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Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers

The bombing of North Vietnam nevertheless started partly because theory said that “a revolution could be dried up by cutting off external sources of support and supply.” The bombings were supposed to “break the will” of North Vietnam to support the rebels in the South, although the decision makers themselves (in this case McNaughton) knew enough of the indigenous nature of the revolt to doubt that the Viet Cong would “obey a caving” North Vietnam,41 while the Joint Chiefs did not believe “that these efforts will have a decisive effect” on Hanoi’s will to begin with.42 In 1965, according to a report by McNamara, members of the National Security Council had agreed that North Vietnam “was not likely to quit…and in any case, they were more likely to give up because of Viet Cong failure in the South than because of bomb-induced pain in the North.” 43

Finally there were, secondary only to the domino theory, the grand stratagems based on the premise of a monolithic Communist world conspiracy and the existence of a Sino-Soviet bloc, in addition to the hypothesis of Chinese expansionism. The notion that China must be “contained” has now, in 1971, been refuted by President Nixon; but more than four years ago, McNamara wrote: “To the extent that our original intervention and our existing actions in Vietnam were motivated by the perceived need to draw the line against Chinese expansionism in Asia, our objective has already been attained,”44 although, only two years earlier, he had agreed that the United States’ aim in South Vietnam was “not to ‘help a friend’ but to contain China.”45

The war critics have denounced all these theories because of their obvious clash with known facts—such as the nonexistence of a Sino-Soviet bloc, known to everybody familiar with the history of the Chinese Revolution and Stalin’s resolute opposition to it, or the fragmented character of the communist movement since the end of the Second World War. A number of them have gone further and developed a theory of their own: America, emerging as the greatest power after the Second World War, has embarked upon a consistent imperialist policy which ultimately aims at world rule. The advantage of this theory was that it could explain the absence of national interest in the whole enterprise—the sign of imperialist aims has always been that they were neither guided nor limited by national interest and territorial boundaries—though it could hardly account for the fact that this country was madly insisting on “pouring its resources down the drain in the wrong place” (as George Ball, Under-secretary of State in the Johnson Administration and the only adviser who dared to break the taboo and recommend immediate withdrawal, had the courage to tell the President in 1965).46

For clearly this was no case of “limited means to achieve excessive ends.”47 Was it excessive for a “superpower” to add one more small country to its string of client states or to win a victory over a “tiny backward nation”? It was rather an unbelievable example of using excessive means to achieve minor aims in a region of marginal interest. It was precisely this unavoidable impression of wrongheaded floundering that finally brought the country to the conviction “widely and strongly held that ‘the Establishment’ is out of its mind. The feeling is that we are trying to impose some US image on distant peoples we cannot understand…and we are carrying the thing to absurd lengths,” as McNaughton wrote in 1967.48

The Bantam edition of the Pentagon Papers at any rate contains nothing to support the theory of grandiose imperialist stratagems. Only twice is the importance of land, sea, and air bases, so decisively important for imperialist strategy, mentioned—once by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who point out that “our ability in limited wars” would be “markedly reduced” if a “loss of the Southeast Asian Mainland” would lead to the loss of “air, land and seabases,”49 and once in the McNamara report of 1964, which says explicitly: “We do not require [South Vietnam] serve as a Western base or as a member of a Western alliance.” (Italics added.)50 The only public statements of the American government during this period that indeed told almost gospel truth were the often repeated claims, ever so much less plausible than other public relations notions, that we were seeking no territorial gains nor any other tangible profit.

This is not to say that a genuine American global policy with imperialist overtones would have been impossible after the collapse of the old colonial powers. The Pentagon Papers, generally so devoid of spectacular news, reveal one incident which, so far as I know, was never more than a rumor, and which seems to indicate how considerable the chances were for a global policy that then were gambled away for the sake of image making and of fighting nonexistent conspiracies. According to a cable from an American diplomat in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh wrote several letters in 1945 and 1946 to Truman requesting the United States “to support the idea of Annamese independence according to the Philippine example, to examine the case of the Annamese, and to take steps necessary to maintenance of world peace which is being endangered by French efforts to reconquer Indochina.” (Italics added.)51 It is true, similar letters were addressed to other countries, China, Russia, and Britain, none of which, however, at that particular moment would have been able to give the protection that was requested and that would have established Indochina in the same semi-autonomous position as other client states of this country.

