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Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers

Unable to defeat, with a “1,000-1 superiority in fire power,”58 a small nation in six years of overt warfare, unable also to take care of its domestic problems or to halt the swift decline of its large cities, having wasted its resources to the point where inflation and currency devaluation threaten its international trade as well as its standard of life at home, the country is in danger of losing much more than its claim to world leadership. And even if one anticipates the judgment of future historians who may see this development in the context of twentieth-century history, when the defeated nations in two world wars managed to come out on top in competition with the victors (chiefly because they were compelled by the victors to rid themselves for a relatively long period of the incredible wastefulness of armaments and military expenses), it remains hard to reconcile oneself to so much effort wasted on demonstrating the impotence of bigness—though one may welcome this unexpected revival of David’s triumph over Goliath on so large a scale.

The first explanation that comes to mind to answer the question “How could they?” is likely to point to the interconnectedness of deception and self-deception. In the contest between public statements, always over-optimistic, and the truthful reports of the intelligence community, persistently bleak and ominous, the public statements were likely to win simply because they were public. The great advantage of publicly established and accepted propositions over whatever an individual may secretly know or believe to be the truth is neatly illustrated by a medieval anecdote, according to which a sentry, on duty to watch and warn the townspeople of the approach of the enemy, jokingly sounded a false alarm, and was the last to rush to the walls to defend the town against his imagined enemies. From this, one may conclude that the more successful a liar is, the more people he has convinced, the more likely it is that he will end by believing his own lies.

In the Pentagon Papers, we deal with people who did their utmost to win the minds of the people, that is, to manipulate them, but since they labored in a free country where all kinds of information were available, they never really succeeded. Because of their relatively high station and their position in government, they were better shielded—in spite of their privileged knowledge of “top secrets”—against this public information, which also more or less told the factual truth, than those whom they tried to convince and of whom they were likely to think in terms of mere audiences, “silent majorities,” who were supposed to watch the scenarists’ productions. The fact that the Pentagon Papers revealed hardly any spectacular news testifies to the liars’ failure to create the convinced audience which they then could join themselves.

Still, the presence of what Ellsberg has called the process of “internal self-deception” is beyond doubt, but it is as though the normal process of self-deceiving were reversed; it was not as though deception ended with self-deception. The deceivers started with self-deception. Probably because of their high station and their astounding self-assurance, they were so convinced of overwhelming success, not on the battlefield but on the grounds of public relations, and so certain of the soundness of their psychological premises about the unlimited possibilities in manipulating people, that they anticipated general belief and victory in the battle for people’s minds. And since they lived anyhow in a defactualized world, they did not find it difficult to pay no more attention to the fact that their audience refused to be convinced than to other facts.

The internal world of government, with its bureaucracy on one hand, its social life on the other, made self-deception relatively easy. It seems that no ivory tower of the scholars has ever better prepared the mind for wholly ignoring the facts of life than the various think tanks did for the problem-solvers and the reputation of the White House for the President’s advisers. It was in this atmosphere, where defeat was less feared than admitting defeat, that the misleading statements about the disasters of the Têt offensive and the Cambodian invasion were concocted. But what is even more important is that the truth about such decisive matters could be successfully covered up only in these internal circles by worries about how to avoid becoming “the first American President to lose a war” and by the always present preoccupations with the next election.

So far as problem solving, in contrast to public relations managing, is concerned, self-deception, even “internal self-deception,”59 is no satisfactory answer to the question “How could they?” Self-deception still pre-supposes a distinction between truth and falsehood, between fact and fantasy, which disappears in an entirely defactualized mind. In the realm of politics, where secrecy and deliberate deception have always played a significant role, self-deception is the danger par excellence; the self-deceived deceiver loses all contact, not only with his audience but with the real world which will catch up with him, as he can remove only his mind from it and not his body.

The problem-solvers who knew all the facts presented regularly to them in the reports of the intelligence community had only to rely on their techniques, that is, on the various ways of translating qualities and contents into quantities and numbers with which to calculate outcomes, which then, unaccountably, never came true, in order to eliminate, day in and day out, what they knew to be real. The reason why this could work for so many years is precisely that “the goals pursued by the United States government were almost exclusively psychological,”60 that is, matters of the mind.

Reading the memos, the options, the scenarios, the way percentages are ascribed to the potential risks and returns—“too many risks with too little return”61—of contemplated actions, one sometimes has the impression that a computer rather than “decision makers” had been let loose in Southeast Asia. The problem-solvers did not judge, they calculated; their self-confidence did not even need self-deception to be sustained in the midst of so many misjudgments, for it relied on the evidence of mathematical, purely rational truth. Except, of course, that this “truth” was entirely irrelevant for the “problem” at hand. If, for instance, it can be calculated that the outcome of a certain action is “less likely to be a general war than more likely,”62 it does not follow that we can choose it even if the proportion were eighty to twenty, because of the enormity and incalculable quality of the risk; and the same is true when the odds of reform in the Saigon government versus the “chance that we would wind up like the French in 1954” are 70 percent to 30 percent. 63

That is a nice outlook for a gambler, not for a statesman, and even the gambler would be better advised to take into account what gain or loss would actually mean for him in daily life. Loss may mean utter ruin and gain no more than some welcome but nonessential improvement of his financial affairs. Only if nothing real is at stake for the gambler—a bit more or less money is not likely to make any difference in his standard of life—can he safely rely on the percentage game. The trouble with our conduct of the war in South Vietnam was that no such control, given by reality itself, ever existed in the minds of either the decision makers or the problem-solvers.

For it is indeed true that American policy pursued no real aims, good or bad, that could limit and control sheer fantasy: “Neither territory nor economic advantage has been pursued in Vietnam. The entire purpose of the enormous and costly effect has been to create a specific state of mind.”64 And the reason why such excessively costly means, costly in human lives and material resources, were permitted to be used for such politically irrelevant ends must be sought not merely in the unfortunate superabundance in the country but in its inability to understand that even great power is limited power. Behind the constantly repeated cliché of the “mightiest power on earth,” there lurked the dangerous myth of omnipotence.

Just as Eisenhower was the last President who knew he would have to request “Congressional authority to commit American troops in Indochina,” so his Administration was the last to be aware that “the allocation of more than token US armed forces in that area would be a serious diversion of limited US capabilities.” (Italics added.) 65 In spite of all the later calculations of “costs, returns and risks” of certain acts, the calculators remained unaware of any absolute, non-psychological limitation. The limits they perceived were the people’s minds, how much they would stand in losses of American lives, which should for instance not be much larger than the losses in traffic accidents. But it apparently never occurred to them that there are limits to the resources that even this country can waste without going bankrupt.

This deadly combination of the “arrogance of power”—the pursuit of a mere image of omnipotence, as distinguished from an aim of world conquest, to be attained by nonexistent unlimited resources—with the arrogance of the mind, an utterly irrational confidence in the calculability of reality, becomes the leitmotif of the decision making processes from the beginning of escalation in 1964. This, however, is not to say that the problem-solvers’ rigorous methods of defactualization are at the root of this relentless march into self-destruction.

The problem-solvers, who lost their minds because they trusted the calculating powers of their brains at the expense of the mind’s capacity for experience and its ability to learn from it, were preceded by the ideologists of the cold war period. Anticommunism—not the old, often prejudiced hostility of America against socialism and communism, so strong in the Twenties and still a mainstay of the Republican party during the Roosevelt Administration, but the postwar comprehensive ideology—was originally the brainchild of ex-communists who needed a new ideology by which to explain and reliably foretell the course of history. This ideology was at the root of all “theories” in Washington since the end of World War II. I mentioned before the extent to which sheer ignorance of all pertinent facts and deliberate neglect of postwar developments became the hallmark of established doctrine within the Establishment.

The methods of this older generation—the methods of Mr. Rusk as distinguished from those of Mr. McNamara—were less complicated, less brainy, as it were, than those of the problem-solvers, but not less efficacious in shielding men from the impact of reality and in ruining the mind’s capacity for judgment and for learning. They prided themselves in having learned from the past—from Stalin’s rule over all Communist parties, hence the notion of “monolithic communism,” and from Hitler’s having started a world war after Munich, from which they concluded that every gesture of reconciliation was a “second Munich.” They were unable to confront reality on its own terms because they had always some parallels in mind that “helped” them to understand them.

