True story: I was in a political science class once and the professor raised the question of the Cuban Missile Crisis and asked if Castro should’ve threatened to use the nukes. I raised my hand and argued that Castro not only should’ve used the nukes as leverage but used them as a weapon if needed. After all, if you were Castro and going to lose anyway, you might as well extract your revenge and besides, I added, who were the Americans to tell the Cubans what to do anyway? Were they not their own sovereign nation?
The other couple hundred students looked at me like I had lost my mind and for a moment I thought the professor was going to give me the boot. But as it turns out – and as explained in this film, was revealed by Castro himself – that is exactly the stance Castro took because unbeknownst to the Americans, they had active warheads on the island during the crisis and only the Russians prevented him from using them.
The Fog Of War won the Oscar for Best Documentary Film and is truly a valuable piece of the historical record. In fact, if I was teaching a history class – or a political science class – I’d probably make the students watch it.
McNamara participated in key historical events. By his own admission, when he was Sec. of Defense during the 1960’s, the world came to the brink of nuclear destruction three times. He was a member of the staff that recommended firebombing Tokyo and other Japanese cities during WWII and in the film he admits, these actions constituted war crimes. He was the first person not a member of the Henry Ford family to become President of the Ford Company and Americans have seat belts because of him. He lived through the swine flu pandemic as a kid and survived polio as an adult.
JFK picked him as Sec. of Defense and thus he was in the inner-circle during those 13 days of October which history considers the closest we came to nuclear war. I found it interesting that it was McNamara who picked the spot where JFK is buried in Arlington Cemetery. Later he would be President of the World Bank and push it toward fighting poverty.
It was those years as Sec. Defense though that people remember him and for his role in Vietnam. In fact the war was often called “McNamara’s War”. The truth is though – and tapes reveal this – that he and Kennedy had every intention of getting Americans out of there. Johnson on the other hand, took a different stance and McNamara changed tact to be loyal. In the end though, it was his frank assessment to Johnson that the war was a lost cause that cost McNamara his job.
What this film does is allows McNamara to speak and I think to a large degree you get a good sense of the man. What you learn is that the man – like the rest of us – is a conflicted soul. There is little doubt McNamara is one of the brightest people ever to serve in Washington but it still wasn’t enough to overcome the challenges that leadership brings. If anything, this film is a lesson in leadership and goes through the eleven rules McNamara has for being a successful leader. For those who think you can view history through a specific prism, this film easily demonstrates that history is color blind and reads you, not the other way around. There is a quote – not in the film – but that a biographer of McNamara used, “We make our decisions and then our decisions turn around and make us.”
As the title suggests, McNamara was a man who lived most of his life in the fog of war. The decisions he made whilst in that fog, defined him for the rest of his life. If you dare explore that fog, then this film is for you.