For two decades, Kennedy's aides and palace historians propagated the myth that the president accepted the first telegram and simply ignored the second. However, in 1982, on the 20th anniversary of the crisis, a group of these aides—including McNamara—revealed that, in fact, Kennedy acceded to the missile trade; that he told only a handful of advisers about the deal; and that he even told the Soviets that the deal would be off if they publicized it. (During the Cold War, presidents could not politically afford to be seen as trading away military assets for the sake of peace; that would be condemned as "appeasement." Soviet threats were to be met strictly with American might.) In 1987, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston started to release tape recordings of the ExComm sessions, the meetings that Kennedy held with his advisers during the missile crisis. (JFK, like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon after him, secretly taped many White House conversations.) The tapes not only confirmed the revelation about the missile trade but also revealed that nearly all of Kennedy's aides—again, including McNamara—had vociferously opposed the deal at the time.
So it's bizarre to see, in this film, McNamara parroting the myth that even he long ago punctured—that Kennedy accepted Khrushchev's first telegram and ignored the second. More than that, he invents two new falsehoods. First, he mischaracterizes the second telegram as a harsh message "dictated by a bunch of hard-liners." (He says nothing about the Turkey trade.) Second, he claims that Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson, a former U.S. ambassador to Soviet Union, persuaded Kennedy to resolve the crisis through diplomacy, not force.
This too is misleading. A full hearing of the tapes indicates that Kennedy didn't need anybody to steer him toward negotiation. From the third day of the crisis, Kennedy was looking for a peaceful solution, pondering a way to let Khrushchev save face—and was virtually alone in doing so. A week before Khrushchev brought it up, he mused about the possibility of trading away the Turkish missiles.
In short, McNamara tries to paint himself as no less dovish than Kennedy on dealing with the Russians. Yet, as he must know on some level, the opposite was true.
McNamara's recollections of the Vietnam War are still more deceptive. Congress gave President Johnson carte blanche to go to war in August 1964 after reports that a North Vietnamese patrol boat had attacked the Maddox, a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. McNamara concedes that it now appears this attack didn't happen, but claims that he and Johnson honestly believed that it did at the time.
Two things are wrong with his account. First, the officers on the Maddox did send cables reporting a torpedo attack. But they also sent cables a few hours later, taking it all back and attributing the confusion to a misreading of sonar signals. (Daniel Ellsberg, who later leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers, spent his first day as a Pentagon aide watching this cable traffic and compellingly recounts the sequence of events in his recent memoir, Secrets.)
Second, McNamara fails to mention that the Maddox itself had engaged in covert attacks on the North Vietnamese coastline. The ship's sonar officers thought they saw a torpedo attack in part because they were expecting one. This covert operation, known as "Plan 34A," was designed to provoke a North Vietnamese response, which would then provide an excuse for U.S. escalation.
Even at the time, McNamara misled outsiders on this operation. When he was asked about rumors of provocation during hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he replied, "Our Navy played no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any." Notice the careful wording: "South Vietnamese actions." Technically, he was telling the truth. There were no SouthVietnamese actions. The provocations were entirely American. (As McNamara says in the film, in a different context, "I learned early on … never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you. And quite frankly, I follow that rule. It's a very good rule.")
Morris plays a fragment of a secret tape-recording from February 1964—very early in the Johnson administration—in which McNamara advocates a gradual withdrawal from Vietnam, and Johnson strongly opposes it. (At the time, the U.S. presence amounted to a small number of military advisers.) This is a significant conversation and counters the widely held view that LBJ was McNamara's puppet on the war.
However, the film neglects other evidence that reveals McNamara donning combat fatigues with gusto. For instance, there is a document of May 24, 1964, signed by McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, urging Johnson to "use selected and carefully graduated military force against North Vietnam" for as long as the North's leaders refuse to back down. The words are haunting, in retrospect—"selected and carefully graduated," as if the United States could control the pace of escalation, as if war could be mathematically calibrated. It's McNamara, the hyper-rationalist, not yet disabused.
There is also the secretly taped conversation of June 16, 1964 (nearly two months before the Gulf of Tonkin), in which Johnson says some people want him to pull out of Vietnam and McNamara says, "I just don't believe we can be pushed out of there, Mr. President. We just can't allow it to be done. You wouldn't want to go down in history as having …" Johnson interrupts, in agreement: "Not at all." (Michael Beschloss, who transcribes this conversation in his book Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964, footnotes McNamara's remarks with a description of his tone: "McNamara is pressing Johnson very hard.")