My dear friend and late Nation colleague Andrew Kopkind liked to tell how, skiing in Aspen at the height of the Vietnam War, he came round a bend and saw another skier, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, alone near the edge of a precipice. This was during the period of Rolling Thunder, which ultimately saw three times as many bombs dropped on Vietnam as the Allies dropped on Europe in the Second World War. “I could have reached out with my ski pole,” Andy would say wistfully, “and pushed him over.”
Alas, Andy missed this chance to get into the history books and McNamara survived the 1960s, when he contributed more than most to the slaughter of 3.4 million Vietnamese (his own estimate). He went on to run the World Bank, where he presided over the impoverishment, eviction from their lands and death of many millions more round the world. And now here he is, the star of Errol Morris’s much-praised documentary The Fog of War, talking comfortably about the millions of people he’s helped to kill. It reminded me of films of Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and then head of war production. Speer loved to admit to an overall guilt. But when he was pressed on specific nastiness, like working Jews or Russians to death in arms factories, he would insist, eyes ablaze with forthrightness, that he knew nothing of such infamies.
It’s good to have a new generation reminded of history’s broad outlines, like the firebombing of Japanese cities and Vietnam, but I don’t think Morris laid a glove on McNamara, who should be feeling well pleased. Like Speer, he got away with it yet again.
The documentary’s gimmickry–cuts to black, Morris shouting his questions away from the mike, McNamara off-center in the frame, montage of typewriter-ribbon wheels, skulls dropping in slow motion down a stairwell, captions offering banal “lessons”–gives us a clue. Morris didn’t have much to throw at McNamara. He didn’t do enough homework. Time and again, McNamara gets away with it, muffling himself in the ever-useful camouflage of the “fog of war,” cowering in the shadow of baroque monsters like Curtis LeMay or LBJ, choking up about his choice of Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington, choking up at the memory of Johnson giving him the Medal of Freedom, spouting nonsense about how Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam.
When McNamara looks back down memory lane there are no real shadows, just the sunlight of moral self-satisfaction: “I don’t fault Truman for dropping the bomb…”; “I never saw Kennedy more shocked” (after the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem); “never would I have authorized an illegal action” (after the Tonkin Gulf fakery); “I’m very proud of my accomplishments and I’m very sorry I made errors” (his life). Slabs of instructive history are missing from Morris’s film. McNamara came in on one of the biggest of big lies, the bogus “missile gap.” As Defense Secretary he ordered the production of 1,000 Minuteman nukes, this at a time when he was looking at US intelligence reports showing that the Soviets had one silo with one untested missile.
Reminiscing about his acceptance of Kennedy’s invitation to come from Ford in Detroit (much nonsense here) to Camelot, McNamara claims to Morris that he insisted he would not be part of Georgetown’s pesky social round. Nonsense. He took to it like a parvenu to ermine, as more than one Washington hostess could glowingly recall.
“It’s beyond the capacity of the human mind to comprehend all the variables,” the systems analyst proclaims to Morris, which would have afforded a better-informed filmmaker a chance to ask this cold engine of statistical calculation for his take on the prime business of the Pentagon, the allocation of pork. Why did Defense Secretary McNamara overrule all expert review and procurement recommendations and insist that General Dynamics rather than Boeing make the F-111? Could it be that Henry Crown of Chicago was calling in some chits for his role in fixing the 1960 JFK vote in Cook County, Illinois? Crown, of Chicago Sand and Gravel, had $300 million of the mob’s money in GD debentures, and after the disaster of the Convair, GD needed the F-111 to avoid going belly-up, taking the mob’s $300 million with it. McNamara misled Congressional investigators about this for years afterward.
The Gulf of Tonkin “attack” prompted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, whereby Congress gave LBJ legal authority to prosecute and escalate the war in Vietnam. McNamara does some fancy footwork here, stating that there wasn’t any attack by North Vietnamese PT boats on the US destroyer Maddox on August 4, but that there had been such an attack on August 2. It shouldn’t have been beyond Morris’s powers to pull up an excellent piece by Robert Scheer, published in the Los Angeles Times in April 1985, establishing not only that the Maddox was attacked neither on August 2 nor 4 but that, beginning in July, South Vietnamese navy personnel, US-trained and -equipped, “had begun conducting secret raids on targets in North Vietnam.” As Scheer said, the North Vietnamese PT boats that approached the Maddox on August 2 were probably responding to that assault.
The Six-Day War? Just before this ’67 war the Israelis were ready to attack and knew they were going to win but couldn’t get a clear go-ahead from the Johnson Administration. As the documentary The 50 Years War narrates, Meir Amit, head of Israel’s Mossad, flew to Washington. The crucial OK came from McNamara, thus launching Israel’s long-planned, aggressive war on Egypt, Jordan and Syria, which led to present disasters. And no, Morris didn’t quiz McNamara on Israel’s deliberate attack on the US ship Liberty during that war (with thirty-four US sailors dead and 174 wounded), or on the cover-up that McNamara supervised.
We have so many sponsors of mass murder hanging around, it would be nice to see one of them, once in a while, take a real pasting. But no, they live on into happy old age, vivid in their worries about the human condition, writing in The New York Review of Books, passing on no honest records about the evil it really takes to run an empire. So suddenly people are shocked about a relative piker like George W. Bush and start talking about Hitler. If only they knew. It’s not that hard to find out.