A second and equally striking incident, apparently mentioned at the time by the Washington Post, was recorded in the “Special China Series” of documents which was issued by the State Department in August 1969, and was reported by Terence Smith in The New York Times. Mao and Chou En-lai, it turns out, approached President Roosevelt in January, 1945, “trying to establish relations with the United States in order to avoid total dependence on the Soviet Union.” (Italics added.) It seems that Ho Chi Minh never received an answer, and information of the Chinese approach was suppressed because, as Professor Allen Whiting has commented, it contradicted “the image of monolithic communism directed from Moscow.”52

Although the decision makers certainly knew about the intelligence reports, whose factual statements they had, as it were, to eliminate from their minds day in and day out, I think it entirely possible that they were not aware of these earlier documents, which would have given the lie to all their premises before they could grow into full-blown theory and ruin the country. Certain bizarre circumstances attending the recent irregular and unexpected declassification of top secret documents point in this direction. It is astounding that this study could have been prepared for years while people in the White House, the Department of State, and the Defense Department apparently ignored it; but it is even more astounding that after its completion, with sets dispatched in all directions within the government bureaucracy, the White House and the State Department were unable even to locate the forty-seven volumes, clearly indicating that those who should have been most concerned with what the study had to tell never set eyes on it.

This sheds some light on one of the gravest dangers of overclassification: not only are the people and their elected representatives denied access to what they must know to form an opinion and make decisions, but the actors themselves who receive top clearance to learn all the relevant facts remain blissfully unaware of them. And this not because some invisible hand deliberately leads them astray but because they work under circumstances, and with habits of mind, that allow them neither time nor inclination to go hunting for pertinent facts in mountains of documents, 99 1/2 percent of which should not be classified and most of which are irrelevant for all practical purposes.

Even now that the press has brought a certain portion of them into the public domain and members of Congress have been given the whole study, it does not look as though those most in need of this information have read them or ever will. The fact of the matter, at any event, is that aside from the compilers themselves, “the people who read these documents in the Times were the first to study them” (Tom Wicker),53 which makes one wonder about the cherished notion that government needs the arcana imperii to be able to function properly.

If the mysteries of government have so befogged the minds of the actors themselves that they no longer know or remember the truth behind their concealments and their lies, the whole operation of deception, no matter how well organized its “marathon information campaigns” (Rusk) and how sophisticated its Madison Avenue gimmickry, will run aground or become counterproductive, that is, confuse people without convincing them. For the trouble with lying and deceiving is that their efficiency depends entirely upon a clear notion of the truth which the liar and deceiver wishes to hide. In this sense, truth, even if it does not prevail in public, possesses an ineradicable primacy over all falsehoods.

In the case of the Vietnam war we are confronted, in addition to falsehoods and confusion, with a truly amazing and entirely honest ignorance of the historically pertinent background: not only did the decision makers seem ignorant of all the well-known facts of the Chinese Revolution and the decade-old rift between Moscow and Peking that preceded it, “no one at the top knew or considered it important that the Vietnamese had been fighting foreign invaders for almost 2,000 years,”54 and that the notion of the “tiny backward nation,” without interest to “civilized” nations, unhappily often shared by the war critics, stands in flagrant contradiction to the very old and highly developed culture of the region.

What Vietnam lacks is not “culture” but strategic importance (Indochina is “devoid of decisive military objectives,” as a Joint Chiefs of Staff memo said in 1954),55 a suitable terrain for modern mechanized armies, and rewarding targets for the air force. What caused the disastrous defeat of American policies and armed intervention was indeed no quagmire (“the policy of ‘one more step’—each new step always promising the success which the previous last step had also promised but had unaccountably failed to deliver,” in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as quoted by Daniel Ellsberg, who rightly denounces the notion as a “myth”)56 but the willful, deliberate disregard of all facts historical, political, geographical, for more than twenty-five years.


If the quagmire model is a myth and if no grand imperialist stratagems or will to world conquest can be discovered, let alone interest in territorial gains, desire for profit, or, least of all, concern about national security, if moreover the reader is disinclined to be satisfied with such general notions as “Greek tragedy” (Max Frankel) or stab-in-the-back legends, then the question, recently raised by Ellsberg, “How could they?57—rather than deception and lying per se—will become the basic issue of this dismal story. For the truth, after all, is that the US was the richest country and the dominant power after the end of the Second World War, and that today, a mere quarter of a century later, Mr. Nixon’s metaphor of the “pitiful, helpless giant” is an uncomfortably apt description of “the mightiest country on earth.”

  1. 41

    Pentagon Papers, p. 433.

  2. 42

    Ibid., pp. 240-241.

  3. 43

    Ibid., p. 407.

  4. 44

    Ibid., p. 583.

  5. 45

    Ibid., p. 342.

  6. 46

    Ibid., p. 414.

  7. 47

    Ibid., p. 584.

  8. 48

    Ibid., p. 534.

  9. 49

    Ibid., p. 153.

  10. 50

    Ibid., p. 278.

  11. 51

    Ibid., p. 26.

  12. 52

    The New York Times, June 29, 1971. Mr. Smith cites Professor Whiting’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the document, which appears in Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers 1945, Vol. VII: The Far East, China (Government Printing Office, 1969), p. 209.

  13. 53

    The New York Times, July 8, 1971.

  14. 54

    Washington Plans an Aggressive War, p. 246.

  15. 55

    Pentagon Papers, p. 2.

  16. 56

    Ellsberg, p. 219.

  17. 57

    Ibid., p. 235.

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