Friday, March 6, 2009

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

At the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War, President George Bush the Elder proclaimed that “the Vietnam Syndrome is over,” that it was no longer the case that Americans were afraid to fight a full-scale war, that we can take a few casualties and the general public won’t get too upset with the president. If that was all “the Vietnam Syndrome” was, then Bush was probably wrong that the Persian Gulf War ended it. Given a justifiable cause, the American people would have supported a war effort the day after Saigon fell in 1975. But insofar as “the Vietnam Syndrome” is the fear of getting into a war in a remote place, where we were not attacked and where our vital interests are not at stake, I think that Syndrome lives on, well past Bush’s victory in the early 1990s.

No people, not the British, the Russians, the French or the Americans, want to get mired in a hopeless cause that needlessly costs the lives and limbs of its youth and wastes the money of its taxpayers. Even though things look much better today in Iraq than they did a few years ago, it remains the case that most Americans doubt that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was worth the huge price we have paid, with so little benefit to us. But at the very least, you can say that Iraq is an important player on the world scene, centrally located in the Middle East and swimming in the world’s most important commodity, oil. The same cannot be said for Afghanistan in any sense, and time will tell if what Bush the Elder termed “the Vietnam Syndrome” lives on as we get stuck in yet another costly quagmire.

If you’re much younger than I am (45), you probably have no living memory of the Vietnam War, and chances are your understanding of that tragedy in our nation’s history is thin. Although I was alive when the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed, when Lyndon Johnson ordered hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to take up the cause of South Vietnam, when the Tet Offensive took place, when Richard Nixon secretly ordered the bombing of Cambodia and when the Pentagon Papers were published, I was too young to know any of those things were happening. I had family members who were protestors and even draft dodgers, but none served in that fight. My first contemporary memory of the Vietnam War was in 1973, when I was 9 years old, and we watched on TV the American prisoners of war who had been released en masse arriving back in the United States. Despite reading some histories, my own knowledge of Vietnam, much like that of my juniors, remains shallow. I know more about the U.S. Civil War and World Wars I and II.

Before picking up Daniel Ellsberg's 2002 work, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, perhaps the best book I’ve read on the subject is A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan. That story is not a general history, but in 820 pages it does an outstanding job of explaining what we were up against in Indochina from the early 1960s on and just why our mission was doomed to fail. A character in A Bright Shining Lie (published in 1988) is Daniel Ellsberg. At the 1972 funeral of John Paul Vann at Arlington Cemetery, attended by a wide array of dignitaries from the military, Congress and the media, Sheehan describes Ellsberg, the insider who gave Sheehan and his New York Times a copy of the top secret history of the Vietnam War which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. This brief biographical sketch is a good launching point for Ellsberg’s memoir:
Daniel Ellsberg, the turncoat knight of the crusade, was sitting in the second pew just behind Vann’s family at the right front of the chapel. He had flown to the funeral from Los Angeles, where his lawyers were engaged in pretrial maneuvering. He was a pariah to those within the closed society of government secrecy, who had once considered him a valued member of their order. He was a traitor who had violated their code of morality and loyalty. Some resented the conspicuous seat he occupied in the chapel. He did not appear the pariah. He still dressed like one of them, as he had learned to do at Harvard. His suit was a conservative three-button model, a blue pinstripe with a matching striped shirt and an equally conservative foulard tie in a narrow knot. At forty-one he had let his hair grow from the crew-cut style he had worn when he had first met Vann in Vietnam seven years earlier. The frizzly, gray-black curls framed his high forehead and gentled the angular features of his lean and tanned face.

Ellsberg was a complicated man. The son of middle-class Jewish parents who had converted to Christian Science, he was an intellectual and a man of action. His mind has surpassing analytical ability. His ego was so forceful it sometimes got out of control. His emotions were in conflict. He was at once a florid romantic and an ascetic with a pained conscience. What he believed, he believed completely and sought to propagate with missionary fervor. He had benefited from the social democracy practiced by the American Establishment by obtaining an education that had qualified him for a position of eminence in its new state, the great web of military and civilian bureaucracies under the presidency that World War II had created. A competitive scholarship funded by the Pepsi-Cola Company had put him through Harvard. He had graduated in 1952 summa cum laude, and had been given a fellowship to continue his studies for a year at Cambridge University in England. He had then demonstrated his militancy by serving the better part of three years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. Harvard had selected him while he was still in the Marines to be a junior member of its Society of Fellows, the most illustrious assemblage of young scholars in American academia, so that he could earn his doctorate. From Harvard he had joined the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California, the brain trust of the Air Force, and had helped to perfect plans for nuclear war against the Soviet Union, China, and the other communist states. He had been permitted to learn the nation’s most highly classified secrets His performance at Rand had been rewarded by a position in Washington as the special assistant to the Pentagon’s chief for foreign policy, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

