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'Fog Of War' Director Remembers McNamara

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'Fog Of War' Director Remembers McNamara

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'Fog Of War' Director Remembers McNamara

'Fog Of War' Director Remembers McNamara

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Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who died Monday at age 93, offered an appraisal of the Vietnam War in the 2003 documentary The Fog of War. Director Errol Morris, who made the award-winning film, says the war was an ongoing investigation for McNamara.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Errol Morris made that documentary, "The Fog of War," out of his 20 hours of interviews with Robert McNamara, and he joins us now from Boston. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ERROL MORRIS (Documentary Filmmaker, "The Fog of War"): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: You're probably privy to more of Robert McNamara's introspection than anyone but close friends or relatives, what do you think he made of his role in history?

Mr. MORRIS: To him it was an ongoing investigation trying to figure out what had gone wrong, what he had been thinking, and moreover, how we could learn lessons from history and perhaps prevent the same things from happening all over again. Very, very sad because the same things were happening all over again at this time that I was making the movie with him.

SIEGEL: In Iraq, you're saying.

Mr. MORRIS: Yes.

SIEGEL: I want to play something that McNamara told you about - in the documentary about working in World War II under Curtis LeMay, who 20 years later would urge nuclear war over the Soviet missiles in Cuba, the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the fire bombing of Japan, which McNamara worked on with LeMay, McNamara said they burned to death 100,000 civilians in Tokyo in one night.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Fog of War")

Former Secretary ROBERT MCNAMARA (Department of Defense): LeMay said, if we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals.

SIEGEL: He had confronted questions of responsibility for war long before Vietnam, it sounds.

Mr. MORRIS: I believe that's correct, yes. This remark came at the very beginning of my series of interviews with him - quite a surprising remark, not with respect to Vietnam, but a war criminal with respect to the fire bombing of Japan. And this issue of responsibility and that his culpability is something that never left him. It was with him throughout his life.

SIEGEL: But here's another cut from "The Fog of War," in the epilogue, you ask McNamara if he felt responsible for Vietnam. And here's what he said.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Fog of War")

Former Sec. MCNAMARA: I don't want to go into further discussion, it just opens up more controversy. I don't want to add anything to Vietnam, it is so complex, that anything I say will require additions of qualifications.

Mr. MORRIS: Is it the feeling that you're damned if you do and if you don't, no matter what you say?

Former Sec. MCNAMARA: Yeah, yeah that's right. And I'd rather be damned if I don't.

SIEGEL: That was a pretty central question about his career and what lessons he learned from it, for him to be so resistant to answering you.

Mr. MORRIS: He has tried to answer that question in so many different ways. I'm not sure that - has a question with any definite answer. It's something that he was clearly wrestling with when I talked with him. And the puzzle, the mystery of it all is increased certainly by listening to these taped conversations between Johnson and McNamara.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: McNamara is often thought of as the hawk, Johnson the dove. But to me those conversations tell a very different story.

SIEGEL: When McNamara began writing and talking about Vietnam more candidly, it was in the 1990s. It was 30 years after the fact. And many people criticized him saying that if he had made this acknowledgements even in the 1970s, when the country was still so divided over the war, it might've been more significant. But that might've required his exile from the Washington establishment.

Mr. MORRIS: It's something for which many people can never forgive him. Not for the role in orchestrating the war, but his silence following his departure from the Defense Department. He told me a very odd and interesting story that he and McGeorge Bundy had come to Humphrey.

SIEGEL: Hubert Humphrey.

Mr. MORRIS: Hubert Humphrey, who was running for president of the United States, and said that they would come out with him, together they would come out against the war if Humphrey would declare his opposition as well. Humphrey said, I have to speak to Johnson first. And he went off to meet with the president. President - according to McNamara, must've heard why they - Humphrey had come for this visit and kept him waiting for four or five hours, and during that time, Humphrey lost his nerve. Whether this is true or not, I don't know.

But another fantastically interesting story that I heard from this man, why didn't he speak out - here's another question for you. Why didn't he speak out against the Iraq war? When he expressed to me on so many, many occasions his opposition to what was happening.

SIEGEL: Errol Morris, filmmaker, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MORRIS: Thank you for having me.

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McNamara's Legacy Mired In Vietnam Debacle

Robert McNamara spent the last chapter of his life striving mightily to atone for the sins — his sins — of Vietnam.

In a 1995 memoir, he called the Vietnam War and crucial decisions he made as President Lyndon B. Johnson's secretary of defense "wrong, terribly wrong."

He cooperated in a 2004 documentary, Fog of War, which laid out his pivotal role in pursuing war in Vietnam and put his old man's anguish on big-screen display.

And he vigorously pursued what had become his passions: battling famine and hunger in the Third World, and working to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

McNamara's road to rehabilitation ended Monday with his death at 93.

But a longer road and more good works likely could never have erased or even much eased what is destined to be history's harsh assessment of the man known as the architect of the debacle that was Vietnam.

"Along with LBJ, he was the fulcrum on which a generation pivoted, and the price in blood was breathtaking," says author Robert Timberg, a Vietnam veteran who bears the scars from a near-fatal fuel-tank explosion he survived during the war.

"He did lots of things to redeem his reputation, but ultimately, we are what we do," says Timberg, a Naval Academy graduate who wrote The Nightingale's Song, an examination of how the lives and careers of five academy graduates — including Sen. John McCain — intersected in the Vietnam era and after. "You can't hit the delete button on 58,000 dead."

