War Torn

Craig McNamara was a Vietnam-era protester. His father was the U.S. secretary of defense. In a new memoir, he tries to untangle that knot.

March 2023

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Photo of Craig McNamara standing by a fallen walnut tree in his orchard.

Photography by Timothy Archibald

phone booth. A call to his father. A request he considered easy. This was Craig McNamara’s awakening. The year was 1966, and a friend at boarding school had planned a teach-in against the Vietnam War. Only 15, McNamara asked his father, Robert McNamara—the secretary of defense and broadly considered the war’s architect—for brochures justifying the war. He hoped to share them at the teach-in, and his father said his secretary would send them. Day after day, McNamara, ’73, checked the mail. Having received no response, he was swayed by the evidence presented at the teach-in—that after six years of escalation, hundreds of thousands of soldiers deployed, and tens of thousands of casualties, the war was not just unwinnable but also morally wrong. 

At 72, Craig McNamara lives in Winters, Calif., where he and his family own an organic walnut farm. Though McNamara left Stanford after five quarters to ride a motorcycle through Latin America, the university stands like bookends in his life: the moment, as an undergraduate, that he committed to antiwar activism, and the moment, returning to Stanford in 2018 as a fellow at the Distinguished Careers Institute, that he began writing Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today. In the years between, he struggled to understand his feelings of guilt over the war and his role as the only son of a man he both loved and has come to view as a war criminal. His desire to set out in a different direction led him to agriculture and land stewardship, which he believes are fundamentally political acts. Still, until he wrote his memoir, he couldn’t say the word Vietnam without crying.    

Photo of Craig McNamara at his desk.

Few childhoods have been lived so close to history. McNamara remembers outings with the Kennedys and invitations to swim in the White House pool while his father conferred with newly sworn-in President Lyndon B. Johnson. He bore witness to national tragedy the day he sat alone in the backseat of his family’s blue Ford Galaxie outside the Bethesda, Md., hospital where President John F. Kennedy’s body had been taken. His two elder sisters, Kathleen and Margaret, ’62, were grown and gone by then, and he recalls a time of loneliness. Frequently, he thinks about that moment in the phone booth, when he was a struggling student with dyslexia and a star athlete at St. Paul’s, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire. Among his peers were Cameron Kerry, the future general counsel of the Department of Commerce and the brother of former presidential candidate and secretary of state John Kerry; Bill Hamilton, later an editor at the New York Times; and Garry Trudeau, who would create the Doonesbury comic strip. The school paper frequently published articles opposing the war. When McNamara made the call to D.C., he wanted answers. “I’m reaching out to the father who has been my mentor and model,” he says, “and I am awakening, beginning to open my mind to the injustice of the American war.” He knew that his father, with a secretary and assistants, could easily have sent something. Instead, McNamara went to the teach-in with no counterargument. “I remember the room. I remember the light fixtures. I remember that it was somber. I remember roughly where I stood. I remember where the presenters were,” he says. “That became the time at which I would never turn back from my resistance.”

During McNamara’s final years of high school, the path to protest remained unclear. On school breaks, he went into his father’s study and pilfered mementos from Vietnam: pistols, Vietcong flags, and punji sticks—sharpened bamboo stakes the Vietcong placed as traps. He hung the American flag upside down above his bed. “I was searching for ways to protest the war on the third floor of our home,” he recalls. In his family, much went unsaid, and his father never mentioned his actions. Born in 1916, Robert McNamara had graduated from UC Berkeley and Harvard Business School, served in the Army Air Forces during World War II, risen to become president of Ford Motor Company, and then, five weeks later, been named John F. Kennedy’s secretary of defense. In the popular imagination, he was a systems analyst who reduced the war to numbers and models, missing the human element and thereby miring the United States in a drawn-out conflict, even though he had previously been lauded for his role in helping defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis, refusing to let the Joint Chiefs of Staff launch strikes against nuclear missile sites in Cuba. 

‘I was searching for ways to protest the war on the third floor of our home.’

Craig McNamara knew his father’s job involved running the war but had no idea how to talk to him about it. By contrast, he was close to his mother, a UC Berkeley graduate who would bring home cow brains, lungs, and eyeballs from the local slaughterhouse to teach him dissection and who later received a Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter for having established the nonprofit children’s literacy organization Reading Is Fundamental. The family connected most deeply around their love of nature—on trips in the Sierras and Rockies—and it was in these moments, when his father was teaching him outdoor skills, that McNamara felt close to him. On one such day, they were walking back to their vacation home in Aspen, Colo., after a hike when protesters approached them. “My father dashed into the house,” McNamara says, “but I needed to recognize them and let them know that their concerns were the same ones I had.” A protester gave him an antiwar placard that McNamara has kept framed ever since. He and his father never spoke of that day. “I believed my role in the family was that of a peacemaker,” McNamara says. The only time he remembers his father mentioning the war was after a dinner at a friend’s home, while sitting in the garden. McNamara’s friend challenged his father, who, as he recalls, replied, “You don’t have the information that I do.” 

