FOG OF WAR: NOT ‘A REAL PASTING’

New York City

As one of the executive producers on The Fog of War, I was disappointed by Alexander Cockburn’s essay on the film [“Beat the Devil,” Feb. 9]. I’m a longtime admirer of Cockburn’s work, and it gives me no joy to say that he has utterly missed the point of the film. Cockburn writes about the movie as if it unquestioningly accepts and endorses everything that Robert McNamara says, as if he’s never heard of the terms “unreliable narrator” or “dramatic irony.”

Filmmaker Errol Morris never set out to give McNamara “a real pasting” à la The Trials of Henry Kissinger, but neither did he set out to let McNamara off the hook–as most thoughtful critics have registered, for example Ron Rosenbaum in the New York Observer. Contrary to Cockburn’s assertion that Errol “didn’t do enough homework,” Errol has in fact read just about everything published on McNamara in English, as well as listened to many hours of White House tapes (some only recently declassified), reviewed scores of government documents and viewed reams of news footage. His intensive research turned up any number of surprising facts. It’s true that no previous source has fully explored McNamara’s role in the firebombing of Japan–but instead of dismissing the information, Cockburn may remember from his newspaper days that this is called a “scoop.” Besides, does Cockburn think that McNamara is falsely claiming to have borne some of the responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians? This hardly seems like letting McNamara “get away with it.”

Most contemporary movies–documentaries as well as narrative features–tend to spell everything out rather than expecting the audience to actually think. We always knew that some people would fault The Fog of War for not including other voices besides McNamara’s, or for trusting the audience to draw its own conclusions about McNamara’s life and actions. But I never would have guessed that Alexander Cockburn would be one of them.

JACK LECHNER


Austin, Tex.

Alexander Cockburn is entitled to his view of Robert McNamara, but when he states that reports of Kennedy’s intent to withdraw from Vietnam are “nonsense” he is misinformed. There was in fact a formal and unconditional presidential decision, taken in meetings on October 2 and 5, 1963, to withdraw 1,000 soldiers by the end of the year, and the rest of the training forces by the end of 1965. The best single source on this is Howard Jones’s Death of a Generation (Oxford). I have written two articles on the topic, in Boston Review (October-November 2003) and a follow-up in Salon (November 22, 2003).

Cockburn appears to be relying on Noam Chomsky’s 1993 attacks on earlier reports of this decision. But numerous confirming documents, including reports from the planning meetings, transcripts and tapes of the decision meetings and implementing memoranda, have since been released. Chomsky and I exchanged letters on this topic in the December-January Boston Review.

JAMES K. GALBRAITH


Portland, Ore.

I appreciated Alexander Cockburn’s critique of The Fog of War and will keep it in mind as I watch the film. Cockburn’s charge that Errol Morris hasn’t done adequate homework is troubling. Paul Hendrickson’s The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War is a brilliant exposé by someone who clearly has done his homework. It deserves publicity now that Morris’s movie is out. Regrettably, it did not receive the full attention it deserved upon its publication in 1996.

I recommend Hendrickson’s book not only for its judicious and penetrating portrait of McNamara but for the author’s ability to interweave such moving details from the lives of five victims of his decisions. Hendrickson’s book joins the company of titles like C.D.B. Bryan’s Friendly Fire and Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, which I refer to when my children ask me about the Vietnam period.

GEORGE T. KARNEZIS


COCKBURN REPLIES

Petrolia, Calif.

There’s no need here to reiterate all my criticisms of The Fog of War. The full barrage, much expanded from my two pieces in The Nation, can be found at www.counterpunch.org/cockburn03012004.html. I hear that in the recent Oscar-giving, Morris thanked McNamara. Very cozy.

As for Galbraith: This business about the secret Kennedy decision to withdraw, now supposedly unearthed from long-buried archives, is pretty silly. First of all, the alleged plan was not secret but announced by press secretary Pierre Salinger, whose news release was printed in the New York Times on October 3, 1963, as a scheduled reduction that was no big deal, being the usual line that the United States would leave as soon as South Vietnam had the situation under control. Second, JFK’s White House pulsed with platoons of the Best and the Brightest planning contradictory strategies: on the one hand the Peace Corps, on the other the Green Berets; on the one hand economic and social reform for Latin America, on the other military dictatorship and death squads; on the one hand rapprochement with Cuba, on the other a rifle sent to agent Am-Lash in Paris. You name it, they gamed it. McNamara had a phased-withdrawal plan in one pocket and in the other, in late JFK time, an escalating schedule of secret US attacks on the North, which did take place, which prompted the Tonkin Gulf provocation (about which McNamara is brazenly deceptive in the film), which ultimately led to the bombing of the North and huge expansion of the war. Actually, those 1,000 men did get withdrawn in late 1963, but as Howard Jones notes, it was mostly a matter of rotating personnel. I agree with Professor Fred Thayer, who worked in the Pentagon in the early 1960s under McNamara as an Air Force colonel; he recently wrote to me as follows:

“It takes a very simple analysis of international politics to understand that when the US supported a coup in South Vietnam (Kennedy may not have known of the final decision, but Lodge was his personal agent), and when that coup not only deposed Diem but killed him, that all bets were off. The reason JFK was ‘shocked’ (as McNamara says) may be because JFK knew that the killing of Diem erased all previous decisions, or merely that JFK was not up-to-date (common in the absence of decision processes in those years).

