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Interview with Robert McNamara

Aired November 28, 2003 - 21:00:00   ET


ROBERT MCNAMARA, FMR. U.S. SECY. OF DEFENSE: And we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war. Rational individuals. Kennedy was rational. Khrushchev was rational. Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to the total destruction of our society. And that danger exists today.


RICHARD ROTH, HOST: Today's guest is not one of our typical eye- witnesses to history.

Welcome to DIPLOMATIC LICENSE. I'm Richard Roth.

Robert McNamara made history. The former U.S. defense secretary was at the center of power in the 1960's, working with U.S. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on crises from Vietnam to Cuba to the Soviet Union. To call his job tenure controversial would be a bit of an understatement.

And now he is the star of a new movie called "The Fog of War." He is 87 years old.

Mr. McNamara joins us now from Washington.

Welcome, sir. Thank you very much for appearing.

MCNAMARA: I'm delighted to be here.

ROTH: Tell us why you agreed to sit for 13-plus hours of interviews with filmmaker Errol Morris, who has done some quirky but hard-hitting films?

MCNAMARA: You're wrong. It was 23 hours. And out of that, he took about 10 percent for the movie. So much of what I thought was important was omitted.

But I did it because I had published a book called "Wilson's Ghost," about the time the taping started, and the subtitle of that book is "Reducing the Risks of Conflict, Killing and Catastrophe," meaning weapons of mass destruction. That was the essence of the book.

I thought by accepting Errol's invitation for a television interview I could reach a much larger audience.

ROTH: But you had written a book and it had been three decades since Vietnam. Why have you chosen to appear in a movie and speak out now when there were other opportunities, perhaps, earlier?

MCNAMARA: Oh, I've spoken out for.

ROTH: But on such a grand scale like this.

MCNAMARA: No. I've spoken out on a grand scale before. Perhaps you didn't see it. But on the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, and on the major security problem for the human race in the 21st century. I've talked about those things.

ROTH: OK. Are you trying to in any way say that you are guilty of things or express regret for anything? What are you trying to say?

MCNAMARA: My God, I'm trying to address the problems the human race is going to face in security for the 21st century.

The subtitle of the books says "Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing and Catastrophe," and I start with my earliest memory as a child, of a city exploding. The city was San Francisco. The date was November 11, 1918. I was two years old. The city was celebrating the end of World War I, of course. It was also celebrating its view and Wilson's view that we'd fought a war to end all wars.

How wrong we were. In the 20th century we human beings killed 160 million others. Is that what we want for the 21st century? I don't. That's the subject.

ROTH: And the question is, how much, also, it fuels your thoughts based upon Vietnam, which we'll talk about in a moment. But first, a clip from later in the film. Mr. McNamara was describing some of the early sections of the McNamara life. It became more famous than the Theory of Relativity. It was known as the Domino Theory. What would happen in Southeast Asia at the time of the Cold War if the United States and others allowed the North Vietnamese to take over the south.

In 1964, President Johnson made the decision to start bombing after incidents with the North Vietnamese -- some real, some imagined -- in the Tonkin Gulf.


MCNAMARA: He authorized the attack on the assumption it had occurred and his belief that it was a conscious decision on the part of the North Vietnamese political and military leaders to escalate the conflict and an indication they would not stop short of winning.

We were wrong. But we had in our minds a mindset that led to that action. And it carried such heavy costs.

We see incorrectly, or we see only half of the story at times.


ROTH: Well, here's a question that easy to ask 30 years later: what the heck happened in Vietnam? I'm sure a lot of people would love to know. You were in the inner circle.

MCNAMARA: Well, you saw in the clip, dominoes falling. That came about because President Eisenhower stated if the West lost control of South Vietnam, the dominoes would fall, meaning the Russian Communists and the Chinese Communists would use South Vietnam as a launching pad to extend their hegemony across east and south Asia.

That's why we were there. That's what we were trying to prevent.

ROTH: You talk in your book, and also in the movie, it's always the lesson, some of which I don't think you like that Errol Morris put them in. But you have the lessons of engagement, empathize with your enemy, communicate with your enemy. But that didn't happen in Vietnam, right?

MCNAMARA: No. Those are lessons that I formulate. Empathize, communicate. Many of the other lessons, he formulated. They're not mine.

ROTH: But that didn't happen with Vietnam, right?

MCNAMARA: No. That's the point.

