by Ben Wattenberg
It's just 30 years since the publication of the infamous "Pentagon Papers"
36 volumes that allegedly uncovered the ugly "truth" about America's
involvement in Vietnam. Not so.
Don't believe me. After all, I'm an unreconstructed hawk. I worked as a
speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson during some of the grimmest years
of that tragic war.
Instead, consider two articles published on the op-ed page of the New York
Times on June 29. One is by Leslie Gelb, the chief compiler of the Pentagon
Papers, now president of the Council of Foreign Relations. The second is by
Daniel Ellsberg, the man who illegally provided the classified documents to
There are striking differences in tone, substance and ethics between the
two accounts. But there is one commonality. Here is Mr. Gelb about the
Papers: "They showed our leaders and ourselves struggling, over the course
of decades, with the conviction that the United States should not be
responsible for losing any country to communism and that Vietnam was a
cockpit of the struggle between communism and freedom."
Here is Mr. Ellsberg beginning a sentence, "A generation of presidents,
believing that the course they were following was in the best interests of
the country . . . ."
Of course Mr. Ellsberg, the smug self-appointed conscience of America, then
continues with familiar self-aggrandizing Ellsbergian fantasy. See, all
those presidents from Harry Truman on were lying, the hawks wanted Johnson
to escalate, but Johnson wouldn't do it, but kept lying about winning, and
Richard Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the war, but no one believed
him, but he really did have one, and he lied about lying, and he tried it,
but it didn't work, and Mr. Ellsberg had to try to save America even though
he expected to spend his life in jail, blah, blah, blah. (Next time, no
Like Mr. Ellsberg, Mr. Gelb ultimately became a dove, but recalls the
atmosphere differently. He writes: "I remember that I and almost everybody
I knew deeply believed in that war. We supported it primarily because of
beliefs about what the world was like at that time. Almost all of us
changed our views gradually. Almost all the 'doves' I knew became doves far
later than they remember."
What Mr. Gelb says is accurate. During my years at the White House
(1966-1968) I would eat lunch at the round table of the White House Mess
most every day. The people on LBJ's staff, some of whom subsequently turned
dovish, were not saying we can't win, or it's an immoral war, or we ought
to pull out. They knew President Johnson was getting a wide range of advice
and was trying to end the war honorably. I remember a meeting LBJ had with
the White House speechwriters in late 1966, confiding to us that he
expected the war to be over by spring 1967. The records now reveal that
negotiations were then going on with North Vietnam.
Well, the war didn't end in the spring of 1967. But such a sentiment is a
long way from "lying" Mr. Ellsberg's monotonous charge. Mr. Ellsberg
writes, for example: "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.' "
Almost inaudibly? A little bit pregnant? LBJ said it publicly, surrounded
by a ravenous press corps. By the spring of 1965, the North Vietnam army
had moved into position to cut South Vietnam in half. American policy changed.
Mr. Ellsberg believed America should have, as the saying went, "cut and
run," or as Mr. Ellsberg now puts it, staged a "disguised withdrawal." But,
he says, all American presidents had received such advice. Ruefully, Mr.
Ellsberg writes, "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."
What were those political costs? They were not about losing the next
election. They were about losing the Cold War. If America the sole
superpower containing an expansionist Soviet Union was unwilling to prevent
the perimeters of freedom from receding, other dominoes could fall and the
world would be in for big trouble.
The tragedy unfolded. American troops did leave Vietnam. Later, communist
North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam. Some next-door dominoes did fall in
Cambodia and Laos. The 1970s were a nervous time. Other communist
But America and American allies persevered. Under pressure, both internal
and external, the Soviet Union folded. Vietnam turned out to be a lost
battle in a victorious Cold War. Victory in the Cold War has established
plausible terrain for a long run of peace on Earth. That's the truth about
Vietnam we should start remembering.
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