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Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers

The second variety of lying, though less frequent in everyday life, plays a more important role in the Pentagon Papers. It also appeals to much better men, to those, for example, who are likely to be found in the higher ranks of the civilian services. They are, in Neil Sheehan’s felicitous phrase, professional “problem-solvers,”5 and they were drawn into government from the universities and the various think tanks, some of them equipped with game theories and systems analyses, and prepared, as they thought, to solve all the “problems” of foreign policy. A number of the authors of the McNamara study belong to this group and it is to them, after all, that we owe this truthful though of course not complete story of what happened inside the machinery of government.

The problem-solvers have been characterized as men of great self-confidence, who “seem rarely to doubt their ability to prevail,” and they worked together with the military of whom “the history remarks that they were ‘men accustomed to winning.’ “6 We should not forget that we owe it to the problem-solvers’ effort at impartial self-examination, rare among such people, that the actors’ attempts at hiding their role behind a screen of self-protective secrecy (at least until they have completed their memoirs—which in our century have become the most deceitful genre of literature) were frustrated. The basic integrity of those who wrote the report is beyond doubt; whether he knew them or not, they could indeed be trusted by Mr. McNamara to produce an “encyclopedic and objective” report.

But these moral qualities, which deserve admiration, clearly did not prevent some of them from participating for many years in the game of deceptions and falsehoods. Confident “of place, of education and accomplishment,”7 they lied perhaps out of a mistaken patriotism. But the point is that they lied not so much for their country, certainly not for their country’s survival, which was never at stake, as for its “image.” In spite of their undoubted intelligence—it is manifest in many memos from their pens—they also believed that politics is but a variety of public relations and were taken in by all the bizarre psychological premises underlying this belief.

Still, they obviously were different from the ordinary image makers. Their distinction lies in that they were problem-solvers as well, hence they were not just intelligent but prided themselves on being “rational,” and they were indeed to a rather frightening degree above “sentimentality” and in love with “theory,” the world of sheer mental effort. They were eager to find formulae, preferably expressed in a pseudo-mathematical language, which would unify the most disparate phenomena with which reality presented them, that is, they were eager to discover laws by which to explain and predict political and historical facts as though they were as necessary, and thus as reliable, as the physicists once believed natural phenomena to be.

However, unlike the natural scientist who deals with matters which, whatever their origin, are not man-made or man-enacted, and which therefore can be observed, understood, and eventually even changed only through the most meticulous loyalty to factual, given reality, the historian as well as the politician deals with human affairs which owe their existence to man’s capacity for action, and that means, to man’s relative freedom from things as they are. Men who act, to the extent that they feel themselves to be the masters of their own futures, will forever be tempted to make themselves masters of the past as well. In so far as they have the appetite for action and are also in love with theories, they will hardly have the natural scientist’s patience to wait until his theories and hypothetical explanations are verified or denied by facts. Instead they will be tempted to fit their reality—which, after all, was man-made to begin with and thus could have been otherwise—into their theory, thus mentally getting rid of its disconcerting contingency.

Reason’s aversion to contingency is very strong—it was Hegel, the father of modern utopian thinking, who held that “philosophical contemplation has no other intention than to eliminate the accidental.”8 Indeed much of the modern arsenal of political theory—the game theories and systems analyses, the scenarios, written for imagined “audiences,” and the careful enumeration of usually three “options”: A, B, C, whereby A and C represent the opposite extremes and B the “logical” middle-of-the-road “solution” of the problem—has its source in this deep-seated aversion. The fallacy of such thinking begins with forcing the choices into mutually exclusive dilemmas; reality never presents us with anything so neat as premises for logical conclusions. The kind of thinking that presents both A and C as undesirable, and therefore settles on B, hardly serves any other purpose than to divert the mind and blunt the judgment for the multitude of real possibilities. What these problem-solvers have in common with down-to-earth liars is the attempt to get rid of facts and the confidence that this should be possible because of the inherent contingency of those facts.

The truth of the matter is that this can never be done by either theory or opinion manipulation—as though a fact can be safely removed from the world if only enough people believe in its nonexistence. It can be done only through radical destruction—as in the case of the murderer who says that Mrs. Smith has died and then goes and kills her. In the political domain, such destruction would have to be wholesale. Needless to say there never existed on any level of government such a will to wholesale destruction, in spite of the fearful number of war crimes committed in the course of the Vietnam war. But even where this will is present, as it was in the case of both Hitler and Stalin, the power to achieve it would have to amount to omnipotence. In order to eliminate Trotsky’s role from the history of the Russian Revolution, it is not enough to kill him and eliminate his name from all records so long as one cannot kill all his contemporaries and wield power over all countries of the earth.


