2000-10-15: The Pentagon Papers

The Pentagon Papers (1971)

by Neil Sheehan, Hedrick Smith, E. W. Kenworthy, Fox Butterfield

The publication of this book (and the earlier publication of the articles in the N.Y. Times and Washington Post) was a watershed moment in the Vietnam War. I read it then, and have kept the cheaply-produced book as a memento to remind me of freedom of the press and speech. I ought to get the Supreme Court decision that allowed publication to proceed, and the arguments for and against publication.

In rereading the book, I find it interesting to see how the values of various principles influenced their actions. From 1954 on there was clearly a wide range of views concerning the efficacy of the government of South Vietnam, and the consequences of a Communist take-over there.

The government was certainly corrupt, and out of touch with the countryside, but efforts to improve the condition of the people, and so to strengthen their support for the government, were not a high priority. In 1964, the following weight was given to the aims of the U.S.:

70 pct.–To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).

20 pct.–To keep SVN (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.

10 pct.–To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life.

Also–To emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used.

NOT–To ‘help a friend,’ although it would be hard to stay in if asked out.

In June 1964, while the Johnson Administration was preparing to obtain a Congressional resolution, a list was drawn up of “disagreeable questions” that might be raised:

Does this imply a blank check for the President to go to war in Southeast Asia?

What kinds of force could he employ under this authorization?

What change in the situation (if any) requires the resolution now?

Can’t our objectives be attained by means other than U.S. military force?

Does Southeast Asia mean enough to U.S. national interests?

In the emotional atmosphere around the Tonkin Gulf incident in August, almost none of these questions were asked.

It is distressing to see how easy it was for the government to keep its involvement secret from the U.S. public (and Congress), and how matter-of-factly the highest officials treated such secrecy. By the time our involvement became public, the executive had already committed the prestige of the U.S. to prevention of a Communist takeover. To dissent from the course already underway was to propose exactly the kind of humiliation that was at the top of the list of reasons for the administration’s highest officials.

Particularly disturbing is the way the Kennedy administration became embroiled in acquiescing to and encouraging the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother, resulting in their deaths. There is little record in these papers that they questioned the rightness of a coup, or worried much about the consequences for Diem.

I still occasionally hear the opinion that we might have won the war if we had only tried hard enough, with implicit criticism of the executive branch leadership, and of (at least some of) the American people. In this connection, I found the following interesting, from General William C. Westmoreland, commander of United States forces in Vietnam, March 18, 1967:

Military success alone will not achieve the U.S. objectives in Vietnam. Political, economic and psychological victory is equally important, and support of Revolutionary Development program is mandatory. The basic precept for the role of the military in support of Revolutionary Development is to provide a secure environment for the population so that the civil aspects of RD can progress.

“Revolutionary Development” or “Rural Development” was evidently the name of a program to enhance support of the countryside for the government of South Vietnam (GVN). The clear lesson from the Pentagon Papers is that the GVN was never able to, nor especially interested in, attracting popular support from the rural population. They never invested the effort in “political, economic and psychology victory” that might have supported a viable government, as opposed to being ruled by a series of warlords.

Of course, the Pentagon Papers are important, but it was the fact of the attempt to suppress them, to deny the American people the opportunity to know what their government had done without proper oversight, that had the most impact on me (and, I think, on many others). Following soon after the killing of students at Kent State, I think the American people had one too many sins to forgive.

Another interesting fact: In searching the Internet, I cannot find the Pentagon Papers. There are numerous articles that mention them, and especially the Supreme Court decision that allowed their publication. But it seems the freedom of press issue is more interesting than the actual historical material. I would have expected that

  • The NY Times would have published the same material on their web site that they published on paper;
  • The stolen papers themselves would have been posted in their entirety (not merely the extracts published by the NY Times);
  • The entire history would have been declassified and published (not merely the portions copied and distributed by Ellsberg and his friends).

Instead, the “Pentagon Papers” is simply a phrase that stands for some sort of unpleasantness in the distant past. Even the book is not available in the Anne Arundel Public Library catalog, nor any online bookstore.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email