1000 Words: Generals and Plumbers

And so, Daniel Ellsberg has died. He announced he was dying back in early March. Inoperable pancreatic cancer. A lousy way to go.

Ellsberg closed his eyes on June 16th in his Kensington, California home.

His eyes, metaphorically, were opened in the late 1960s when he worked for the RAND Corporation, a research and think tank that has served as the ego to the Pentagon’s id, as well as the American military’s crystal ball, Ouija board, Yoda and, occasionally, conscience. Around that time, Ellsberg gradually became aware that this holy land’s excellent adventure in Southeast Asia was built on a tissue of lies, exaggerations, public relations messaging and massaging, and the irresistible demands of empire and uber-masculinity.

Ellsberg then proceeded to commit a felony that, he hoped, might open all of America’s eyes to the sham that underpinned our almost 10-year-long war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia that resulted in as many as 750,000 deaths, including civilians and soldiers. Nobody really knows how many people died in our Vietnam War — undeclared, technically — from the date in 1955 when we took over the fight from the French after its colonial mastery of the region was involuntarily ended. One of France’s top military commanders in its Vietnam war killed himself after the Viet Minh humiliated French forces at Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954. Then France high-tailed it out of Southeast Asia.

Collage: Josh Coe/Ground Truth

Collage: Josh Coe/Ground Truth

The communist insurgent Vietnamese from the north of the thin, crescent-shaped country on the lower right edge of the Asian landmass were dedicated, tough, disciplined and were fighting on familiar terrain. The French were no match for them. America’s military brass, rather than seeing that as a cautionary lesson, decided Hey, we can do better. We’re the world’s most powerful fighting force!

Too often, uniformed fighting men don’t take kindly to cautionary lessons. You’d think the professors in war colleges — the US Military Academy at West Point, for instance — would look at all the failed sieges and attacks of history and then teach future army brass to avoid those mistakes like doves, Quakers, and conscientious objectors. Maybe they do. All I know is the brass that pushed for and executed our Vietnam expedition either forgot or ignored those lessons.

It’s more “manly” to say Damn the torpedos, let’s go in and kick the shit of of those guys than it is to say Let’s think about this for a minute. Here’s an over-the-top example of that kind of thinking: from 1943 through April of 1945, Adolph Hitler forbade his generals and other top war advisors, generally, from criticizing proposed attacks, overanalyzing potential pitfalls of strategy, and even not being upbeat enough despite Germany’s dire military prospects through those years. They were “defeatists,” Hitler said. He fired generals for their defeatism. And so, hundreds of thousands more people died because the German high command  was purged of “defeatists.”

I’m not comparing US military strategists to Germany’s. Well, not totally. Hitler’s Germany was evil to the core. Our evil is far less ubiquitous but it’s there, in spots, rather like little malignant tumors just beginning to grow. We usually can’t even sense their presence but the damage they can do is profound.

As in Vietnam.

Daniel Ellsberg photocopied some 7000 pages of a Department of Defense study ordered by Lyndon Johnson’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The study was a detailed history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Formally entitled the Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, it laid bare our country’s bullshit. McNamara himself wrote that he ordered the study so that future strategists might learn from our mistakes.

Some 36 DoD analysts, including Ellsberg, worked on the eventual Pentagon Papers. They did so under extremely tight secrecy. They produced 3000 pages of text backed up by 4000 pages of official documents. The study was completed in late 1968. Fifteen copies of the study were printed. McNamara had resigned as Defense Secretary in February of that year. His replacement, Clark Clifford, received the study only five days before he was to leave office on Inauguration Day, 1969. Clifford claimed he never had the chance to read it. The RAND Corp. got two copies of the study.

Ellsberg took the photocopies he’d made and tried to share them with potential 1972 Democratic candidates for president and other anti-war US senators. None would take the documents from Ellsberg because they understood he’d committed a serious federal crime by taking Top Secret-Sensitive classified materials out of the Pentagon. Had they taken the Papers, they too would be committing a crime. Instead, Ellsberg persuaded New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan to look at the Papers. Sheehan recognized they were dynamite. The Times’ lawyers were split on whether the paper should publish Sheehan’s series of articles. Its outside counsel firm told the Times not to do it. The Times‘ in-house lawyer said it had a 1st Amendment right to do so. The paper decided to print the first of Sheehan’s stories about the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971.

The story further invigorated the already explosive anti-war movement.

Now here’s the irony about it all. At first, President Richard Nixon wanted to ignore the whole thing. The Pentagon Papers, he reasoned, only would embarrass his predecessors, Johnson and John F. Kennedy. But his top foreign affairs guru, Henry Kissinger, feared the Papers might put his own top lieutenants at risk (at least one of them had approved Ellsberg to work on the Papers) and therefore embarrass him, Kissinger.

Kissinger then hammered on Nixon the idea that the release of the Papers might endanger the country’s ability to keep secrets in the future and that Ellsberg was part of a cabal of Leftists who wanted to tear the country down. Nixon bought the argument and ordered the creation of a secret White House operation that would discredit leakers, spy on them, and commit dirty tricks to thwart them (homicide was even considered). That operation became known as The Plumbers, a number of whom broke into the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972.

Once you start lying, you can never stop.

 

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