Sins of the Father

I recently did an interview unlike any other I have done. The interviewer Gerry Fialka asked a series of questions designed to provoke. Some were just silly, but most met their purpose. One of the questions asked if I believed there are just some people who are evil or if evil exists and sometimes people do evil things. My response was the second possibility. The reason I mention this is because over the weekend I read a book by the son of Robert McNamara, a key architect of the US war on Vietnam. Of course, I couldn’t help but compare my experience as the oldest son of an air force officer with the memories and reflections of the son in his book. Sure, my dad wasn’t an architect of the US war on Vietnam; his role was closer to that of an engineer. In the book, titled Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today, McNamara’s son Craig briefly discusses this philosophical question and comes up with an answer similar to mine. After all, how could he or I love our fathers if they were evil, not just capable of committing ultimately evil acts? At the same time, this answer places the onus for the acts our fathers committed on them as much as it does on the war machine they both worked for. They made a choice and they accepted the cost.

Like thousands of others in the military and elsewhere throughout the US bureaucracy of war, our fathers were family men. Each engaged in their way with their children, their wives and their lives at home. They enjoyed vacations with us, they scolded us when we didn’t measure up and they supported our childhood interests. Meanwhile, they went to work and figured out ways to kill people. All in the name of an ideology sold as democracy but actually just twentieth century imperialism. Craig McNamara’s response to his father’s work expanding and defending the war was similar to mine. We both became fervent opponents to it. Like me, the younger McNamara expressed his opposition to the war at first through symbolic protest—hanging antiwar posters on his wall, reading pacifist literature and attending protests. Ultimately, his antiwar activities and understanding turned radical, as did mine. Violent protests and an anti-imperialist analysis replaced peace signs and black armbands. Like millions of others, we realized the war on the Vietnamese was not a mistake, but a matter of policy; a policy founded in a lust for empire.

When the politics of revolution became too much, Craig McNamara left for Latin America. By then his father was no longer part of the government. Instead, he was on the board of the World Bank devising development plans for the Global South. Of course, these plans were designed to benefit Washington and Wall Street, not the people of the nations the World Bank claimed to be developing. Indeed, while the younger McNamara was living in Santiago, Chile during the heady days of the socialist Allende government, his father was working with some of the very people who were organizing Allende’s bloody downfall. Craig describes reading the newspaper and finding out his father (who was unaware of his son’s presence in the city) was meeting with various officials, capitalists and others in another part of the city. He weighed contacting his father, but decided against it. After all, what would he have to say?

Where Craig McNamara went to Latin America, I headed to Berkeley and the counterculture. Communication with my father was non-existent and pointless. He refused to understand my life and I rejected his. My mother stayed in touch. Craig’s mother did the same. She wrote letters when he was in Chile, on Easter Island and after he came back to the States, where he ultimately became a farmer. Even when his father lent his son and his partner money to buy a farm, the conversation tended to remain businesslike. The wall Robert McNamara had built around himself was not easily breached, not even by his son. This is where Craig McNamara’s biography trails off from mine. As my father and I got older, we began talking again. Our discussions were quite often about politics—the Vietnam war, Ronald Reagan, Iran-Contra, capitalism, imperialism, the entire gamut. As the years passed and his allegiance to the military and its secrets waned a little, he shared stories and information he had never shared before. Like Robert McNamara, my father knew the US could not win in Vietnam. Perhaps he had even read McNamara’s memo or some version of it when it crossed his desk at the National Security Agency. However, even knowing this, my father went to DaNang when he was ordered to. In a conversation about Robert McNamara’s 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, my father expressed anger at McNamara for carrying on the war knowing that it could not be won. I then reminded him that he had told me in 1988 that he had known the same thing when he was given his orders in early 1968. I will never forget him looking me in the eye and telling me that he had to admit that the protesters were right about the war. Craig McNamara never got that admission in such a direct way from his dad.

The story in these pages comes off as truthful. There is pain and disappointment. The latter is mostly in regard to the son’s sense of frustration in his father. It is a frustration that comes from his father’s inability or unwillingness to ever reveal his thoughts to his son. More than most, it seems Robert McNamara was able to compartmentalize his life. Certain things were not open for discussion with his family members. Primary among these things was his work. At the same time, Craig fondly remembers family vacations in the wilderness and visits to the White House to watch movies and play. Yet the book closes with the reader feeling the son will always wonder what his father really thought about his work and the scars it left upon the world. One could understand this emotional and thoughtful memoir to be one more attempt by the son to comprehend.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com