After you left the Johnson Administration, why didn’t you speak out against the Vietnam War?
I’m not going to say any more than I have. These are the kinds of questions that get me in trouble…. A lot of people misunderstand the war, misunderstand me. A lot of people think I’m a son of a bitch.
Do you feel in any way responsible for the war? Do you feel guilty?
I don’t want to go any further with this discussion.
Errol Morris’s new film, The Fog of War, a documentary about the career and character of Robert McNamara, fascinates on many levels. It is a study of a man in selective states of denial, a man who one minute calls himself a “war criminal”–though not for the usual reasons–and the next compares himself to a Quaker who burns himself to death protesting the very war that he was planning and directing. Morris, whose patented invention, the Interrotron, turns a merciless camera’s eye on its topic by all but forcing his subject to look straight on at the camera at all times, told me he chose McNamara as a subject for this innovative documentary because “more than anyone else, he embodies the twentieth century.” And what a horrible century it was.
McNamara places his first memory as Armistice Day, 1918, when he was just 2. It’s hard to know whether to believe him, however, because he is both a pathological liar and a comically pathetic braggart. During the course of The Fog of War, we hear the 85-year-old man bragging about his grades in grammar school, his Phi Beta Kappa standing in college, his brilliant record in graduate school and his enormous salary as president of the Ford Motor Company. To his credit, McNamara does not blanch from the record when Morris confronts him with unearthed documents relating to his role in Curtis LeMay’s firebombing campaign against Japan. He says: “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals…. He and, I’d say, I were behaving as war criminals.”
But much of McNamara’s testimony to Morris consists of legalistic rationalizations and whitewashing of history–and while Morris asks the right questions, he too frequently lets McNamara elide and abuse the truth. For instance, McNamara gives every impression in this interview of having advised John Kennedy on how to save the world during the Cuban missile crisis. But in fact, he frequently changed his mind throughout the crisis, arguing against the (secret) missile trade that Kennedy eventually made to end the crisis peacefully. He even advocated a plan calling for 500 daily conventional bombing sorties of the Soviet missile sites and air bases for seven days, followed by an invasion of Cuba. He did so despite the fact that, as he admitted in the meetings of Kennedy’s ExComm, “a missile is a missile. It makes no great difference whether you are killed by a missile fired from the Soviet Union or from Cuba.” To McNamara, who consistently resisted Kennedy’s arguments for compromise, this fateful step in which millions would likely die was necessary not because the missiles represented a “military problem” but rather because they were “a domestic political problem” owing to the President’s recklessly tough talk about Cuba.
The Vietnam dissimulations are even more egregious and too numerous to delineate here, but Morris views these, too, almost uncritically. After the screening of the film, he explained, in response to my question about his treatment of the history, that although he had been a protester against the war and had not changed his position on it, he had changed his position on Robert McNamara. He argued that the popular view of a “vacillatory Johnson and advisers like McNamara breathing down his neck” for war was false. Well, Morris is a brilliant filmmaker, but he is not a historian. Having spent eleven years working on a doctoral dissertation and forthcoming book devoted to these matters–When Presidents Lie: Deception and Its Consequences–I’d say the old man has sold him the same bill of goods he was handing out at Georgetown dinner parties thirty-five years ago, when he would break down in tears over the agony his sensitive soul endured at the thought of all that useless death and destruction in Southeast Asia. (McNamara helpfully points out that the 2 million Vietnamese killed in the war would be equivalent to 27 million Americans, controlling for population differences.) But Johnson did vacillate, over and over, before committing himself and the nation to war. The great tragedy of his career is that he saw it all coming and did it anyway. Given the awe in which Johnson held Kennedy’s brilliant Defense Secretary–perhaps the most admired man in America following the assassination–nobody could have proven more influential in stopping the war than the man who now says he identified with a guy who set himself on fire to try to stop it. Instead he continually argued for escalation despite admitting that at no time during the conflict did he have anything like a coherent plan for victory. His only explanation: “We were in the cold war and this was a cold war activity.”
Substitute the word “terrorism” for “communism” and you have your contemporary historical tragedy made to order. The filmmaker Robert Greenwald has put together an infuriating string of interviews with former intelligence agents and national security professionals in which it becomes clear that the Bush Administration is the Johnson Administration without the self-doubt. (The film, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, can be ordered from MoveOn.org.) Administration war planners purposely ignore the intelligence that does not fit their preconceived notions and deliberately mislead the nation–and possibly themselves–about their ability to bomb hostile populations into Jeffersonian democracy. Like McNamara and Johnson, they are destroying two countries at once: theirs and ours. Look for Paul Wolfowitz, twenty years from now, to tell us, tearfully, that he never really thought it was such a hot idea in the first place.