ROTH: But then why -- you were one of the so-called best and the brightest. Why didn't you know this ahead of the war?

MCNAMARA: Who knew it ahead of the war? Did you?

ROTH: And also, isn't it conflicting information? I mean, I was a 7- year-old and I was debating the Domino Theory on street corners. But you say empathize with the enemy and communicate, but you also say the Vietnamese didn't want to empathize and how can you communicate with an enemy that doesn't want to communicate?

MCNAMARA: Well, this is typical of opponents. Many, many opponents don't empathize. And first, let me say, I don't equate empathize with sympathy. I just say opponents should know each other and should communicate with each other in order to try to stop violence. That's one of the lessons of Vietnam.

We haven't learned it yet as the human race.

ROTH: Did Kennedy really plan to pull out more advisors and not go in as deep as President Johnson, who followed him after the assassination, which we talked about on last week's program? What's the real story?

MCNAMARA: On October 2, 1963, Kennedy held a meeting of the Security Council and I presented a recommendation that we should plan to withdraw all U.S. military forces, of which there were then about 16,000 in Vietnam. By the end of '65, in two years, that we should begin the withdrawal within 90 days and withdraw 1,000.

It was very, very controversial. The Security Council split right open.

ROTH: That's the National Security Council, not the United Nations.


ROTH: I wanted to play a scene from the movie which also goes with this, I think.

Here's a scene from "The Fog of War," which is really not a movie part. It's an actual recording of a phone conversation, a bit later than probably Mr. McNamara wants us to go at this point, but it's a conversation between President Johnson and Robert McNamara.



MCNAMARA: Yes, Mr. President. I hate to modify your speech. It's a good one. But I just wonder if we just shouldn't find two minutes in there for Vietnam.

JOHNSON: Yes, but the problem is what to say about it.

MCNAMARA: All right, I'll tell you what I would say about it. I would say that we have a commitment to rid (UNINTELLIGIBLE). We could pull out of there, the dominos would fall and that part of the world would go to Communists. We could send our Marines in there and we could get tied down in a third World War or another Korean action.

Nobody really understands what it is out there. They're asking questions and they're saying, "Why don't we do more"?

Well, I think this: you can have more war or you can have more (UNINTELLIGIBLE), but we don't want more of either.


ROTH: Did you know those conversations were being taped?

MCNAMARA: No. And I didn't know that the meeting on October 2 with President Kennedy was being taped. I'm very glad it was, because it shows that I recommended at that time, and President Kennedy approved at that time, removal of all military personnel within two years.

ROTH: And then why did you then stay as secretary of defense? You were getting uncomfortable with the war. You had written memos. Why did you then stick around, is what people want to know, and then not speak out?

MCNAMARA: Because I thought I had an obligation to serve the president. He had asked me to serve, and I was going to stay as long as I thought I could be effective. And I was effective in the sense of holding down U.S. troop numbers.

ROTH: But do you feel that the first obligation was to the people, not the president?

MCNAMARA: No, you have an obligation to the president and I tried to fulfill it.

ROTH: All right. Robert McNamara, stick around there. He has said in the past and in other interviews, people make mistakes.

Were there mistakes in the fight for victory over the Japanese in World War II? The problems of proportionality in combat, next on DIPLOMATIC LICENSE.


MCNAMARA: LeMay said if we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals, and I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be though immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?




MCNAMARA: I analyzed bombing operations and how to make them more efficient, i.e. not more efficient in the sense of killing more but more efficient in weakening the adversary.


ROTH: He was called one of the whiz kids, master strategist, Harvard Business School, Air Force captain in World War II, Ford Motor Company president, before being named secretary of defense weeks later, by President Kennedy.

Robert McNamara is back with us now on DIPLOMATIC LICENSE. He is the subject of a new documentary called "The Fog of War." The movie also indicates Mr. McNamara's expertise at numbers and analysis.

Did that block you from realizing mistakes until it was too late? Critics say in your memoir, in retrospect, there was barely mention of actual troops. What happened with all of the numbers crunching and all of the -- you were called a walking IBM machine. Was that fair?

MCNAMARA: No, no, no. You've gotten off the main point.

When you showed the scene of LeMay and me, and we talk about prosecution as war criminals, what you needed to show was that I was on the island of Guam in March of 1945 and in one night the command I was with.


ROTH: Wait a minute. Can we show it? We can show it. But OK, go ahead. Explain what we're going to see.

