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The tape recordings of Kennedy suggesting that withdrawals of US troops should start towards the end of 1963, leading to a complete withdrawal of US forces - then only numbered in a few thousand advisers and trainers - is dynamite. McNamara asserted this fact in print but the existence of actual tape recordings was one of the main things critics highlighted in their comments on the film.

Robert McNamara talks to Errol Morris

Robert S. McNamara and Errol Morris
Photo © Sony Pictures Classics

Lyndon B Johnson had a much more firm view of the world than JFK, it seems, being convinced that communism was poised to sweep through the small nations of South East Asia unless America made a stand in Vietnam. That said, the emphasis, it seems, of his administration (as it had been for JFK’s) was that the South Vietnamese should show themselves to be capable of defending themselves. This, as well as the successes supposedly being achieved against both communist guerrillas and the North Vietnamese army regulars, was often subject to gross exaggeration. The politicians in Washington were in essence being systematically misled by the data they were receiving. McNamara eventually began to get information from intelligence services such as the CIA that conflicted with the kinds of rosy reports that were favoured by the US joint Chiefs-of-Staff in the Pentagon. When he reported his misgivings, he fatally blotted his copybook and was eventually sacked as Secretary of State for Defence.

The Domino Theory – often illustrated in The Fog of War - suggested how inter-linked were the fortunes of South East Asia’s countries. Such a worldview was first argued by American politicians in the 1950s and inherited by both JFK and LBJ as received wisdom. The theory was insensitive to the very different national characteristics of each country there - especially Vietnam whose leaders were just as suspicious of the Chinese as they were of the Americans. Vietnam had a thousand year history of conflict with their large neighbour. Lacking South East Asian experts, neither JFK or LBJ’s Cabinets were briefed properly about the kind of thinking that might have been going on in Hanoi. Such ignorance also affected America’s failure to see how Chinese influence in the region dwindled as the 1960s advanced, first with the defeat of communist forces in Malaya and the wholesale repression in 1965 of communist sympathisers in Indonesia. Then there followed the Cultural Revolution in China. This led to even greater introspection and internal upheaval there.

A frequent observation in Robert S. McNamara’s book In Retrospect is that Vietnam was just one among many big problems affecting the world at that time and that often there was not the time to give it the attention it deserved. Bravely candid this might be, but it is a chilling reminder of how politicians only have the same number of hours each week to devote to their duties and are quite capable of acting in ignorance, despite protestations about all their actions being well founded.

There is a brief mention in the film of the 1963 election in which LBJ was up against the Republican Barry Goldwater. LBJ won by making Goldwater appear a dangerous extremist, suggesting he was too eager to use nuclear weapons against the Russians or Chinese. One famous election advertisement featured a sweet little blond child counting petals off on a flower, followed by a countdown leading to a nuclear explosion. LBJ triumphed and the stage was then clear for him to become tougher in Vietnam and start the steady increase in the USA’s commitment there.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident followed a pattern of secret US coastal surveillance of North Vietnam coupled with covert operations, including sabotage. Although, the American ships were in international waters, their presence was hardly innocent. Once bombing raids by US aeroplanes began then there was a need for US forces to guard the airfields and so the inexorable increase in US military commitment to the region began. The first landings of US marines rushing ashore were a public relations failure. The Fog of War shows a jeep from which water is pouring but also subverting the occasion were numerous pretty South Vietnamese girls rushing up to the troops and decorating them with flower garlands. Far from being a show of force, the whole event was a debacle.