'All-Purpose Whipping Boy'

Vietnam — and McNamara — defined a divided nation, and the profound effects on the baby boomer generation resonate to this day.

As secretary of defense first to President John F. Kennedy and then to Johnson, McNamara became "the all-purpose whipping boy" for everybody involved in Vietnam, says historian Douglas Brinkley.

"The anti-war movement saw him as a liar with blood on his hands who fudged facts, misinformed the president," Brinkley says. "Military leaders and hawks saw him as someone who wasn't gutsy, who crumbled when the pressure was on and sent servicemen into a war with no hope."

McNamara, who came to harbor strong private doubts about the nation's foray into Southeast Asia, became what Brinkley describes as a "metaphor for what happens to a Cabinet officer who withholds the truth from a president."

No Forgiveness

Despite his later-in-life regrets, McNamara was initially a proponent of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, and in 1964, he pronounced himself pleased to have the Vietnam War tagged as "McNamara's War."

For that — and for his failure to publicly express his misgivings about the war — McNamara deserves little sympathy, says journalist Stanley Karnow, whose 1983 book, Vietnam: A History, is considered a definitive look at the war.

"He came out with his memoir, this mea culpa," says Karnow, referring to McNamara's In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, published in 1995. "But if I was the father of a son who was killed in Vietnam, I'd give rather short shrift to McNamara because he was the architect."

Karnow recalls that when the war was degenerating, McNamara during a trip called reporters into his hotel room and expressed doubts about the effectiveness of U.S. bombing missions.

"He didn't come out publicly, but of course word eventually went out that he had these doubts," Karnow says. "And Johnson, who once thought McNamara the best civil servant ever, believed he was unraveling and moved him to the World Bank."

A 'Terrible Error'

Daniel Ellsberg is a former military analyst famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers — the government's top secret history of the Vietnam War — to The New York Times in 1971. He says McNamara recognized early on that he made a "terrible error" in urging Johnson in 1964 and 1965 to continue bombing in Vietnam.

By staying on as defense secretary, McNamara may have played a key role in preventing the war from expanding further, Ellsberg says. But he says McNamara blundered historically by staying loyal to the president and not to the public.

"Although he worked as an insider to keep a lid on the war, he did not do what he could and should have done in 1967: reveal to the public and Congress what he was telling the president," Ellsberg says, "and that was to end the bombing and negotiate a power share" with Hanoi and the Viet Cong.

More than 16,590 American servicemen were killed in Vietnam in 1968, and another 11, 616 in 1969, the deadliest years in a war that didn't end until 1975.

Haunted By The War

Karnow, a World War II veteran who covered the entire Vietnam War for magazines and newspapers, said it was clear to him that McNamara was haunted by Vietnam and his role in it.

At a conference both men happened to be attending in Japan some years before McNamara wrote his memoir, the former secretary of defense mentioned briefly during his turn on stage that he thought Vietnam was a mistake.

Approached later by Karnow, who asked for an interview, McNamara said he wasn't ready to talk. But Karnow's phone rang at 7 the following morning. On the other end was McNamara.

"He started babbling — expressing all his doubts about the war. But it wasn't anything I could use," Karnow says. "It was a bit incoherent."

'Credit For Seeing The Folly'

Sen. George McGovern won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 on his anti-Vietnam War stand.

Now 86, McGovern, who lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon, says he appreciated that McNamara acknowledged the mistake of Vietnam.

"I think that Robert McNamara did a very brave act when he came out against the Vietnam War many years later," McGovern said Monday from his home in his native South Dakota.

"He deserves great credit for seeing the folly of our involvement there, though I wish he had come to that conclusion earlier," McGovern says. "It's very hard for people in public life to say, 'I made a mistake.' "

McGovern said he approached McNamara after the two had participated in a panel discussion in New York and personally congratulated him for "recognizing the folly."

"And from that time on, he and I had a congenial relationship," McGovern said.

'He'll Never Get Redemption'

Before his White House years, McNamara was a top executive at Ford Motor Co.

He pioneered safety features on cars, Brinkley says, and was "a young, new hotshot" at a company experimenting in new car designs, including that of the popular Thunderbird.

It's Brinkley's assessment that McNamara was a successful defense secretary under Kennedy, but will go down in history as one of the worst to fill that role for his performance under Johnson.

"He knew in 1965 that Vietnam was not winnable, and he didn't tell the president," Brinkley says. "He was one of the worst secretaries of defense in American history, and only Donald Rumsfeld has moved him up a notch from the bottom."

"He'll never get redemption, never escape the brand of failure on his chest that came from mismanaging the war," he says.

A Tragic Life?

Those who have watched, wrote about and knew McNamara — and knew of his brilliance and wit, his successes as a business executive and as a later-in-life humanitarian — still assess his life as a tragedy.

"Vietnam was his defining time," McGovern says, "and it imbued his life with tragedy."

Says Karnow: "I began to feel, in the end, that McNamara was himself a casualty of the war. He was, in fact, tormented by it — more tormented than a lot of people."

But he should have gone public with his doubts at the time of the war and resigned, says Karnow.

"Considering that 60,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam, not to mention a couple million Vietnamese, he had a duty to stand up and protest," he says.

Now, he has become part of history.

And history, Brinkley says, won't provide him an easy billet.