Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers

The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring a thousand non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.”

—Robert S. McNamara

The Pentagon Papers, like so much else in history, tell different stories, teach different lessons to different readers. Some claim they have only now understood that Vietnam was the “logical” outcome of the cold war or the anticommunist ideology, others that this is a unique opportunity to learn about decision making processes in government. But most readers have by now agreed that the basic issue raised by the Papers is deception. At any rate, it is obvious that this issue was uppermost in the minds of those who compiled the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times, and it is at least probable that this was also an issue for the team of writers who prepared the forty-seven volumes of the original study.

The famous credibility gap, which has been with us for six long years, has suddenly opened up into an abyss. The quicksand of lying statements of all sorts, deceptions as well as self-deceptions, is apt to engulf any reader who wishes to probe this material, which, unhappily, he must recognize as the infrastructure of nearly a decade of United States foreign and domestic policy.

Because of the extravagant lengths to which the commitment to nontruthfulness in politics went on the highest level of government, and because of the concomitant extent to which lying was permitted to proliferate throughout the ranks of all governmental services, military and civilian—the phony body counts of the “search-and-destroy” missions, the doctored after-damage reports of the air force,—one is easily tempted to forget the background of past history, itself not exactly a story of immaculate virtue, against which this newest episode must be seen and judged.

For secrecy—what diplomatically is called discretion as well as the arcana imperii, the mysteries of government—and deception, the deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends, have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings. Whoever reflects on these matters can only be surprised how little attention has been paid, in our tradition of philosophical and political thought, to their significance, on the one hand, for the nature of action and, on the other, for the nature of our ability to deny in thought and word whatever happens to be the actual fact. This active, aggressive capability of ours is clearly different from our passive susceptibility to falling prey to error, illusion, the distortions of memory, and to whatever else can be blamed on the failings of …

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