American politicians have a vested interest in carrying out their true agendas away from public scrutiny. Only on rare occasions do we ordinary citizens get a glimpse of how things really operate — the Army-McCarthy hearings in the ’50s, the Watergate investigation in the ’70s, Iran/Contra in the ’80s, and so on — and then the curtain snaps shut.
Two best-selling books — one published in mid-2002, the other just recently released — take us believably into that mysterious world, because both are written by former highly-placed insiders, who know how the game was played, where the bodies were buried, and who did what to whom. The first was David Brock’s “Blinded by the Right,” an account of how this character-assassin-for-hire became the rightwing’s journalistic hatchetman, smearing Anita Hill and Bill Clinton, among others, before coming to his senses and telling the world what he knew of the actual rightwing forces that employed him for so long.
The current best-seller is Daniel Ellsberg’s “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.” It should be required reading for anyone interested in what really goes on behind the scenes of the American political stage. Ellsberg, formerly a high-ranking analyst for the State and Defense Departments and an independent consultant with the Rand Corporation, focuses almost exclusively on the Vietnam War/Watergate era decades ago, but what he reveals, alas, is just as relevant to our current Constitutional/war crises.
Ellsberg became a hero to many when he leaked the so-called “Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times in 1971 — the secret history of the Vietnam War that was prepared for the Secretary of Defense but withheld from Congress and the American people.
What Ellsberg learned from first-hand experience (he was a Marine company commander in Vietnam, and visited that country often as a civilian consultant later), and as a result of researching and diving into the Pentagon Papers history, was mind-blowing for him. As it should be for us as well.
Since the late-1940, the conventional wisdom had been that the U.S. drifted into the war in Vietnam following the French colonial period, and that American Presidents were given bad information by their advisors and thus made mistakes in policy that led to deeper and deeper involvement. Ellsberg discovered that this view was incorrect.
Contrary to this version of events pushed by the government, the U.S. didn’t “drift” into anything. The closest advisers to five presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) told their bosses the truth from the outset, that there was no way the U.S. could win a victory against post-colonialist Vietnamese nationalism; the best that could be hoped for was endless stalemate. Despite the warnings, those Presidents not only embraced the war but kept expanding it. Millions died as a result.
The key to carrying on that insane, immoral war was that the decisions always were made in secret by the President, away from scrutiny by the Congress, the press, and certainly by the American people.
In other words, both Republican and Democratic Presidents and their closest advisers lied for decades to the citizenry, to the press, to the Congress — the result of which was untold misery for both U.S. military troops and Vietnamese civilians.
The common wisdom is that “you can’t keep secrets in Washington,” and that someone always deliberately leaks or inadvertently blabs. But, says Ellsberg, who was privy to some of the most top-secret material for years, “the fact is that the overwhelming majority of secrets do not leak to the American public. This is true even when the information withheld is well known to an enemy and when it is clearly essential to the functioning of the congressional war power and to any democratic control of foreign policy…Secrets that would be of the greatest importance to many of them can be kept from them reliably for decades by the Executive Branch, even though they are known to thousands of insiders.”
And who is in charge of the current government’s secrets today? The HardRightists who control American policy and who have made the Bush Administration the most secretive, closed shop — isolated from the real world in which most of us live — of any administration in modern times. (Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat first elected in 1974, said, “Since I’ve been here, I have never known an administration that is more difficult to get information from.” Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said things are getting worse, and “it seems like in the last month or two I’ve been running into more and more stonewalls.”)
To carry on and enlarge the Vietnam war, administrations provoked violent responses from the Vietnamese enemy, or even worse concocted false claims of violence against U.S. troops — and then simply lied about their actions. In those days, citizens tended to believe what their officials told them and so the untruths rarely were caught.
Again, the similarities to contemporary times are instructive: An administration needs an enemy, needs a war, in order to carry out its hidden agenda with the support of the American people, and so the true motives are concealed and lies are dispensed. Not quite as many citizens are inclined these days to believe everything they’re told by their government leaders, but the pattern is still there. And still works. As Ellsberg says of Vietnam but which can apply to our current situation as well: “The President was determined to mislead the public…to conceal that he was taking the country into a major, prolonged war.”
In Vietnam, Ellsberg writes, there was a “general failure to study history or to analyze or even to record operational experience, especially mistakes…There were situations — Vietnam was an example — in which the U.S. government, starting ignorant, did not, would not learn.”
