‘McNamara’s Morons’: The Folly of American Foreign Policy

Remember the scene in the Award-winning movie “Forrest Gump” when Forrest’s microphone is cut off while addressing the Anti-Vietnam war crowd at the Washington monument?

Speech From the Award-Winning Movie “Forrest Gump”

Many of you still wonder what he might have said. Well, Well! It’s not a secret anymore. The versatile actor Tom Hanks himself confirmed what the actual line of the script was:

Sometimes when people go to Vietnam, they go home to their mommas without any legs. Sometimes they don’t go home at all. That’s a bad thing. That’s all I have to say about that.

Forrest Gump Movie, 1994

To understand the significance of this movie and this speech, it is necessary to go back in time.


The year was 1966. America was at war with Vietnam. Casualties were high on both sides. On America’s end, African Americans suffered disproportionately high casualty rates in Vietnam. In 1965 alone they comprised 14.1% of total combat deaths when they only comprised approximately 11% of the total U.S. population in the same year.

It was imperative to meet the escalating manpower requirements to sustain the war. In other words, there was a shortage of disposable human bodies.

On August 23, 1966, at 10:00 am, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara stood before the annual convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars and gave a speech.

Speech by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in 1966

During the Speech, he announced “Project 100 000“, also known as McNamara’s Folly, McNamara’s Morons, and McNamara’s Misfits. Project 100 000 was a controversial program by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) to recruit soldiers below mental and physical standards for admission into the Armed Services.

Project 100,000 soldiers included those unable to speak English, who had low mental aptitudes, minor physical impairments & those who were slightly over or underweight. It focused on designated poverty areas like Black Ghettos, Appalachian Towns, etc. By the end of the war, McNamara’s program had taken 354,000 substandard men into the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force & Navy. Among the armed forces, these young men were often known as “McNamara’s Morons.”

McNamara based his decision on government reports which had studied the rejectees. He promised that “Project 100,000” would uplift America’s “subterranean poor” and cure them of the “idleness, ignorance, and apathy” which marked their lives. Proclaiming that these young men “have not had the opportunity to earn their fair share of this nation’s abundance, but they can be given an opportunity to return to civilian life with skills and aptitudes. ”

McNamara predicted that men recruited under Project 100,000 would return to the civilian world able to earn “two to three times what it would have been if there had been no such program.”

The Secretary claimed that the program would provide valuable training, skills, and opportunity to America’s poor—a promise that was never carried out. Many black men who had previously been ineligible could now be drafted, along with many poor and racially intolerant white men from the southern states. This led to increased racial tension in the military.

The label, “New Standards Men,” was given to those recruits who were enlisted under the Project 100,000 guidelines. These recruits scored in an average range of 10 to 15 on mathematics and 16-20 on verbal skills on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT). A score of 10 is the equivalent to a fifth-grade education and many recruits were considered borderline or mildly “retarded.”

Military leaders considered McNamara’s project a disaster. 

This was because the recruited soldiers were slow learners who found it very difficult to grasp the training methodologies. 

Since the majority of them were unskilled in battling action, they not only endangered themselves but also their fellow soldiers.

A total of 5,478 low-IQ men died while in the service, most of them in combat. Their fatality rate was three times as high as that of other GIs. An estimated 20,270 were wounded, and some were permanently disabled (including an estimated 500 amputees)

Hamilton Gregory, “McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War”

Was it Worth It?

A study conducted by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics between 1986-1987, showed that these men were less happy and in reality, had worse economic conditions than non-veterans of similar aptitude.

Many veterans of Project 100,000 were psychologically devastated by the war. John Wilson, a psychologist at Cleveland State University who spent several years studying Vietnam veterans’ emotional problems, estimated that thousands of Project 100,000 men who had served in Southeast Asia were so “severely messed up” that they couldn’t function in society—hold jobs, raise families, and cope with day-to-day living.

Touted as providing “rehabilitation,” remedial education, and an escape from poverty, the program offered a one-way ticket to Vietnam, where these men fought and died in disproportionate numbers. The much-advertised skills were seldom taught.

MacPherson, Myra (June 1995).
 “McNamara’s ‘other’ crimes: the stories you haven’t heard”

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Engelhardt, Tom. The end of victory culture: Cold war America and the disillusioning of a generation. Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2007.
Hamilton Gregory. (Spring2017) McNamara’s Boys. Retrieved from McNamara’s Boys.