While I have started reading Road to Disaster, which came out in 2018, I did not read the book author Brian VanDeMark co-wrote with Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, published in 1995. In between the two, the film The Fog of War was made. While not a film version of McNamara’s book, it did have the background material of McNamara’s own auto-biography as a starting point. It also followed a structure of Lessons of Vietnam, building the narrative around 11 lessons from McNamara’s life. It is a different 11 lessons that those 11 in the book, but there is obviously an intended parallel.
To make things a little more convoluted, there is actually a book version of The Fog of War (now, apparently, out of print) that was written based upon the film shortly after it came out. Writing a biographical book based on a documentary film seems an odd way to go about things. Yet, there we have it. I don’t plan to read it.
The structure of the film is that McNamara is interviewed, allowing him to talk about the things that he has learned over his life and his career. That career took him through academia (teaching at Harvard), the Army Air Corps, to Ford Motor Company. There he was the first non-Ford family member to be company President, a position he held for 5 days. He left Ford when he was asked by newly-elected President John Kennedy to hold a cabinet position and became first Kennedy’s, then Johnson’s, Secretary of Defense. After his cabinet tenure he was appointed President of the World Bank and headed that organization for 13 years.
Perhaps typically for a political interview documentary, part of the intent of the filmmakers seems to be to get McNamara to say things that he didn’t want to say. It was filmed using a device the filmmaker calls an Interrotron. This is essentially a Teleprompter. However, instead of projecting words to be read, the filmmaker projects his own face. The result is a close-up shot of the interviewee from the perspective of the interviewer. McNamara is looking into the projected eyes of the interviewer as he talks and so appears to be making direct and human eye contact with the audience. It has particular impact when McNamara recalls emotional events, such as the death of President Kennedy.
The 11 lessons are a bit at odds with the narrative of Road to Disaster. This shouldn’t be surprising. The idea behind Road to Disaster was that there was a failure of both the intentions and methods of the Kennedy/Johnson crew, a failure that led to unintended consequences. So, for example, McNamara’s lesson about the power of data analysis (#6: Get the data) is countered by VanDeMark’s assertion that reliance on data (e.g. body counts and population under government control) fed McNamara’s inability to appreciate the truth. Similarly, the filmmaker, in some cases, is using McNamara’s “lesson” as a hook to try to get him to admit where he went wrong.
One of the more interesting revelations (to me, I’m sure it has been printed elsewhere) is McNamara’s description of a 1995 trip to Vietnam where he analyzed the war with his counterparts from his time advising Johnson. He said that, on the first day of their meeting, they nearly came to blows (some quarter of a century after the fact!) over differing beliefs in what were the basic, inarguable facts of the time.
The U.S. involvement hinged on the domino theory and the fear from both Kennedy and Johnson that losing Vietnam to the Soviet/Chinese international revolution would have destroyed them politically. The political impact probably was true, particularly in the mid-1960s. The domino theory, at least in the modern consensus, has been disproven by, not least, the fact that South Vietnam was ultimately taken over by the communists without the subsequent collapse of Southeast Asia.
The (formerly North) Vietnamese officials found that whole idea implausible and therefore disingenuous. To them, while the fight against the U.S. dominated their recent history, the fight against China had been ongoing for thousands of years. So while they were receiving assistance from China against the U.S., if indeed China decided to move into Vietnam as a result, Vietnam would have just as vigorously fought the Chinese. Similarly the Soviet Union would have been considered a colonial power just like the French and U.S. were. Given those basic facts, they refused to believe any of the reasons that the U.S. said they were involved in Vietnam and thus refused to believe that the paths to peace offered by the U.S. were genuine. The secret motives of the U.S., they felt, were to replace the French as colonial overlords of South Vietnam, exploiting the country and its people for resources.
From this, McNamara took away that there was a mutually-agreeable solution to avoid war involving democratic elections and self-rule. Of course, we know (also in hindsight) that the North Vietnamese made the determination that they would eventually win the war outright and placed little value in compromise. McNamara specifically challenged the officials on the human cost (in Vietnamese lives) of the war relative to the costs of compromise. He was frustrated by the low value that this communist regime, and historically communist governments in general, place on human life versus political/revolutionary victory. We can also wonder how much of the absoluteness of the current Vietnamese position is based on political propaganda of the time and since. From the Western perspective, it is difficult to believe that the U.S. could have possibly had designs on Vietnamese resources and, more particularly, that Kennedy and Johnson would want to embroil the U.S. in a war to maintain control of them. It also ignores the fact that North and South Vietnam were separate countries; the U.S. wasn’t threatening domination of the North but rather asking the North to cease military assistance to the insurgency in the South. While the image of Vietnamese nationalism sweeping through all the people of the country sounds good, it is unlikely that the “small folk” of North Vietnam would have any interest in which politician ran South Vietnam if their government weren’t feeding them what to think.
This film won multiple awards and was pushed on me by Netflix as a highly recommended view. I’m not sure it quite lives up to all that hype. In particular, some of the pacing was pretty slow filling up time with stock footage and generalized commentary. One the whole, however, the film is worth seeing as the closest McNamara ever came to revealing his heart to the nation that he tried to serve. I’m glad I took the time to watch.