Secrets That Were No Secret, Lessons That Were Not LearnedRoundup
tags: national security, Vietnam War, Pentagon Papers
Mr. Bacevich is a veteran of the Vietnam War, a retired Army colonel, an emeritus professor at Boston University and the president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is the author of After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed and has written extensively on the misuse of American military power.
When The New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers 50 years ago, 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: 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.
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