“America wins the wars that she undertakes, make no mistake about it, and we have declared war on tyranny and aggression.” Obama, one of the Bushes or Clinton? It’s a familiar bit of nonsense, but it was said by Lyndon Johnson sometime around 50 years ago.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is a 2003 SONY production that is basically an interview with the former longest-serving Secretary of Defense.
McNamara was in office during some of the biggest events of mid-century: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the seizure of the USS Pueblo by North Korea and the attack on the USS Liberty by Israel. He was also in office for much of the Vietnam War. Most of the movie is taken up by the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam, although it does cover his WW II experience and his work at Ford Motor Company. The Pueblo and the Liberty are not mentioned, but the Gulf of Tonkin is discussed, about which he says that the attack on the USS Turner Joy never happened.
Most of his answers are very direct – even to the point of saying that he might have been tried as a war criminal had the US lost WWII – but a few times he just says, “I won’t answer that.”
During the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 16 – 28, 1962) John Kennedy was very fortunate to have an aide named Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson who had lived with Nikita Khrushchev and knew him and his wife pretty well. McNamara says that the US was in receipt of two messages from the Soviet Union regarding its position on the missiles, one conciliatory and one belligerent. Thompson urged Kennedy to reply to the conciliatory message, arguing that if Khrushchev could save face he would. The confrontation was defused and we’ve lived sort of happily ever after.
This was not the only close call with nuclear war. McNamara says that during his 7 years as Secretary “We came within a hair’s breadth of war with the Soviet Union on 3 different occasions.” Things were getting so far out of hand that during the Kennedy administration the US built and tested a 100 megaton bomb in the atmosphere. He makes the point that military commanders make errors, but usually the errors only affect a few hundred or a few thousand people, they don’t destroy entire countries or kill millions of people as could happen with nuclear errors. “You make one mistake and you’re going to destroy nations.”
Thirty years after the Missile Crisis, in a meeting with Fidel Castro, McNamara learned that at the time of the crisis there were 162 nuclear weapons in Cuba, although at the time the CIA had said that the missiles were there, but the warheads had not arrived – an intelligence failure of the greatest possible proportions. Castro had recommended to Khrushchev that he launch a nuclear attack on the US in the event of an attack by the US even though Cuba would be obliterated.
Recalling his WW II experience he says:
March 9, 1945 “On that single night we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo, men, women and children.”Interviewer: “Were you aware this was going to happen?
McNamara: “I was part of a mechanism that recommended it. I analyzed bombing operations and how to make them more efficient. Not more efficient in the sense of killing more, but in weakening the adversary…. I don’t want to suggest that it was my report that led to the firebombing…It isn’t that I’m trying to absolve myself of blame for the firebombing.”
On the question of proportionality in war, McNamara says, “[Curtis] Lemay said if we lost the war we would all be prosecuted as war criminals and I think he’s right. He – and I would say I – were behaving as war criminals…Lemay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost, but what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”
October 2, 1963: McNamara returned from Vietnam. At the time there were 16,000 US advisers there. He recommended that all of them be removed within 2 years. “We need a way to get out of Vietnam and this is the way to do it.” Obviously that didn’t happen. Diem was overthrown in South Vietnam, JFK was assassinated and LBJ became president.
LBJ is heard saying on tape that he always thought that talk of pulling out was foolish. Johnson: “Then comes the question: How the hell does McNamara think when he’s losing the war he can pull men out of there?”
After the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution Johnson orders more troops in. He asks McNamara when he’s going to issue the order and is told that it will be made “late today so it will miss some of the morning editions. I’ll handle it in a way that will minimize the announcement.”
Towards the end he makes a statement that should be etched in stone above the Capital and the White House, viz “What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I don’t believe that we should ever apply that economic, political or military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam we wouldn’t have been there.”
It’s easy to watch this and think that McNamara is being self-serving or trying to justify his actions, but there are plenty of audio clips from the time that show he really did want to get out of Vietnam. Johnson was the one who wanted to pour more troops in, and McNamara, to his discredit, followed the script instead of speaking publicly or resigning.
“We and you ought not to pull on the ends of a rope which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction. For such is the logic of war. If people do not display wisdom, they will clash like blind moles and then mutual annihilation will commence.” – Nikita S. Khrushchev to John F. Kennedy
Two untypical war memoirs.
A Song for Nagasaki The Story of Takashi Nagai a Scientist, Convert, and Survivor of the Atomic Bomb – Paul Glynn
Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War – Paul Fussell
Reprinted with the author’s permission.