Because Our Fathers Lied by Craig McNamara

“Happy families,” Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I couldn’t help think of that famed aphorism while devouring Craig McNamara’s stunning, deeply personal new book, Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today (Little Brown, 288 pp. $29, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle).

It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of words have been written by and about Craig McNamara’s father, the late former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, in scores of books and in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, and other publications—including The Pentagon Papers. But amid that avalanche of written material relatively little has been revealed about McNamara’s personal life. As for his son Craig, he has been little more than a footnote to a footnote in that avalanche of material, if he’s mentioned at all.

With this revealing autobiography, Craig McNamara reveals a great deal of hitherto unreported details about his controversial father’s family life and how McNamara senior’s hubris, lies, and obfuscations about the Vietnam War led to his estrangement from his father.

We learn in often painful detail about Craig McNamara’s decidedly unhappy experience growing up in the McNamara household and how that has molded him since he dropped out of college and escaped his nuclear family’s stifling cocoon. 

On the surface, Craig McNamara had an ideal childhood. His father made a fortune as he rose up the corporate ladder to become the first non-member of the Ford family to head the Ford Motor Company in 1960. He grew up in a family (with his mother Margaret and his two older sisters, Kathleen and Margaret) of affluence. Think country club memberships, family skiing vacations, mansion-like houses, top–drawer private schools.

But underneath the success was a family dominated by the hard-charging, emotionally distant father. An Eagle Scout who had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Berkeley in 1937, Robert S. picked up an MBA from Harvard Business School two years later. In 1943 he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and served as a logistics whiz during World War II, analyzing and developing bombing raids and implementing sophisticated, statistical-based troop and supply movement systems. He left the military in 1946 as a Lieutenant Colonel, then went to work for Ford with a group of other “Whiz Kid” WWII veterans.

Craig McNamara on his California walnut farm

As a child, Craig, who was born in 1950, was devoted to his old man, even though McNamara senior was often absent and not exactly a model father when he was at home. By his early teens the boy suffered psychologically and physically. “After I failed most of my exams in the tenth grade,” he writes, the head of his boarding school “suggested to my parents that I be sent to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for psychotherapy every Wednesday afternoon.” The man “had a theory that I suffered from test-taking anxiety, and they thought a shrink could cure it. Years later I would be diagnosed with dyslexia.”

Craig McNamara came of age during the sixties when his father was basically running the increasingly costly and unpopular war in Vietnam. In high school he turned against the war with a vengeance. He hung an upside-down American flag in his bedroom and actively and took part in antiwar activities.

His father’s “refusal to speak publicly and to pressure his successors to get out of Vietnam was a primary reason that I started to protest the war,” Craig McNamara writes. “If he wouldn’t tell the truth, I would do it for him.”

One day the son asked his father, “Tell me the truth, Dad—why are we there?” Looking back, Craig McNamara writes, “the thing I remember most from our conversation is talking about football.” As with “so much about my father’s life,” Craig McNamara learned about his father’s role in the Vietnam War “by reading other people’s words—the words of journalists, historians, and essayists.”

Over the years, he writes, “I had thought about Dad every day with a mixture of love and rage. Whenever we spoke and I asked him about Vietnam, he deflected. There was never a big confrontation between us. I remember my life at that time as being defined by an absence of truth and honesty in our relationship.”

As every male member of his generation did, Craig McNamara came face to face with the military draft. When called up for his physical, he was classified 1-A, even though he reported that he had stomach ulcers. Later, his doctor wrote his draft board confirming the diagnosis and he was medically disqualified. 

“Not going to Vietnam as a soldier still causes me overwhelming guilt,” he says. “It’s like a gap in my soul. On some level, I believed that serving would pay a debt for my father’s involvement in the war.”

The pressure of academics, his mother’s serious illnesses (she died in 1981, 27 years before her husband’s death at 91) and his father’s starring role in prosecuting the Vietnam War came to a head in college. Craig McNamara dropped out of Stanford in 1971, and went into self-imposed exile in South America.

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Craig McNamara with his Parents

“I’ve lived my life through the lens of the Vietnam War,” he says, and tells his life story from the unique viewpoint of the son of the war’s architect. He reveals a man who was, at once a “caretaker, loving dad, hiking buddy,” and an “obfuscator, neglectful parent, warmonger.” As a result, living with his father turned into “a mixture of love and rage.”

In Because Our Fathers Lied, (the words are from a poem by Rudyard Kipling about who is responsible for deaths in warfare) Craig McNamara has revealed an unmatched depth of understanding of his father in a clearly written and deeply introspective book that measurably adds to our understanding of the person most responsible for prosecuting the nation’s most controversial overseas war.

p.s.:  Memo to David Kissinger, Henry’s only son (born in 1962): Your turn.

Craig McNamara’s website is craigmcnamara.org

–Marc Leepson