Errol Morris: On McNamara And The 'Fog Of War' Errol Morris' Academy Award-Winning documentary about former defense secretary Robert McNamara, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, offers fresh insight into the man many consider to be the architect of the Vietnam conflict.
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Errol Morris: On McNamara And The 'Fog Of War'

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Errol Morris: On McNamara And The 'Fog Of War'

Errol Morris: On McNamara And The 'Fog Of War'

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TERRY GROSS, host:

We're remembering Robert McNamara, who was considered the architect of the war in Vietnam. He died today at the age of 93. He served as secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

For many years, he wouldn't speak about his role in the war. That silence was broken by his 1995 memoir. In 2003, Errol Morris made a movie that tried to penetrate McNamara's enigmatic character. The movie was based on 20 hours of interviews with him, reflecting on the lessons he learned from Vietnam and World War II, in which he helped plan the fire-bombing of Tokyo. Morris' film, "The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara," won an Academy Award. Before we hear the interview I recorded with Morris, here's a clip from the beginning of "The Fog of War."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. McNAMARA: It's almost impossible for our people today to put themselves back into that period. In my seven years as secretary, we came within a hair's breadth of war with the Soviet Union on three different occasions. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year for seven years as secretary of defense, I lived the Cold War.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Mr. McNAMARA: During the Kennedy administration, they designed a 100-megaton bomb. It was tested in the atmosphere. I remember this. Cold War. Hell, it was a hot war.

GROSS: You know, one of the things that really astonished me watching "The Fog of War" was that McNamara was really lively, anecdotal, interesting, and I always thought of him, among other things, as cold and kind of inaccessible - in other words that you'd never get anything out of him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Give me an example of something he said that really surprised you.

Mr. ERROL MORRIS (Writer, Director): Well, the most surprising thing was discovering that his role in Vietnam was different than I had thought. Remember, the Vietnam War was known to many people as McNamara's War. He became not only associated with the war, people thought of it as his war, as though he was the person primarily responsible for it.

He was the hawk. He was the guy who pushed other people towards escalation, to bombing, to troops on the ground. You want an explanation for how we became mired in Vietnam, look no further than Robert S. McNamara. And yet as I got deeper and deeper into this story, my view of him and his role in history changed.

GROSS: How did it change?

Mr. MORRIS: It changed in so many ways. I had read, in retrospect, in 1995 - this was his supposed mea culpa for Vietnam.

GROSS: His memoir.

Mr. MORRIS: His memoir. And what surprised me was the book I was reading was so different than the book I saw described in many, many reviews and editorials. It didn't seem to be a mea culpa at all, more this anguished attempt to go back into the past to try to figure out what happened and why it happened.

There's this very odd conversation. "The Fog of War" actually has these recently released presidential recordings. Everybody knows Nixon made recordings, but it's less well known that Kennedy and Johnson recorded their conversations, as well.

Kennedy recorded Cabinet meetings. Johnson recorded phone calls. So you can actually hear the president of the United States talking with McNamara, a front-row seat in history, if you like. And there's one powerful conversation October 2nd, 1963. This is less than two months before Kennedy was assassinated. We hear McNamara and the president talking, and McNamara is urging Kennedy to set a timetable, a schedule for getting out of Vietnam.

This is the man who we consider to be the worst hawk of all in the administration, the most bellicose advisor of all in the administration.

GROSS: It's tempting to kind of go over your whole film point by point and talk about all the points that Robert McNamara makes, but I think I should let our listeners see the movie and talk about how - talk instead about how the movie was made. But first, I do want to just get to a couple of the very interesting points that McNamara makes in the movie, and one of them is in talking about World War II, where he served under General Curtis LeMay, and he participated in the planning of the fire-bombing of Tokyo, in which 100,000 civilians were killed. And he said something very interesting about war criminals. Why don't we hear this excerpt of your movie? This is an excerpt of Robert McNamara, speaking in Errol Morris' documentary, "The Fog of War."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. McNAMARA: I don't fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The U.S.-Japanese war was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history: kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to that time and today has not really grappled with what are, I'll call it the rules of war.

Was there a rule then that said you shouldn't bomb, shouldn't kill, shouldn't burn to death 100,000 civilians in a night? 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.

GROSS: Robert McNamara, speaking in the film, "The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara." We'll hear more of my 2004 interview with the filmmaker, Errol Morris, in the second half of the show. Robert McNamara died today at the age of 93. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering Robert McNamara, who was considered the architect of the war in Vietnam. He died today at the age of 93. McNamara served as secretary of defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Let's get back to the 2004 interview I recorded with Errol Morris about his Academy Award winning documentary, "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara."

