Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Craig McNamara Reveals the Truth Behind the Lies of His Father, Robert McNamara

The author of “Because Our Fathers Lied” lays bare agonizing truths about the America his father helped to shape.
Craig McNamara. [Malika Lewis]

Click to subscribe on: Apple / Spotify / Google PlayAmazon

Thousands of words have been penned about Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961 to 1968, including by McNamara in his 1996 autobiography, “In Retrospect.” But the latest book about one of 

the architects of America’s disastrous Vietnam War policy, written by his son Craig McNamara, could be the most intimate look yet at his life and decisions. Although they carry the same last name, the two men seem to be radically different in almost every sense, especially when it comes to their perspectives on war and peace. McNamara joins Robert Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss his moving, eye-opening memoir, “Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today.” 

The author describes how the book was years in the making and allowed him to explore the deep differences between himself, an anti-war demonstrator and Northern California walnut farmer, and his father, whose role in the Vietnam War and other Cold War operations and conflicts have led many, including Scheer, to call him a war criminal. McNamara describes in detail a father-son relationship that reflects some of the most profound rifts between two generations who saw the world in starkly distinct ways, while at the same time revealing agonizing truths about America his father helped to shape. The title, borrowed from a Rudyard Kipling poem, speaks to multi-generational encounters father and son had with Vietnamese general Võ Nguyên Giáp and his son, where the two Vietnamese men told their American counterparts that the U.S. never understood their country nor what they and their compatriots call Kháng chiến chống Mỹ (“Resistance war against the United States.”) 

Throughout the conversation, Scheer calls on his journalism covering the Vietnam War and interviewing McNamara’s father on multiple occasions to frame the conversation in political terms that resonate today. The “Scheer Intelligence” host’s reading, “Because Our Fathers Lied,” is not only the heart-wrenching story of a son “coming to terms with his father’s legacy;” it serves to highlight how the “best and the brightest” (to borrow David Halberstam’s phrase), including Robert McNamara, led the country and, indeed, the world down catastrophic paths under the guise of democracy and enlightenment. According to Scheer the journalist, it is the wisdom of people like Craig McNamara, who spent time learning from subsistence farmers in Latin America and elsewhere, and views “food poverty” as food apartheid, that was and is most desperately needed if we are to build an ethical future.

Listen to the full conversation between McNamara and Scheer as they pull at the threads of the author’s personal relationship with his father to understand the broader tapestry of one of American history’s most shameful chapters.

Credits

Host:

Robert Scheer

Producer:

