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The White House years of Robert S. McNamara up for sale at Sotheby's New York
Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs, accompanied by an autograph letter of presentation signed by Jacqueline Kennedy. Est. $150/250,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- On 23 October 2012 Sotheby’s will present The White House Years Of Robert S. McNamara – the personal archive of one of the most significant cabinet members in American history. Robert Strange McNamara served as Secretary of Defense for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961 – 1968, a position that placed him at the heart of US foreign policy during one of the most turbulent periods of the Cold War. The sale features a remarkable collection of private papers, letters, and personal memorabilia and takes place on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The pre-sale exhibition opens to the public on Tuesday 16 October 2012.

On 8 December 1960 Robert McNamara was appointed President of the Ford Motor Company – the first to be selected from outside of the Ford family. However, just weeks after this appointment McNamara was offered the position of Defense Secretary. In his memoir In Retrospect McNamara re-lives meeting the President and protesting that he was not qualified for the position whereupon he was met with the famous riposte “Who is?” After a weekend of deliberation McNamara accepted the position, becoming the 8th and youngest ever Secretary of Defense, a move that would see his salary drop from $400,000 to $23,000. An Engraved Broadside Document signed by President Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk formally appointed McNamara to the position (est. $10/15,000).

Just two years after his appointment McNamara was at the center of one of the most serious confrontations of the Cold War. In October 1962 the US and Soviet Union entered a stand-off over threats by the USSR to put nuclear weapons on Cuba. The thirteen-day crisis ended after McNamara helped to broker a deal in which the US publicly declared not to invade Cuba while secretly moving missiles from Turkey. After the crisis was resolved President Kennedy commissioned a series of silver paperweights which he presented to those closest to him during the stand-off with the thirteen days of the crisis boldly engraved. The Cuban Missile Crisis Paper-Weight that was presented to McNamara with his initials engraved at the top is a major highlight of the sale (est. $15/20,000).

A candid look into the chaotic state of the White House during the Crisis is revealed in an October 1962 Autograph Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Letter sent to McNamara expressing her gratitude for all he was doing during the Crisis (est. $5/7,000). Mrs Kennedy, writing on White House stationary, confides to McNamara “For a while I felt that ire ally knew what was going on – but that lovely illusion has evaporated.”

Mrs. Kennedy adopts a more light-hearted tone in another of the auction highlights – a letter from April 1963 in which she thanks the McNamaras for a gift of an early engraving of Mount Vernon (est. $8/12,000). In the effusive note she speaks with uncharacteristic abandon about her excitement at receiving the gift: “My God!! – is all I can say – the greatest treasure and earliest engraving and prettiest one that I adored from the moment I saw it” and later on saying “It is the first thing I will save in any fire.” She goes on to describe the President’s enthusiastic reaction to the gift and then, with a special poignancy considering President Kennedy’s assassination just seven months later, writes that they will recall the McNamara’s generosity “when we look at it for the rest of our lives.”

Mrs. Kennedy’s affection and high regard for McNamara is seen throughout the extensive correspondence from her in the sale. In one letter from December 1963 discussing the possible gift of a painting to her late husband’s Presidential Library she describes the Defense Secretary as “the man in his Cabinet who gave the most (as much as Jack’s own brother Bobby gave)” (est. $6/8,000). In another referring to a stuffed tiger McNamara brought to the Kennedy’s house on Cape Cod in the summer of 1965 Mrs Kennedy sends an artistic thank-you note with a watercolor drawing of a tiger accompanied by the charming inscription “It is not much of a tiger but I did try” (est. $3/5,000).

Other Kennedy-related highlights of the sale include personal items from McNamara’s time in government, the most important of which are Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs, accompanied by an autograph letter of presentation signed by Jacqueline Kennedy (est. $150/250,000).

The sale also includes Secretary McNamara’s Department of Defense Flag which stood in his office at the Pentagon (est. $7/10,000, right) along with the Replogle Thirty-Two inch Library Globe used by McNamara both during his time at the Defense Department and as President of the World Bank (est. $3/5,000).

In addition to the extensive material relating to the Kennedy’s, McNamara’s service in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson is also amply represented in the sale with numerous photographs and pieces of memorabilia including as A Color Photograph of President Johnson and Secretary McNamara walking in the White House inscribed “To the Nation’s best Secretary of Defense… with the unlimited admiration of his friend, Lyndon B. Johnson” (est. $2,500/3,500).

The Vietnam War dominated McNamara’s time in the Johnson administration as demonstrated by the large number of pieces in the sale relating to the conflict. A selection of Political Cartoons, 1961-1968 reference his struggles with Congress and his efforts to curtail military waste (est. $25/35,000) while a piece of North Vietnamese Propaganda, 1965 was co-incidentally retrieved from South East Asia by a captain Michael McNamara (est. $1/1,500).

McNamara’s service as Defense Secretary ended in February 1968 when he left to become President of the World Bank. In recognition of his seven years of service he was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction – the supreme civil decoration in the United States – which is included in the sale along with a document signed by President Johnson in which he states: “May your selfless service – spent in defending freedom – bring even greater rewards in the larger work you now undertake to promote freedom throughout the world” (est. $5/7,000).

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