When Johnson, still in his capacity as Kennedy’s Vice-President, came home from an inspection tour in South Vietnam and happily reported that Diem was the “Churchill of Asia,” one would have thought that the parallelism game would die from sheer absurdity, but this was not the case. Nor can one say that the left-wing war critics thought in different terms. The extreme fringe had the unhappy inclination of denouncing as “fascist” or “Nazi” whatever, often quite rightly, displeased them, and of calling every massacre a genocide, which obviously it was not; this could only help to produce a mentality that was quite willing to condone massacre and other war crimes so long as they were not genocide.

The problem-solvers were remarkably free from the sins of the ideologists; they believed in methods but not in “world views,” which, incidentally, is the reason why they could be trusted “to pull together the Pentagon’s documentary record of the American involvement” that would be both “encyclopedic and objective.”66 But though they did not believe in such generally accepted rationales for policies as the domino theory, these theories with their different methods of defactualization provided the atmosphere and the background against which the problem-solvers then went to work; they had, after all, to convince the cold warriors, whose minds then turned out to be singularly well prepared for the abstract games they had to offer.

How the cold warriors proceeded when left to themselves is well illustrated by one of the “theories” of Walt Rostow, the Johnson Administration’s “dominant intellectual.” It was Mr. Rostow’s “theory” that became one of the chief rationales for the decision to bomb North Vietnam against the advice of “McNamara’s then prestigious systems analysts in the Defense Department.” His theory seems to have relied on the view of Bernard Fall, one of the most acute observers and best informed war critics, who had suggested that “Ho Chi Minh might disavow the war in the South if some of his new industrial plants were made a target.”^67 This was a hypothesis, a real possibility, which had to be either confirmed or refuted. But the remark had the ill luck to fit well with Mr. Rostow’s theories about guerrilla warfare and was now transformed into a “fact”: President Ho Chi Minh “has an industrial complex to protect; he is no longer a guerrilla fighter with nothing to lose.” 68

This looks in retrospect, in the eyes of the analyst, like a “colossal misjudgment.”69 But the point is that the “misjudgment” could become “colossal” only because no one wished to correct it in time. For it turned out very quickly that the country was not industrialized enough to suffer from air attacks in a limited war, whose objective, changing over the years, was never the destruction of the enemy but, characteristically, “to break his will”; and the government’s will in Hanoi, whether or not the North Vietnamese possessed what in Mr. Rostow’s view was a necessary quality of the guerrilla fighter, refused to be “broken.”

To be sure, this failure to distinguish between a plausible hypothesis and the fact which still has to confirm it, that is, this dealing with hypotheses and mere “theories” as though they were established facts, which became endemic in the psychological and social sciences during the period in question, lacks all the rigor of the methods used by the game theorists and systems analysts. But the source of both, namely, the inability or unwillingness to consult experience and to learn from reality, is the same.

This brings us to the root of the matter which, at least partially, may contain the answer to the question, “How could they?” not only start these policies but carry them through to their bitter and absurd end? Defactualization and problem solving were welcomed because disregard of reality was inherent in the policies and goals themselves. What did they have to know about Indochina, as it really was, when it was no more than a “test case” or a domino or a means to “contain China” or to prove that we are the mightiest of the superpowers? Or take the case of bombing North Vietnam for the ulterior purpose of building morale in South Vietnam,70 without much intention of winning a clear-cut victory and ending the war. How could they be interested in anything so real as victory when they kept the war going for neither territorial gain nor economic advantage, least of all to help a friend or keep a commitment, nor even for the reality, as distinguished from the image, of power?

When this stage of the game was reached, the initial premise that we should “never mind the region or the country itself,” inherent in the domino theory, changed into a “never mind the enemy.” And this in the midst of a war! The result was that the enemy, poor, abused, and suffering, grew stronger while “the mightiest country” grew weaker with each passing year. There are historians today who maintain that Truman dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in order to scare the Russians out of Eastern Europe (with the result we know). If this is true, as it may well be, then we may trace back the earliest beginnings of the disregard for the actual consequences of action in favor of some ulterior calculated aim to the fateful war crime that ended the last world war.


At the beginning of this analysis I tried to suggest that the aspects of the Pentagon Papers that I have chosen, the aspects of deception, self-deception, image making, ideologizing, and defactualization, are by no means the only features of the Papers that deserve to be studied and learned from. There is for instance the fact that this huge and systematic effort at self-examination was commissioned by one of the chief actors, that thirty-six men could be found to compile the documents and write their analyses, some of whom “had helped to develop or carry out the policies they were asked to evaluate,”71 that one of the authors, when it had become apparent that no one in government was willing to use or even to read the results, went to the public and leaked it to the press and that, finally, the most respectable newspapers in the country dared to bring material that was stamped “top secret” to the widest possible attention.