Joshua Scheer

Transcript

Robert Scheer:
Hi, this is another edition of Scheer Intelligence where I always insist, and generally, it’s worked out to be true. The intelligence comes from my guest. And in this case, I can tell you, I don’t want to start gushing here, but the book is called Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today.
And the father involved in this title was Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense under both presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was the man who basically was the architect of the Vietnam War, and somebody I covered as a journalist. I also went to Vietnam, I think, four different occasions and wrote about the war and so forth, and I thought I’d read everything I’d ever want to read about Vietnam. And I must say this book in my mind is now on the must-read of the top 10.
And I’m saying that, I think we scheduled this because Father’s Day is in this weekend. And it is a compelling story about a son and a father, and it would apply to any strong father-son relationship, and it takes on particular resonance when he’s one of the most important historical actors, and his only son who ended up becoming a critic of the war, and it’s all about that relationship, but much more. So I’m going to turn it over to you. It took you a long time to get around to writing this book. There’s a lot to talk about, but I’ma let you start it off. How did it finally… You started this, I think, 50 years ago, and now it’s come out. So just talk about the process. You are a walnut and olive farmer in Northern California. You had a different career trajectory, but just talk about the book from your point of view.
Craig McNamara:
Well, thank you, Robert, and I’m honored to join you and your audience today. I’m very humbled to do that. Yes. The book has been probably 50 years in the making. I’m 72 years old. I’m born in April of 1950. And the book has been on my mind because I realized that my entire adult life has been lived through the lens of the Vietnam War, in one way or another. So many of our listeners may be of our age group, grew up during the ’60s, when my father was sworn in as Secretary of Defense for JFK. That was January of 1961. I was 10 years old. We just moved to Washington D.C.
So those very formative years, early teens and on into late teens, were the ones where my father really was directing the war first with JFK and then of course with LBJ. As I entered into high school, one of my good friends had planned a teach-in. And I remember calling my father from school in a payphone and asking him if he had any leaflets, any materials that he felt supported our invasion in our war in Vietnam. Please send them to me so that I could distribute them when I was 15 or 16 years old at this first teach-in.
And to the best of my knowledge, those pamphlets never arrived. And I can only imagine what was going on in his mind, because honestly, I think by 1965, he had realized that the war in Vietnam, our war, the American war, was one unwinnable. And I’ll pause here for you and I to talk a little bit about that, because I think that’s a critical part of my memoir and the discovery that I’ve made. You and I are friends of Daniel Ellsberg, who is a wonderful, wonderful friend, 92 years old, and has shared with me much of his knowledge about the Pentagon Papers, about Robert S. McNamara, my father, and about the war.
Robert Scheer:
And it’s just a little footnote of that. I hadn’t thought about it. And by the way, I just want to repeat the title and get people to actually read this book, because it really is an insider account of the mindset of the best and the brightest. That’s the title that David Halberstam had for his classic work on Vietnam, the great New York Times correspondent who did so much to cover the war. But the whole conceit, and not just of this war, but really of American history, is a notion of American exceptionalism, of American innocence. We make mistakes, but we don’t commit war crimes. We may do enhanced interrogation. We don’t do torture. We may have had slavery, but it was really part of a larger scheme to liberate everybody with the greatest document on freedom.
So we’ve always got our built-in rationalization. And I just recall, I happened to… I was going to be a so-called expert witness for the Pentagon Papers trial, where Daniel Ellsberg was facing 140 years in jail for revealing the Pentagon Papers, which he had worked on. He had been in Vietnam, he was in the Defense Department, he knew a lot about it, and he realized this whole war was a hoax. The rationalization was a shred of lies.
And I remember sitting, doing an interview, very much like this one, with Daniel Ellsberg while he was preparing for that trial, and he got a phone call and it was from someone in the Pentagon, and he thought Robert McNamara, your father, was going to come on the phone. It was right here in downtown L.A. on 1st Street in one of these rising towers, and he was in the backyard. The whole Defense team was staying here. And he was disappointed to learn… He thought Robert McNamara, because this was after he was Secretary of Defense, Nixon was now the president, he actually thought your father might testify at his trial, in his defense, in telling us the truth about the war. And he was disappointed to find that your father didn’t do that.
And that’s a big theme that runs through this book. Your father was a man of which a lot of people had great expectations. He was one of the best and the brightest. He was a whiz kid. He had been a great performer. And in your book, you keep returning to this question, why did this man, who clearly was troubled by this war that he presided over, never tell us the truth? First of all, why didn’t he tell it to his son? You. That’s what you were asking for with those pamphlets, but why didn’t he?
