Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Daniel Ellsberg: Secrets

This is the best book I've read all year.  Looking back, I've read 29 books so far in 2011, and I've read some REALLY good books. Daniel Ellsberg is one of those very important historical political figures that I (and you?) had never heard of. I learned of this book when I went to hear Garry Wills talk, and he basically said that "Secrets" is The Book on the consolidation of presidential power. I'm not one to doubt the man who is probably my favorite public intellectual, and he's right: Ellsberg is the man.  The short version of Ellsberg's importance for those, who, like me, are clueless: In the 60s Ellsberg worked for the Rand Corporation, which was and is a Think Tank with access to important government documents. He worked for the government in various advisory positions that allowed him access to ultra top secret documents and high-level officials.  He was trusted and trustworthy, and very good at his job.  He also had combat experience: in the 50s he served in the Marines, and almost uniquely among those at the Pentagon, volunteered to go to Vietnam and learn what was going on on the ground in 1965 to 1967.  Other officials flew in for a day or two and flew out, or relied on word of mouth. Ellsberg, on the other hand, visited every province in Vietnam affected by the American "pacification" project.

 Ellsberg's investment in the war started at an interesting position given the anti-war pacifist he became: at the beginning of his tenure, Ellsberg's main priority was the absolute avoidance of further use of nuclear weapons.  When "Secrets" begins, Ellsberg calls himself "a dedicated cold warrior." His interest in stopping the Vietnam War at that point had nothing to do with the war itself: he was mostly concerned with preventing nuclear warfare should the conflict escalate into war with China, which he believed that the Johnson administration's choices would certainly cause.  In 1964, Ellsberg was a naive Pentagon employee: basically an assistant to the assistant to the Secretary of State, Robert McNamara, and understood that all the insiders agree that the course of the Vietnam war isn't going well, and that the next step would be increasing the US involvement.  As then-President Johnson came closer to deciding what direction to go in increasing the involvment, Ellsberg got a taste of what it means to work in the White House when his boss, John McNaughton, told him that if President Johnson asked for his (McNaughton's) opinion, he would give him the official opinion, the opinion of McNamara, even if it wasn't what McNaughton felt was best.  "I knew why he was telling me this," Ellsberg explains. 
He didn't define what he meant by loyalty, but it was clear enough from his story: Do what's good for your boss, the man who hired you; put that above what you think is bets for the country, above giving the president or the secretary of defense your best advice if that would embarrass your boss... I was shocked.  Lie to the president? Deprive him of your own best judgement, when he was asking you for it, on a matter of war and peace?

As it turns out, this was the crux of the American situation in Vietnam. Loyalty, the absolute necessity not to embarrass anyone and to hide the truth, kept the United States embroiled in a war that was not winnable, or as Ellsberg later decided, was not even a legitamite war (if there is such a thing).  By 1967, Ellsberg came to the conclusion that one of the "lessons of Vietnam" stems exactly from this strange loyalty leading to lies and bad policy:
the impact on policy failures of internal practices of lying to superiors, tacitly encouraged by those superiors, but resulting in a cognitive fauilure at the presidential level to recognize realities.  This was part of a broader cognitive failure of the bureacracy I had come to suspect.  There were situations... in which the US government, starting ignorant, did not, would not learn.
When Ellsberg finally had enough, he leaked The Pentagon Papers: 7000 pages of historical documents (already historical in 1969 when began copying them) of the hsitory of US involvement in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  Ellsberg reached a place where he felt he could no longer be a part of the government, but that he had key access to information and important people that gave him the unique position of potentially stopping the war.  With the release of The Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg hoped to pressure Nixon and his adminstration, or Congress, or the public, into stopping the war.   The papers tell the clear story of the lying that the executive branch told the to Congress and to the public. They contain detailed history of what went wrong at every step of the way, starting with French involvement. What the Pentagon Papers don't include are the documents that Ellsberg knew existed: memos to  various presidents from the very beginning advising that involvement in Vietnam could go nowhere good.  At each step of the way, presidents had top advisers saying, in effect, "Don't do this!" and at each step of the way, these statements were hidden away.
This was so not just because of the charges of "weak on communism," "appeasement," and "defeatism" that could be expected... Of more importance, such documents, if leaked, would reveal that a president strongly inclined to escalate had had a real choice... an extrication option that was actually recommended by advisers of great authority.  That revelation would burden the president with personal responsibility for all that followed from his decision to reject their alternative. Hence hte need to keep this advice unusually secret from Congress, from the public, and even from people like me in his own bureaucracy.
Basically, lies got the US into the war (really, the French wanted their colony back, and the US backed them up), lies kept the US in the war, lies kept the parts of the US governement from knowing what was really going on in a war that they were authorizing funding for and kept the part of the government that was involved in waging the war confused about their own war, and kept the public totally in the dark. The first time I realized this was hearing and reading Wills, but Ellsberg said it again: the total secrecy was a bizarre irony.  The public was told that details could not be revealed and that "state secrets" must be kept so that the enemy wouldn't know what was happening. In this way, Johnson and Nixon were able to wage top-secret wars in Laos and Cambodia, without Congress or the public knowing. But the people in Cambodia and Laos, and the government of North Vietnam, from whom the secret was presumably was supposed to be kept, knew exactly what was happening. They were being bombed, and they were fighting back. There was no secret there. The "secret" was the secrecy itself.

