Commander-in-chief Lyndon B. Johnson

Revealing reel-to-reel

Empathize with the enemy

Thompson saves the day

Johnson’s plea

Johnson takes over

Fred in the dark

Zündel thinks

Celebrity Fred revels in his friendly reception by Holocaust revisionist groups.

What was he trying to prove?

Japan under attack

The problem of interpretation

Efficient bombing continues.

The bomb

Major voices called for the invasion of Cuba and escalation in Vietnam.

Last word Bob continued cheerfully to report progress in Vietnam, even in the face of mounting body bags.

Revisionist history

Perhaps it should be unsurprising that Errol Morris presents Holocaust revisionists as suffering from cognitive, not moral defects, for Morris is himself a revisionist of sorts. With The Fog of War, the director calls into question the widely embraced view that Robert McNamara was a hawk who somehow talked Lyndon Johnson into getting much more deeply involved in Vietnam than he would have been inclined to do, left to his own devices. Some historians have disputed Morris’ revisionist picture, but, in his defense, he has pointed out that the most important tapes upon which his interpretation rests were only recently released. Defenders of Johnson retort that a judicious selection of tapes could be used to support any interpretation, no matter how at odds it may be with the rest of historical documentation, including all of the books already written about that period.[6]

The text of a film running less than two hours is of necessity omissive and therefore ultimately reflective of the director’s own values and beliefs. But even within Morris’ film one finds the following curious exchange:

Johnson: “My answer is ‘yes’, but my judgment is ‘no’."
McNamara: “All right, we'll take care of it, Mr. President."
Johnson: “When are you going to issue the order?
McNamara: “We'll make it late today so it'll miss some of the morning editions. I'll handle it in a way that will minimize the announcement.”

Obviously, taken out of context, we cannot know why Johnson said “My answer is ‘yes,’ but my judgment is ‘no’,” but, given the date, this certainly appears to be his response to the question whether ground troops should be deployed. This interpretation would imply that when Johnson said “but my judgment is ‘no’,” he himself had scruples about the idea, but acquiesced to whoever had made the proposal, and, given his response, it may well have been McNamara himself.

Indeed, given McNamara’s apparent readiness to invade Cuba in the face of the missile crisis (“The first day’s attack was planned at 1080 sorties, a huge air attack”), and the fact that Kennedy was finally dissuaded from doing so not by his Secretary of Defense, but by Tommy Thompson, the former Ambassador to Moscow, who knew Kruschev personally and thus was able to “empathize with the enemy,” there does not seem to be an abundance of support in The Fog of War for a revisionist reading. It is obviously crucial to McNamara that his audience believe that he was hired by Kennedy and fired by Johnson, but whether the latter was because McNamara had provoked or restrained Johnson in Vietnam remains an open question.

In any case, one suspects that had Morris produced such a biographical documentary of Lyndon Johnson (were he alive today), it would have been every bit as sympathetic to Johnson’s own plight. The pictures and words of Johnson presented in The Fog of War are those of a man basically as confused as Fred Leuchter, Ernst Zündel and Robert McNamara. When Johnson histrionically justifies his massively destructive military policies by claiming that he is combating tyranny and aggression, one can only regret his failure to recognize the contradiction in which he has become embroiled:

“Well, we're off to bombing these people. We're over that hurdle.”

The segment showing Johnson assuming the Presidency can hardly inspire anything but pity for the man, who deeply regretted Kennedy’s untimely death and certainly never asked to inherit the problem of Vietnam:

“I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help. And for God’s.”

With The Fog of War, Morris has offered one perspective on Robert S. McNamara and his role in Vietnam. But Morris is not (nor is it plausible that he would claim to be) immune from his own critique of the notion of human expertise. What, in the end, makes a man a historian, beyond his desire to know more about history? What qualifies a documentary filmmaker to produce a film that finally tells “the truth” about his subject matter?

Extra-epistemological considerations

Leuchter’s mere belief in the non-existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz finally developed into a veritable article of faith, as Morris brings out by asking, “Have you ever thought that you might be wrong, or do you think that you could make a mistake?” Leuchter responds:

“No, I’m past that. When I attempted to turn those facilities into gas execution facilities and was unable to, I made a decision at that point that I wasn’t wrong. And perhaps that’s why I did it. At least it cleared my mind, so I know that I left no stone unturned. I did everything possible to substantiate and prove the existence of the gas chambers, and I was unable to.”

Leuchter’s “will to believe” is admired by Ernst Zündel, who recalls,

“When my doubt about the Holocaust first came to me, it took me two and a half years, and I was like a reforming alcoholic. I was like one yo-yo, back and forth: believe, not believe, maybe believe, false belief, true belief. Fred was able to purge his own mind within a matter of a week. That’s amazing to me. So I said: ‘Fred, what convinced you?’ He said: ‘Ernst, it wasn’t what I found, it was what I didn’t find.’ That blew me away. It never, ever occurred to me that a man could be convinced by something that is not there. That’s what Fred said.”

Like atheism, Holocaust denial is based upon the alleged proof of non-existence supposedly achieved through not finding any evidence. This hubristic error of reasoning supposes that, because something lies outside of one’s own limited range of experience, it does not and cannot exist.