The closest he came to it, I was going to say, was that book he wrote. He wrote an autobiographical book, but it really didn’t get there. And then there’s that wonderful documentary that won the Academy Award that I think everyone should watch called The Fog of War, where he admits, he admits, that three and a half million people died at that point in the war. I think the figure is probably more like seven million or six million, but three and a half million people, mostly innocent civilians, died in a war he presided over.
But as your book explores… And you love this man. You cared about him. You take care of him, and you introduced us to him not as a cartoon figure or as a caricature or just, “No, he’s a war criminal.” Yes, I think he was a war criminal, personally. Your book dances around that question. You can tell us how you feel about it. But the fact of the matter is, this is the father you respected; in many ways, you were close to; in many ways, you were estranged. It’s kind of what I think of as a typical, upper-crust Protestant family. But tell us about that because the book is really kind of waiting to the very end for your father to come clean.
Craig McNamara:
Yeah. Let me jump in right there, Robert. You really circled the wagons on this in a very appropriate way. It’s a very complicated topic. My father was a man who based his life on a set of principles. You already said that, the best and the brightest. And throughout my entire life, I understand it, as an early teenager, maybe late teenager, this issue of not coming forward with the truth. But as a 20, 30, 40, 50, 60-year-old, it’s time for fathers and sons and sons and daughters to reach out and to embrace the truth, as difficult as it is.
The one time that I did penetrate that impermeable wall of his was kind of an utterance of loyalty. And loyalty was very important to my father. And personal loyalty to the presidents he served was first and foremost. I think the assassination of President Kennedy was such a traumatic blow, obviously to our nation, to the world, but specifically to my father who, together with Jackie Kennedy, picked out the president’s gravesite in Arlington Cemetery. This was a relationship that was profound, and I think my father was profoundly impacted and affected.
And as LBJ was sworn in and my father served him, served him loyally, I want to quote to you a quote that I found just after my father either was fired or resigned. And let me say, after the research that I’ve done for my memoir, I truly believe that LBJ fired my father. That was in February of 1968. This quote is just a few months later, May 10th, 1968, in Life magazine.
And our listeners will remember. Life magazine was an 18-inch by 12-inch glossy mag. And it was about a 20-page article going deeply into my father’s background and service. And here’s the quote Robert McNamara said: “Around Washington, there is this concept of the ‘higher loyalty’. I think it’s a heretical concept, this idea that there’s a duty to serve the nation above the duty to serve the president, and that you are justified in doing so. It will destroy democracy if it’s followed. You have to subordinate a part of yourself, a part of your views,” end quote.
And I want to remind our listeners that my father, along with Dean Rusk, along with Bobby Kennedy, and the other cabinet members, took an oath of office that said, “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It’s the same oath that men and women take today. So his oath and his loyalty to a president I think was misdirected.
And I questioned, if he knew, as the Secretary of Defense, that the war was not winnable, I would have expected him to let it be known to the president, to the joint chiefs of staff. And if he needed to resign from his office in 1965, so be it. Resign, join with Bobby Kennedy, join with Martin Luther King, join with Malcolm X, join with the other resisters, join with George Ball, to say this war is wrong and we should get our troops out of Vietnam.
Robert Scheer:
You brought up the one issue I have with this book. And you say if he thought the war could not be won, and I do think lying about the war going well and the war being winnable and so forth, was a serious distortion of reality and something they knew was not true. If you listened to the Lyndon Johnson tapes, Johnson actually never really believed it could be won. But more serious than that was, Johnson says on those tapes, and he’s talking to your father. He says, “I don’t even know what this war is about.” He said, “What am I going to tell that young man who’s guarding my office if he goes off to Vietnam? What do I tell his wife, his widow, about this war? Why are we there?”
And what the significance of the Pentagon Papers was not just whether the war is winnable, but whether the war made sense. And in your book, and I have to stress this, your book, yes, we deal with your father in Vietnam, but you have a world vision in this book. You traveled the world, and I want to get into some of that. I hope we maybe do a part two of this, you as a farmer and everything else. But you didn’t just say, “Oh, I think Vietnam is wrong.” You went and visited. And then, I should remind people, your father was rewarded, even though you say he was fired, but he became head of the World Bank and was a very influential person. I happened to interview him when he left the World Bank.
And so, he had a tremendous impact. And you spent a lot of time in South America, in Central America. You ended up actually, at the end, going to Vietnam, but you’ve experienced the life of people all around the world. And in particular, one of the great strengths of your book is, you say, “Wait a minute. How could these guys have been the best and brightest, my father included, if they had a vision of the world that put Vietnam at the center of some kind of big international communist conspiracy that any common-sense person would’ve known didn’t hold up?”
