[sixties-l] Lying About Vietnam

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Sat Jun 30 2001 - 04:07:43 EDT

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    Lying About Vietnam

    by Daniel Ellsberg
    New York Times
    June 29, 2001

    The Pentagon Papers, published 30 years ago this month, proved that the
    government had long lied to the country. Indeed, the papers revealed a
    policy of concealment and quite deliberate deception from the Truman
    administration onward.

    A generation of presidents, believing that the course they were following
    was in the best interests of the country, nevertheless chose to conceal
    from Congress and the public what the real policy was, what alternatives
    were being pressed on them from within the government, and the pessimistic
    predictions they were receiving about the prospects of their chosen course.

    Why the lies and concealment? And why, starting in 1969, did I risk prison
    to reveal the documentary record? I can give a definite answer to the
    second question: I believed that the pattern of secret threats and
    escalation needed to be exposed because it was being repeated under a new

    About the first question, I can still only speculate. Let me speak to the
    Johnson administration, in which I was a minor participant. The familiar
    answer is that in 1965, Lyndon Johnson was protecting his Great Society
    programs by concealing the scale of the war he was launching.

    But there is also a much less famliar reason that explains Johnson's lack
    of candor during his entire term. Throughout the campaign of 1964,
    President Johnson indicated to the voters contrary to his opponent Barry
    Goldwater that no escalation was needed in South Vietnam. He sometimes
    added, almost inaudibly, "at this time."

    As the Pentagon Papers later showed, that was contradicted as early as May
    1964 by the estimates and recommendations of virtually all of Johnson's own
    civilian and military advisers. I believe he worried, not only in 1964 but
    over the next four years, that if he laid out candidly just how difficult,
    costly and unpromising the conflict was expected to be, the public would
    overwhelmingly want escalation on a scale that promised to win the war.

    To this end, Congress and the voters might compel him to adopt the course
    secretly being pressed on him by his own Joint Chiefs of Staff. From 1964
    through 1968, the Joint Chiefs continuously urged a litany of secret
    recommendations, including mining Haiphong; hitting the dikes; bombing near
    the Chinese border; closing all transportation routes from China; sending
    ground troops to Laos, Cambodia and the southern part of North Vietnam;
    possibly full-scale invasion of North Vietnam.

    I think that this escalation would not have won the war. I suspect that
    Johnson thought this as well. But beyond that as Johnson brought up
    repeatedly the Joint Chiefs' course would have greatly risked war with
    China. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were ready to accept that risk.

      President Johnson was not.

    But Johnson didn't want to get out either. We now know from memoirs and
    documents declassified after the Pentagon Papers that a number of his
    people, not only George Ball, an undersecretary of state, were urging him
    to do just that, to extricate us by a disguised withdrawal. But Johnson
    couldn't face being accused of losing a war. Instead, he stayed in and lied
    about the prospects. And that made for a prolonged war, an escalating war
    and essentially a hopeless war.

    I do not believe that the war would have been less hopeless if the
    recommendations of the Joint Chiefs had been followed. It would have been
    much more bloody. It might well have involved a nuclear war or a major
    conventional war with China. That would have been even more catastrophic
    than what actually happened. So the worst was avoided. But at the cost of
    58,000 American and several million Vietnamese lives.

    I first learned of these debates in 1964 and 1965, when I was special
    assistant to John McNaughton, the assistant defense secretary. I read all
    the documents of that period that were later included in the Pentagon
    Papers, and I heard from McNaughton of his discussions with Defense
    Secretary Robert McNamara and President Johnson. I strongly regret that at
    that time, I did not see it as my duty to disclose that information to the

    But then I was in Vietnam for two years from 1965 to 1967. I saw that our
    ground effort in South Vietnam was hopelessly stalemated, and I did not
    believe that increased bombing of the north would ever cause our
    adversaries to give up. Therefore I came to the belief in 1967 that we
    should negotiate our way out.

    But in 1969, when I read the entire Pentagon Papers, covering 1945 to 1968,
    I became aware that every president from Harry Truman on had heard this
    advice from people more authoritative than me. And for some reason the
    presidents had always chosen to stay in. Their determination not to suffer
    the political consequences of losing a war outweighed, for them, the human
    costs of continuing.

    Finally, I learned that Richard Nixon also refused to lose. In the fall of
    1969, Morton Halperin, who had just given up his job as deputy to Henry
    Kissinger, informed me that Nixon really had a secret plan. It was widely
    thought he had no plan, that his campaign claim was just a bluff. Not true.
    His plan included secret threats of escalation unless there was a mutual
    withdrawal of North Vietnamese as well as United States forces.

    I thought this plan would fail. From my experience in the government and in
    Vietnam, and from reading the Pentagon Papers, I thought the Vietcong would
    not give up, that the threat of escalation would be carried out, and that
    it would fail, with a great loss of life on both sides.

    So my concern in releasing the Pentagon Papers was not simply, or even
    primarily, to get out the truth. I thought I would probably go to prison
    for the rest of my life. I wouldn't have done that just to set the record
    straight. I released the papers because I foresaw prolonged war and
    eventual escalation, including incursions into Laos and Cambodia, the
    mining of Haiphong and the bombing of Hanoi. I wanted to avert these
    events, but they all occurred.

    I never had any sense that putting out these documents was likely to end
    the war, just that it might help. Maybe it did.
    Daniel Ellsberg, who made the Pentagon Papers public, served in Vietnam and
    is a former Defense Department and State Department official.

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