Reading the complete Pentagon Papers for the first time in the summer of 1969, Daniel Ellsberg had two revelations. One, of historical interest today, concerned the character of the Vietnam War; the other was about the war powers of the presidency, and how they corrupt Presidents. The relevance of this second revelation, as President Bush decides whether to exercise the authority Congress has given him to attack Iraq, is profound.
In 1969 Daniel Ellsberg was a thirty-eight-year-old former aide to Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton. At the Pentagon Ellsberg had worked on a top-secret study of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam requested by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. When he left office following the election of Richard Nixon, Ellsberg took its forty-seven volumes with him to the Rand Corporation, where he intended to resume his pre-government career as a researcher.
A Harvard-trained Ph.D., a former Marine officer, and a Cold Warrior with a moral fervor to preserve nuclear deterrence, Ellsberg had spent nearly two years in Vietnam gauging the war's progress for his superiors at the Pentagon; had gone on combat patrols and come under enemy fire; had questioned military brass, U.S. diplomats, and Vietnamese officials. The war, he concluded was in multiple senses—military, political, moral—a lost cause. He decided to do what he could to stop it. Though it put him at risk of prosecution, taking the study with him was a first step. The Vietnam War might not have a future if Americans knew its past.
Over the next year, he shared parts of the study with anti-war politicians, with negligible results. Then, through sources within the Nixon Administration, he learned that Nixon planned to intensify the lethality of the war if the North Vietnamese did not bend to his will. There was talk of using nuclear weapons. Ellsberg had to act. With a Rand colleague he gave the study to The New York Times. On June 13, 1971, the world first learned of the Pentagon Papers.
The next day, H. R. Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, told Richard Nixon what they revealed:
To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: you can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say; and you can't rely on their judgment. And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it's wrong, and the president can be wrong.
In his just-published Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg tells with passion and documentary precision how Nixon commanded his men to "destroy him in the press. Press. Is that clear?" He describes how the dirty work fell to the White House "Plumbers"—Cuban hard cases and GOP thuggists led by an ex-CIA man named Howard Hunt—and how they broke into the Los Angeles office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, searching for evidence of turpitude to leak to the press, found nothing, but stayed in business. On June 17, 1972, seeking just what remains a mystery, they broke into the Washington offices of the Democratic National Committee, located in a new building, The Watergate.
Haldeman captured the political essence of the Pentagon Papers. For Ellsberg, poring over volumes of documents in his marathon reading, the sad knowledge about the presidency rose out of the history. And the essence of the history was this: There was only one Indochina war, not a "bad" French colonial war to deny national self-determination to the Vietnamese and a "good" American war to defend the national self-determination of South Vietnam against North Vietnam. The French war to retake Vietnam after World War II became an American proxy war after 1949, when China "fell" to the Communists. "From then on," Ellsberg writes,
the French were more U.S. instruments than allies in this struggle, with the United States urging and demanding that they continue and providing, eventually, 85 percent of the funding. The United States ... was not here exporting "democracy, self-determination, independence, freedom" (under French colonial rule?). The American values it was helping impose on the Vietnamese were: Better French than Red.... The slogan was familiar in America at that precise period, but it didn't translate well in a country where the Reds were leading an almost universally popular independence movement.
After the French left in 1954, the U.S. found a fresh proxy to carry on the fight against international communism, which is the way U.S. officials framed the war in Vietnam, heedless of Vietnamese nationalism. But what followed until the Americans took over the fighting in 1965 was not a civil war between the proxy, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam. As Ellsberg writes, "In terms of the UN Charter and our own avowed ideals, it was a war of foreign aggression, American aggression."
From the Communist takeover of China in 1949 on, the war—French, South Vietnamese, American—was unwinnable. So long as they had the will to prosecute the war, the North Vietnamese would get the means from across the Chinese border, and they had the will. Their ruthless regime under Ho Chi Minh gave them no choice about it. Five U.S. Presidents—Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon—knew this. The Pentagon Papers showed they were not misled. They got rosy estimates of "progress" in the war, but they also got the truth from the intelligence agencies, diplomats, and the military. They knew. So why did they send Americans to kill and die in Vietnam?
Reading the Pentagon Papers in 1969 Daniel Ellsberg saw why: "The president was part of the problem. This was clearly a matter of his role, not of his personality or party. As I was beginning to see it, the concentration of power within the executive branch since World War II had focused nearly all responsibility for policy 'failure' upon one man, the president. At the same time, it gave him enormous capability to avert or postpone or conceal such personal failure by means of force and fraud. Confronted by resolute external resistance, as in Vietnam, that power could not fail to corrupt the human who held it."
After the right-wing of the Republican Party, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, hung the "loss" of China on the Truman Administration, the Presidents who followed resolved not to lose office over the "loss" of Vietnam. Nixon spoke for them all. "I'll see that the United States does not lose. I'm putting it quite bluntly," he told his foreign-policy myrmidons in a May 4, 1972, meeting in the Oval Office. "I'll be quite precise. South Vietnam may lose. But the United States cannot lose. Which means, basically, I have made the decision. Whatever happens to South Vietnam, we are going to cream North Vietnam." For "the United States" substitute "this President."
This President" is now George W. Bush. With Al Qaeda rampant abroad and the threat of its striking the U.S. at summer-of-2001 levels; with the Saudis refusing to close off the sources of its funding and Saudi-backed madrassas still staining young minds with hatred of the West, with fundamentalist parties ascendant in nuclear-armed Pakistan, with the Karzai government shaky in Afghanistan and Karzai himself the target of assassination, with suicide bombers terrorizing Israel and the Israeli retaliation making enemies for the United States throughout the Arab world—with the "war on terror" far from "won," Bush is poised to attack Iraq. Fear of Saddam Hussein's getting nuclear weapons drives Bush. But so does fear of "losing" the war begun on September 11. The Pentagon Papers show that Presidents will do anything to avoid paying the political price of "losing." James Madison feared that Presidents might make war as, when, and why they chose if they had the power. The "temptation" was too much for any one man. So the framers reserved the war-making authority for the Congress. Congress has now delegated that authority to President Bush, who must now struggle alone against what history shows is the worst temptation of his office.