America paid — and is still paying — a remarkably high price for the war in Vietnam.
Uncounted numbers of lives were lost, shattered, or disrupted. Division and distrust spawned by the war and its prosecution remain alive and operative nearly two generations after the war was over. Discussion and debate about the war continue, often in highly personal tones.
One casualty of the war is our trust in government. The experience of Vietnam is that we can never fully believe what the government tells us about controversial subjects.
Proof of the government’s lies about Vietnam can be found in many people, most notably a set of documents that government officials put together while the war was still being fought that we know as the Pentagon Papers.
Rick Goldsmith’s New York Times article, Ellsberg, McNamara and the Pentagon Study Heard ‘Round the World, outlines some of the history of the Pentagon Papers and tells an odd and sad story of a moment in 1966 when Daniel Ellsberg and Robert McNamara found themselves on a plane together headed back to the United States from Saigon.
Ellsberg at the time was a State Department official in Vietnam, a former Marine Corp officer who took a keen interest in the country and had a sharp, observant, and analytic mind. While in Vietnam, he had taken extensive notes that concluded the war was a stalemate.
Ellsberg took the opportunity of the flight to share those notes with McNamara, then Secretary of Defense and the chief public advocate — after Lyndon Johnson — the government’s policy of putting troops on the ground and prosecuting the conflict as an American war.
Despite his public stance, McNamara had begun to doubt the effectiveness of the American strategy. Those doubts, even mildly expressed at the time, planted a seed of distrust in Lyndon Johnson, who feared dissent of any kind. McNamara did not want to lose his influence with the president, so his public statements about the rightness of American strategy were always strong and unequivocal.
But Ellsberg saw a different McNamara, one who had been arguing with his own advisers about the wisdom of committing more troops to the war effort. McNamara said that America was no closer to victory that it had been a year before. The fact that they had sent 100,000 more American troops to Vietnam during that year had made the situation worse, not better.
When the plane landed, however, McNamara met a gaggle of reporters on the tarmac and said, “You asked whether I was optimistic or pessimistic. Today I can tell you that military progress in the past 12 months has exceeded our expectations.”
The lies continued. More troops were sent to Vietnam. More lives were lost.
Goldsmith’s article goes on to recount how the Pentagon Papers project was begun the next year — on an order from McNamara. The project most important finding was that it wasn’t just the Johnson administration that had lied to the public about Vietnam. The lies had begun with Harry Truman and had continued with Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy. Eventually, the administration of Richard Nixon would be included with those who believed they could not trust the American people with the truth.
The Vietnam experience taught Americans not to trust their government.
But it wasn’t the American public that first distrusted the government. That distrust began with government officials who did not trust the American public with the truth.
Source: Vietnam ’67
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