It seems clear that Leuchter and Zündel advocate Holocaust denial largely because of extra-epistemological considerations, one factor of which is no doubt the value they derive through being “celebrities” of a sort, albeit notorious ones to all Holocaust survivor groups. Both men paint their mission as having to do with the right to freedom of speech, but it is clear that this is simply an add-on which delusively confers upon their activities a veneer of moral righteousness. At bottom, each of these men is most strongly driven by psychological factors that transcend the evidential context which they claim to support revisionism, as Van Pelt explains, “Holocaust denial is a story about vanity. It is a way to get in the limelight, to be noticed—to be someone—maybe to be loved.”

Yet through his depiction of the outraged and morally righteous critics of Zündel and Leuchter, Morris simultaneously signals the ugliness of the critics’ own vanity. There certainly seems to be a widespread misconception among people throughout history that simply by denouncing others as “evil” one elevates oneself to the exalted category of “good.” The often seething self-righteousness of such judges does not become less ugly for the fact that they appear to hold true beliefs.

Errol Morris is keenly aware of the degree to which we find ourselves with our beliefs, and these beliefs sometimes rest upon flimsy evidence. Sometimes the only real “reason” that we believe something is that we happen to believe it (we no longer even know why), and our cognitive manner of dealing with the world into which we have been in some sense thrown is essentially conservative.[7] Traditions such as the institution of slavery, the legal possession of women by men, capital punishment, and the use of military means of conflict resolution are extraordinarily difficult to dismantle precisely because people tend to believe what they have been told by their parents and authorities, who themselves have come to their beliefs through the testimony of other merely fallible human beings. While Holocaust revisionists are in all likelihood emotionally and psychologically motivated to deny the reality of the Holocaust, they are far from unique in this regard. The chemist who analyzed the Auschwitz samples for Leuchter describes a far more general tendency when he observes,

“If they go in with blinders on, they will see what they want to see. What was he really trying to do? What was he trying to prove?”

In reality, neither Holocaust revisionists nor their critics seem to have much effect upon the political landscape of today. The former group wishes to deny that the slaughter of millions of innocent people by the Nazis ever transpired; the latter affirms that it happened. But what, in the end, is the import of either stance, when those who possess the power to kill innocent people continue to this day to do so, all the while wielding moral rhetoric along the lines of the perpetrators of The Third Reich?

In relaying the story of the March 10, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, which incinerated 100,000 human beings, most of them innocent civilians, McNamara concurs with the opinion of the commander in charge, Curtis LeMay, who after the war observed that if they had lost, they would have been tried for war crimes:

“He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

In the moment of action, political leaders invariably conceive of their own mass killings in moral terms. Holocaust affirmation and Holocaust denial do nothing to change this. Ironically, the reality of Hitler has been deployed rhetorically to support every manner of military aggression in recent years. Thus, in 1991 Saddam Hussein was equated with Hitler, and that supposedly made it permissible to destroy thousands of innocent Iraqis. Slobodan Milosevic’s alleged similarity to Hitler made his country fair game for massive and indiscriminate bombing in 1999. The existence of Osama bin Laden and his instigation of the crimes of September 11, 2001 supposedly justified the slaughter of thousands of innocent Afghanis during October and November of 2001. And the ghost of Hitler reared its ugly and ironic head once again when proponents of the 2003 invasion of Iraq spoke of weapons of mass destruction, allegedly stockpiled and waiting only to be deployed. But rather than finding and destroying WMDs, the invaders killed thousands of innocent human beings. What is the importance of our historical understanding of the Holocaust, if the populace still, to this day, has not learned that leaders invariably characterize their own mass killings as dictates of justice, as though they themselves were acting under the divine light of The Almighty?

In some segments, McNamara attempts to distance himself from the Cold War “activities” of which he was intimately a part:

“During the Kennedy administration, they designed a 100 megaton bomb. It was tested in the atmosphere. I remember this. Cold War? Hell, it was a hot war!”

Again, regarding the Cuban missile crisis, McNamara remarks that “major voices in the U.S. were calling for invasion.” Who, precisely, were these “major voices”? By employing these words, McNamara suggests that he had nothing whatsoever to do with what was happening in the labs and factories that created such weapons, nor in the decision of whether or not to invade Cuba. But McNamara was the person in charge of the entire U.S. Department of Defense. If the Secretary of Defense had nothing to do with the creation and testing of such weapons and the decision of whether to invade other nations, then who, precisely, did?

Some historians are disturbed that The Fog of War (as does McNamara’s Vietnam-era memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1996)) gives McNamara “the last word". Both The Fog of War and In Retrospect suggest that in a case such as this, where responsibility for a deplorable event is shared among various parties, the historical truth is a function of the complictors’ longevity. While this is perhaps one way of understanding the adage that “The victors write history,” it is clearly at odds with orthodox historical scholarship. It is manifestly a matter of chance that, of all people, Robert S. McNamara should have the final say, but, to reiterate, one cannot help but surmise that most any protagonist would have been handled just as charitably by Director Morris, whose humanity shines through at every interpretive turn.

Continued: The lessons of history

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