MCNAMARA: In one night, the start of the firebombing, the command I was with burned to death 83,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo. That was the first of 67 raids of that kind. Is that moral? I don't think so.

ROTH: Well, let's take a look at the clip, which does reveal a lesser known part of your life, the planning of the firebombing attacks on Tokyo and the run up to two nuclear bomb drops on Japan. And Curtis LeMay, leader of the 29th Bomber Squad Command, will later be President Kennedy's military thorn when he gets to the White House.


MCNAMARA: I participated in the interrogation of the B-29 bomber crews that came back that night. A room full of crewmen and intelligence interrogators. The captain got up, a young captain, and he said, "God damn it, I'd like to know who the son-of-a-bitch was that took this magnificent airplane, designed to bomb from 23,000 feet, and he took it down to 5,000 feet and I lost my wingman. He was shot and killed."

LeMay spoke in monosyllables. I never heard him say more than two words in sequence. It was basically, "Yes," "No," "Yep." That was all he said. And LeMay was totally intolerant of criticism. He never engaged in discussion with anybody. He stood up, "Why are we here? Why are we? You lost your wingman, and it hurts me as much as it does you. I sent him there. And I've been there. I know what it is. But you lost one wingman, and we destroyed Tokyo."

50 square miles of Tokyo were burned. Tokyo was a wooden city and when we dropped these firebombs, it just burned it.


ROTH: Mr. McNamara, a lot of critics at a screening I went to thought that there was always someone that you said you were following the orders of, whether it was LeMay or Kennedy. And you were obviously working for those men. And I guess they still feel -- did you know what you were plotting and planning, the deaths that would result?

MCNAMARA: No, certainly not. But that doesn't relieve those who participated. The responsibility to act in what I call proportion to the threat. And I think today the human race should be thinking about what is acceptable behavior in war and in diplomacy and agree on that and agree on judicial procedures to bring those to the International Criminal Court for criminal justice in the Hague.

ROTH: Which the United States doesn't support.

MCNAMARA: Which the United States does not support. You're absolutely correct on that.

ROTH: Well, in the film you say never answer questions that you are asked. Just answer what you wish was asked. But I'll give it a try.

MCNAMARA: Oh, that's a flippant remark.

ROTH: What are the lessons from Vietnam, or any of your other experiences, that you think can translate to current events, things that the United States should or should not be concerned about, let's say in Iraq or Afghanistan?

MCNAMARA: Well, you're the 77th person to ask me about that, and I want to be very serious on this. There are lessons from Vietnam. We should try to apply them in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, I think it is absolutely irresponsible for an ex-secretary of defense to comment in public on those when there are tens of thousands of United States military personnel at risk and when our president is negotiating with the United Nations and other international organizations and allies as to what the future policy should be. There is a great danger by public comments of past officials to give aid and comfort to the enemy, and I'm not going to do it.

ROTH: But in the film and in writing, I see, and in interviews, you say you want to drive a debate. It seems like you want to start the car, but you don't want to be in it, yet you of all people should know a lot.

MCNAMARA: No, no, no. I want to act responsibility with respect to our current elected leader, the president of the United States. I'm trying to do so.

ROTH: You told one interviewer recently, you're 87. Time is running out. This is a chance, you've said, to speak out. I mean, here's your chance. I mean, good, bad, I mean, the Iraq war, is it going to be a quagmire? I mean, a lot of people say they're worried about the state of the world.

MCNAMARA: I want to speak responsibly. I don't want my remarks to give aid and comfort to the enemy. I'm not going to do it.

ROTH: Well, I'd like to think our show is seen in terrorist caves. I'm not sure we have that power. But you've had the experiences of making many trips to Vietnam. You saw what happened in the country. Do you feel there is a potential for that these days, or has the world changed, communication has sped up, people are more informed, it's just not going to happen like that?

MCNAMARA: If I respond to your question, people are going to interpret it as applying to Iraq, and they're going to interpret it as either criticism or support of our president. I'm not going to do it.

ROTH: All right. Nuclear nonproliferation, very big with you. I mean, do you think we're headed for a possible bomb going off somewhere? The ultimate nightmare, which years ago many thought it might be something coming from Moscow. The threat is pretty real from a lot of other places. Go ahead.

MCNAMARA: This is very, very important. I doubt that many in your audience -- I doubt even you are aware that Prime Minister Blair of the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Chirac of France, Chancellor Schroeder of Germany, individuals who have been at odds with each other with respect to Iraq (AUDIO GAP) an op-ed piece in the paper, and the op-ed piece said the greatest threat to human security in the 21st century will be the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the possible use of those.

