Book review: A father’s lies counteract with a son’s ruthless honesty

The deeply personal but overtly political family memoir focuses on the legacy of Craig’s father, Robert McNamara, remembered as the administrative architect of the Vietnam War 
Book review: A father’s lies counteract with a son’s ruthless honesty

Craig McNamara’s father Robert served as the US secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968.

  • Because Our Fathers Lied
  • Craig McNamara
  • Little Brown, €30.99

As a small boy Craig McNamara remembers floating in the White House swimming pool, while his father and president Lyndon B Johnson discussed Vietnam just a few feet away.

“I’ve realised, writing this memoir, that my entire life has been lived through the lens of trying to understand the Vietnam War,” the 72-year-old walnut farmer, and author of Because Our Fathers Lied, explains from his home in Winters, California, in the US.

The deeply personal but overtly political family memoir focuses on the legacy of Craig’s father. Robert McNamara was president of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981 but history tends to remember him as the administrative architect of the Vietnam War — which killed more than 58,000 Americans and 3.4m Vietnamese.

From 1961 to 1968, McNamara served as the US secretary of defense. “My father always had what seemed to be an impermeable, protective wall around him,” says McNamara.

Under John F Kennedy, Robert McNamara played a central role trying to undermine Fidel Castro’s socialist government in Cuba. This began with Operation Mongoose in November 1961, which saw McNamara set up covert CIA interference on the Caribbean island. 

Because Our Fathers Lied by Craig McNamara
Because Our Fathers Lied by Craig McNamara

Then in October 1962 came the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Washington found itself in a tense 13-day nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union and Cuba, which nearly ended in nuclear Armageddon.

With Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B Johnson, McNamara increased American troops in Vietnam to half a million.

“I am now of the belief that, had Kennedy lived, and sought re-election, he and my father would have ended the Vietnam War much, much sooner,” says McNamara.

History, though, took another course. A year and a half after Kennedy’s death, in the spring of 1965, Robert McNamara gave a televised news conference, after the US sent its first combat troops to South Vietnam. He claimed the new military offensive was on course to defeat the communist enemy. He lied.

“I would go as far to say that my father realised, as early as maybe even 1963, when president Kennedy died, that the Vietnam War would be unwinnable,” McNamara explains. 

“But he certainly knew the war was unwinnable by1965.”

The truth of this story came out decades ago, via the Pentagon Papers. The top-secret Department of Defense study of US political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 was (ironically) commissioned by Robert McNamara himself. 

It later destroyed his public reputation, though, when former defence department analyst turned whistle-blower, Daniel Ellsberg, leaked the secret information to The New York Times in 1971. 

The historic journalistic scoop revealed how the US got itself embroiled in a long, costly, unwinnable war, with questionable objectives.

'I would go as far to say that my father realised, as early as maybe even 1963, when president Kennedy died, that the Vietnam War would be unwinnable'
'I would go as far to say that my father realised, as early as maybe even 1963, when president Kennedy died, that the Vietnam War would be unwinnable'

“While researching this book I spent a lot of time with Daniel Ellsberg, who is now 92 years old,” McNamara explains. 

“And through my conversations with him, I’ve really come to learn a lot about what my father was thinking during the Vietnam War.”

The same year Ellsberg made the Pentagon Papers public, Craig McNamara took a 6,000-mile motorbike trip from Palo Alto to Chile. 

“I’d travelled a great distance, politically as well as geographically,” he explains.

He eventually found himself in Santiago cheering on a political demonstration for far-left leader, Salvador Allende. The speaker was Fidel Castro.

“I arrived in Chile in September of 1971 when Salvador Allende was celebrating his first year as president of Chile, and Fidel Castro came to Chile for three weeks,” McNamara recalls.

His father, meanwhile, was coincidentally working with the World Bank in Chile. The CIA were in town too. 

What kind of meddling the US government was getting up to in Chile during this time is still a subject of great debate.

On September 11, 1973, Salvador Allende’s democratically elected Marxist government was overthrown by Chile’s armed forces. 

The coup d’etat eventually resulted in kidnapping, state-sponsored murder, torture, and mass incarceration of leftist political opponents — many of whom mysteriously disappeared.

Fidel Castro 
Fidel Castro 

Most liberal historians argue that the Nixon administration had blood on its hands because it went out of its way to fund and support the Chilean far right to create the necessary conditions for the coup. 

They point out that as far back as 1970, the Nixon administration pumped $1m into anti-Allende propaganda. CIA operatives were also working closely with the most extremist elements of the Chilean military.

Craig McNamara, who had by then become a left-wing activist, remembers the atmosphere in Santiago at the time.

“Just prior to Allende being assassinated in September of 1973, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) was also being held in the Chilean capital,” he says. 

“I then read in a local newspaper that Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank, was coming to speak.”

McNamara points to the irony of the situation: He and his father were literally a few blocks apart from each other in Santiago, but neither bothered to contact the other.

“I believe the World Bank, at that time, was readjusting its loan packages to Chile, based on the political situation,” says McNamara. 

“The World Bank started to reduce their loans to Chile to undermine the Allende government.”

McNamara spends a fair bit of ink and time in his book recalling that two-year soulful sojourn across South America. He lived in a cave and had an affair with a married woman. Ultimately, though, he grew up. He also fell in love with sustainable farming. 

After earning his degree in plant and soil sciences in 1976, he met his current wife, Julie. In 1980 the couple co-founded Sierra Orchards, in Winters, California, which is now a 450-acre diversified farming operation producing organic walnuts.

“The experiences I had during that trip to South America really put me on my career path towards becoming a sustainable farmer,” says MacNamara. 

“I began to observe working-class families in poverty across the continent, and it gave me a more nuanced understanding about the power of food, which is not held by the farmer, but by those who have money, and those who have political power, which isn’t right.”

Because Our Fathers Lied is emotionally engaging and ruthlessly honest, the author manages to humanise his father, while also attempting to make sense of his toxic historical legacy. 

The final judgment comes from private conversations the author has with Ellsberg, and several other historians. They describe Robert McNamara as a hawkish statistician whose unquestionable loyalty to the military industrial complex never faltered.

Errol Morris tells Craig McNamara his father is a war criminal. The celebrated American film director came to that conclusion after interviewing Robert McNamara for 23 hours while making The Fog of War (2003), an Oscar-winning documentary that focused on “Eleven Lessons” in modern warfare. 

They had already surfaced in print, following McNamara’s controversial memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995).

The author concludes his memoir with the same question he begins it with: Why did Robert McNamara never take any personal responsibility for crucial moments of the Vietnam War? After all, his military decisions caused misery to millions of individuals.

McNamara says he did try to have that conversation with his father several times, but the stoic, silent response said more than words ever could. 

His father was never willing to face a moral reckoning. Or maybe he just didn’t care. If he did, Robert McNamara took that knowledge with him to the grave when he died in Washington, in July 2009, at the ripe old age of 93.

Does the author still view his father’s legacy with mixed feelings of guilt, love, affection, disgust, and shame? 

“Shame is not a word that I would apply to my life though, or to the relationship I had with my father,” McNamara concludes. 

“Regret, perhaps. But I have tried to live a life where I have not regretted things.”

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