That concealment, falsehood, and the role of the deliberate lie became the chief issues of the Pentagon Papers rather than illusion, error, miscalculation, and the like is mainly owing to the strange fact that the mistaken decisions and lying statements consistently violated the astoundingly accurate factual reports of the intelligence community, at least the reports quoted in the Bantam edition. The crucial point here is not merely that the policy of lying was hardly ever aimed at the enemy (this is one of the reasons why the Papers don’t reveal any military secrets that could fall under the Espionage Act) but chiefly if not exclusively destined for domestic consumption, for propaganda at home and especially for the purpose of deceiving Congress—the Tonkin incident where the enemy knew all the facts and the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee none is a case in point.

Of even greater interest, nearly all decisions in this disastrous enterprise were made in full cognizance of the fact that they probably could not be carried out: hence goals had constantly to be shifted. There are first the publicly proclaimed objectives—“seeing that the people of South Vietnam are permitted to determine their future” or “assisting the country to win their contest against the…Communist conspiracy” or the containment of China and the avoidance of the domino effect or the protection of America’s reputation “as a counter-subversive guarantor.”9 To these Mr. Rusk has recently added the aim of preventing World War III, though it seems not to be in the Pentagon Papers nor to have played a role in the factual record as we know it.

The same flexibility marks tactical considerations: North Vietnam is being bombed in order to prevent “a collapse of morale”10 in the South and particularly the breakdown of the Saigon government. But when the first raids were scheduled to start, the government had broken down, “pandemonium reigned in Saigon,” the raids had to be postponed and a new goal found.11 Now the objective became to compel “Hanoi to stop the Vietcong and the Pathet Lao,” an aim that even the Joint Chiefs did not hope to attain: as they said, “It would be idle to conclude that these efforts will have a decisive effect.” 12

From 1965 on, the notion of a clear-cut victory receded into the background and the objective became “to convince the enemy that he could not win.” (Italics added.) Since the enemy remained unconvinced, the next goal appeared, “to avoid a humiliating defeat,” as though the meaning of defeat in war were mere humiliation. What the Pentagon Papers report is the haunting fear of the impact of defeat, not on the welfare of the nation but “on the reputation of the United States and its President.” Thus shortly before, during the many debates about the advisability of using ground troops against North Vietnam, the dominant argument was not fear of defeat itself or concern with the welfare of the troops in the case of withdrawal but: “Once US troops are in, it will be difficult to withdraw them…without admitting defeat.” (Italics added.)13 There was finally the “political” aim “to show the world the lengths to which the United States will go for a friend” and “to fulfill commitments.”14

All these goals existed together, almost in a helter-skelter fashion; none was permitted to cancel its predecessors. For each addressed itself to a different “audience” and for each a different “scenario” had to be produced. McNaughton’s much-quoted enumeration of US aims in 1965: “70%—To avoid humiliating defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor). 20%—To keep South Vietnam (and the adjacent territory) from Chinese hands. 10%—To permit the people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life,” is refreshing in its honesty but was probably drawn up to bring some order and clarity into the debates on the forever troublesome question of why we were conducting a war in Vietnam of all places.

In a previous draft memorandum (1964) McNaughton had shown, perhaps unwittingly, how little he himself, even at that early stage of the bloody game, believed in the attainability of any substantial objectives: “Should South Vietnam disintegrate completely beneath us, we should try to hold it together long enough to permit us to try to evacuate our forces and to convince the world to accept the uniqueness (and congenital impossibility) of the South Vietnam case.” (Italics added.)15

To convince the world,” to “demonstrate that US was a ‘good doctor’ willing to keep promises, be tough, take risks, get bloodied and hurt the enemy badly”;16 to use a “tiny backward nation” devoid of any strategic importance “as a test case of US capacity to help a nation meet a Communist ‘war of liberation’ “; to keep intact an image of omnipotence, “our worldwide position of leadership”;17 to demonstrate “the will and the ability of the United States to have its way in world affairs”;18 to show “the credibility of our pledges to friends and allies”; in short, to “behave like” the “greatest power in the world” for no other reason than to convince the world of this “simple fact” (in Walt Rostow’s words)19—this was the only permanent goal which, with the beginning of the Johnson Administration, pushed into the background all other goals and theories, the domino theory and anticommunist strategy of the initial stages of the cold war period as well as the counter-insurgency strategy, so dear to the Kennedy Administration.

  1. 5

    The New York Times, The Pentagon Papers (Bantam Books, 1971), p. xiv. This essay was prepared before the appearance of the editions published by the Government Printing Office and Beacon Press and so is based only on the Bantam edition.

  2. 6


  3. 7


  4. 8

    Hegel, Die Philosophische Weltgeschichte, Entwurf von 1830: “Die philosophische Betrachtung hat keine andere Absicht als das Zufällige zu entfernen.”

  5. 9

    Pentagon Papers, p. 190.

  6. 10

    Ibid., p. 312.

  7. 11

    Ibid., pp. 392-393.

  8. 12

    Ibid., p. 240.

  9. 13

    Ibid., p. 437.

  10. 14

    Ibid., p. 434 and 436.

  11. 15

    Ibid., p. 368.

  12. 16

    Ibid., p. 255.

  13. 17

    Ibid., p. 278.

  14. 18

    Ibid., p. 600.

  15. 19

    Ibid., p. 256.

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