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Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers

The ultimate aim was neither power nor profit. Nor was it even influence in the world in order to serve particular, tangible interests for the sake of which prestige, an image of the “greatest power in the world,” was needed and purposefully used. The goal was the image itself, as is manifest in the very language of the problem-solvers, with their “scenarios” and “audiences,” borrowed from the theater. For this ultimate aim, all policies became short-term interchangeable means, until finally, when all signs pointed to defeat in the war of attrition, the goal was no longer one of avoiding humiliating defeat but of finding ways and means to avoid admitting it and “save face.”

Image making as global policy—not world conquest but victory in the battle “to win the people’s minds”—is indeed something new in the huge arsenal of human follies recorded in history. This was not undertaken by a third-rate nation always apt to boast in order to compensate for the real thing, nor by one of the old colonial powers that lost their positions as a result of the Second World War and might have been tempted, as De Gaulle was, to bluff their way back to pre-eminence, but by “the dominant power” at the war’s end. It may be natural for elected officeholders—who owe so much, or believe they owe so much, to their campaign managers—to think that manipulation is the ruler of the people’s minds and hence the true ruler of the world. (The rumor, recently reported in the “Notes and Comment” section of The New Yorker, that “the Nixon-Agnew Administration was planning a campaign, organized and directed by Herb Klein, its director of communications, to destroy the ‘credibility’ of the press before the 1972 Presidential election” is quite in line with the public relations mentality.)20

What is surprising is the eagerness of those scores of “intellectuals” who offered their enthusiastic help in this imaginary enterprise, perhaps because it demanded nothing but mental exercises. Again, it may be only natural for problem-solvers, trained in translating all factual contents into the language of numbers and percentages where they can be calculated, to remain unaware of the untold misery that their “solutions,” pacification and relocation programs, defoliation, napalm, and anti-personnel bullets, held in store for a “friend” who needed to be “saved” and for an “enemy” who had neither the will nor the power to be one before we attacked him.

But since they dealt with the people’s minds, it remains astonishing that apparently none of them sensed that the “world” might get rather frightened of American friendship and commitment when the “lengths to which the US will go to fulfill” them were shown and contemplated. No reality and no common sense could penetrate the minds of the problem-solvers who indefatigably prepared their scenarios for “relevant audiences” to change their states of mind—“the Communists (who must feel strong pressure), the South Vietnamese (whose morale must be buoyed), our allies (who must trust us as ‘under-writers’), and the US public (which must support the risk-taking with US lives and prestige).”21

We know today to what extent all these audiences were misjudged. According to Richard J. Barnet, in his excellent contribution to the book Washington Plans an Aggressive War, “The war became a disaster because the National Security Managers misjudged each audience.”22 But the greatest, indeed basic misjudgment was to address audiences with the means of war, to decide military matters from a “political and public-relations perspective” (whereby “political” meant the perspective of the next Presidential election and “public relations” the US world image), and to think not about the real risks but “of techniques to minimize the impact of bad outcome.” Among proposals for the latter, the creation of “diversionary ‘offensives’ elsewhere in the world” was recommended together with the launching of “an ‘anti-poverty’ program for under-developed areas.”23 Not for a moment did it occur to McNaughton, the author of the memorandum in question, who doubtless was an unusually intelligent man, that his “diversions,” unlike the diversions of the theater, would have had grave and totally unpredictable consequences; they would have changed the very world in which the US moved and conducted its war.

It is this remoteness from reality that will haunt the reader of the Pentagon Papers who has the patience to stay with them to the end. Richard J. Barnet, in the essay I mentioned above, has this to say on the matter: “The bureaucratic model had completely displaced reality: the hard and stubborn facts, which so many intelligence analysts were paid so much to collect, were ignored.”24 I am not sure that the evils of bureaucracy suffice as an explanation, though they certainly facilitated this defactualization. At any rate, the relation, or rather non-relation, between facts and decision, between the intelligence community and the civilian and military services, is perhaps the most momentous, and certainly was the best guarded, secret that the Pentagon Papers revealed.

It would be of great interest to know what enabled the intelligence services to remain so close to reality in the “Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere” which the Papers ascribe to the strange operations of the Saigon government but which seems in retrospect to describe even more aptly the defactualized world in which political goals were set and military decisions were made. For the beginnings of their role in Southeast Asia were far from promising. Near the beginning of the Pentagon Papers we find recorded the decision to embark upon “covert warfare” in the early years of the Eisenhower Administration, when the executive still believed it needed Congressional authority to start a war.

