The Truth, at Last, About Vietnam

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In August 1964 there is news of a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Then a second attack. President Johnson gets on television and speaks to the American people. He brings foreboding of war. He has “unequivocal” evidence, he says, that North Vietnamese PT boats have made two “unprovoked” attacks on U.S. Navy ships “on routine patrol in international waters.”

Daniel Ellsberg, an analyst for the Department, of Defense, knew better: the ships had not been on a routine patrol. They had not been only in international waters. The skipper had reported a second attack, but said later that his only contact was by radar, and that he suspected that his men were shooting at a bogey.

None of which Johnson told the American people or Congress, when he asked for the authority to use military force “as the president determines” – and which Congress gave him, by a vote in the Senate of,88 to 2.

Secrets is the story of the Vietnam war as Ellsberg saw it and thought about it for seven years. It is a clear, logical, well-written book, and one of the best to come out of the war.

Ellsberg came to the conclusion early on that Vietnam was a war of political allegiances in which the edge went not to the side with the greatest firepower, but to the side that cared most about winning. And that was not likely ever to be the South Vietnamese, or the Americans.

One highlight of this book is Daniel Ellsberg’s advice to Henry Kissinger on what it’s like to be cut in on official secrets. Ellsberg told him:

You will feel like a fool for having studied, written and talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of this information …

That will last about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t – and that all those other people are fools …

It will become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these cle~rances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: “What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know?” …

You will deal with a person who doesn’t have these clearances only froma viewpoint of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him.

Kissinger listened to all this and said nothing. He had been named national security adviser to President Nixon, but Nixon had not taken office, so it was too early for him to evaluate the classified information about Vietnam. For Ellsberg, it was old stuff. He had been in the war bureaucracy

What Ellsberg found in the Pentagon Papers was that. presidents all the way back to Truman had had good advice. In particular, the risks were pointed out to Kennedy and Johnson, and they ignored the warnings.

for years, with access to the secret dispatches, and had turned against the Southeast Asian war and wanted to stop it. And he was worried that the Nixon administration would repeat the mistakes of the previous administrations. The book presents a devastating portrait of Lyndon Johnson, who ran in 1964 as the peace candidate, accusing Barry Goldwater of being for war. Goldwater was, in fact, for cranking up the war – but so was Johnson. Not quite as much as Goldwater, but far more than he revealed to the electorate. As in 1940, the peace candidate got down to the serious business of escalation as soon as the election was over.

The theme of Secrets is that the fundamental problem with America’s Vietnam policy was not bad advice to Johnson or Kennedy about sending in advisers and troops, or the failure to see a “quagmire.” What Ellsberg found in the Pentagon Papers was that presidents all the way back to Truman had had good advice. In particular, the risks were pointed out to Kennedy and Johnson, and they ignored the warnings. Remembering the embarrassment over the Democrats’ having “lost” China, they did not want their name identified with any further loss. And so they were willing to gamble on poor odds, marketing their policy with lies.

As a Republican, Nixon had an opportunity to blame the war on the Democrats and pull out, and, as Ellsberg explains, the Democrats were mainly to blame. But instead Nixon decided he would extricate America “with honor” by substituting air power for troops, covering his political weaknesses with high explosives.

“The president was part of the problem,” Ellsberg writes:

This was clearly a matter of his role, not of his personality or party. As I was beginning to see it, the con-

centration 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. Confronted by resolute external resistance, as in Vietnam, that power could not fail to corrupt the human being who held it.

Ellsberg does not mention Franklin Roosevelt in this context, but that is what “since World War II” implies. This is the foreign policy of a monarchy, not a republic.

Ellsberg also develops some powerful thoughts in this book about responsibility. He quotes the story of ·an Army general who feels stabbed in the back by Johnson, and who gets in his car and drives to the White House to hand Johnson his resignation, but turns back at the gates; and how that general afterward was ashamed of his failure to act.

Ellsberg thinks of what he would say if his son were drafted. He writes: I would tell my kids, I thought, that no one could make it all right for them to carry a gun or shoot anyone just by telling them they had to. That would have to be their choice, their entire responsibility. If I ever did it again – I would tell them, as I now told myself – it would be because I chose to do it … I would also examine very critically my own reasoning for it . . . Responsibility for killing or being ready to kill was not something you could delegate to someone else, even a president.
In was in that frame of mind that

Ellsberg decided to “cast my whole vote” against the war by leaking the Pentagon Papers, which detailed the lies of Kennedy and Johnson, and of

Ellsberg came to the conclusion early on that they would not be the side with the greatest firepower, but to the side that cared most about winning – and that was not likely ever to be the South Vietnamese.


Truman and Eisenhower before them. The last part of the book is about making that decision and carrying it out: how he came by the papers, how he smuggled them out, how he tried to leak them through Sen. William Fulbright, Sen. George McGovern, and others, and how he finally chose the New York Times; and how that led to federal injunctions, a Supreme Court ruling, and his own prosecution for leaking.

Disclosing papers to the public was not spying; it was leaking. This was the first time in American history, he says, that anyone was prosecuted for a leak, and it turned out that there was no clear law against it.

The New York Times won its case at the Supreme Court. Ellsberg won his case when the judge dismissed it following the news that the Watergate burglars had ransacked the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.

Secrets has some delicious tidbits. There is Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, dismissing the idea of fair elections in Vietnam by saying that if he and Nixon had had a fair election in Illinois, they would be vice president and president, respectively, and not Lyndon Johnson, a man who had “spent most of his life rigging elections.” There is Nixon, visit- ing Lodge in Vietna~, endorsing the idea of Vietnamese elections “as long as you win.” And there is McGovern, promising to break the story of the Pentagon Papers and welshing on the deal because he feared doing so would hurt his chances to become president.

Critics will say this is a self-serving book, and I suppose it is. So are a lot of good books. And this one tells a good story and fine illustration of the dangers of giving too much political power to one man.

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