As United States Secretary of Defense throughout John Kennedy's presidency and for most of Lyndon Johnson's term of office, Robert McNamara played a leading role in determining U.S. military policy in Vietnam. By his own accounting, in 1966 he began to understand that American strategy in Vietnam would not produce victory — this was only a year or so after the U.S. began to deploy regular military forces there.
As Secretary of Defense, McNamara created the Vietnam Study Task Force in June 1967. Their mission was to assemble an "encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War" which would go on to acquire fame and notoriety as The Pentagon Papers. In a 1995 interview about his just-published memoirs, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, McNamara explained his motivation in directing creation of The Pentagon Papers as follows: Having observed failure in achieving U.S. objectives in Vietnam, he wanted to help scholars to investigate and discover the causes of the debacle.
From the day that he left the Defense Department, McNamara refused to publicly criticize American military policy, from Vietnam to Iraq, and the task of drawing conclusions from U.S. failures in Vietnam was left for others. In the early 1990s he, as he later recounted, felt compelled to sit and write out the lessons of the Vietnam War. The result was a list which was included, with only minor modifications, in the final chapter of In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. The list was prefaced with the description "11 major causes for our disaster in Vietnam".
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
Fast forward to 2001. McNamara has just published Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century and is busy promoting it. Documentary film director Errol Morris invites him to do a filmed interview. The interview is originally planned to last for one hour but winds up extending to a five-hour session over two days. Morris edits the material, McNamara approves, and they film more discussions. The final product is The Fog of War, created from 20 hours of interview material covering roles played by McNamara in the firebombing of Japan during the Pacific War, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis during the Kennedy administration and the escalation phase of the Vietnam War.
McNamara's list contained deep criticisms, delving to the mindset that took form in erroneous national policy decisions, as the U.S. escalated military involvement in Vietnam. The geopolitical intentions of our adversaries were misjudged and we failed to understand the South Vietnamese in terms of their own experiences. The "Eleven Lessons" of the documentary are similar to but not identical with McNamara's own list of lessons. They were derived by director Errol Morris from his conversations with McNamara, who insisted that Morris make clear that they are his own list.
You're taken back to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear warfare. Through McNamara's recollections of direct exchanges between the leaders of those two nations, the critical importance of getting inside the head of one's own worst enemies is driven home. Recorded conversations between President Kennedy and his advisers are played back, enabling you to sit in and listen as they discuss a possible attack on Cuba and seek to avoid a conflict that could destroy the lives of millions.
We travel back in time to victory celebrations in the streets following the conclusion of the First World War, then it's on to the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Business School. Personal recollections give us insight into what life was like during those years and are accompanied by photos and video clips from that era.
Some of McNamara's most interesting observations are made in the segment covering the time he spent in the U.S. Army Air Forces during the Pacific War. This was the first time that he crossed paths with Curtis LeMay, who would go on to become the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and was serving in that capacity during the Cuban Missile Crisis. LeMay planned and executed the massive fire bombing campaign against Japanese cities towards the end of the war, and McNamara contributed to that campaign as an officer in the Office of Statistical Control. Though LeMay is described as "extraordinarily belligerent", McNamara has high words of praise for him as a military commander.
Then we come to the most intense part of the documentary, tracing the early stages of the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam via recorded conversations between Robert McNamara and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The story was a great tragedy, not only for the nation, for the soldiers who fought there and for the Vietnamese, but also for the men involved at the top level of decision-making. At the height of their careers and at the pinnacle of power, they were overwhelmed by a situation beyond their ability to comprehend, much less to control. They lost their way in the Fog of War.