Robert Strange McNamara, who served as the US Secretary of Defense under both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, died today at the age of 93. He lived a long life, and did many things; but his legacy will be tainted forever by his role in prosecuting the Vietnam War. The lessons he learned and the perspective he gained from that experience are explored brilliantly in the documentary by Errol Morris, The Fog of War, as seen in this clip from the film:
On the occasion of his passing, I would like to share some of the things I learned, and perspective I gained, from working on a project about the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962. Had McNamara, and the administrations for which he served, been as thoughtful and careful when it came to Vietnam as they were in this crisis, their legacy would have been quite different than it is today.
President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McNamara in an ExCom meeting.
Almost a decade ago, I was hired by New Line Cinema to produce the special features for a DVD of the film, Thirteen Days, which was about President Kennedy's response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film was based on the book by Ernest R. May Ph.D. and Philip D. Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of the most fascinating aspects of the crisis was the decision-making process, as orchestrated by Kennedy, and the superlative crisis-management skills he demonstrated. When President Kennedy was informed that the Soviets were establishing a base of nuclear weapons in Cuba, he immediately assembled a diverse team of experts, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExCom), including Secretary McNamara, to advise him as to his options in dealing with the situation. As the possibility of nuclear war loomed large, Kennedy held multiple, grueling sessions of ExCom. The book contains transcripts of many of these deliberations.
One of the features I made for the DVD was a documentary entitled, "Roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis," in which I explored the historical context of the crisis, and how it informed Kennedy's decisions. I conducted most of my interviews in the Fall of 2000, as Al Gore and George W. Bush were each campaigning to become the 41st President of the United States. None of us knew at the time how either would manage a crisis. What we now know, however, is that President Bush approaches crisis management very differently than Kennedy did.
The world stage and the human condition continue to increase infinitely in complexity, making many of our assumptions and responses to a given crisis obsolete each and every evolving moment. Certainly, it is true that our world has been forged by our past. Each war, each momentous event gives form to our thoughts, our understanding. But who we are, and what we do, is a new and unique entity that merely resembles the progenitors from whom we have inherited this earth. For this reason, we imperil ourselves, both physically and morally, if we try to define our leaders, villains and movements with historical analogies, which only serve as limited pieces of rhetoric, designed to win our respective arguments. (Case in point was the fact that from the onset of the Iraq War, EACH side likened the other to Hitler, in order to stigmatize opposing views.) In order to move forward wisely during any crisis, we must strive to understand, to the best of our abilities, the ways in which the unique circumstances of this place in time must be addressed.
Albert Einstein once said, reflecting this very sentiment at the dawn of the atomic age, "The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking..." He knew that we must begin to comprehend the incomprehensible if we were ever going to survive in a world in which we were newly capable of the incomprehensible. Furthermore, he said this in the 1950s, when all the existing plans for the Vietnam situation included the use of nuclear weapons.
That said, of course, I agree that we can look to our past for a better understanding of our present. At 7PM, on Monday, October 22, 1962, President Kennedy appeared on television to inform Americans of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Some of this speech was included in Thirteen Days, as seen in this clip from one of the documentaries I made for the DVD:
In this speech, Kennedy reveals some of the internal struggle that guided his response to the crisis:
"The 1930's taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged ultimately leads to war. This nation is opposed to war. We are also true to our word. Our unswerving objective, therefore, must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country, and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere."
Kennedy was not only a product of WWII, but furthermore; he felt personal shame from the fact that his father had been an active supporter of the early policy of appeasement toward Hitler in the 1930s. By the time he was faced with the Cuban Missile Crisis, it had become conventional wisdom that Hitler could have been stopped short and WWII avoided, had his aggression been checked years earlier. No one can know whether or not this is true, but Kennedy wisely saw that, whether or not it was true, the situation confronting him had unique aspects which called for a unique response. His belief in the absolute intolerability of a nuclear presence so near our boarders was countered by his fear of retaliation against the people of Berlin, should we act precipitously. There are many ways in which the Cuban Missile Crisis could have been resolved...but I believe that it was Kennedy's determination to fully understand the various nuances of the situation, in order to respond carefully and appropriately, that led to a resolution that did not include a nuclear holocaust.
