From the Pentagon Papers and Vietnam to Snowden and the War on Terror:

Daniel Ellsberg’s 2002 book, Secrets, A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, offers a timely and chilling account of the nature of America’s war machine.  For those who don’t know, Ellsberg famously leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other sources in 1971, exposing how the United States government systematically lied the country into the Vietnam War.  President Nixon tried to prosecute Ellsberg and The Times, but lost.  Many celebrate Ellsberg as an American hero who risked everything to inform the public about the true nature of America’s wars.  Secrets is as important as ever, particularly in the wake of President Obama’s drone wars, our near-war with Syria and the Edward Snowden story.  The parallels are striking: our leaders still welcome war, the empire continues to expand, and the state still prosecutes whistleblowers with a vengeance.

Ellsberg has an intimate understanding of the inner workings of America’s power structure.  Prior to becoming a whistleblower, he was “a dedicated cold warrior” (4) who served in the Marine Corp.  He then went on to become a defense consultant for the Rand Corporation slated with deterring nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  And during the Vietnam War he became a personal assistant to John T. McNaughton, who was special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

Ellsberg watched the Vietnam War unfold from his perch at the Pentagon first as an unquestioning supporter and ultimately as a horrified opponent of empire.  Throughout, he witnessed how the government systematically lied to the public about the justification for war and prospects for victory.

Although most Americans have some conception that the Vietnam War was based on lies, it is important to understand just how brazen and calculated the deception was.  In a dramatic opening chapter, Ellsberg dissects President Johnson’s August 4, 1964 announcement justifying war.  He writes that the president

informed the American public that the North Vietnamese, for the second time in two days, had attacked U.S.                warships “on routine patrol in international waters”; that this was clearly a “deliberate” pattern of “naked aggression”; that the evidence for the second attack, like the first, was “unequivocal”; that the attack had been “unprovoked”; and that the United States, by responding in order to deter any repetition, intended no wider war (12).

Ellsberg explains that, rather than “unequivocal,” the truth is that “in the minds of various experienced navy operators and intelligence analysts at the time of our retaliation, as well as earlier and later, doubt adhered to every single piece of evidence that an attack had occurred at all on August 4” (12).  With his insider’s perspective at the Pentagon, Ellsberg “knew that each one of [the president’s] assurances was false,” as no second attack occurred.

As for the first attack on August 2nd in the Gulf of Tonkin against the USS Maddox, which the president claimed was conducting a “routine patrol in international waters,” the Maddox was in fact involved in “a secret intelligence mission, code-named DeSoto patrols, [which for days had been] penetrating well within what the North Vietnamese regarded as their territorial waters” in order to “provoke [the north Vietnamese] into turning on coast defense radar so that our destroyers could plot their defenses, in preparation for possible air or sea attacks (13).”  The attack on the Maddox caused “no American casualties or significant damage,” as “all the torpedoes had missed.”

In reality this act was not “unprovoked,” but rather retaliation for ongoing American operations in North Vietnam, which included plans such as “demolition of Route 1 bridge” and “destruction of section of Hanoi-Vinh railroad,” according to internal government documents which Ellsberg “carried over to the State Department to be read and initialed” by top officials.  President Johnson knew of this, as his Director of National Intelligence John McCone explained to him at a National Security Council (NSC) meeting on August 4th that “the North Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our attack on their off-shore islands.  They are responding out of pride and on the basis of defense considerations” (16).

