In the remaining years of his life, Robert McNamara recorded some 20 more hours of conversations with director Errol Morris, even after Morris’ “The Fog of War” had been released and won an Oscar for best documentary.
The fact that the interviews continued well beyond the documentary reflected Morris’ continued fascination not just with his subject, but McNamara’s own search for answers as he grappled with history.
I talked to Morris on Monday shortly after hearing that McNamara had died at age 93, having lived a life, as Morris put it, as “one of the most controversial and also one of the most divisive figures in American history.”
Because of “The Fog of War,” McNamara is a far different figure than the person who left his post a defense secretary in 1968. The documentary plays like a soliloquy of lessons learned from a career spent wrestling with intractable problems. Morris started interviewing McNamara in the spring of 2001, before 9/11. So it is somewhat of a coincidence that by the time the movie was released two years later, it suddenly became all the more relevant and prescient with the initial stage of fighting in Iraq.
“Some people talk about the movie as this attempted rehabilitation of a public figure,” Morris said. “I never saw it that way. I thought that McNamara was genuinely involved in this very interesting enterprise of trying to deal with his past. I think it is a lesson, or should be a lesson, to other public servants.”
Did you ever get the sense of the impact that the movie had on him?
I don’t think it changed him, but it afforded him an opportunity to speak to a much wider group of people and also to speak to young people…People who grew up or came of age in the 1960s, myself being one of them, have strong feelings about the man. I demonstrated against the war as a young student. McNamara was already out of office by ’68. But he still remained the person most associated with the escalation of the war. Rightly or wrongly, he became the poster boy of that war, even though most of the combat deaths and civilian deaths had occurred after he left his position as secretary. That is one of the great ironies.
Many people still hold against him the fact that he did not speak out against the war sooner. He had doubts about the war as early as ’66 and yet he did not voice those doubts until the early ’90s. And he remained silent, critically silent, during years when the war just escalated and escalated and escalated. For that there are people who will never forgive, and yet here is a man torn between the loyalties to the presidents he served and his own sense of right and wrong, a person who really agonized about the role he has played in war.
So McNamara was against the war in Iraq.
He was very much against the Iraq war. …He would not do it publicly, though. He spoke out in Canada. He wouldn’t speak out in the U.S. I urged him to. ‘Why won’t you speak out, sir?’ It was this odd loyalty to government. You could say, ‘What loyalty did he have to the Bush administration at the time?’ But I think his loyalty went beyond specific presidents, to this idea of loyal service. He would repeatedly say to me, the president was elected. I was not. And that is true. He had this idea, this sense of personal rectitude of what he could and could not do. And he never overcame it. I think that is perhaps one of the tragedies of the man.
Did he ever talk about what of his own character flaws may have led him to misguided decisions in Vietnam?
These are really complex questions. I think one of the saddest things in “The Fog of War” is his admission near the end of the film that he truly believed in rationality and that rational thinking could provide solutions to the most intractable problems of the world. And in the end, he says, maybe rationality isn’t enough. I think to me that is the saddest moment in the film, the fact that somehow at work in history is something so irrational that we can’t control it.
You said that “there may never be satisfactory answers” to some of the questions you pressed him on.
One question I had asked him early on … why was the paperback edition of “In Retrospect” different from the hardback edition. And he said there is no difference. They are the same. And I said no, there is this footnote about the Gulf of Tonkin Bay incident. In fact, he had corrected the hardback version, saying he now knew the second attack on the Gulf of Tonkin had never happened. This to people who had lived through it was as controversial as the WMDs. Because after all, there was Colin Powell in the United Nations showing photographs to the world purporting to provide incontrovertible evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, claims which were soon after shown to be false. In 1964, there were two supposed attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin Bay, attacks by the North Vietnamese on American war ships. We now know, and I believe we knew shortly after the events themselves, that the second attack never occurred. It was imaginary. And yet it took McNamara some 30 years to admit to that. Did he really have no inkling during that period of time that the second attack may have been a fiction or a figment of someone’s imagination? Endless questions.
What surprised many people in “Fog of War” was not what he said about Vietnam, but what he said about World War II and his role in planning the fire bombing of Tokyo. He wonders whether he and General Curtis LeMay would have been war criminals if the U.S. had lost the war.
It was a real question for him, Should they have been prosecuted as war criminals? And I think the question carries over to Vietnam as well. He may not have said it explicitly, but in everything he said, to me it was clear he was not just talking about World War II but also talking about Vietnam.
What his reaction when you won the Oscar?
He was enormously pleased. He never said directly to me that he liked the film, but he told a lot of other people. He was not the kind of person who would effusively praise someone, but clearly he liked the movie.