In 1965 his intense desire for confrontation in the American cause had led him to volunteer to fight in Vietnam as a Marine company commander. When told he ranked too high in the bureaucracy for such mundane duty, he had found another way to the war. He had gone as a member of the new team (Gen. Edward) Lansdale had organized when Lansdale had returned to Vietnam in 1965 to try to reform the Saigon regime and devise an effective pacification program. Two years later, Ellsberg had gone back to the Rand Corporation from Vietnam dispirited by an unhappy love affair and ill from an attack of hepatitis. He had been discouraged too by repetitive violence of the war of attrition (Gen. William) Westmoreland was pursuing and by the unwillingness of the U.S. leadership to adopt an alternative strategy that he believed was the only way to justify the death and destruction and to win the war. The Tet 1968 Offensive had turned discouragement into disillusion. His inability to bring about a change had destroyed his faith in the wisdom of the system he served. He had concluded that the violence in Vietnam was senseless and therefore immoral. His conscience had told him that he had to stop the war. During the fall of 1969 he had begun covertly photocopying the top-secret 7,000-page Pentagon Papers archive on Vietnam and started an antiwar crusade with a public letter to the press demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam within a year. After the New York Times had published the secrets of the Pentagon archive in a series of articles in June and July 1971, Ellsberg had been indicted at the order of Richard Nixon, who intended to send him to prison for as many years as possible. Ellsberg, the man who had staked his life on a career in the service of power he had thought was so innately good, had come to see buried the friend he had also lost to this war.

It’s noteworthy that on the back jacket of Secrets, the blurbs advocating Ellsberg’s memoir all come from America’s more or less radical left: Seymour Hersh, Howard Zinn, Mike Gravel, Martin Sheen, Ben Bagdikian and John Kerry. The publisher may have chosen this group thinking that everyone in the general public associates the name Daniel Ellsberg with the radical left, only lefties will consider reading Secrets, and therefore these blurbs will attract the audience the publisher hoped to reach. However, Ellsberg’s book does not read in any way like a radical left manifesto, regardless of his current views on politics. He was a rather mainstream liberal, yet a committed Cold Warrior, up until the events unfolded as they did and it was the anti-war left which embraced him. What this book does quite well is show how events moved Ellsberg inch by inch to the breaking point, where he could no longer sit back and allow things to go on as they had been going. Thus when he began giving over the Pentagon Papers – he originally gave them to Sen. William Fulbright, hoping that Fulbright would introduce them into the Congressional Record, where they would be available to the public and press – it did not seem all that radical. It’s important to know that the Pentagon Papers were just a history of the war. Their revelation did not threaten our soldiers or harm our strategy. They simply made plain how badly the war had been going from 1945 to 1968 and how likely it was that the war would turn out a failure. That revelation did not hurt our war effort. It hurt the ego of Richard Nixon, who was then deluded by the idea that he could somehow win the war, or at least put off our loss so that his name would not be tarnished by the defeat.

Perhaps it is an overstatement, but Ellsberg concludes that there is a strong link from the publication of the Pentagon Papers to the end of the Vietnam War. In brief, he says that Nixon’s obsession with punishing him led to the break-in at his psychiatrist’s office, which then got the ball rolling on the later break-in at the Watergate hotel, that led to Nixon leading the cover-up these activities, the cover-up ultimately forced Nixon from office, and with Nixon out, a much more liberal Congress would no longer fund the war, forcing our departure from that conflict.

As I was reading Secrets, I kept wondering why Ellsberg had waited so long to write this book. After all, it came out fully 30 years after the Pentagon Papers were published. Regardless of his reasons for the delay, there is a benefit from that. Ellsberg retells the events as he knew them at that time, and fills in information that was then unknown to him or classified that is now available. He includes conversations from the White House tapes, for example, which only recently have been transcribed, and that illuminate the events of long ago. They are especially informative as to how Nixon and Kissinger viewed Ellsberg.

Although he participated in some anti-war demonstrations and other anti-war activities (like teach-ins), Ellsberg believes none of them had any material effect on ending the war. In fact, because they were led by radicals like Abbie Hoffman, the anti-war effort drove a wedge between mainstream America and the protests and rendered them largely useless, even when they attracted hundreds of thousands of young people.

A principal theme in Secrets is the concentration and abuse of executive power. Ellsberg explains how Congress was ill-informed and explicitly lied to, in order that the Johnson Administration could get the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed. As an insider in the Pentagon with access to all the relevant top-secret information, Ellsberg knew this at the time. Pretty much everything that members of Congress, including those on the intelligence committees with access to privileged information, thought they were basing their votes, was a lie. The Tonkin Gulf incident, as the Pentagon and the White House portrayed it, never happened. And unlike the poor intelligence which led to the Iraq War, the Department of Defense and the president knew the incident was a lie right from the start, but needed that myth to justify the build-up.

In a system of centralized power, everything rests on the decisions of the president. He takes all the blame or gets all the credit for a failure or a success. Ellsberg writes:
The concentration of power within the executive branch since World War II had focused nearly all responsibility for policy ‘failure’ upon one man, the president. At the same time, it gave him enormous capability to avert or postpone or conceal such personal failure by means of force and fraud.

As President Obama faces tough decisions on Afghanistan in the coming months, he needs to know what his predecessors faced in Vietnam. If Obama decides that Afghanistan is the central front on the war on terror and that he has no other choice but to commit American lives and treasure there, its failure will be his failure. So much more than Iraq, Afghanistan shares common themes with Vietnam: Others before us have gone there and failed; it’s an out of the way place that holds no strategic or economic value; the people we are associated with are corrupt and unpopular; and the guerrillas we are fighting have safe haven among colleagues in neighboring countries.

What I wonder today is whether there is an analyst at Rand or in the Pentagon who has access to studies which would show just how bad an idea it is for us to keep up our doomed efforts in Afghanistan. And if they exist, will anyone in those institutions feel compelled to share them with the people and the press? If so, we will have a replay of Daniel Ellsberg’s arc of character in Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

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