And you yourself actually… It’s quite moving in the book. While you were still taking care of your father and daughter, you actually get to meet Fidel Castro, part of this web of international communism. And if I think about it… I mean, I want to mention this by the way. In the book, you talk about your own learning issues, the kind of gap in our skillset that is referred to as dyslexia. I happen to have this same problem, and so does our producer of our show, my son, Joshua. So I and a lot of people and Joshua also have dealt with this. But the fact is, you turn out to be the wise person and not your father. And it’s not just wise compared to your father, but this whole best and the brightest led us astray.
They also led us astray by the way with the banking meltdown. They also led us astray, we’re going into Iraq to fight a war. So there’s kind of a disease of this best and the brightest, their arrogance, their confidence. And in your book, you keep wanting to ask your father, “What do you think you’re doing over there in Vietnam? Do you really think you’re winning the hearts and minds?” Now, I know I’ve gone on to say that I want readers to know this is really an examination of the whole notion of American innocence and American exceptionalism, and the rationalization for doing so much dangerous mischief in the world, which continues to this day. Your father is the exemplar of that.
And you, you are Joe Citizen. You’re the farmer, really. You’re the guy that didn’t set out to be the big foreign policy expert, and you are saying, “Wait a minute. That’s not what I see in Salvador or Chile where you overthrow the Allende government.” You were there in Chile. You’ve been out in that world. So just give us your view of the world and what your father missed. That’s the strength of this book.
Craig McNamara:
Well, thank you.
Robert Scheer:
It’s taking your father to school. That’s what you do in this book.
Craig McNamara:
Thank you.
Robert Scheer:
Not in an unfriendly way by the way, in a loving way, but you take him to school. Now, I’ve been taken to school by my three sons, and I think I welcome it a little bit more than your father did, but that’s really the Father’s Day message of this book. If he had listened to you, he’d be remembered as one of the great Americans.
Craig McNamara:
Well, thank you. That is an embracing comment that I will deeply think about. I want to revisit a lot of what you’ve just said. And let me go back to 1995 when my father returned… And actually, he had never been to Hanoi to the best of my knowledge. He was invited. He went back to Hanoi to meet with General Giáp. And let me remind us. General Giáp-
Robert Scheer:
And this is 20 years after the war ended.
Craig McNamara:
Exactly.
Robert Scheer:
Yeah.
Craig McNamara:
This was the general who Ho Chi Minh hand-selected back in the late 1940s to lead the military movements of Vietnam. He was a remarkable leader. He led throughout the entire Vietnam War. He was Robert S. McNamara’s counterpart in Vietnam. When my father went back to meet him, General Giáp said to my father, “You just did not understand Vietnam. You didn’t understand our language. You didn’t understand our people, our culture, or our history. Had you done that, the war never would’ve turned out the way it did.”
And interestingly enough, Robert, when my daughter, Emily, and I traveled to Vietnam in November of 2017, I met General Giáp’s son, whose name is Nam. He’s a few years younger than myself. We are counterparts. We are the sons of the Secretary of Defense and the general who fought the American war and the Vietnam War. And Nam said to me the same thing, “Your country just didn’t understand us.” So what a tragedy. We never should have found ourselves in that situation.
I want to go to something that you touched on but you didn’t use the word. I’m going to use it. Emotional intelligence. Had the best and the brightest… Quote, “The best and the brightest.” Had those men… Because they were all men. That doesn’t mean that women aren’t the best and the brightest. They are, truly. But those men I don’t think had emotional intelligence. And we can all go into why, but the fact is they didn’t, and that is a factor in the way they made decisions.
And you mentioned something very important. You touched upon my father’s memoir, In Retrospect, which was half a loaf. It only came out and said, “We made mistakes.” It did not say, “I apologize for my family, for the families who lost fathers and sons and daughters, for the Vietnamese people who lost millions of their fathers and sons and daughters and mothers.” He did come forward with the 11 lessons.
You also mentioned The Fog of War. Errol Morris did an amazing job in that documentary, 22 hours with my father about war in the 20th century. From that came 11 lessons. And I want to just remind our listeners of a few of those 11. This is Robert McNamara. The first one is, empathize with your enemy. Let’s pause here a second. Had Robert McNamara empathized with his enemy, he would’ve either ended the war or gotten out of the Secretary of Defense.
The third one of the 11 is, there’s something beyond one’s self. And he goes on to say, “As members of society born into a global community, we have a responsibility to one another, and not only to ourselves.” That’s powerful. Number 6 is, get the data. Well, my dad was a big data man, so I think he did get the data but got it wrong. Number 7 is, belief and seeing are both often wrong. Number 11, you can’t change human nature.
