Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Pentagon Papers 35 Years On

Mar 29, 2005 1:41 pm

The Pentagon Papers 35 Years On

I'm back after an absence. I have my own blog [] but here's a new post for History and Power on a fairly significant anniversary: Anthony Lewis has a review [] in the April 7 edition of the New York Review of Books of a book edited by John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter called Inside the Pentagon Papers (University of Kansas Press). It brings together a number of essays about how and why the Pentagon Papers (PP) were published by the New York Times in 1971 from the perspective on those within the Pentagon who authorized this internal history of the US involvement in Vietnam up to 1968, the man on the inside Daniel Ellsberg who released the history to the NYT, those in the government who desperately wanted to prevent the publication of the PP, the owners and editors of the NYT who published the PP in defiance of the government, and the courts who were asked to rule on the legality of publication. I have a special interest in the PP because I was a high school student in Australia at the time (Australia, as most Americans do not seem to know, was involved actively in the Vietnam War, there was conscription for 18 year olds to serve in VN, there were massive protests against the war which were equalled in size only 2 years ago on the eve of Australia yet again joining the US in another foreign war, a new Labor government was elected in a bitter election in 1972 which then ended conscription immediately and brought the troops home). The PP were important because they show clearly that the US government had been lying for decades to the American people and that these lies were being passed on to the Australian people by our lick-spittle conservative government. I bought and read with great interest the one volume paperback published by the NYT after it appeared in the paper, and then the multi-volume edition edited by Senator Graville.

The publication of the PP was an important turning point in American and Australian history because it showed that the pro-war politicians had repeatedly lied about the reasons for going to war, the support for the invaders by the local people, the size of the opposing forces, the cost of the war in money and lives lost, and the likelihood of victory. The PP exposed the truth and for the first time showed the true nature of modern so-called "democratic" politics. This, combined with the Watergate investigation which brought down Nixon's regime, showed the need for an independent and critical press which did not toe the party line, the need for a critical Parliament or Congress to prevent lying and warmongering leaders from causing so much damage, and for an independent court system to allow the lies and crimes to be publicly exposed. Lewis makes the point that the publication of the PP ushered in a brief period in the 1970s when this in fact occurred. He also makes the point that this step towards liberty was only temporary and that the press, Parliament, and the Courts soon reverted to business as usual - namely, letting the ruling regime do what it liked without undue scrutiny.

The parallels with 1971 and 2003 are striking. Daniel Ellsberg repeatedly called for his contemporary equivalents in the Pentagon to release internal documents like the PP which would expose the similar set of lies which were being peddled to the public to justify the war against Iraq. A handful like Scott Riiter, the UN arms inspector before the war, and Sybel Edmonds (?) the Farsi and Turkish speaking translator for the FBI, has spoken out several times in the Ellsberg tradition, but their warnings are either ignored by the mainstream press or stifled by legal manoeuvering. I would join Lewis in calling for a new moment in history when something like the PP and Watergate combine to show ordinary people what the true nature of the warfare state is. There is plenty of material to work with: the legal advice to the British government on the eve of the war, the true extent of the Abu Graib torture campaign, the non-existent weapons of mass destruction (except for those in the US nuclear arsenal) and any means to deliver them within cooee of the US mainland ("cooee" a legendary Australian unit of measurement), the intelligence reports within the Beast itself on the dangers of invasion which were ignored for political reasons, the number of civilians who have been killed by indiscriminate bombing and shelling and sniper attacks (the Lancet report is only the beginning - 100,000 without counting Fallujah because it "skewed" the results, possibly 200,000?), and (dare we say it) those within the administration and their business associates who might have financially benefited in some way from what has happened. The brew is rich and noisome and is just waiting for the pot's lid to be blown off. But will anybody listen or care this time round? I have my doubts. The people are busy amusing themselves to death (Postman).

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More Comments:

Kenneth R Gregg - 3/30/2005

Good to see you posting here again, David!

I've been lax in getting to my emails lately and have a somewhat late one that I will be sending to you in about a week.

Just Ken