McNamara’s lesson for today’s politicians


NEW YORK — A recent film, “The Fog of War,” directed by Errol Morris — about former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s recollections of his political life — should be required viewing for politicians worldwide. His testimony is valuable in several aspects. As a historical document, it provides unique material from the perspective of a key power player during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. As a political document, it shows how political decisions are made that may affect the lives of millions of people.

From a personal point of view it shows how the weight of the decisions that McNamara made during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations still bear on his personal life. Although he is unrepentant over his actions, his testimony will serve to judge not only his own but other players’ role in these events.

McNamara had been president of the Ford Motor Co. — the first person outside the Ford family to hold such a key position — when he was asked by President John F. Kennedy to serve as his secretary of defense. As McNamara acknowledges, it was an unprecedented offer to someone without any experience in such affairs. When he made that point to Kennedy, the president responded, “But Bob, I don’t think there is a school for the presidency either.” McNamara could not refuse Kennedy’s offer and went on to become a powerful voice in the administration.

Among McNamara’s comments is his claim of partial responsibility for the World War II firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities long before the atomic-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During those raids, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were killed — an inevitable cost of war, as McNamara saw it. When asked about his role in these events, he responded, “I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it.”

Equally telling are McNamara’s recollections of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. According to McNamara, the world escaped a nuclear holocaust by just plain luck. In a meeting with Fidel Castro in Havana many years later, he pointedly ask the Cuban leader three questions: Were there missiles in Cuba at the time, would you have recommended their use, and, if they had been used, what would have happened to Cuba?

Castro replied that there were indeed missiles in Cuba, that he had recommended that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev use them and that Cuba probably would have been destroyed.

McNamara reported that, at the height of the crisis, the United States received two conflicting messages from the Russians: a tough one saying essentially, “If you attack us, we will confront you with tremendous military power”; and a softer one stating, “If you guarantee us that you are not going to invade Cuba, we will take our missiles out of the country.”

After much deliberation with his advisers, Kennedy decided to respond to the soft message, and the crisis was eventually resolved.

From that McNamara derived one important lesson: “Rationality will not save us. We were all rational people. Kennedy was rational, Khrushchev was rational, Castro was rational and [closing two fingers] we were that close to the destruction of our societies.”

In passing, McNamara makes a confession of tremendous historic value: “We attempted to assassinate Castro during the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations.”

Despite his direct involvement in World War II’s Pacific theater, which he calls “one of the most brutal wars in human history,” and in the Vietnam War, he became a strong advocate for peace after leaving government.

“Death and destruction, this is the logic of war,” he admits. And in a statement that should be carefully heard by today’s politicians he says: “We are the strongest nation in the world today. But we never should apply our power unilaterally. If we cannot persuade other nations of the rationality of our cause, we should re-examine our reasoning.”

Although he still looks a bit like the self-assured, efficient bureaucrat that he was, he now appears as one haunted by his memories.