I think you said it earlier. My memoir is about a love affair that I had with my father, but it’s also about the complexity of our relationship. And truly, I do want to revisit one thing, and that is where my title came from, Because Our Fathers Lied. I found a quote, a poem by Rudyard Kipling. The poem is, Epitaphs of the War, 1914 to 1918. And the quote really is, “If any ask why we died, tell them because our fathers lied.”
And as I researched that quote, I discovered that Rudyard Kipling’s son wanted to fight in World War I. However, he wore glasses and he was not able to sign up to fight that war. His father went to the higher-ups, lied on behalf of his son. His son was fighting the war. His glasses fell off and he was killed because of that. So the title in the poem is the sorrow of a father who lied to get his son into combat, and that’s where my title came from.
Robert Scheer:
Let me just say, I think you underestimate the power of your own book, because you take on something much bigger than father-son relationship. You take on the idea, a question, of an elite making history. That’s what this book is really about, your celebration of the ordinary person, your celebration of the people who are not the big shots. You are the walnut farmer, olive farmer. And it’s not some kind… Yes, you went to Davis and you are… I guess they used to call them agronomists. I don’t know. You’re a big agricultural expert. You’ve served our communities, and everything else.
But the book is a wonderful reminder that your father’s world, that elite Georgetown world… Yes, your father had come from a more ordinary background, but he somehow got into it, and he’s with all the big shots and heads of state all over the world. And the book says, “But wait a minute.” You’re tugging at his sleeve and saying, “Hey, look at these peasants out there who you’re bombing, not just in Vietnam, but you’re overthrowing their governments in Chile and everyplace else. I’ve been out there. I’ve seen them. I’ve worked their fields with them. I’ve lived in their huts with them,” because that’s what the book… A great strength of this book is your reminder of ordinary people, and the reason why we should turn to ordinary people to make history rather than the best and the brightest. That’s really because your father actually knew nothing about Vietnam.
And let me give the clincher for anybody listening to this thing. The best and the brightest told us we had to win in Vietnam or the Vietnamese would attack us in San Diego and they would be the spear at the center of something called international communism. Okay? And the fact of the matter is, Vietnam is now one of our most trusted suppliers, allies in Asia. And we are counting on Vietnam to check another communist government called China. Okay? And meanwhile, our president of the United States is now going to Saudi Arabia to make sure the Saudis back us, and he doesn’t care about democracy at all in that country.
And so, the whole lie of Vietnam was not about whether we could win or not, but about what were we fighting for. That was the real issue. And what we were fighting for is to deny the Vietnamese who had, after all, fought Japanese imperialists and they fought the French. They were aligned with the United States in World War II. That’s what they pointed out to your father when he went to Hanoi. I happened to be in Hanoi around that time, so I followed that.
And what they reminded him is, “Hey, we are Vietnamese. We were fighting for our nationalism.” And the US policy and the entire postwar world denied anyone else’s nationalism except our own, and we didn’t call it nationalism. We said, “Our values are universal and we are going to lead the whole world.” That’s really what your book challenges, that arrogance. And you lived inside that world of arrogance, and your father happened to be a particularly egregious example of it because he was so confident and powerful.
Craig McNamara:
Well, it’s interesting. What I discovered as a 20, 21-year-old forever changed my life. So I responded to the Vietnam War by leaving the country with two friends. We left in March of 1971. And as you said earlier in the conversation, we headed south through Mexico, Central America. And eventually, I traveled throughout South America originally in motorcycles. And what I discovered along the way was subsistence farmers. I lived with families. I slept on their dirt floors. I grew the Three Sisters, the squash, beans, and corn, and understood that food is intrinsically entwined with power and governments.
And the fact that… And it’s seen today. Our world produces enough food. And yet, we have a billion people. Before the unfortunate and tragic war that’s currently going on now, there were a billion people who were impoverished and starving. We have enough food, but it’s conflicts and it’s the type of mentality, Robert, that you’ve outlined in our conversation that is preventing food from getting to people. So my goal as a 21, 22, 23-year-old was to learn how to farm to come back to the United States.
Initially, I wanted to grow produce for underserved communities. We talk about food deserts, but really food deserts, I’d rather it be called food apartheid because I think it’s racism that’s structurally been put in place that prevents people from getting the nourishment that they need and deserve. And so, that was my goal, and that continues to be my goal today, and to bring people of all walks of life into this recognition that we need to help the less fortunate around the world.
Robert Scheer:
One reason I do these programs is, it forces me to read a book every week or take a documentary or a film very seriously. And I’ve reviewed… I mostly only deal with books that I think people should read. I’m trying to encourage them. I want to get people to read this book. I’ll be very clear about it. And so, I keep thinking, why did it move me so much? At first, I thought it was going to be a little bit off-putting, because you did have a privileged background, and you did go… I forget the name. You went to the same school that all the big shots in Washington go to, right? The Sidwell Friends School.
Craig McNamara :
Correct.
Robert Scheer:
Yeah.
Craig McNamara:
Correct.
Robert Scheer:
And then you went to some fancy prep boarding school.
Craig McNamara:
Yeah. Yup.
Robert Scheer:
And you happen to be also a big jock, right? You play football and everything. And I think, frankly, what saved you was your learning difference. You’d be another asshole otherwise. I don’t know if we can use that word on NPR. You’d probably be working at a big Wall Street bank or something. You had some-
Craig McNamara:
Robert,-
Robert Scheer:
Yeah, go ahead.
Craig McNamara:
… one other thing… You really hit it on… I failed, and I think we all are flawed individuals, but I failed academically. And so, sports was my outlet, but it was the mentors and friends that I made along the way that really made the difference in my life. So you’re absolutely right. Thank you for mentioning that.
Robert Scheer:
And that’s why, by the way, it’s a great Father’s Day gift, because the fact of the matter is, you not only survived it, I think you’ve produced really one of the most important books on one of America’s saddest chapters, and it’s not just Vietnam. It’s this whole drive to empire, and I do want to stress that. But at first in reading your book, first couple of times, I thought, “Okay. This is really interesting. This guy swims in the White House pool. He meets Kennedy. He meets Johnson. They liked him. All doors can be open for him. And his father, before going to work at the Defense Department, was the head of the Ford Motor Company.”
And by the way, something your book doesn’t discuss in detail, your father was involved in the bombing of Japan during World War II, and I think The Fog of War gets at that pretty effectively. So you were in the highest level, but the book resonated with me because it was my own story, and not because my father was a war criminal, quite the opposite. My father was a German immigrant worker and a knitter mechanic, and all that, working class. But understanding his world, understanding what it is, that’s what all of us go through. And my mother was a garment worker, and her family was all wiped out in Lithuania and killed.
And what resonated with me was the wisdom of my parents. And your mother, your treatment of your mother, even though she’s coming from, by that point, a more successful background, your mother really is your inspiration, not your father. And your mother… I mean, God, I fell in love with your mother in this book.
Craig McNamara:
Aw, thank you.
Robert Scheer:
Really. I mean, she’s a-
Craig McNamara:
Let me jump in here and just say, your trajectory created the person that you are today, a strong, caring intellect, person who wants to bring the truth to your family and to your listeners. And thank you for your inspiration about my mom. I want to read you two quick things. I want to read to our listeners two quick things. The dedication of my book. The dedication is to Margaret McKinstry Craig. She gave me her maiden name, her Pacific blue eyes, and her love of nature. It is her love that has guided my life’s journey. That’s my dedication. And this is not a spoiler alert, but I do want to read the last paragraph of my book because it’s very important for our listeners.
Here it is. “Keeping an image nearby is painful. It’s easier, in many ways, to throw that image away. Disowning my father, getting rid of his image, would enable the conviction that he is not part of me, that I am not like him, that his actions do not continue to weigh upon me, that they have faded from the lifeblood of the world and have run out the reel of history. None of that would be true. To say that I hate him, to call him evil, to deny the love I have for him, these things would seem, temporarily, to relieve certain pressures. But they wouldn’t be the truth. I don’t want that, because I want to be honest. It’s impossible not to be my father’s son. I can’t be but what I am. This is not the end for me.”
Robert Scheer:
Well, I guess we’re wrapping this up. I kind of lost track of the time. Do you have any idea how long we’ve done? We got our half hour? Hello?
Craig McNamara:
Yes, we got our half hour.
Robert Scheer:
Good.
Craig McNamara:
We started at 3:30, Robert, and-
Robert Scheer:
Okay. All right. So I’m just letting the listeners in how we control time here. But let me just… If you can stick with me, I want to go a little further with this point.
Craig McNamara:
Absolutely.
Robert Scheer:
I don’t think the world is ruined by evil people. It’s ruined by people who act in ways that are evil, and their actions are condoned by much larger groups of people. And one of the great strengths of your book is, you humanize these people of power that you encountered. You personally met Fidel Castro. You got to meet people in Vietnam that we were objectifying, who were on the other side. And you obviously met people in Washington because you were at the White House in visits and so forth and so on. It’s almost an idea of the devil inside certain people. I don’t think that’s what causes most of the damage in this world.
And having been a journalist, I did interview your father. And I was there at Harvard. I was supposed to debate him at the Kennedy Center when he pulled off his jacket and said, “I’m from Berkeley and I’m tougher than you guys are.” And I spoke about his book on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report where they had him and then I spoke after and I was critical.
I don’t think the proper way to understand Robert McNamara, or Richard Nixon for that matter, someone else I interviewed, or Ronald Reagan who I interviewed, I don’t think words like evil really help. It’s why do they do evil things, killing three, four, five million innocent people in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam. I saw the bombing in the North as well as the South, and then after Cambodia and so forth. So yes, what they did is evil.
And one of the real big problems in our own education is to convince people that dropping the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I argue, is the greatest act of anti-civilian terrorism, or the bombing of Japan during World War II, which your father has something to do with designing in the name of science. Yes, that’s evil. But if we think it’s all because of the defect of individuals, we missed the point. And what your book captures is that people in an elite position that your father was in are not compelled to see life from the view of the people who will be bombed and have their families bombed, whether it’s with napalm or ultimately an A-bomb or an H-bomb.
That’s what your book captures. They make decisions. Let’s kill Allende. Let’s get rid of the government in Chile. But they don’t pick up the pieces of what happens when Pinochet comes in. And this great dialectic in your book, it’s a profound work, I would argue, because you say, “Wait a minute. Who should make history?” And you basically, with your own example of becoming a walnut, olive farmer, you’re saying, “Ordinary people.” You have become an ordinary person.
You rejected Stanford. You rejected St. Paul’s. You rejected, what is it, Friends Sidwell. You rejected a lot of the doors that could have been open for you, were easily open for you. And you have embraced the life… You did it in Central America. You did it wherever you went. You lived in a cave for God’s sake for a year. You worked in subsistence farming. I don’t think I’ve conveyed the power of this book enough, why I’m such a fan of it, because what you basically are saying is, let the ordinary people make history because they will bear the consequence. That, to my mind, is the message of your book.
Craig McNamara:
Well, thank you. And I think you’ve encapsulated it in a very profound, succinct way. And let me just add here a quote from a woman, a Vietnamese woman, who’s the director of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Her name is Tran Xuan Thao. And the reason I bring this up now is, I think your listeners will see, it has to do with the greater good of forgiveness. The quote is, “As Vietnamese people, we don’t forget the horrors of the war, but we forgive in order to move on. There is so much we can do together.”
I found that to be a profound statement, and I recognize that as my daughter and I traveled from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City throughout Vietnam for three weeks. I believe the people, by and large, embrace that concept of forgiveness in order to move on. They do not forget. And that’s the part that we, our listeners, need to remember. We cannot forget the Vietnam War. It lives today. It lives today.
I found out in doing the research for my book that the number of people, the number of US soldiers who served in Vietnam was somewhere above 2.7 million men and women. 2.7 million. We know that 58,000 died. I didn’t realize 300,000 had significant wounds. That doesn’t even include the emotional wounds that we’re very aware of. In bringing our conversation to a close here, I just want to remember this part about remembering the combination of not forgetting and being able to move forward with forgiveness.
Robert Scheer:
And as we’re closing it, let me just say, I was really impressed in your book that you pay tribute to the veterans. And particularly, you mentioned one Ron Kovic, the movie Born on the Fourth of July was made about. And just as a reminder, I met Ron Kovic after his severe wounds, but I’ve been in Vietnam, before he went, as a journalist. And I’ve known him. He’s been a good friend ever since.
Well, right now, his wounds are threatening his health once again. His body is three-quarters paralyzed. He has tubes going in and out, and so forth. And I was very touched by your reminding us in the book that, yes, Robert McNamara was a big shot and everybody knew, but here’s this guy, Ron Kovic, who spent the last 50 years of his life in a wheelchair every day having to worry about whether he’s going to be able to wake up in the morning. And I felt, again… I’ll close this. I’ll let you have the last word. But otherwise, I just think this is what Tom Paine was about. Your book is a cry to say, “Don’t forget the common person.”
Craig McNamara:
Well, thank you. And I think we’re ending on an appropriate note here, which is our veterans, our men and women who go to serve our country around the world. We need to go way beyond for caring for them, way beyond. We need to be creating an escrow account for our veterans. It’s a crisis in our country that we have not come to grips with. And if there’s anything I can do on behalf of our veterans, I am open and willing and wanting to do it. And I just so appreciate this opportunity to be with you on the air.
Robert Scheer:
Okay. And on that note, I want to thank you for doing this, Craig. And again, I want to give the title of the book here, which I always blow at the end, Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam Today. And I want to thank Christopher Ho and Laura Kondourajian, who are our producers at KCRW, the great NPR station in Santa Monica; Joshua Scheer, who is our executive producer; and Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who does the editing; and the JKW Foundation for giving us some financial support. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