In another part of that same speech by Kennedy, he speaks to concerns that many of us had about Iraq before the invasion:
"Neither the United States of America nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small. We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation's security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace."
While the situation was different, these words explain why in 2002, most Americans considered Saddam's perceived determination to develop nuclear weapons to constitute a direct and deadly threat. While I agree with JFK's premise that the mere possession of weapons of mass destruction by a country like Iraq can constitute a clear and present danger, at the time, I was unconvinced that Iraq did have these weapons. One of the reasons for that doubt was my knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
While working on Thirteen Days, I had seen the U2 surveillance photos of 1962. In fact, the entire world saw them when Stevenson argued our position at the UN in 1962. In 2002, I found it difficult to believe that forty years later, our technology could not manage to supply us with comparable evidence. We now know that one answer to that question was that there wasn't any evidence. If we had insisted on more proof and less rhetoric, we may have had fewer Senators willing to cast a vote to authorize the war.
The threat of nuclear power in the hands of a perceived enemy is compelling. Fear can influence people to act against some of their most strongly held convictions. In fact, one of the ways our government got the scientists of the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb in the first place, was to convince them (many of them Jewish) that Hitler was hot on the trail of developing the same weapon...which, of course, turned out not to be true. Nonetheless, the fear was enough drive away any reservations any may have had. In 1946, Einstein said: "If I had known that the Germans would not succeed in constructing the atom bomb, I would never have lifted a finger."
None of this is to say that I don't I think we should defend ourselves. However, the question still remains: from whom and how? I think we need to respect the complexity of the situation and respond with a clear understanding of what is actually going on... something Kennedy made every attempt to do and which Bush clearly failed to do when he decided to invade Iraq.
If there is anything I want to learn from the past, it is that we cannot react to situations because our leaders say "just cuz." They told us that all communists were evil...so we blacklisted them, feared them and persecuted them. One of the byproducts of the 1950s red scares was that any person with history or understanding of Asia was branded a "pinko" or a "commie" and was "purged" from the "intelligence" community and government. This is one of the reasons that the government so terribly misjudged so much of what happened during the years we fought in Vietnam. Most of the people who could have knowledgeably advised the President had been weeded out of his pool of advisors.
Sadly, President Bush showed no apparent desire to seek the counsel of those who understood all the nuances of the situation in the middle-east. Yes, his advisors included people who had waged war there, but sorely missing were people who had spent the time to understand what it is to wage peace there. These were my concerns from the start.
No one really knows how Bush would have handled the Cuban missile crisis or how JFK would have handled the Iraq crisis, but we do know that Kennedy's process (calling multiple meetings of top advisors with a variety of perspectives) gave him a more complex understanding of his options and pitfalls than Bush's process did. When lives are at stake, I'll take the guy (or gal) who takes the time to understand the situation fully before committing American blood and treasure.
According to various accounts, Bush was unfamiliar with the distinction between Sunni and Shia Muslims for as long as a year after his "Axis of Evil" speech. In contrast, JFK was doodling the word "Berlin" on a piece of paper during the initial meetings about the Cuban Missile Crisis, an indication he was considering the various ramifications of any action he took. I guess my point is that JFK's approach to decision-making was much more thoughtful and; I'd argue that thoughtful leadership is better.
It remains to be seen what President Obama's legacy will be in the end. However, one of the reasons I have such faith in him as a leader, is that he has demonstrated just such an ability to consider the complexities of the world as he navigates the treacherous waters of foreign policy.
Following is an excerpt of his speech against going to war with Iraq from 2002:
I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.
I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.
Let us hope that as President Obama meets incoming challenges, both foreign and domestic, he continues to listen to draw on the strength of conviction and wisdom that led him to oppose the Iraq war in 2002. We know that Robert McNamara had a compass that served him well during the Cuban Missile Crisis...didn't mean he knew which way to go in Vietnam.