Because Our Fathers Lied review: Robert McNamara, Vietnam and a partial healing

Show caption Robert McNamara, center, talks with John F Kennedy and Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the chief joint chiefs of staff. Photograph: UPH Books Because Our Fathers Lied review: Robert McNamara, Vietnam and a partial healing The son of John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s defense secretary delivers a searing memoir of war, betrayal and love Charles Kaiser Sun 5 Jun 2022 07.00 BST Share on Facebook

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In the mid-1960s, Craig McNamara and his mother were both diagnosed with ulcers. Craig has a theory about why they were afflicted simultaneously: “I think we both felt the weight of my father’s decisions throughout our bodies and in every part of our minds.”

It’s a rare child who doesn’t have some kind of love-hate relationship with his or her parents, and that was especially true for all of us who came of age in the 1960s. But as McNamara makes clear on every page of his searing memoir, those feelings are magnified a thousand times if your father was Robert McNamara, secretary of defense to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the architect of the Vietnam war, America’s worst modern foreign policy disaster.

If Craig had managed to hate his father, as many members of our generation hated theirs, it would have been much easier to come to terms with him. But he never did: he felt a “mixture of rage and love for him” every day of his life. He stayed loyal to the end, when he “bathed him and dressed him” in his final days. Sometimes he worried he had spoken too generously about his father in public. But, “Goddammit, this is my father we’re talking about: caretaker, loving dad, hiking buddy – obfuscator, neglectful parent, warmonger.”

The irony is that unlike many other members of the Johnson administration, by the beginning of 1968 Robert McNamara had realized the war in Vietnam had become futile. He left his job to become president of the World Bank. But because he was above all a loyal man, it took him decades to describe his opposition to the war. That meant he never got any credit for that position, from his son or anyone else.

I am the same age as Craig McNamara. We both attended prep schools we loathed, strange New England institutions that strove too successfully to detach from the world around them. When Bobby Kennedy was killed – a man Craig knew and loved and who served in the same cabinet as his father – a school administrator refused to give permission to leave campus for the funeral. I felt a huge sigh of relief when McNamara reported that he ignored that order, hitchhiked to the nearest airport and caught a plane to Washington, arriving just in time to witness his father acting as one of the fallen leader’s pallbearers.

At my own prep school graduation, a few days after Bobby Kennedy was killed, not a single speaker mentioned his name or his murder.

I am also the son of a father who worked loyally for Lyndon Johnson. I was the first member of my family to break with his support for the war, when I gave a chapel talk at school. But my father was only a mid-level diplomat, defending the president’s policy abroad, not its most important architect. My burden was negligible compared to that carried by Craig McNamara.

Like Robert McNamara, my father was emotionally distant. But he was nowhere near as bad. Craig McNamara’s emotional connection to his father ran through his mother. Once she died, he lost his “first, last and only way of seeking some insight into the depths” of his father’s heart.

Opposing the war was one way of staking out some independence from my father. For young Craig, it was far more visceral:

I was participating in the antiwar movement in order to survive my own family trauma. This template of protest was the only thing available to make sense of the ugliness in my inner world. I was unable to articulate my own chaotic feelings, but the nation presented them for me … I was finding a truth that provided both relief and pain.”

After fleeing to South America, on motorcycles with two buddies, ending up in an inspiring Chile just before America encouraged the assassination of its socialist president, Salvadore Allende, McNamara made his way back to America and devoted himself to the land, becoming a walnut farmer in California.

But because he needed money from his father to help buy his farm, his emotional enslavement continued. His famously statistics-obsessed father would call at 7.45 in the morning – making sure the call was made before long distance charges went up at 8am – and interrogate him about the progress of their joint investment. Eventually the son made enough money to buy his father out of the farm, and buy himself a modicum of independence.

Americans love to criticize the Germans and the French for failing to do enough to come to terms with what their fathers and mothers did in the second world war. But in our usual myopic fashion, we have done almost nothing to come to terms with our own disastrous war, except to build a brilliant monument in Washington where Robert McNamara often retreated, late at night, to revisit his personal pain in silence.

With this book, his son has made a noble effort to shed as much as possible of the pain his father bequeathed him, and the rest of our nation.

Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today, is published in the US by Little Brown and Company