The “striking” contrast between what the government knew and told the public is a recurring theme of Secrets.  Ellsberg writes that “the reality unknown to the public and to most members of Congress and the press is that secrets that would be of the greatest import to many of them can be kept from them reliably for decades by the executive branch, even though they are known to thousands of insiders.”  He explains that “self-discipline in sharing information—lack of a ‘need to tell’—and a capability for dissimulation in the interests of discretion were fundamental requirements for a great many jobs” in the executive branch.  This “apparatus of secrecy… permitted the president to arrive at and execute a secret foreign policy, to a degree that went far beyond what even relatively informed outsiders, including journalists and members of Congress, could imagine.”  He adds that “the commonplace that ‘you can’t keep secrets in Washington’ or ‘in a democracy’” is “flatly false.”  Such slogans “are in fact cover stories, ways of flattering and misleading journalists and their readers, part of the process of keeping secrets well.”  Ellsberg concedes that “many secrets do get out that wouldn’t in a fully totalitarian society,” but “the overwhelming majority of secrets do not leak to the American public” (43).

When he began working at the Pentagon in 1964, Ellsberg accepted this reality without question.  He trusted that his superiors had the best interests of the country in mind and were acting judiciously.  Outsiders simply didn’t get it, he assumed.  And those anti-war protestors who branded the war criminal simply didn’t know what they were talking about.  But his perspective gradually shifted towards skepticism.  And when he spent two years in Vietnam as a State Department observer a few years later, his entire outlook changed radically, ultimately prompting him to leak the Pentagon Papers in an effort to stop the war.  He had seen the devastation and hopelessness of the situation.  The war was a disaster, and it could not be won.

Ellsberg reiterates over and over in Secrets that every president involved in Vietnam, from Eisenhower to Nixon, was fully informed by intelligence and advisers that America could not win the war, short of using a nuclear bomb.  And yet each president persisted in expanding the war, slowly but surely.

Some background.  Vietnam had been a French colony, and in 1945 it attained independence from its weakened occupier.  Ho Chi Min sought to unite the country through a nation-wide election.  But the French quickly returned in a bid to re-conquer her colony.  The United States supported the French and refused to recognize Vietnam as an independent state.  Why?  Ellsberg reveals that “the internal documents make clear that the fact that Ho himself was a communist—though head of a mainly non-communist coalition governing the North—was far from critical in the decision in 1945 not to reply to his appeals” to recognize Vietnam.  “Rather, our nonresponse reflected a policy decision, made by President Roosevelt… to assure the French that we recognized French ‘ownership’ of Vietnam as a colony” and maintain “good relations with France” (250).

Ultimately the French tired and largely abandoned their criminal quest, but the United States, obsessed with the domino theory and determined to maintain “credibility” as the most powerful State in history, eclipsed the French as chief aggressor.  It sabotaged the 1954 Geneva Accords, which “called for nationwide elections for a unified regime” in Vietnam, according to Ellsberg.  Amazingly, the United States cynically demanded throughout the war that Vietnam “return to observance of the 1954 Accords,” which the U.S. depicted as an effort to divide the country into two “neighbors,” the North and the South, rather than establish one unified nation.

The campaign of sabotage through proxy and direct forces continued throughout the 1950’s.  America supported a corrupt puppet regime in the South led by Ngo Dinh Diem.  But he became receptive to Ho Chi Min and considered cutting a deal to unite the country.  Upon discovering this, JFK ordered Diem killed a couple of days before he himself was assassinated.  This completely destabilized the country and led to an unavoidable escalation of the conflict, culminating in Johnson’s invasion.  Tragically, Ho’s admonition in 1946, while pleading with America to recognize Vietnam, that “if we must fight… you will kill ten of our men, but we will kill one of yours and in the end it is you that will tire” proved prophetic.  Untold millions of civilians were murdered during the quarter-century of warfare that followed.

But every president involved in Vietnam, particularly Johnson and Nixon, drank deep from the dark elixir that is imperial hubris.  They ignored warnings from the most authoritative sources that they could not win and persisted in maintaining their Ahab-like delusions.  It was inconceivable to them that the most technologically advanced, powerful nation in history could fail to subdue what they considered a primitive population.