Five Presidents in the Vietnam case didn’t want to believe what their “best and brightest” advisors had told them — that the war was doomed to stalemate and there was little the U.S. could do about it — because the Presidents believed they knew what was best for U.S. interests and they might, unlike their predecessor, just luck out and somehow snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. (As Ellsberg writes, each President “thought that history started with his administration and that they had nothing to learn from earlier ones.”) Most of these advisors, their advice having been ignored, continued to serve and mouth the “we-will-prevail’ attitude of their bosses — including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara — but they knew better.
And the key to these Presidents’ peculiar form of denial was a belief in the various “truisms” that had been battered into their heads for decades: “better dead than red,” “the domino theory” (that if Vietnam communism was victorious, the entirety of Asia would fall to communism), “worldwide communist domination” (failing to understand that the communist movement was not monolithic but was rife with nationalistic divisions), and the fear that politically they’d be regarded as unpatriotic if they didn’t bring off a victory and thus would damage their chances for re-election.
Underlying U.S. policy at that time was a belief that America knew what was best for other countries. “To presume to judge what was best for them, with life and death at stake, was the height of imperial arrogance, the ‘arrogance of power,’ as Senator Fulbright later called it.” This observation has a certain ring of familiarity about it, as the Bush Administration arrogantly moves around the globe today like a big bully, informing other countries and their leaders what should be done and if they won’t do it voluntarily, the U.S. will make sure it happens, one way or another.
Ellsberg warmed to his theme of the dangers of Executive Branch arrogance in a 1971 interview with CBS’s Walter Cronkite: “Executive officials, the Executive Branch of government, has fostered an impression that I think the rest of us have been too willing to accept over the last generation, and that is that the Executive Branch is the government, and that indeed they are leaders in a sense that may not be entirely healthy, if we’re to still think of ourselves as a democracy.
“I was struck, in fact,” said Ellsberg, “by President Johnson’s reaction to these [Pentagon Papers] revelations as ‘close to treason,’ because it [suggested] that what was damaging to the reputation of a particular administration, a particular individual, was in effect treason, which is very close to saying ‘I am the state.’ And I think that quite sincerely many Presidents, not only Lyndon Johnson, have come to feel that.” Sound like any White House resident you know today?
Since the closest advisors to Presidents were having no effect on ending the war in Vietnam, Ellsberg came to believe “that only if power were brought to bear upon the executive branch from outside it,” might the inexorable grind toward more slaughter be halted. That meant, in his case, leaking the Pentagon Papers to the public, and so he turned them over to the New York Times, whereupon the Nixon Administration went to court and, for the first time in American history, tried to prohibit a free press from publishing. It lost. The hidden history was revealed for how America got into Vietnam, and, as a result, this information helped eventually get the war stopped through negotiations — but at a high price: the thousands of U.S. dead, the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dead, who would have survived if the negotiations urged years before by presidential advisors had been carried through.
It was the Administration’s obsession with wrecking Ellsberg’s reputation and career — and its hubris that it could get away with anything under the claim of “national security” — that led inexorably to the crimes of the Watergate scandal (breaking and entering, covering up a raft of these and other felonies, interminable lying), which brought down the house of Nixon.
Ellsberg discovered a truth that is exactly to the point today: “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. Confronted by resolute external resistance, as in Vietnam, that power could not fail to corrupt the human who held it.”
Oddly enough, it was H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s chief of staff, who noted the full impact of what happens when the truth leaks out, as it did in the case of the Pentagon Papers: “To the ordinary guy, all this [the revelations about what leaders do behind the scenes] is a bunch of gobbleedygook. But out of the gobbleedygook comes a very clear thing: you can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgement. And the implicit infallibility of Presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the President wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the President can be wrong.”
Five Presidents were tragically wrong with regard to Vietnam; and our current resident in the White House is wrong with regard to his secretive war policies. The lock on secrets must be broken once again, before we become permanently engaged in an imperial foreign policy that will bring death and destruction down upon the world and that will leave our own society morally adrift and, as in the Vietnam era, close to a political civil-war. Let us learn from history and stop our leaders before it’s too late.
We must all become Ellsbergs.
BERNARD WEINER, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at Western Washington State, San Francisco State and San Diego State Universities; he was with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly 20 years, and is co-editor of The Crisis Papers.