Now in talking about his role in Vietnam, he certainly gives the impression that he tried to talk President Johnson out of the war, tried to start decreasing our presence in Vietnam. Do you believe that that was consistently his point of view with Johnson?

Mr. ERROL MORRIS (Filmmaker): It's a tortured story. I believe that if Kennedy had lived, in all likelihood there would not have been extensive bombing and half a million ground troops in Vietnam. It's one of those great mysteries that can't be really answered for certain, but the story leans in that direction. There is considerable amount of evidence to suggest that's the case. One thing that's really interesting, I sometimes say, well, this revised story about Vietnam that emerges in "The Fog of War," it's not necessarily a better story. It's just a different story because it raises a whole set of different questions. If McNamara was opposed to the war, why did he becomes a part of its escalation? Why did he continue to serve Johnson if he disagreed with his policies? Why did he stay on until 1968? And why, when he left the administration, did he remain silent? War went on '69, '70, '71, '72, '73, '74,'75. Between two and three million Vietnamese died and 58,000 Americans.

GROSS: Now aren't these the questions that he still refuses to answer? The questions that you just raised?

Mr. MORRIS: Yes and no. The movie has an epilogue where I return to some of the central mysteries of this story. I feel that there are partial answers, but this is not a movie where every "T" can be crossed and every "I" dotted. They're mysteries that remain for me, having made the movie.

GROSS: He reaches several conclusions and had several lessons that he feels like he's learned from his involvement in World War II and the Vietnam War. And one of his conclusions is you need to empathize with your enemy, but he says about Vietnam, we didn't know the Vietnamese well enough to empathize and put ourselves in their shoes. We saw the war in Vietnam as a cold war, they saw it as a civil war. And when I heard him say that, I thought, you know, what a true and interesting lesson to have learned and to impart to us. But then I thought for a second, isn't that what the anti-war movement was saying all along? That, you know, this isn't just the cold war, this is a civil war, why are we involved there? I mean, isn't that something that people were shouting at him for years?

Mr. MORRIS: Yes. This is a movie with one interview, but sometimes I think that they are actually two characters, the 85-year-old McNamara speaking to the 45-year-old McNamara and one of the questions...

GROSS: Yeah. I know exactly what you mean. I mean that was my - as a viewer that was my impression too. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: And one question that keeps coming up again and again, is this the same man? Are these two different men?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: Well, in one sense of course they're not. But are they the same? And in what way are they different, if they are different? You're absolutely right. Many of the things that McNamara says could've come out of anti-war demonstrators. It could've been things that they said verbatim in 1965. People who really hate McNamara, and they are many, when they hear about the lessons, they say, why do we want to hear anything this man says? Shouldn't he remain silent? My answer is an emphatic no. He has been so much a part of history, and the stories that he tells about history are really interesting and important stories. And they're stories by a man who knows.

GROSS: You know, you're talking about him being like the 85-year-old McNamara talking to the 40-year-old or 45-year-old McNamara. And I felt as a viewer that there were like, there were two versions of me watching the movie...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...as there were, yeah...

Mr. MORRIS: That's really interesting.

GROSS: Yeah, and I'll explain what I mean because like when he talks about...

Mr. MORRIS: By the way, it's also true in my case.

GROSS: Oh really? Really? Yeah.

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah.

GROSS: So, well, let me give you my example. When I was watching the movie and he says things like, during the war in Vietnam his family was so stressed out his family got ulcers. I can't remember if he got ulcers, too. And that you know, that his family was just like sickened by all of the stress. And one part of me thought, wow, that's really interesting that, you know, that it was so stressful on your family and that's a very kind of - that elicited a very sympathetic response for me. But then the other part of me was saying, well, I should think so. The whole country was divided by this war. The country was at war with itself. Americans were dying. Vietnamese were dying. So many lives of Americans were totally changed by the war and...

Mr. MORRIS: America, America was totally changed by the war.

GROSS: Right. So in that sense I'm saying, well, you know, sure, sure you'd have ulcers. I mean, geez.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I just felt myself having this constant dialogue with myself about my reactions to him and what he was saying. Tell me about the dialogue you had with yourself making the movie.

Mr. MORRIS: Well, my feelings about Vietnam haven't changed over the years. I demonstrated against the war as a young student because I found the war appalling. And now many, many years later I still find it appalling. Sometimes I think, am I being too easy on McNamara? Other times I think, am I being too hard on him? One undeniable aspect of the man is that he produces these very, very strong feelings. And yet, I feel privileged to have been able to talk to him and to make this movie. It's interesting. I started these interviews before 9/11. The first interview with McNamara was in May of 2001. I never thought that this would be a movie about now, that this would be a movie about today.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: And yet, as I continued to work on the film, the themes, the stories, the history that McNamara describes became more and more and more relevant to what is going on in the world today.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 2004 interview with Errol Morris about his Academy Award winning documentary about Robert McNamara, "The Fog of War." McNamara died today at the age of 93. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Errol Morris about his documentary, "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara." McNamara died today at the age of 93. The former secretary of defense was considered the architect of the Vietnam War.