“Once Diem was killed during a coup we supported, all previous decisions became meaningless. My personal analysis is that the ‘plan to withdraw’ was merely a public relations ploy because forces in Vietnam increased 1,700% in the Kennedy years. Whatever JFK may have dreamed about in September/October, however, meant nothing after Diem was killed just a week or two before JFK was killed.”

To offer a parallel, imagine those strategy memos in the Bush White House game-planning US troop reduction in favor of a UN force last fall. Then the UN envoy Vieira de Mello got blown up and all bets were off there too. Regime change is the thin end of a very long wedge. Maybe Bush still has a secret plan to withdraw from Iraq, while Kerry shouts for 40,000 more troops.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN


LEARNING TO LOVE THE BOMB?

Washington, DC

Immanuel Wallerstein’s “Soft Multilateralism” [Feb. 2] is a shrewd debunking of a golden era of US multilateralism. He is right that the United States must adjust and cooperate with a multipolar world. But he is terribly wrong that our government and its citizens should give up on nonproliferation and calmly accept the spread of nuclear weapons. I agree that the unilateral invasion of Iraq sent a strong signal that acquiring nuclear weapons might be a way to deter pre-emptive US attacks. But the answer is not, as Wallerstein puts it, “to learn to live with it.”

The answer is, first, to demand regime change here at home, throwing out the Bushies and their policies of nuclear threats, new nuclear weapons and pre-emptive attacks. Second, and as important, is for citizens, especially Nation readers, to continue to organize and work through organizations like Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) to push the Democrats to endorse our SMART Security platform. It has already been signed by thousands of citizens and adopted at issue caucuses in Iowa, by Democratic Party platform committees in Wisconsin and Oregon and will soon be introduced in Congress.

SMART Security, among other things, calls for the United States to live up to its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to halt new nuclear weapons development and renewed nuclear testing and to move to a sustainable energy future that does not depend on outmoded, dangerous and unhealthy fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Nuclear weapons have already been declared illegal by the World Court, denounced as morally unacceptable by major faith groups and demonstrated by PSR in countless studies to be unacceptably barbaric, indiscriminate and capable of huge numbers of deaths, horrible injuries and ecological damage in even their smallest possible uses. Only a few nations have nuclear weapons now, and the majority sit in good ol’ American hands. To accept calmly their proliferation is, I’m afraid, a bit like NRA calls for all citizens to pack a weapon because “an armed society is a polite society.” I hope Wallerstein will reconsider and, with other Nation aficionados, sign our SMART Security platform and check more detailed arguments against the Bush Doctrine and nuclear proliferation at PSR’s www.psr.org/smartsecurity.

ROBERT K. MUSIL
Physicians for Social Responsibility


Gainesville, Fla.

Immanuel Wallerstein writes that Israel became a nuclear power “although it never admitted this, and the United States winked at it.” It was more than winking. Congressional legislation signed into law by President Carter more than a quarter-century ago restricted the US from granting foreign aid to any country that developed nuclear weapons. If Washington acknowledges that Israel has indeed developed such weapons–its nuclear arsenal is numbered in the hundreds–the more than $3 billion of foreign aid annually provided to Israel in the past quarter-century would have been contrary to federal law. That’s why the United States can’t acknowledge Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Wallerstein also asserts, “The Oslo Accord on Israel-Palestine fell apart, despite all the energy Clinton put into fulfilling it.” The only energy Clinton needed to expend was on a frank discussion with Israel re the consequences of his publicly acknowledging Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

NORMAN BALABANIAN


WALLERSTEIN REPLIES

Paris

I had expected that the one part of my article to which many Nation readers would take exception was the part about nuclear proliferation. Nuclear weapons are a horrible thing. And I would certainly favor an international treaty making their first use illegal under any and all circumstances. I doubt that even a post-Bush Democratic administration would sign that, but I’d certainly sign a petition in favor of it.

The fact is, however, that there are now eight countries we know to have nuclear weapons: the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and probably North Korea as well. There are many others who are in the process or could rapidly be in the process of producing them. I do not trust a single one of them not to use them. I do not trust them more than the putative proliferators, furthermore. And I do think that what kept chemical weapons from being used in World War II and nuclear weapons in the Korean and Vietnam wars was fear of retaliation, not virtue.

It is not a question of “giving up.” It is not a prudent or moral thing to preach to Third World nations that they shouldn’t have weapons that others have because we’re somehow afraid that they, more than us, will use them irresponsibly. So, I repeat, I’m for forbidding their use, treaties to diminish their number and anything else along these lines, provided it’s balanced. But I’m against the idea that the big boys can have them but not the others. It’s not a basis on which to build a peaceful and equitable world.

I agree with Norman Balabanian that the word “winked” is perhaps too weak. I’d be willing to say “colluded.” Of course, if the United States changed its entire policy toward Israel, things would change in the region. But I’m not sure that Barak would have made more concessions at the time. Apart from his own views, he didn’t have the political support in Israel at that moment for a real peace arrangement.

IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN