Robert McNamara and the Lies behind America’s Wars

June 20th, 2022 - by David Swanson / World BEYOND War

Robert McNamara’s family home.

McNamara’s Son on Some of
His Father’s Lies About Vietnam

David Swanson / World BEYOND War

(June 15, 2022) — Pretty much anything that complicates the story of a person is a good corrective to the tendency to simplify and caricature. So, one has to welcome Craig McNamara’s book, Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today.

Craig’s father, Robert McNamara was Secretary of War (“Defense”) for much of the war on Vietnam. He’d been offered the choice of that or Secretary of the Treasury, with no requirement that he know anything about either job and, of course, requirement to have the slightest notion that the study of making and maintaining peace even existed.

The plural of “Fathers” in the title seems mostly to be lifted from Rudyard Kipling, as there’s really only one father liar focused on in the book. His story is not complicated by his having been a wonderful father.

It turns out he was rather a horrendously awful father: neglectful, uninterested, preoccupied. But he wasn’t a cruel or violent or thoughtless father. He wasn’t a father without lots of love and good intentions. It strikes me that — considering the jobs he had — he didn’t do half bad, and could have done a lot worse.

His story is complicated, as any human being’s, beyond what can be summed up in a paragraph or even a book. He was good, bad, and mediocre in a million ways. But he did some of the most awful things ever done, knew he was doing them, knew long after that he had done them, and never stopped offering BS excuses.

The horrors inflicted on people in Vietnam loom in the background of this courageous book, but never get the attention given to the harm done to US troops. In that, this book is no different from most books on any US war — it’s almost a requirement just to be in the genre. The book’s first paragraph includes this sentence:

“He never told me that he knew the Vietnam War wasn’t winnable. But he did know.”

If all you had to go by was this book, you’d think that Robert McNamara made “mistakes” (something neither Hitler nor Putin nor any enemy of the US government has ever done — they commit atrocities) and that what he needed to do with the war on Vietnam was to “quit” fighting (which is helpfully a key part of what’s needed right now in Yemen, Ukraine, and elsewhere), and that what he lied about was just claiming success in the face of failure (which is helpfully something that’s done in every single war and ought to be ended by everyone).

But we never hear in these pages about McNamara’s role in escalating the thing into a major war in the first place — the equivalent of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, albeit on a much larger, bloodier scale. Here’s a paragraph excerpted from my book War Is A Lie:
“In a 2003 documentary called The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, who had been Secretary of Defense‘ at the time of the Tonkin lies, admitted that the August 4 attack did not happen and that there had been serious doubts at the time. He did not mention that on August 6 he had testified in a joint closed session of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees along with Gen. Earl Wheeler. Before the two committees, both men claimed with absolute certainty that the North Vietnamese had attacked on August 4.”

McNamara also did not mention that just days after the Tonkin Gulf non-incident, he had asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to provide him with a list of further US actions that might provoke North Vietnam. He obtained the list and advocated for those provocations in meetings prior to Johnsons ordering such actions on September 10. These actions included resuming the same ship patrols and increasing covert operations, and by October ordering ship-to-shore bombardment of radar sites.

A 2000-2001 National Security Agency (NSA) report concluded there had been no attack at Tonkin on August 4 and that the NSA had deliberately lied. The Bush Administration did not allow the report to be published until 2005, due to concern that it might interfere with lies being told to get the Afghanistan and Iraq wars started.”

As I wrote at the time that the film The Fog of War was released, McNamara did a bit of regret-expressing and a wide variety of excuse making. One of his several excuses was blaming LBJ. Craig McNamara writes that he asked his father why it took him so long to say what little he said by way of apology, and that the reason his father gave was “loyalty” to JFK and LBJ — two men not famous for loyalty to each other.

Or maybe it was loyalty to the US government. When LBJ refused to expose Nixon’s sabotaging of the Paris peace talks, that wasn’t loyalty to Nixon, but to the whole institution. And that, as Craig McNamara suggests, can ultimately be loyalty to one’s own career prospects. Robert McNamara was treated to prestigious well-paying jobs following his disastrous but obedient performance at the Pentagon (including running the World Bank where he supported the coup in Chile).

(Another film called The Post doesn’t come up in this book. If the author thinks it was unfair to his father, I think he should have said so.)

Craig notes that “[i]n other countries that aren’t the American Empire, the losers of wars are executed or exiled or imprisoned. Not so for Robert McNamara.” And thank goodness. You’d have to slaughter every top official doing back through the decades. But this notion of losing a war suggests that a war can be won. Craig’s reference elsewhere to a “bad war” suggests that there can be a good one.

I wonder whether a better understanding of the evil of all wars might help Craig McNamara understand his father’s chief immoral action as accepting the job he accepted — something US society had in no way prepared his father to comprehend.

Craig hung a US flag upside down in his room, spoke with war protesters that his father would not come outside to meet with, and repeatedly tried to question his father about the war. He must inevitably wonder what more he should have done. But there is more we all always should have done, and in the end, we have to cease dumping treasure into weapons and indoctrinating people with the notion that a war can be justified — otherwise it won’t matter who they stick in the Pentagon — a building that was originally planned for conversion to civilized use following WWII, but which has remained devoted to massive violence to this day.

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is executive director of and campaign coordinator for Swanson’s booksinclude War Is A Lie. He blogs at and He hosts Talk World Radio. He is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and US Peace Prize recipient. Longer bio and photos and videos here. Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook, and sign up for: Activist alertsArticlesDavid Swanson newsWorld Beyond War.