The Vietnam War shaped a generation. It brought people together for protests. It also tore families apart — in part because of deaths and injuries in the war, and in part because of disagreements on the necessity of the war.
One family that had a particularly contentious wartime relationship was that of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He was the architect of the Vietnam war and was responsible for its escalation. His son, Craig, actively and adamantly protested the war. The riff made for some awkward situations, as documented in Craig McNamara’s memoir, "Because Our Fathers Lied."
CapRadio Host Donna Apidone talked with McNamara, who is a farmer in the Central Valley, about his relationship with his father.
On whether this is the book of an angry son
No, it’s a love story, with the challenges that all relationships have. My mother and father were outstanding people and tremendous models, and, like all of us, flawed. The memoir, I think, takes you through that journey.
On whether the Secretary of Defense was trying to protect his teenage child
Well, I do believe that within families the stories need to be told when they’re age appropriate. So maybe as a 15 or 16 year old, as you, the Secretary of Defense, are continuing the war, sending more and more troops, doing much more bombing, dropping napalm and using agent orange, maybe that is not the appropriate time to share your concerns with your son. But as a 21-year-old, a 31-year old, a 41-year-old, a 51-year-old, a 61-year-old, those are the times that a father and son need to break down those barriers and share what you hold, because the war was a tragedy, not just for the 58,000 men and women – our US soldiers – who were killed, but for the two to three million
Vietnamese and Laotians who were killed. And I want to remind our listeners here, that we dropped 7.5 million tons of bombs on Vietnam. That’s three times the amount that were used in World War II. That’s a tragedy for all involved. So I think it was incumbent upon my father to engage in dialogue with me. And that never happened.
On why Robert McNamara allowed escalation to continue
My understanding in speaking with incredible historians and leaders like Daniel Ellsberg and others is that it’s quite probable that had President Kennedy lived, and won reelection, which he most likely would have done, that together, he and my father would have ended the Vietnam war. (D: So it
was a Johnson thing.) Well, I think it was an escalation thing. Remember, no President wants to lose a war. Kennedy didn’t want to lose a war. Johnson certainly didn’t want to lose a war. And yet Johnson had an agenda that was so far beyond the war. So your question is, why did he keep going? During the time he worked at Ford Motor Company as part of the Whiz Kids, he
achieved a tremendous amount. He was thought of as a complete brainiac. And I think when he came into the JFK administration, he looked up to JFK. He admired him and wanted to do the best job he could for that President. And upon his death, wanted to do the same for Johnson. So there may have been a power element going on there.
On why Robert McNamara’s admission “I was wrong” was not enough
He needed to go much farther than an apology or “I was wrong.” Those are the initial steps a person needs to take when you’ve caused such tragedy as was caused under his tenure as Secretary of Defense. What I wanted him to do was to apologize to the families, to the veterans who had come home damaged and injured, to the families who suffered loss. I wanted him to do something formidable for those families, to ensure that every veteran in wars to come would have the resources to help them to become well. I wanted him to ameliorate the situation of the napalm and the Agent Orange. Pay forward for the damage that was done backwards.
On the inspiration for the book title
The title of my book, Because Our Fathers Lied, is amazing – it resonates with me. And I found it as part of a poem by Rudyard Kipling. And the poem is entitled “Epitaph of the War 1914 to 1918”. In the research that I did, I discovered that Rudyard Kipling’s son wanted to enlist in World War I. However, like myself, he wore glasses, and he was not able to enlist because of that. Rudyard went to the higher ups and was able to pave the way so that his son could enlist. The story that I’ve heard, the history that I’ve heard, is that the son, while in combat, his glasses fell off and the son was killed. So it’s the sorrow that Rudyard felt over the lie that he told on behalf of his son. So people have asked me why did I use “Because Our Fathers Lied”. I used it because it was a direct quote from Rudyard Kipling, AND I used it because our fathers do lie. It wasn’t just my father who lied. And I thank you for pointing out the fact that my father is one of the very few in history who have come forward and said he was wrong.
Follow us for more stories like this
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.