I agree with that. We have to -- the human race hasn't even begun to deal with that problem. Look at what's happening in North Korea, in Iran, what we thought was happening in Iraq, and what will happen if we don't control proliferation.

ROTH: Why has the United States not learned lessons? Why has the world not learned lessons from what happened, what you witnessed in your life?

MCNAMARA: And the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Human beings don't want to face unpleasant truths. For example, I thought every single elected leader of a major nation in the world should be required to witness a nuclear blast. It would scare the hell out of them.

ROTH: You know, a lot of critics at this screening -- I'm just going to give you equal time. They were kind of vicious on you. They said -- one man who had covered Vietnam, I think, said that this film shows you don't have one ounce of courage, especially concluding that you don't want to speak out, and I think an occasional adversary, Richard Holbrooke, said that this film shows you are a liar. Your response.

MCNAMARA: I don't believe Holbrooke ever said that. I never heard it and I was with him a few weeks ago. I can't believe he said it. I certainly haven't lied.

ROTH: I mean, he liked the film.

This is a clich‚ questions, because you always get a good answer. How do you want to be remembered?

MCNAMARA: I want to be remembered as one who tried throughout his life to advance humanity, particularly to advance the welfare of the poor, disadvantaged, within our own society and across the world. I spent 13 years as president of the World Bank, trying to do that, for the poorest and the poorest nations of the world. I hope I succeeded to some degree.

ROTH: Robert McNamara, the guest here on DIPLOMATIC LICENSE and the star attraction, the only guest, in the new movie "The Fog of War," opening in New York and Los Angeles December 13 or so, and then further distribution and I'm sure overseas and video sales and film festivals. Who knows, you might be up on the stage accepting an Oscar with Errol Morris.

MCNAMARA: Don't forget "Wilson's Ghost." That deserves an Oscar.

ROTH: OK. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the Ford Company leader. We could talk about cars and other things, what gets fixed. A fascinating film -- breaking (UNINTELLIGIBLE), passenger protection. We'll have you back. Thank you very much.

MCNAMARA: Thank you.

ROTH: Robert McNamara doesn't hold grudges with adversaries. In recent years, he has attended Crisis reunions, here with Fidel Castro of Cuba. Microphones capture the former U.S. defense secretary telling the Cuban leader, "You're in your 70's. You have your best years ahead of you. In 10 years," McNamara says, "I might see you when I come back from hell."


ROTH: No fog of war here. This is a U.S. warship approaching Vietnam, November 2003. Sailors returning to the former capital of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Mihn City.

Diplomatic ties between the United States and Vietnam were reestablished in 1995.

We asked Asia expert CNN's Mike Chinoy to assess the U.S.-Vietnam relationship following the return of the U.S. 7th Fleet.


MIKE CHINOY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): U.S. Navy officers saluting as a wreath is laid in front of a statue of the father of Communist Vietnam, Ho Chi Mihn, while soldiers from the Vietnamese armed forces tour the first American warship to visit the country since the end of the conflict, vivid symbols of reconciliation.

For many years, the legacy of the war, demining, the effect of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, the search for soldiers missing in action, shaped U.S.-Vietnam relations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've been very much focused and working together on dealing with the aftermath of war, but at the same time, in the last few years, we've been building a very present focused, a very future focused relationship.

CHINOY: In fact, these days it's commerce not conflict that defines ties between the two countries. So far this year, for example, two-way trade has totaled $3.5 billion. American businessmen like software company executive Steve Reed (ph), are pouring in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People are always asking me about that, how they treat Americans, and I really -- in fact, I feel better treated in Vietnam than I do in almost any other country in the world.

CHINOY: Even Hun Phoc Loc (ph), who spent 30 years in the North Vietnamese Army, insists he bears no ill will towards Americans.

"In my opinion," he says, "it's time to let bygones be bygones."

(on camera): None of this means the war has been forgotten. This museum full of relics from the conflict stands smack in the middle of Ho Chi Mihn City, but both sides appear now to have agreed on a common goal of putting the past behind them and working towards a very different kind of future.

Mike Chinoy, CNN, Ho Chi Mihn City, Vietnam.


ROTH: And that's it for this week's DIPLOMATIC LICENSE. I'm Richard Roth. Thanks for watching.



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