The true nature of the war machine is laid bare by Ellsberg’s depiction of the presidential election of 1964.  Johnson campaigned against the hardline Republican candidate Barry Goldwater on the theme that his administration will “seek no wider war.”  He presented himself as “the reasonable, moderate ‘peace’ candidate… while painting his opponent as a dangerous, unbalanced extremist, eager to escalate to full-scale war in Vietnam.”  But in reality, Ellsberg explains that “every official I dealt with in Washington that summer and fall expected a wider war under President Johnson no later than the start of the new year.”  In fact, Goldwater’s proposals, which Johnson campaigned against, “ironically were identical to those of Johnson’s own Joint Chiefs of Staff…  a well kept secret during the campaign” (49).  It is difficult to find harder proof that Americans have little freedom of choice on the most significant issues when it comes to their leadership.

After Vietnam destroyed Johnson’s presidency and crippled the Democrats, Nixon further ratcheted up the conflict by bombing Cambodia and Laos.  He dropped more tonnage on Indochina than had been dropped during World War II.  Even Ellsberg’s leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971 initially did little to slow Nixon down.  Nixon’s notorious tapes reveal his true attitude about the situation.  Here is a chilling excerpt of his conversation with top aides Henry Kissinger and Ron Ziegler :

President: How many did we kill in Laos?

Ziegler: Maybe ten thousand—fifteen?

President: See, the attack in the North that we have in mind… power plants, whatever’s left—POL [petroleum], the docks… And, I still think we ought to take the dikes out now.  Will that drown people?

Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.

President: No, no, no…  I’d rather use the nuclear bomb.  Have you got that, Henry?…  I just want you to think big…  I want that place bombed to smithereens…  we’re gonna bomb those bastards all over the place.  Let it fly, let it fly…  I’ll see that the United States does not lose…  We are going to cream North Vietnam…  For once, we’ve got to use the maximum power of this country… against this shit-ass little country: to win the war.

Nixon later remarked to Kissinger that “the only place where you and I disagree…  is with regard to the bombing.  You’re so goddamned concerned about civilians and I don’t give a damn.  I don’t care.”  To which Kissinger replied, “I’m concerned about the civilians because I don’t want the world to be mobilized against you as a butcher” (419).

It is no surprise or coincidence that such a brutal and callous attitude translated into sadistic tactics on the ground in Vietnam.  One such tactic was called “reconnaissance by fire.”  Ellsberg says “it meant finding out if a particular location, either a building or vegetation, had enemies in it by shooting into it and seeing whether anyone shot back.  It killed a lot of civilians.”  When he witnessed this during his stay in Vietnam, Ellsberg asked the lieutenant “what if there happened to be a family inside.  He said, ‘tough shit.  They know we’re operating in this area, they can hear us, and they ought to be in their bunker.  I’m not taking any unnecessary chances with my men’” (165).  Throughout the country, the U.S. army declared certain areas “free-fire zones,’ which meant we had condemned to death anyone who might be found in it.”  Ellsberg adds that “all over Vietnam humans were being hunted like animals from the air on the basis of where they were and what they were wearing” (138).

Does this remind you of anything?  I hope it does.  Today’s version of the American war machine employs this tactic of indiscriminate death from above in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and perhaps other countries as well.  While most Americans are familiar with President Obama’s drone wars, it is imperative to understand that the administration’s “signature strikes” are governed by the same principle of reconnaissance by fire.  According to Jeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars, the World is a Battlefield, a signature strike is a “form of pre-crime, where the U.S. determines that any military-aged males in a targeted area are in fact terrorists, and their deaths will be registered as having killed terrorists or militants.”

There are other parallels between Obama’s wars and Nixon’s handling Vietnam.  Ellsberg explains that Nixon considered drawing down ground combat troops to persuade the public that the war was coming to an end.  The reality “was not just that the war was going to go on, indefinitely,” Ellsberg writes, “but that it would again get larger, eventually larger than it had ever been” (260), because Nixon would compensate for this drawdown by increasing airstrikes and expanding the war to Laos and Cambodia in a bid to demonstrate to the Vietcong that the current president would not be bound by any constraints which had limited his predecessors.  The above-quoted excerpts bear this out.

