John Millhouse has just returned home after four years of service in The United States Army. He wants nothing more than to return to a 'normal' life, but the horrors of war and his never ... See full summary »
Benhur Sito Barrero,
Former corporate whiz kid Robert McNamara was the controversial Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, during the height of the Vietnam War. This Academy Award-winning documentary, augmented by archival footage, gives the conflicted McNamara a platform on which he attempts to confront his and the U.S. government's actions in Southeast Asia in light of the horrors of modern warfare, the end of ideology and the punitive judgment of history.Written by
[Per contact at the Errol Morris Foundation, the date is 8/5/1964, and the clip is from Press Conference on The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, National Archives #111-LC-48220]
[archival footage from the press conference on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 5 August 1964]
Is this chart at a reasonable height for you? Or do you want it lowered? All right. Earlier tonight - first let me ask the TV, are you ready? All set?
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Where are you when we need you? A President from Texas acts upon faulty intelligence and gets the endorsement of Congress to use whatever force is necessary and then invades a country whose destiny is more or less irrelevant to the security of the United States. The war generates opposition at home and abroad. The President's domestic programs are cut in order to fund the war. Fifty thousand American lives are lost, and countless indigents die, despite the application of America's high tech weaponry. Having committed himself, not to mention the troops, the President is unable to back down because he doesn't want to lose. "Cut and run" is the expression he uses. In the end the country is united under an anti-American government and forgotten about.
This really should be required viewing for voters who may not remember, or may not choose to remember, Vietnam. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, to roughly quote George Santayana. It's easy to get into a war, and much harder to get out.
And we should bear in mind that the subject of this interview, Robert Macnamara, didn't stand on the sidelines. He was at the center of the Vietnam conflict, which lasted about ten years. He was Secretary of Defense during eight of those years, until fired by Johnson for his increasingly public dissent. He organized the logistics of the war, gave JFK and Johnson advice. Sometimes the conflict was referred to as "MacNamara's War." So he's nobody's idea of an armchair analyst.
The most telling and relevant moment comes at the beginning, during the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962. President Kennedy has received a letter from Chairman Krushchov, saying, basically, that if the US promises not to invade Cuba, the Soviet missiles will be withdrawn. Then a second letter arrives, taking a much harder line than the first, implying a Soviet attack on America.
What to do? Curtis LeMay, the Chief of Staff, thinks that since a war with the USSR is inevitable, let's begin it now while we have a 17 to one missile superiority. Another adviser suggests responding to the first, softer letter, while ignoring the second one. Kennedy demurs. What will that get us? He doesn't want to be seen as backing down. The adviser tells him, "Mister President, you're wrong about that." (MacNamara comments, "That took guts.") Kennedy finally gives in and agrees to follow the diplomatic route and responds to letter number one only. We wind up dismantling some obsolete missile bases in Turkey and in exchange the Soviets withdraw their missiles and war is averted. Who is the sage who would now tell the President, if a similar situation arose, that he was wrong? MacNamara comes across as a sympathetic and compassionate guy. He cusses a bit and his eyes tear up when he remembers picking out JFK's grave site in Arlington National Cemetery. He also describes -- without at all boasting about it -- his valuable contributions to the bombing campaigns of World War II.
I don't see any bias in Errol Morris's editing, although who knows what wound up on the cutting room floor? It's MacNamara's show all the way and he's candid, keeps the secrets he feels necessary, and never loses dignity. He wrote a book about his period in office admitting that he'd made many mistakes in the run-up to and execution of the Vietnam War. The general reception by the liberal reviewers was that apologies weren't enough. Nothing was enough. The reviewers showed a lot less in the way of compassion than MacNamara shows here.
The music is by Philip Glass, who is neat. It's hard to comment on the photography because so much of the footage is from newsreels or TV. It's a fine documentary and ought to be shown in political science classes. It should keep the students interested because it blends the human element with the political. The statistics that were so important to the President of the Ford Motor Company and the Secretary of Defense don't play much of a part in this documentary. What will keep the class attentive is the reenactment of all those human skulls bouncing down the staircase of a dormitory at Cornell University.
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