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'Fog Of War' Director Remembers McNamara


Errol Morris made that documentary, "The Fog of War," out of his 20 hours of interviews with Robert McNamara, and he joins us now from Boston. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ERROL MORRIS (Documentary Filmmaker, "The Fog of War"): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: You're probably privy to more of Robert McNamara's introspection than anyone but close friends or relatives, what do you think he made of his role in history?

Mr. MORRIS: To him it was an ongoing investigation trying to figure out what had gone wrong, what he had been thinking, and moreover, how we could learn lessons from history and perhaps prevent the same things from happening all over again. Very, very sad because the same things were happening all over again at this time that I was making the movie with him.

SIEGEL: In Iraq, you're saying.

Mr. MORRIS: Yes.

SIEGEL: I want to play something that McNamara told you about - in the documentary about working in World War II under Curtis LeMay, who 20 years later would urge nuclear war over the Soviet missiles in Cuba, the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the fire bombing of Japan, which McNamara worked on with LeMay, McNamara said they burned to death 100,000 civilians in Tokyo in one night.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Fog of War")

Former Secretary ROBERT MCNAMARA (Department of Defense): 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.

SIEGEL: He had confronted questions of responsibility for war long before Vietnam, it sounds.

Mr. MORRIS: I believe that's correct, yes. This remark came at the very beginning of my series of interviews with him - quite a surprising remark, not with respect to Vietnam, but a war criminal with respect to the fire bombing of Japan. And this issue of responsibility and that his culpability is something that never left him. It was with him throughout his life.

SIEGEL: But here's another cut from "The Fog of War," in the epilogue, you ask McNamara if he felt responsible for Vietnam. And here's what he said.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Fog of War")

Former Sec. MCNAMARA: I don't want to go into further discussion, it just opens up more controversy. I don't want to add anything to Vietnam, it is so complex, that anything I say will require additions of qualifications.

Mr. MORRIS: Is it the feeling that you're damned if you do and if you don't, no matter what you say?

Former Sec. MCNAMARA: Yeah, yeah that's right. And I'd rather be damned if I don't.

SIEGEL: That was a pretty central question about his career and what lessons he learned from it, for him to be so resistant to answering you.

Mr. MORRIS: He has tried to answer that question in so many different ways. I'm not sure that - has a question with any definite answer. It's something that he was clearly wrestling with when I talked with him. And the puzzle, the mystery of it all is increased certainly by listening to these taped conversations between Johnson and McNamara.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: McNamara is often thought of as the hawk, Johnson the dove. But to me those conversations tell a very different story.

SIEGEL: When McNamara began writing and talking about Vietnam more candidly, it was in the 1990s. It was 30 years after the fact. And many people criticized him saying that if he had made this acknowledgements even in the 1970s, when the country was still so divided over the war, it might've been more significant. But that might've required his exile from the Washington establishment.

Mr. MORRIS: It's something for which many people can never forgive him. Not for the role in orchestrating the war, but his silence following his departure from the Defense Department. He told me a very odd and interesting story that he and McGeorge Bundy had come to Humphrey.

SIEGEL: Hubert Humphrey.

Mr. MORRIS: Hubert Humphrey, who was running for president of the United States, and said that they would come out with him, together they would come out against the war if Humphrey would declare his opposition as well. Humphrey said, I have to speak to Johnson first. And he went off to meet with the president. President - according to McNamara, must've heard why they - Humphrey had come for this visit and kept him waiting for four or five hours, and during that time, Humphrey lost his nerve. Whether this is true or not, I don't know.

But another fantastically interesting story that I heard from this man, why didn't he speak out - here's another question for you. Why didn't he speak out against the Iraq war? When he expressed to me on so many, many occasions his opposition to what was happening.

SIEGEL: Errol Morris, filmmaker, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MORRIS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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