Obama has similarly brought our troops back from Iraq while expanding America’s presence in Afghanistan and embracing the attitude that “the world is a battlefield” where America must wipe out all “terrorists.”  Journalist Glenn Greenwald aptly points out that just as it is famously said that only Nixon could have gotten his right-wing base to go along with his détente policy towards China without spurring a revolt, only Obama could have gotten the left to accept the legitimacy of drone wars.  Obama also mirrors President Johnson in the way he campaigned against the surveillance state and war machine, only to embrace and expand the two as president.

The similarities between Ellsberg’s account of the war machine and today’s political climate do not stop there.  Obama’s near war with Syria merits much neglected attention.  In a recent bombshell exposé, journalist Seymour Hersh explains that the Obama administration deceived the public in building its case for war with Syria.  Hersh writes that, based on top-level government sources with intimate knowledge of the situation,

Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack. In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order – a planning document that precedes a ground invasion – citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.

War has been averted for the time being, but Hersh’s exposé suggests there’s more to the story than the mass media’s claims that Obama does not seek war with Syria and considered strikes only reluctantly, after being confronted with hard evidence of Assad’s using chemical weapons.  Unfortunately, we do not have a contemporary version of the Pentagon Papers which reveals the true nature of the administration’s Syria deliberations at the moment.  And so we can only speculate about what the real motives for action and non-action are.  But the pretexts of terrorism and chemical weapons can hardly be taken seriously, just as the Vietnam pretexts about communism are overthrown by the Pentagon Papers.

It is a great irony to hear America’s leaders claim the use of chemical weapons is an intolerable crime which the United States cannot condone, considering that, as Ellsberg reports, we used white phosphorous and napalm in Vietnam.  He writes that “when white phosphorous touches the flesh… it burns down to the bone; you can’t put it out with water.  In Vietnamese civilian hospitals… I visited, I’d seen children who had been burned by it and others who had been burned by napalm” (136).  If the real motive for intervention in Syria had been a humanitarian one, America would not have waited years, as over a hundred thousand Syrians have been slaughtered.

The important thing to bear in mind is that America’s leaders continue to invite war, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya to drones, the list goes on.  It is a symptom of a government consumed by a war machine.  President Eisenhower warned us about this in his famous farewell address to the nation.

This is why we need heroic whistleblowers like Ellsberg and now, of course, Edward Snowden.  Ellsberg has stated that “there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material, and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago.”  He has added that “Snowden’s whistleblowing gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an ‘executive coup’ against the U.S. constitution.”  Thanks to Snowden we now know that the war machine which gave us Vietnam has spawned a world-wide surveillance system that could lead to classical totalitarianism.  The NSA helps the CIA choose targets for drone strikes based on reconnaissance by fire principles.  And the executive branch has carved out for itself the right to assassinate American citizens without due process.

Snowden faces many obstacles Ellsberg dealt with during the 70’s.  Both have been called traitors, attention-seeking eccentrics, and criminals.  Both risked their freedom to expose the truth.  And both have faced legal challenges.  Just as Nixon prosecuted Ellsberg and The Times, Obama has gone after Snowden.  In fact, Obama has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined, often citing the Espionage Act, a stunning misuse of the statute.  His attacks on the First Amendment have prompted James Goodale, the general counsel at The Times during the Pentagon Papers crackdown, to call Obama the second worst president when it comes to freedom of the press, “behind Nixon and ahead of Bush II.  And he’s moving up fast.”

This is a pivotal moment in history.  The Constitution is under attack.  The war machine is delivering death and terror to numerous countries.  And it threatens to bankrupt America.  If there’s anything we can learn from Ellsberg’s story, it is that we must always be skeptical of our government, especially when it comes to war.  It doesn’t seem to make much difference which political party is in power.  The United States’ foreign policy has historically conformed to Thucydides’ maxim that “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”  The only ones with the power to curtail this most powerful war machine in history is we the people.

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