Eisenhower was old-fashioned enough to believe in the Constitution. He met with Congressional leaders and decided against open intervention because he was informed that Congress would not support such a decision.25 When later, beginning with the Kennedy Administration, “overt warfare,” that is, the expedition of “combat troops,” was discussed, “the question of Congressional authority for open acts of war against a sovereign nation was never seriously raised.”26 Even when, under Johnson, foreign governments were thoroughly briefed on our plans for bombing North Vietnam, similar briefing of and consultation with Congressional leaders seem never to have taken place.27

During Eisenhower’s administration the Saigon Military Mission was formed under the command of Colonel Lansdale and told “to undertake para-military operations…and to wage political-psychological warfare.” This meant in practice to print leaflets to spread lies falsely attributed to the other side, to pour “contaminant in the engines” of the bus company of Hanoi before the French left the North, to conduct “English-language classes for mistresses of important personages,” and to hire a team of Vietnamese astrologers. 28 This ludicrous phase continued into the early Sixties, until the military took over. After the Kennedy Administration the counterinsurgency doctrine receded into the background—perhaps because, during the overthrow of Diem, it turned out that the CIA-financed Vietnamese Special Forces “had in effect become the private army of Mr. Nhu.”29

The fact-finding branches of the intelligence services were largely separated from whatever covert operations were still going on in the field, which meant that they at least were responsible only for gathering and interpreting information rather than for creating the news themselves. They had no need to show positive results and were under no pressure from Washington to produce good news to feed into the public relations machine, or to concoct fairy tales about “continuous progress, virtually miraculous improvement, year in, year out.”30 They were relatively independent, and the result was that they told the truth, year in, year out.

It seems that in these intelligence services no commanding officer told his agents what “an American division commander told one of his district advisers, who insisted on reporting the persistent presence of unpacified Vietcong hamlets in his area: ‘Son, you’re writing our own report card in this country. Why are you failing us?’ “31 It also seems that those who were responsible for intelligence estimates were miles away from the problem-solvers, their disdain for facts, and the accidental character of those facts. The price they paid for these objective advantages was that their reports remained without any influence on the decisions and propositions of the National Security Council.

After the Kennedy Administration the only discernible trace of the covert war period is the infamous “provocation strategy,” that is, a whole program of “deliberate attempts to provoke the DRV into taking actions which could then be answered by a systematic US air campaign.”32 These tactics do not belong among the ruses of war. They have been typical of the secret police and became notorious as well as counterproductive in the declining days of Czarist Russia when the agents of the Okhrana, by organizing spectacular assassinations, “served despite themselves the ideas of those whom they denounced.” 33


The divergence between the facts established by the intelligence services—sometimes by the decision makers themselves (as notably in the case of McNamara) and often available to the informed public—and the premises, theories, and hypotheses according to which decisions were finally made is total. And the extent of our failures and disasters throughout these years can be grasped only if one has the totality of this divergence firmly in mind. I shall therefore remind the reader of a few outstanding examples.

As regards the domino theory, first enunciated in 195034 and permitted to survive, as it has been said, the “most momentous events”: To the question of President Johnson in 1964, “Would the rest of Southeast Asia necessarily fall if Laos and South Vietnam came under North Vietnam control?” the CIA’s answer was, “With the possible exception of Cambodia, it is likely that no nation in the area would quickly succumb to Communism as a result of the fall of Laos and South Vietnam.”35 When five years later the Nixon Administration raised the same question, it “was advised by the Central Intelligence Agency…that [the United States] could immediately withdraw from South Vietnam and ‘all of Southeast Asia would remain just as it is for at least another generation.’ “36 According to the study, “only the Joint Chiefs, Mr. Rostow and General Taylor appear to have accepted the domino theory in its literal sense,”37 and the point here is that those who did not accept it still used it not merely for public statements but as part of their own premises as well.

As to the claim that the insurgents in South Vietnam were “externally directed and supported” by a “Communist conspiracy”: The assessment of the intelligence community in 1961 was “that 80-90 percent of the estimated 17,000 VC had been locally recruited, and that there was little evidence that the VC relied on external supplies.”38 Three years later the situation was unchanged: According to an intelligence analysis of 1964, “the primary sources of Communist strength in South Vietnam are indigenous.”39 In other words, the elementary fact of civil war in South Vietnam was not unknown in the circles of the decision makers. Hadn’t Senator Mansfield warned Kennedy even in 1962 that sending more military reinforcements to South Vietnam would mean that “the Americans would be dominating the combat in a civil war…[which] would hurt American prestige in Asia and would not help the South Vietnamese to stand on their own two feet, either”?40

  1. 20

    The New Yorker, July 10, 1971.

  2. 21

    Pentagon Papers, pp. 436 and 438.

  3. 22

    Washington Plans an Aggressive War, p. 209.

  4. 23

    Pentagon Papers, p. 438.

  5. 24

    Washington Plans an Aggressive War, p. 24.

  6. 25

    Pentagon Papers, pp. 5 and 11.

  7. 26

    Ibid., p. 268.

  8. 27

    Ibid., pp. 334-335.

  9. 28

    Ibid., pp. 15ff.

  10. 29

    Ibid., p. 166.

  11. 30

    Ibid.,, p. 24.

  12. 31

    Ellsberg, p. 263.

  13. 32

    Pentagon Papers, p. 313.

  14. 33

    Maurice Laporte, L’Histoire de l’Okhrana, (Paris, 1935), p. 25.

  15. 34

    Pentagon Papers, p. 6.

  16. 35

    Ibid., p. 254.

  17. 36

    The Sun-Times, quoted by The New York Times, “The Week in Review,” June 27, 1971.

  18. 37

    Pentagon Papers, p. 254.

  19. 38

    Ibid., p. 98.

  20. 39

    Ibid., p. 242.

  21. 40

    Ellsberg, p. 247.

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