Robert McNamara: I'm not so naive or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war. We're not going to change human nature any time soon. It isn't that we aren't rational. We are rational. But reason has limits. There's a quote from T.S. Eliot that I just love: "We shall not cease from exploring, and at the end of our exploration, we will return to where we started, and know the place for the first time." Now that's in a sense where I'm beginning to be.
Robert McNamara: If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning.
Robert McNamara: Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he is speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He's killed people - unnecessarily. His own troops or other troops. Through mistakes, through errors of judgement. A hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand, maybe even a hundred thousand. But he hasn't destroyed nations.
Robert McNamara: And the conventional wisdom is: don't make the same mistake twice. Learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five.
Robert McNamara: They'll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. Make one mistake and you're going to destroy nations.
[regarding his and Colonel Curtis LeMay's involvement in the bombing of Japan during World War II]
Robert McNamara: LeMay said if we lost the war that we would have all been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he's right. He... and I'd say I... were behaving as war criminals.
Robert McNamara: LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side has lost.
Robert McNamara: But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?
Robert McNamara: [about Castro] I said, "I must have got the translation wrong." So I asked him 3 questions. One- did you know there were nuclear warheads in Cuba? Two- would you have recommended to Khrushchev to use nuclear missiles in the event of an American invasion of Cuba? And three- what would have happened to Cuba? He said, "One- I knew the missiles were there. Two- I would not *have* recommended it, I *did* recommend it! And three- we would have been totally obliterated".
Robert McNamara: What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience? We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe we should ever apply that economic, political, or military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there! None of our allies supported us; not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning.
Robert McNamara: In the end, it was luck. We were *this* close to nuclear war, and luck prevented it.
[from October 27, 1962, regarding the Soviet missiles in Cuba]
John F. Kennedy: We're not going to get these missiles out of Cuba, probably, anyway... by negotiation.
Tommy Thompson: I don't agree, Mr. President. I think there's still a chance...
John F. Kennedy: That he'll back down?
Tommy Thompson: The important thing for Khrushchev, it seems to me, is to be able to say, "I saved Cuba, I stopped an invasion".
Robert McNamara: It's almost impossible for our people today to put themselves back into that period
[the Cold War]
Robert McNamara: . In my seven years as Secretary, we came within a hair's breadth of war with the Soviet Union on three different occasions! Twenty-four hours a day, three-hundred sixty-five days a year, for seven years as Secretary of Defense, I lived the Cold War! During the Kennedy Administration, they designed a one-hundred Megaton bomb! It was tested in the atmosphere; I remember this.
Robert McNamara: I think the human race needs to think more about killing. How much evil must we do in order to do good?
Robert McNamara: I was on the island of Guam in his
[General Curtis LeMays']
Robert McNamara: command in March 1945. In that single night, we burned to death one hundred thousand Japanese civilians in Tokyo. Men, women and children.
Interviewer: Were you aware this was going to happen?
Robert McNamara: Well, I was part of a mechanism that, in a sense, recommended it.
[recounting the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis]
Robert McNamara: My deputy and I brought the Five Chiefs
[joint Chiefs of Staff]
Robert McNamara: over and we sat down with Kennedy.
Robert McNamara: And he said, "Gentlemen, we won. I don't want you ever to say it, but you know we won, I know we won."
Robert McNamara: [General Curtis] LeMay said, "Won hell... we lost... we should go in and... wipe 'em out today."
Interviewer: Is it the feeling that you're damned if you do, and if you don't, no matter what?
Robert McNamara: Yeah, yeah, that's right. And I'd rather be damned if I don't.
Robert McNamara: [referring to auto accident research at Cornell Aeronautical Lab] They said "the main problem is packaging." They said "you buy eggs and you know how eggs come in a carton?"
Robert McNamara: So Cornell said "they don't break because they're packaged properly. Now if we package people in cars the same way, we could reduce the breakage."
Lyndon Johnson: Nobody really understands what it is out there.
Lyndon Johnson: And they're asking questions and saying why don't we do more. Well, I think this: You can have more war, or you can have more appeasement. But we don't want more of either.
Robert McNamara: Lesson #2: The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of nations.
[from the Epilogue]
Interviewer: After you left the Johnson administration, why didn't you speak out against the Vietnam War?
Robert McNamara: I'm not going to say any more than I have. These are the kinds of questions that get me into trouble. You don't know what I know about how inflammatory my words can appear. A lot of people misunderstand the war, misunderstand me. A lot of people think I'm a son of a bitch.
Robert McNamara: [quoting a message from Khrushchev to Kennedy concerning the Cuban Missile Crisis] "We and you ought not pull on the ends of a rope in which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull the tighter the knot will be tied. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction. For such is the logic of war. If people do not display wisdom they will clash like blind moles and then mutual annihilation will commence."
Robert McNamara: [Regarding his Medal of Freedom acceptance speech] Had I responded, I would have said, "I know what many of you are thinking. You are thinking this man is duplicitous, you are thinking that he has held things close to his chest, you are thinking that he did not respond fully to the desires and wishes of the American people. And I want to tell you you're wrong. Of course he had personal idiosyncrasies, no question about it. He didn't accept all the advice he was given. On several occasions his associates advised him to be more forthcoming. He wasn't. People didn't understand at that time there were recommendations and pressures that would carry the risk of war with China. And carry the risk of nuclear war. And he was determined to prevent it. I am arguing that he had a reason, in his mind, for doing what he did."
[Per contact at the Errol Morris Foundation, the date is 8/5/1964, and the clip is from Press Conference on The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, National Archives #111-LC-48220]
Robert McNamara: [archival footage from the press conference on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 5 August 1964] Is this chart at a reasonable height for you? Or do you want it lowered? All right. Earlier tonight - first let me ask the TV, are you ready? All set?
Robert McNamara: One of the lessons I learnt early on, was never say never... never, never, never... never say never. And secondly, never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wished that was asked of you and quite frankly I follow that rule, it's a really good rule.