It’s a hell of a thing when your father was the architect of a war that led to the deaths of nearly 60,000 Americans.
Vietnam and Craig McNamara, a walnut farmer who lives in Winters, are linked by blood and bloodshed. As secretary of defense for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, his father, the late Robert McNamara, was the mastermind of America’s disastrous campaign to stop a feared expansion of communism in Southeast Asia.
As a result of Robert McNamara’s ability to persuade JFK and LBJ that victory in Vietnam was possible – when it never was – many young Americans perished in distant killing fields. That’s not to mention the millions of Vietnamese soldiers killed by American troops in the 1960s and ’70s.
Long before history revealed how badly McNamara and other U.S. leaders miscalculated who they were fighting and who their allies were, the Vietnam War had become synonymous with protest and social unrest. Many Americans remember the conflict as the moment they stopped believing the government, because the government lied to them, escalating an unjust war, often in secret, and always with mortal consequences.
With the recent airing of the acclaimed PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War,” the conflict and its legacy have returned to the national spotlight. It’s hard to imagine anyone viewing the 10-part series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick with a more acute and personal sense of history than Craig McNamara – save for the thousands of American families whose loved ones were killed following orders informed by Robert McNamara.
“For me, it’s only been in the last 10 years that I am able to say the word ‘Vietnam’ without sobbing,” said Craig McNamara, 67, who, with his oval face, glasses and penetrating gaze, bears a striking resemblance to his father.
An unfailingly courteous man who graduated from UC Davis before becoming a well-respected member of the local farming community, Craig McNamara makes an appearance in the PBS series, albeit a brief one. To record his thoughts and observations, the “Vietnam” filmmakers brought their cameras to his picturesque Solano County farm where he lives with his wife and where he raised his children.
Considering his dad’s outsized role in the war, one would think that Craig McNamara would have been all over “Vietnam.” But he wasn’t, he said, because he found himself struggling to talk to the filmmakers about certain topics and memories that cut too close for him.
But there was no avoiding the images of his late father in “Vietnam,” along with his recorded conversations – primarily with LBJ – in which the elder McNamara sold Johnson on pressing forward, securing more “kills” and achieving American victory. By the end of one particularly macabre conversation, LBJ just sighed and said: “Go ahead, Bob.”
In a sense, Craig McNamara remains perpetually caught in his own personal war, over how to explain the father he loved dearly and the public man whose policies led him to become a pariah in American popular culture.
Craig McNamara has carried the burdens of his father from the time he was a teenager. He spent his formative years living among the political elite in Washington, D.C. His family lived in a mansion on Tracy Place, in the Georgetown section. By his father’s bed was a gray phone with a red light that was a direct line to the White House. In the coat closet was a device that scrambled the calls so his father could safely conduct top secret American business from home.
“To the left of where I lived now resides the greatest president of my lifetime – Barack Obama,” Craig McNamara said. “To the right of where I lived, Jared and Ivanka Kushner now live.”
By the time he was 17 in 1967 – as the Vietnam War was escalating – Craig McNamara had turned the American flag on his bedroom wall upside down. He said that he and his friends didn’t buy his father’s warnings about a communist threat that would endanger America if it spread in Vietnam. The war abroad, the unrest at home – and in his own home – caused Craig McNamara to develop severe ulcers as a teenager.
Ironically, those ulcers would save him from serving in Vietnam. He passed up a student deferment while attending Stanford and took his military service physical in Oakland. His stomach condition, however, caused him to fail the medical exam. When relating these details, Craig McNamara acknowledges that whatever turmoil he endured during the Vietnam era pales when compared to the experience of the men who went there to fight and died.
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Each episode of “Vietnam” has told the poignant stories of American men who lost their lives on the battlefields, often because of bungled planning from the higher-ups. The documentary has laid bare how brutal and barbaric infantry fighting was. Nearly 50,000 of the American casaulities were enlisted men. Many, if not most, of those killed were from humble backgrounds – guys whose draft numbers came up and they had no choice but to go.
“How could Dad live with that?” McNamara asked aloud on a recent day. “How do you live your next day with that? How do you wake up with that?”
Craig McNamara said that years later, when Robert McNamara would visit his farm in Winters, his dad would marvel at a morning sun rising over the rows of almond trees and say: “‘Isn’t this a glorious day Craig-y?’ And I would think, ‘No. It’s not a glorious day. It’s (expletive).’ I thought, ‘I’m going to do my best to try to make it better.’ ”
A question remains at the end of the PBS series, just as it did at the end of the war: Why did some of the smartest, most capable men in America thinks a prolonged war in Vietnam was a good idea?
Craig McNamara said he never got a satisfactory answer from his father about why he was so keen on committing American troops to Vietnam. The elder McNamara, who died in 2009, visited Vietnam in the 1990s, but didn’t allow his son to accompany him.
So the internal war that McNamara still struggles with over his father – a good man in private, a villain in public – goes on.
At the beginning of “Vietnam,” the filmmakers say that the war was started by good men “with the best of intentions.” Does Craig McNamara think his father had “the best of intentions”?
“It’s hard for me to say that,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s true.”
After weighing the question more in his mind he said: “Yes, it’s true. They did have the best of intentions. But they were so quickly in error.”
Craig McNamara describes his father as a “man of honor.” But he acknowledges how deceitful he was during Vietnam.
JFK said he thought Robert McNamara was the smartest man he ever met. At 44, he became the first president of Ford Motor Company who wasn’t named Ford. And yet a mixture of arrogance and fear led him to promote the war in Vietnam, which cemented a ruinous place for him in American history.
“I think my dad was broken by Vietnam,” Craig McNamara said.
The son chose a life very different from his father. Craig McNamara has spent his adult years working the land, dedicated to the community around him. In addition to running an organic farm, Sierra Orchards, he is the founder of the Center for Land-Based Learning, which connects people and policy with best practices in agriculture.
Even with his reservations, and lack of answers, Craig McNamara is talking about his father more openly than ever these days. This fall, he said, he is planning to travel to Vietnam for the first time, to see the country for himself and to seek a sense of understanding he never got from his father. He is trying to make sense of a tragic history that has haunted his life and his country.
If there is a lesson in the Vietnam War, it’s that it could happen again. American leaders could repeat the mistakes, indulging in belligerent arrogance and failing to fully understand the consequences of their actions – while innocent American lives are lost. It happened not too long ago in Iraq. And it could happen again as the current occupant of the White House beats the drum of war with a hostile government in North Korea.
Craig McNamara knows all too well how powerful men can believe too fully in their own flawed dogma.
“My father was a champion of compartmentalization,” Craig McNamara said. “As a human being you can’t do that. He was so bright and so capable, but you can’t compartmentalize more than 55,000 men dead.”
All 10 episodes of the landmark miniseries are streaming on PBS's website through Oct. 15.