In 1967, Ellsberg had an eye opening moment when someone leaks the number of troops that President Johnson was about to request: 206,000. This was the first time the public had heard a remotely close-to-real number, rather than the usual 40,000 or so that Johnson usually talked about. The trick was usually to call up troops, then ask for them after they had been deployed.  After the leak, Ellsberg realizes that there was a "thin- yet almost impermeable- membrane that separated the executive branch from the legislative in terms of infomration.  I had seen for years how effectively the president could lie about his policies, with the safe assumption that his lies would not be exposed... I now saw how the system of secrecy and lying could give him options he would be better without, or it could dangerously prejudice his choice." For example, Johnson was pressured by the military at this point, and couldn't fall back on the checks and balances that Congress and the public might have provided.  At this point, Ellsberg was ready to do something big, something big enough to stop the war, or at least to pressure Johnson to change.  Read the book for the full details on how he went about leaking the papers, and to whom.

While I was reading the book, and getting to the point where Nixon is elected on a vow to get America out of the war "with honor" while knowing that he will do no such thing, President Obama announced that the US would have all soldiers out of Iraq by the end of 2011.  There is really nothing like a White House insider to make a person extremely cynical, and I'm pretty sure Ellsberg's book is the best place to start to wipe any last naivete out of your eyes.  I will paraphrase Ellsberg's understanding of the Vietnam war's history after he completed reading the Pentagon Papers for the first time:

1. There were no 1st and 2nd Indochina wars like the history books say, just one 25 year long conflict.
2. The war was actually an American/Vietnamese war. The war was first French/American v Vietamese war, then just American v Vietnamese, fighting against "American policy and American financing, proxies, technicians, firepower, and finally, troops and pilots." (i.e. There was no civil war in Vietnam.)
3. After the late 1940s, the war would have ended had the US not funded it. After 1954, there would have been no war if the US and their Vietnamese funded allies had not violated an election that had been negotiated in Geneva.
4. This was not a civil war, nor an "aggression from the North." The Vietnam war had "one side [which] was entirely equipped and paid by a foreign power-which dictated the nature of the local regime in its own interest... In terms of the UN Charter and of our own avowed ideals, it was a war of foreign aggression, American aggression."

I'm not an expert on either the Iraq war or the Vietnam wars, and I know that the quagmire comparison has been made endlessly.  In October of 1972, Henry Kissinger, in an eerie prequel of Iraq, said that "peace is at hand." The Vietnam war ended in 1975.  If you have forgotten (and I wish I had), George W Bush told us that the Iraq war was over, "mission accomplished," in 2003. If troops are really leaving at the end of the year, they will have remained 8 years later.  Some things have certainly changed in terms of transparency: where a Johnson or Nixon could send troops to Vietnam and go on fake missions, or have them bomb countries without the public knowing, technology has advanced to the point that the world knows what happens instantly in most of the rest of the world. This type of transparency works up to a point, however. When George Bush started preparing for the Iraq War after 9/11, few people were really surprised, and fewer believed in his pretenses for war. Again, the a foundation of internal loyalty and lies, much in the way that Vietnam-era Presidents and Administrations psyched themselves into starting and continuing an amoral, expensive, and deadly war. It was technically easy enough this time around to find out the lie in the yellowcake story, but just as hard, or harder, to put a stop to the war machine Bush put in motion.

Read "Secrets" and hope that there's an Ellsberg Jr. out there that is already working on something as massively damaging to the war machine. Too many people are dying.

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