In 1968, Robert McNamara left the Department of Defense and became president of the World Bank. In an interview, he said that taking a stand on the war would be inappropriate given his current role. McNamara believes his father had an obligation at that point to speak out. “He could have still changed the trajectory of the war. I lay a lot of blame on him for that,” he says. The following year, McNamara matriculated at Stanford and began protesting the ongoing war more actively. He participated in street riots, did guerrilla theater with puppets to educate students about the war, and, at the San Francisco International Airport, read out the names of Californians who had died in Vietnam. That same year, he received his draft notice and found himself at the Oakland induction center, surrounded by young men of color, who were less likely than their white peers to have student or medical deferments. Moreover, he knew that their being drafted was a direct result of his father’s actions. He himself was found unfit to serve because of a history of stomach ulcers. (He doesn’t believe his father interceded with the draft board on his behalf.)

Disillusioned with the forces of power in the United States, McNamara joined two friends on a motorcycle trip through Latin America. The 2½-year journey contributed to his understanding of the fervently anti-socialist U.S. foreign policy of the era—American-backed Guatemalan strongman Carlos Arana ordering soldiers to hunt socialists or Chile’s economy buckling after U.S. aid was cut off in the wake of the election of socialist Salvador Allende as president. Shortly after McNamara returned to the United States, the violent military regime of Augusto Pinochet came to power, and the World Bank, which his father presided over, resumed lending to Chile. “That’s a real stain on the World Bank,” McNamara says.  

But while in some ways he had never felt more distant from his father, McNamara was also reconnecting to the place where they’d always shared their greatest mutual regard: the land. The time he’d spent in nature with his parents predisposed him to learn farming in Chile and later in Mexico, where he worked on a collective farm for nine months. In 1976, he completed a bachelor's degree in plant and soil sciences at UC Davis. 

While at Davis, McNamara met his future wife, entomologist Julie Reardon, and in 1980, the couple bought the farm in Winters with his father’s assistance. “My father helped me put into practice something I had studied and dreamed of doing,” he says. “I could not have done it without him.” Though his father often called to discuss walnut yields, they remained unable to speak about the war. In 1995, Robert McNamara published his memoir, In Retrospect, in which he acknowledged having known the war was unwinnable and a mistake. On a visit home, when McNamara asked his father why he didn’t write it earlier, his father said, “Loyalty.” McNamara doesn’t see it that way. “I deeply disagree with my father’s view of loyalty,” he says. The oath of office his father took, he points out, was to the Constitution, not to the president. But nothing further came of the conversation. “His wall was impermeable,” McNamara says. 

The only time he and his father had come close to speaking about the war was after a writer from Mother Jones interviewed McNamara on his farm in 1984. McNamara was quoted as saying his father had an “impenetrable shield.” He was surprised when his father called and asked if the quotes were accurate. “I said, ‘Yes, Dad, those are accurate.’ It made me very sad to have him read my feelings in the press, and the reverse is true.” McNamara did not read until years later a journalist’s account of a 1971 incident in which a draft-age man recognized Robert McNamara on a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard and tried to throw him overboard. In the moments before bystanders saved him, his father hung from the deck 30 feet above the water as the man stomped on his fingers. Father never mentioned to son the attempt on his life.

Over the years that McNamara and Julie nurtured their walnut farm, they raised three children, Graham, Sean, and Emily. In 1981, McNamara’s mother died from mesothelioma, a cancer in the lining of her lungs. In her final months, when McNamara was caring for her, she told him, “Don’t do as I have done. Don’t give everything to everyone else.” He realized he’d been following her example, trying to maintain peace in the family. But in the years that followed, he still couldn’t break through his father’s wall. By then, Robert McNamara had become an advocate against nuclear proliferation, and in 1995, he planned a reconciliation trip to Vietnam to meet with Võ Nguyên Giáp, the general who’d led the North Vietnamese to victory. McNamara asked to go with him. “It would have encouraged us to talk about my father’s feelings about the war and possibly opened the door to my father revealing his sadness,” he says. His father refused. Fourteen years later, in 2009, McNamara was again a caretaker for an ailing parent. When his father died at 93, they still hadn’t had a conversation about Vietnam.

‘It tortured Craig to write the book, and I’m glad he did.’

Craig McNamara looking out across his muddy orchard in wintertime..

In 2018, McNamara returned to Stanford as a DCI fellow. The yearlong transition and renewal program for individuals in midlife would give him time, he thought, to start a memoir about agriculture. But as he wrote, he realized how much his father’s life had shaped him. “His father loomed so large to him as a historical figure, and the access he had to him was when they were in the outdoors together doing things they really loved; then Craig was alone a lot with the consequences of his father’s actions as people around him were sent to war,” says former Stegner fellow Sarah Frisch, who served as a writing mentor for the memoir, which was published by Little, Brown in 2022. “His impulse to write this book was to understand something he couldn’t understand. He had a lot of love for his father, but there is a lot of hurt there.”

Throughout the memoir, McNamara returns to the phone booth, when he asked his father for pamphlets. He now sees that moment with more nuance. “My father’s life must have been spinning out of control,” he says. By 1966, the United States military, struggling in the war, was relying increasingly on drafted soldiers and had begun the campaign that would, until American withdrawal in 1973, result in three times more bombs dropped on Indochina than the Allies had deployed during World War II, as well as the use of 388,000 tons of napalm and 11 million gallons of Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide that killed vast swaths of jungle and is implicated in significant, long-lasting health problems. Millions of civilians died, as did tens of thousands of soldiers. McNamara has come to believe that by not sending the pamphlets, his father may have been admitting his mistakes. “I’ve never said this before, but maybe it was his attempt to be truthful. Maybe this was an attempt through absence, through lack of information and lack of communication.”

Only after writing his memoir was McNamara able to see his father more clearly, coming to the conclusion that the bombing of civilians constituted war crimes while also confronting his own shame for “never having been able to have such an important conversation.” After publication, a reader wrote to him that, as the son of the secretary of defense, he should have changed his father’s position. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a fair weight to put on a son or daughter,” McNamara says. He does, however, wish he had written his memoir sooner. He believes that doing so would have allowed him and his father to talk about the war. He regrets not having tried harder to persuade his father to engage with healing efforts for veterans and for the Vietnamese people. 

“Moving Robert McNamara from one position to another is not something that perhaps anybody could achieve, other than the president of the United States,” says Errol Morris, whose Academy Award–winning documentary, The Fog of War, chronicles Robert McNamara’s role in Vietnam. Morris believes that Robert McNamara was tortured by the Vietnam War and didn’t choose to escalate it—that, even though it was called McNamara’s war, the orders came from President Johnson. “Robert McNamara had an extraordinary moral compass. It’s an odd thing to say about someone who I do consider to be a war criminal,” Morris says. “If there was a failure on his part, it was that he believed in our government.” Morris sees Because Our Fathers Lied as speaking for the generation that grew up opposing the war. "It’s a coming-of-age story about someone struggling to understand not just history but his place in history and in his own family,” he says. “It tortured Craig to write the book, and I’m glad he did.”

Though Robert McNamara’s role in the Vietnam War has been well studied, Because Our Fathers Lied fills in the “less well-known relationship he had with his family,” says Philip Taubman, ’70, who worked as a reporter and editor at the New York Times for nearly 30 years and who, with his brother, the political scientist William Taubman, is writing a book about Robert McNamara. He describes the memoir as a case study “of the tensions that were stirred by the war and how they upended family relationships,” and sees some parallels to the way that “divisions in American society today are reflected in often bitter disagreements within families.” 

Series of photos: Robert McNamara's chair, which has wheels and is covered with cracking blue padding; a close-up of the plaque of the back of the chair says "Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State, 1961 to 1968 (right); and the wood-framed, stamped metal calendar that Jackie Kennedy gave his father (left).COMPLICATED LEGACY: McNamara keeps the calendar that Jackie Kennedy gave his father after the Cuban Missile Crisis, “which he treasured,” and the chair “from which he made the decision to begin the bombing of North Vietnam.”

Today, two generations of McNamaras—Craig, Julie, and two of their children, Sean and Emily—run Sierra Orchards, a 450-acre farm located a 35-minute drive west of Sacramento. They have spent decades rehabilitating the soil by planting cover crops and rotating sheep through the orchards. Most of their organic walnuts end up on the shelves at Trader Joe’s and Costco. Ever the peacemaker, McNamara believes that many wars are fought over food and that sustainable food practices are crucial to society. “My whole embrace of regenerative and sustainable agriculture is my attempt to heal myself and to heal the lands which I am a steward of and that I realize I am only a steward of. It is a reflection of what I hoped my father would do in terms of helping the Vietnamese heal from the devastation of the war.” 

In raising a family, McNamara has aspired to be more candid than his own father, eschewing the generational model in which the child couldn’t question the parent. “His role as a father, the one that he set to fill, has just been so honest and so transparent, never shying away from challenging conversations,” says Emily, now 31. The publication of his memoir affirmed for her the importance of communication. At the time, she was concerned that resentment toward her grandfather might be aimed at her father. His memoir’s readers, however, whether agreeing or disagreeing with him, have just wanted to talk. “People have needed to have a conversation that they haven’t been able to have,” she says.

McNamara has also devoted substantial time to public service. For 17 years—seven of them as president—he served on California’s board of food and agriculture. “That gave me an overview of what’s going on in the state with climate change, drought, food insecurity, food injustice, labor, regulation, so I have attempted to work in those areas and be a change maker to the best of my ability,” he says. He also serves on the board of Project Renew, an organization in Vietnam that removes unexploded ordnance so that, he says, “communities can live in confidence that they will be safe.” After his father had refused to let him join the reconciliation trip to Vietnam, McNamara promised himself that he would someday go. In late 2017, he traveled to Hanoi, where he took roses to the house of General Giáp’s son. In the garden that the general once kept, McNamara and the general’s family clipped the stems and put the flowers in vases. The trip and the conversations about their lives and their fathers and the war—it was finally the journey he wished he had taken with his father. “It would have begun a new opportunity for him and for us,” he says, “to begin to forgive.” 

Deni Ellis Béchard is a former senior writer at STANFORD and the author of eight books. Email him at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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