The Evasions of Robert McNamara
What's true and what's a lie in The Fog of War?
A great biography waits to be written about Robert Strange McNamara and the central role he played in 20th-century America, both as an actor in its historic dramas and as a symbol of the shattering of its postwar illusions in the wake of Vietnam. Errol Morris' documentary film The Fog of War (released in theaters today) conveys a brilliant glimmer of where that biography might go.
McNamara was the original and ultimate "Whiz Kid," who viewed the world's problems as solvable through statistical analysis. He rose to power on the buoyancy of this belief—and limped away with his beliefs in tatters. The rise took him from the Harvard Business School, where he was the youngest professor in its history; to the Army Air Forces in World War II, where he used statistics to maximize the efficiency of the bombing raids over Japan; to Ford Motor Co., where he rose to its presidency; and finally, in 1961, at age 44, to President John F. Kennedy's Cabinet, as the secretary of defense.
Running the Pentagon, McNamara applied these same statistical techniques to everything from weapons procurement to counterinsurgency tactics and nuclear-war strategy. His acumen, energy, and confidence in the rightness of his views seemed boundless.
Then, under President Lyndon B. Johnson, came the war in Vietnam. At first McNamara tried to manage the war with his usual assurance. By 1967, he was worn out; defeat seemed certain; his methods, his basic assumptions about the workings of the world, had failed him. He resigned (or got fired—it was never quite clear), received an appointment as president of the World Bank, and over the next few decades emerged periodically to advance proposals for world disarmament.
Morris (whose films include The Thin Blue Line  and Mr. Death ) persuaded McNamara, who is now 86, to sit before a camera and talk about his life's lessons. The results—set to music by Philip Glass—are fascinating. Disillusionment left McNamara an oddly fractured man—prone to extravagant self-delusion and denial, yet also capable of brutal self-criticism. (I interviewed him 20-odd years ago about his Pentagon years; the former traits were well on display, but not yet the latter.)
Some of the lessons he cites in this film will be astonishing to anyone who remembers his arrogance in power. The biggest eye-opener may be when McNamara says, "Rationality will not save us"—a truism to most people, but the precise opposite of what he would have contended 40 years ago. He also warns against using military power unilaterally (a point as relevant to President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld in Iraq as to McNamara himself in Vietnam). And in the film's most searing moment, he likens himself to a war criminal for the massive firebombings that he and Gen. Curtis LeMay planned during WWII; the raids over Tokyo killed 100,000 civilians in a single night.
Later in the film, McNamara refuses to discuss the responsibility he might bear for the damage wreaked in Vietnam. Nor does he want to talk about why, though he came to regret the war, he failed to speak out against it after he left office. Still, his brooding over the ravages he helped inflict in WWII—"the good war"—may suggest the scope of his later agonies; in any case, it reveals a far more introspective McNamara than we've ever seen.
Yet the film displays far more instances of McNamara's mendacity. Morris calls him on a couple of instances but gives him a free ride on the others. This is not meant as a criticism of Morris. The Fog of War, after all, is in part about a man who is still lost in that fog. It is, in any case, not primarily a film about the history of U.S. foreign policy. Still, many viewers are going to come away from this film with a distorted picture of two key chapters of history in particular—the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. Here is a corrective.
McNamara's recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a self-serving travesty. "Kennedy was trying to keep us out of war," he tells Morris. "I was trying to help him keep us out of war." Well, the first part of that statement is true. The second part is also true, at least for the first two of the crisis's 13 days. But after the second day, McNamara became an increasingly firm advocate of bombing the Soviet missile sites, which were surreptitiously being installed in Cuba, and of then invading the island of Cuba itself—even if doing so risked sparking a larger war with the USSR. (For details, click
The crisis was resolved through a combination of overt pressure and covert diplomacy. On Friday, Oct. 26, 1962, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev sent Kennedy a telegram offering to remove his missiles if the United States promised never to invade Cuba. Kennedy was set to agree. But then on Saturday, Oct. 27, Khrushchev sent another telegram upping the stakes, saying he'd remove his missiles from Cuba if the United States took its own nuclear missiles out of Turkey (which bordered the USSR in much the same way that Cuba borders the United States).
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Robert McNamara on the Slate home page by Adalberto Roque/AFP.