Opinion | Secrets That Were No Secret, Lessons That Were Not Learned

When The New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers 50 years ago this week, I don’t recall giving the story much attention. As a young Army lieutenant serving in South Vietnam, I did not need a classified account of America’s reckless involvement in the war to tell me that I was participating in a misbegotten enterprise. Abundant evidence was in plain sight.

In the field, a dangerous and elusive enemy lurked. Hardly less dangerous were pathologies imported from a radicalized and bitterly divided home front: epidemic drug use, a poisonous racial climate and contempt for authority. Equally disturbing was the average G.I.’s palpably low regard for the Vietnamese people on whose behalf we were ostensibly fighting.

In the ensuing decades, my appreciation for the revelations of the Pentagon Papers has grown. The portrait of fallible policymakers at the highest levels of government rendering judgments based on little more than ill-informed conjecture, while concealing their ignorance behind a veil of secrecy, has lost little of its ability to shock.

The judgment of the Times editorial board on June 21, 1971, remains incontrovertible: “Congress and the American people were kept in the dark about fundamental policy decisions affecting the very life of this democracy.” The implications of those decisions were “deliberately distorted or withheld altogether from the public.”

To read the Pentagon Papers, as I have been doing recently, is to be struck by how oblivious senior officials were to the dubious assumptions permeating their deliberations. That the preservation of an anti-Communist South Vietnam qualified as a vital U.S. national security interest was a given. That the hostilities there formed an integral part of an existential struggle known as the Cold War was likewise taken for granted. So too was the conviction that the problem would ultimately yield to a military solution.

The sticky part was figuring out what role U.S. forces should play in achieving that solution.

To sample this odd combination of certainty and reticence, consider Lyndon Johnson’s report to President John Kennedy following Mr. Johnson’s May 1961 vice-presidential visit to Saigon.

“The battle against Communism must be joined in Southeast Asia with strength and determination to achieve success there — or the United States, inevitably, must surrender the Pacific and take up our defenses on our own shores,” he told Kennedy. These were clichés more appropriate for a speech to an American Legion convention, not a memorandum to the commander in chief. Yet for all his posturing, Johnson’s bottom line was devoid of specifics. He urged Kennedy to “proceed with a clear-cut and strong program of action” that included “a rational program to meet the threat we face in the region as a whole.”

In the summer and early fall of 1961, neither Johnson nor Kennedy was angling for U.S. combat forces to take over the fight in South Vietnam, despite assurances from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that a mere 40,000 U.S. troops would suffice to “clean up the Viet Cong threat.”

Yet the extravagant depiction of the stakes involved — surrender the Pacific? — boxed Kennedy in and would do the same to Johnson when he became president. Each in turn persuaded himself that there existed no alternative to staying the course in Vietnam, a conviction that eventually landed me and way more than 40,000 other Americans in an unwinnable war.

The road to this particular hell was paved with rosy public forecasts, which the Pentagon Papers catalog even as they document internal doubts that were ignored or suppressed. As early as May 1965, with the infusion of U.S. combat troops still in its early stages, a top Defense Department official was warning of a “widely and strongly held” sense among the public that “‘the Establishment’ is out of its mind.” Among Vietnam-era policy elites, both military and civilian, the light at the end of the tunnel, however contrived, never dimmed.

On the 50th anniversary of their release, the Pentagon Papers invite us to reflect on how little they ended up mattering. The canonical lesson of the Vietnam War was to avoid another Vietnam. But a half-century after the Pentagon Papers exposed the misguided thinking that got us into that war, delusions and dishonesty regarding the role of military power persist.

In present-day national security circles, the conviction that armed force holds the key to untangling history’s complexities remains an article of faith for many. In Vietnam, race, religion, ethnicity, ideology, geopolitics and national identity sharpened by a colonial past numbered among those complexities. While some qualified for passing mention in the Pentagon Papers, they did not budge members of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from their insistence on aligning South Vietnam with America’s purposes.

The methods the United States employed included arming and advising South Vietnamese forces, protracted bombing of the North and having thousand of troops conduct “search and destroy” missions in the South. While some 58,000 Americans and far greater numbers of Vietnamese died as a result, none of the generals’ grand plans delivered the promised results. It was that dismal reality that prompted Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, in June 1967, to commission the Pentagon Papers in the first place.

Crucially, however, the quest for the formula that would translate U.S. military might into favorable political outcomes didn’t end. Even as excerpts from the Pentagon Papers were making headlines, the United States was illegally bombing Laos and Cambodia, waging a war that Congress had not authorized and about which the American people knew little.

More such episodes of questionable legality and logic were to follow, even after the South Vietnamese government finally fell. Among the most prominent: the Reagan administration’s illegal sales of arms to Iran to illegally fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua; clandestine U.S. support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s; Bill Clinton’s ill-conceived assault in Somalia culminating in the infamous Mogadishu firefight of October 1993; the George W. Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence to create a pretext for invading Iraq in 2003; and Barack Obama’s embrace of “targeted killing” as an executive power.

Capping off this entire sequence of events was the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran. Much as the Kennedy administration concluded in 1963 that President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam had become expendable, so too President Donald Trump decided in January 2020 that General Suleimani should die.

Most telling of all is the American war in Afghanistan, now approaching its final stages. Documents pried loose in a three-year legal battle showed how this longest war on foreign soil in U.S. history reprises the major themes of the Pentagon Papers.

“Senior U.S. officials,” The Washington Post reported, “failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”

It was déjà vu all over again.

As was the case when the Pentagon Papers were being drafted, the authority of the commander in chief on military matters still admits to little constraint.

As citizens, we are left to hope that the inglorious results of our recent military endeavors have educated President Biden and his team to the benefits of humility and restraint in dealing with the complexities of the world. Honesty would be a welcome bonus.

Andrew Bacevich is a veteran of the Vietnam War, retired Army colonel, emeritus professor at Boston University, and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. The author of “After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.” He has written extensively on the misuse of American military power.

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