GROSS: You know, I interviewed McNamara in '95 after his memoir was published.

Mr. MORRIS: Uh-huh.

GROSS: And, you know, as I said, I've never seen him be as interesting and lively and anecdotal as in your movie. And when I interviewed him, I guess you know, all my instincts were, ask him why he hasn't apologized if he knew all this in advance. Ask him if he thinks he owes America an apology or an explanation. And I you know, I haven't listened back to the interview, but I think that's where I kept...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...where I kept heading. And I'm wondering if your instinct was ever to do that yourself because the movie isn't that. You're not saying, well then apologize, you know? You're letting him speak. You're letting him tell his story and a lot of interesting things emerge and those things are very lively and attention-getting. I mean, you want to, you want to hear it. And whether you end up completely believing it or not you want to hear it. But was there ever an instinct in you saying, get him to apologize?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know?

Mr. MORRIS: Sure. Absolutely.

GROSS: And, but did you kind of suppress that and just, like, let him talk, or did you keep kind of getting back to that?

Mr. MORRIS: Did I kind of suppress it? I like the idea of suppressing it. Maybe. It's interesting because when you say there's something missing - if people say, well, McNamara didn't go as far as I would like, or, McNamara really didn't apologize, or, McNamara didn't really confess, I would ask myself, what is it that they want to hear? What exactly are they looking for? And I ask myself, do I want to hear McNamara apologize for the war? And here's my answer, not really.

GROSS: Mm-hmmm. Why not?

Mr. MORRIS: Because I don't think there is any apology for the war in this sense, how do you apologize for the death of 58,000 Americans and two to three million Vietnamese? I think he's done something far more interesting. He has gone back over the history of the war. Don't forget, this is the man who ordered the Pentagon Papers to be created. If you like, it's that same instinct to go back over the past, to look at it, to try to understand it. For the totally unsympathetic, the people who will hate McNamara no matter what, they will look at this attempt to go back over the past as excuse-making, oh yeah, sure, he's going back over the past. But he's going over the past just to provide a gloss on the past, to make himself look better.

My answer is no. When he suggests that he and LeMay were war criminals in World War II, and he tells a story that is so different from any other story I've heard about that period, I don't look at it as an attempt to whitewash the past but as a sincere attempt to go back over the past, to think abut the past.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Your interview with McNamara as it is in the movie "The Fog of War," starts with him having to pick up where he left off. I guess because, like, the tape or the film had run out and he has to like pick up in the middle of a sentence. In fact, let me just play this little exert.

Mr. MCNAMARA: Now I remembered exactly the sentence I left off on. I remember how it started and I was cut off in the middle, but you can fix it up someway. I don't want to go back - introduce the sentence because I know exactly what I wanted to say.

Mr. MORRIS: Go ahead.

Mr. MCNAMARA: Okay. Any military commander who is honest with himself or with those he's speaking to will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He's killed people unnecessarily, his own troops or other troops through mistakes, through errors of judgment, a hundred or thousands or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But he hasn't destroyed nations. And the conventional wisdom is, don't make the same mistake twice. Learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. They'll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you're going to destroy nations.

GROSS: That's Robert McNamara in the very opening of "The Fog of War." And my guest is the filmmaker Errol Morris. You know how I was talking about how I had two reactions to a lot of the movie? I had two reactions to seeing this part of the interview, especially at the very beginning. Part of me said, wow, he's being kind of manipulative here. He knows exactly what he's going to say. He's saying it. He's so kind of conscious of himself as an interviewee. But then the other part of me said, yeah, he should be. He has something really important to say here about, you know, lessons about nuclear weapons and being - you know, being in a position of power in the nuclear era. This is really important. I'm glad he remembered what he wanted to say. Tell me why you wanted to lead with this, in a way, very self-conscious moment of him saying, I'm going to pick up exactly where I left off. I know what I want to say.

Mr. MORRIS: Well, among other things he was a control freak.

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: And it's interesting to be reminded of that fact at the very beginning of the movie.

GROSS: At the very beginning. Yeah…

Mr. MORRIS: In fact, we see - at the very beginning of the movie, we see him in 1964 doing pretty much the same thing that he's doing in 2001.

GROSS: Well, Errol Morris, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MORRIS: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Errol Morris recorded in 2004. His film about Robert McNamara is called "The Fog of War." McNamara died today at the age of 93. Coming up, Shakespeare on DVD. This is FRESH AIR.

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