I recently watched a video entitled “The Fog of War” for my humanities class. It was narrated by Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense for seven years during the John F. Kennedy-Lyndon B. Johnson administrations. It was an interesting video because he discussed world events that took place in my later teens. I knew about the events and had some feelings about them, but I was far from understanding what happened and why.
McNamara was somehow involved in the decision to drop bombs on two Japanese cities in an effort to end World War II. I got the impression from other studies that he was quite brilliant and was involved with the numbers or statistics involved in that operation. From “The Fog of War” I also got the impression that he was still wondering if the decision to drop the bombs was a good one.
This video began with McNamara making a statement that any honest military leader would admit that he made mistakes in the application of military power, mistakes that had gotten somebody killed. Conventional wisdom, he said, would be to not make the same mistake again, and most military leaders would learn the lesson quickly. However, there is no learning period with nuclear weapons. When dealing with nuclear weapons, a first mistake could wipe out an entire nation.
McNamara made it his rule to try to learn and understand what happened and then to develop lessons in order to pass them on to other people. He shared one of the lessons that he learned during the Cuban Missile Crisis that took place 16-28 October 1962. That lesson was: Empathize with our enemy.
The crisis started when the USSR introduced missiles into Cuba and targeted 90 million Americans. The warheads were not delivered before the missiles were discovered, so the United States blockaded Cuba with 40 warships and mobilized 180,000 troops. President John F. Kennedy, McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff debated what to do about the problem. The Joint Chiefs wanted to bomb Cuba and destroy it, but JFK and McNamara were trying to avoid war if possible. They received two messages on the same day. The first one said that if the US would not invade Cuba, the missiles would be taken out. This was considered to be a “soft message.” The second one arrived before the US could respond to the first message. It said that the Russians would respond with massive military power if the US attacked Cuba. It was considered to be a “hard message.”
Then Tommy Thompson, a United States diplomat, entered the picture. He served in Sri Lanka, Austria, and for a long period of time in the Soviet Union. There he saw some of the most significant events of the Cold War and got to know Khrushchev personally. He suggested to JFK that they respond to the soft message. JFK thought that it was the wrong message to answer. Thompson said to the President of the United States, “Mr. President, that is where you are wrong.” That took guts!
After a little more discussion, Thompson convinced JFK to take a chance. He said that the important thing for Khrushchev was to be able to tell his people, “I saved Cuba; I stopped an invasion. Kennedy was going to destroy Cuba, but I stopped him.” Thompson thought that Khrushchev realized that he had gotten himself into a terrible problem and would appreciate a way of escape. The US gave Khrushchev the opportunity to back out and still brag about how tough he was. Thompson thought that Khrushchev would accept the deal, and he did. The crisis was over without anyone dying, and the USSR moved the missiles out of Cuba. Tommy Thompson is best known for this advice that he gave to JFK.
McNamara suggested that we try to put ourselves inside the skin of the other person and look at the situation through their eyes. We should try to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and actions.
After sharing many thoughts about the Vietnam War and the difficult decisions that were made, McNamara shared an experience that he had in 1995, twenty years after the US pulled out of Vietnam. He said, “There aren’t many examples in which you bring two former enemies together at the highest levels and discuss what might have been.” He formed the hypothesis that each nation could have achieved their objectives without the terrible loss of life, and he wanted to test it by going to Vietnam.
A former leader in Vietnam said during the discussion, “You are totally wrong. We were fighting for our independence. You were fighting to enslave us.” Americans were devastated with the deaths of 58,000 military members and thousands injured, but Vietnam thought the 3,400,000 dead Vietnamese were worth the price of independence. Maybe that war would have turned out differently if the Vietnamese understood that we were not trying to enslave them.
We should remember this rule of McNamara. Most of us will never be in a position to make a decision about whether or not to drop a bomb on some nation, but all of us have some kind of relationship with the people around us. We do not have to jump to quick solutions and start lobbing “bombs” at them. We can take the time to look at the situation from the other person’s point of view and see us through their eyes. We would most likely be greatly surprised at what we would see. Who knows? Maybe friendships, family relationships, and even marriages can be saved by practicing this rule.