Eyeless in Indochina

In the spring issue of Public Policy, the journal of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Daniel Ellsberg advanced an arresting and subtle interpretation of the American adventure in Indochina. He was concerned to disprove what he called “the quagmire myth”—the proposition, that is, that our leaders did not know what they were getting into in Southeast Asia; that they marched blindly, step by step, into a morass; that our descent into the Vietnam catastrophe was marked (as Mr. Ellsberg accurately states the essence of the quagmire thesis) by “lack of foresight, awareness, or calculation.”1

Mr. Ellsberg directed his critique against a view he found most conveniently formulated in writings of mine (doing so, I may add, with entire courtesy and in excellent temper). As against what I had once called the “politics of inadvertence,”2 Mr. Ellsberg offered what I read as a sort of politics of clairvoyance. A succession of American Presidents, he said, fully understanding that there was a “high probability that US troops would end up fighting in South Vietnam, and US planes bombing throughout Indochina,” not only “failed to resist” this future but “knowingly cooperated with and prepared” it.

Against the quagmire image of leaders blundering into what, to their surprise, turned out to be quicksand, Mr. Ellsberg offered the counter-image of “repeatedly, a leader striding with his eyes open into what he sees as quicksand.” He summed up his argument in a quotation approvingly cited from Leslie Gelb, his associate in the Pentagon study of American policy in Indochina: “Our Presidents and most of those who influenced their decisions did not stumble step-by-step into Vietnam, unaware of the quagmire. US involvement did not stem from a failure to foresee consequences.”

In short, the quagmire thesis, however plausible on its face, was “totally wrong for each one of those [Indochina] decisions over the last twenty years…. Not one of these decision points…fits Schlesinger’s generalization to the slightest degree.” And the awful cost of our Vietnam course, Mr. Ellsberg concluded, made it “easy to understand why the past four Presidents would want, before and after, to conceal and deprecate their own fore-knowledge.”3

This seemed a drastic contention. It was that American Presidents, knowing they were heading into a hopeless mess, fully foreseeing the consequences, nonetheless insisted on plunging on. The failure of American policy was not at all the absence of fore-knowledge—in Mr. Gelb’s phrase, “the system worked”—but unwillingness to act on the basis of foreknowledge. Moreover, this facet of Mr. Ellsberg’s argument has, since the publication of the Pentagon Papers, been readily adopted by influential journalists. Thus we find Max Frankel writing in The New York Times:

This was not a war into which the United States stumbled blindly, step by step, on the basis of wrong intelligence or military advice that just a few more soldiers or a few more air raids would turn the tide. 4

Murrey Marder in the Washington Post:


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