It has rightly been said by Neil Sheehan that Robert McNamara’s decision to find out what went wrong, and why, “may turn out to be one of the most important decisions in his seven years at the Pentagon.”72 It certainly restored, at least for a fleeting moment, this country’s reputation in the world. What had now happened could indeed hardly have happened anywhere else. It is as though all these people, involved in an unjust war and rightly compromised by it, had suddenly remembered what they owed to their forefathers’ “decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”

There is furthermore the fact, much commented on, which calls for close and detailed study, that the Pentagon Papers revealed little significant news that was not available to the average reader of dailies and weeklies, and no arguments, pro or con, in the “History of the US Decision-Making Process of Vietnam Policy” (the report’s official title) that have not been debated publicly for years in magazines, television shows, and radio broadcasts. (Personal positions and changes in them aside, the totally different view of the intelligence community on basic issues was the only matter generally unknown.)

That the public had for years access to material which the government vainly tried to keep from it testifies to the integrity and to the power of the press even more forcefully than the way the Times broke the story. What has often been suggested has now been established: so long as the press is free and not corrupt, it has an enormously important function to fulfill and can rightly be called the fourth branch of government. Whether the first amendment will suffice to protect this most essential political freedom, the right to unmanipulated factual information without which all freedom of opinion becomes a cruel hoax, is another question.

There is finally a lesson to be learned for those who, like myself, believed that this country had embarked on an imperialist policy, had utterly forgotten its old anticolonial sentiments, and was perhaps succeeding in establishing that Pax Americana which Kennedy had denounced. Whatever the merits of these suspicions, and they could be justified by our policies in Latin America, if undeclared small wars—aggressive brushfire operations in foreign lands—are among the necessary means to attain imperialist ends, the United States will be less able to employ them successfully than almost any other great power. For while the demoralization of American troops has by now reached unprecedented proportions—according to Der Spiegel during the last year 89,088 deserters, 100,000 conscientious objectors, and tens of thousands of drug addicts73—the disintegration process of the army started much earlier and was preceded by similar developments during the Korean war.74

One has only to talk to a few of the returning veterans of this war—or to read Daniel Lang’s sober and telling report in The New Yorker about the development of a fairly typical case—to realize that for this country to carry adventurous and aggressive policies to success a decisive change in the American people’s “national character” would be required. The same could of course be concluded from the extraordinarily strong and well-organized opposition that has from time to time arisen at home. The North Vietnamese who watched these developments carefully over the years had their hopes always set on it, and it seems that they were right in their assessment.

No doubt all this can change. But one thing has become clear in recent months: the halfhearted attempts of the government to circumvent Constitutional guarantees and to intimidate those who have made up their minds not to be intimidated, who would rather go to jail than see their liberties nibbled away, are not enough and probably will not be enough to destroy the Republic. There is reason to hope with Mr. Lang’s veteran—one of the country’s two and a half million—“that the country might regain its better side as a result of the war. ‘I know it’s nothing to bet on,’ he said, ‘but neither is anything else I can think of.’ “75

  1. 58

    Washington Plans an Aggressive War, p. 248.

  2. 59

    Ellsberg, p. 263.

  3. 60

    Washington Plans an Aggressive War, p. 209.

  4. 61

    Pentagon Papers, p. 576.

  5. 62

    Ibid., p. 575.

  6. 63

    Ibid., p. 98.

  7. 64

    Washington Plans an Aggressive War, p. 209.

  8. 65

    Pentagon Papers, p. 5.

  9. 66

    Ibid., pp. xx and xviii.

  10. 68

    Pentagon Papers, p. 241.

  11. 69

    Ibid., p. 469.

  12. 70

    Ibid., p. 312.

  13. 71

    Ibid., p. xviii.

  14. 72

    Ibid., p. ix.

  15. 73

    Der Spiegel, Nr. 35/1971.

  16. 74

    Eugene Kinkead, “Reporter at Large,” The New Yorker, October 26, 1957.

  17. 75

    The New Yorker, September 4, 1971.

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