10 comments

  1. Robert, PLEASE let your guest speak. Tighten up your questions and trim off the side notes and personal side reflections, anecdotes and editorializing. Craig’s story is his story, not yours. Just let McNamara tell us about his book, instead of you.

  2. So forgive but not forget – hmmm, so perhaps a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be a better idea than Legal Prosecution …

  3. ” you just don’t understand _______”. The blank could be one of many countries that have been bombed to rubble.
    The sin of Pride allows us to be Superior to enforce our beliefs or ways on to others so ‘ understanding’ other cultures is weakness.
    Then bearing False Witness by mis – stating Domino Theory to convince the American public to die/suffer gladly when the Vietnam War was no different than Korean Civil War.
    It sure looks like they were in a spiral of Nash Equilibrium where everyone is more than fully invested in their strategy/thought processes – – – no matter whatever devastations. These days, the Ukraine family fight with Russia is shaping up the same.
    Robert McNamara does not deserve too much of the blame, he had many, many willing executioners.

    1. disgusting to compare US imperialism genocide in Korea with Russian denazification in Ukraine

  4. 80+% supported US invasions of Vietnam and Iraq—now US racism worse as studies show about amerikan attitudes about Chinese people

  5. The interview with Craig McNamara reminded me of my Stanford days, I believe 1965. My girlfriend Susie, daughter of one of California’s richest men (I was a scholarship boy & the relationship did not last), told me when she visited the McNamara’s how his kids made brutal fun of their Dad for the war in Vietnam. She thought that was funny, rebel she was.

  6. From the interview : ” . . . a quote from a Vietnamese woman, who’s the director of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Her name is Tran Xuan Thao. “As Vietnamese people, we don’t forget the horrors of the war, but we forgive in order to move on. There is so much we can do together.”

    This was a powerful and moving interview / exchange, thank you.

  7. United States of Amnesia. Nothing changed because no lessons were learned. An Empire built on narcissism, self-interest, and self-deception. That’s why so many in the world are looking to Russia and China to put things right.

  8. Despite its initial support for the founding of the UN (1945), the U.S. soon became a
    rogue super-state, routinely bypassing or ignoring Security Council vetos on its warmaking. From Johnson/McNamara to Bush. The latter, despite his recent loathsome “Freudian slip,” is still with us–and CAN be prosecuted for war crimes under both domestic and international laws.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: