George W. Anderson Jr, U.S. Navy (Retired),” volume 2, (Annapolis, Maryland: U.S. Naval Institute, 1983) pp.558-59.
3. “The Reminiscenses of Admiral George W. Anderson Jr, U.S. Navy (Retired),” volume 2, (Annapolis, Maryland: U.S. Naval Institute, 1983) p.544.