The Fog of Disagreement

In the movie "The Fog of War," Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense  during the Vietnam War (’60-’67) takes stock.

At my age, 85, I’m at age where I can look back and derive some conclusions about my actions. My rule has been try to learn, try to understand what happened. Develop the lessons and pass them on.

One key lesson is the centrality of disagreement, even with similar information and mutual respect:

The other photograph, you can just see me saying: "Jesus Christ, I love this man, I respect him, but he’s totally wrong. What am I gonna do?"  Johnson couldn’t persuade me, and I couldn’t persuade him. I had this enormous respect and affection, loyalty, to both Kennedy and Johnson. But at the end, Johnson and I found ourselves poles apart.

McNamara concludes it is irrational to disagree with similarly qualified majorities:

What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience?  We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe that we should ever apply that economic, political, and military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there. None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better reexamine our reasoning.

On some subjects he choose silence, which many will take to be a bad sign:

Errol Morris: After you left the Johnson administration, why didn’t you speak out against the Vietnam War?

McNamara: I’m not going to say any more than I have. These are the kinds of questions that get me in trouble. You don’t know what I know about how inflammatory my words can appear. A lot of people misunderstand the war, misunderstand me.

I’d like to see a sequel, "The Fog of Bank," about his thirteen years as President of The World Bank. 

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  • Hal Finney

    That’s a curious response to the question about why he didn’t speak out, basically that he doesn’t want to discuss it because it would be too inflammatory. And yet here he’s just spent over an hour revealing thoughts and opinions which are extremely surprising and revelatory coming from someone in his position. I can’t help wondering if the implication is that the true explanation for why he didn’t speak out would be even more controversial than his apparent reversal of support for wartime policies. Maybe there was some kind of highly unsavory pressure brought against him to ensure his silence.

  • Robin Hanson

    Hal, maybe he just didn’t want to admit that he was too proud or chicken to publicly admit back then that he was wrong?

  • Matthew

    I found this film pretty amazing, in terms of the amount of candor Morris got out of McNamara. His avoidance of certain questions, or refusal to go into further detail, might be connected to this idea that he had deep political disagreements with some of the people (like LBJ) he was very close to, and as he sais, loved. I suspect that it’s not just about not stepping on toes, but you (in your comment) may also be right that M seems quite resistant to admitting ERROR: he alludes to learning from the past but also asks a lot of rhetorical questions of the form, “What else could we do at the time?” I’m sort of sympathetic with the idea that we act with the best intentions (if we are sincere morally serious people), but that doesn’t guarantee that we won’t make mistakes. So there is something puzzling about McNamara (and that’s part of what makes the film really brilliant – that it really shows a kind of living paradox trying to work itself out).

  • Jake

    I was shocked when McNamara said he was basically a war-criminal and would have likely been tried as such had we not won the war. Truly excellent documentary.

  • anon

    He quoted LeMay as saying that if they lost the war they would be tried as war criminals. That is not quite the same thing as saying that he (or LeMay) thought they were war criminals.

    If an act can only be justified as being likely to bring victory, and you lose tha war, does it become a war crime in retrospect?