A key reason for President Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, according to a number of government officials, was that as things were coming unglued in Cambodia, and as the Communists were being troublesome, and as the Lon Nol government was asking for help, Mr. Nixon felt impelled to do something.
At some point the pressures mount, and the impulse says, do something: send advisers to Vietnam; send the Marines to the Dominican Republic; send more troops to Vietnam and bomb the North; invade Cambodia. Some officials here are concerned that even though the United States is trying to extricate itself from Southeast Asia through troop withdrawals, it is also becoming, as they put it, “intricated.” They worry that we are becoming more “intricated” than extricated.
Just how “intricated” in other nations’ destinies the United States can become, and how it can become so, has been illuminated in hearings by the Senate Subcommittee on United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad. The subcommittee, headed by Senator Stuart Symington (Dem., Missouri), grew out of a concern on the part of a number of senators, particularly Symington and J. William Fulbright (Dem., Arkansas), at the rather loose use of the term “commitment” to justify what the executive branch wanted to do in foreign policy. A staff of two able men—Walter Pincus, an investigative reporter, and Roland Paul, a lawyer — has produced a devastating record over the last year and a half.
It is a record of arrangements made with various nations, in secrecy, ad hoc, without regard to their implications or to the all-but-natural law that one commitment leads to another. It is a record of deception of the American public.
The hearings brought out, for example, that the “Free World Forces” of Thailand, Korea, and the Philippines that had “volunteered” to fight in Vietnam—bearing witness, we were told, to the importance they too attached to an independent South Vietnam—were having their way paid by the United States. All three countries, in fact, resisted sending troops to Vietnam until the United States agreed to buy their presence there. The price, beyond payment of the troops, included fringe benefits in weapons for the governments and private gain for government officials. After these arrangements were made, in secret, our government said that one reason we could not disengage from Vietnam was that we could not let down our free world allies. It appears that even the government began to believe this, turning the exercise of deceiving the public into one of self-delusion as well.
The senators discovered from the hearings that the American bombing in Laos, which had been portrayed as interdiction of the movement of men and supplies over the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Vietnam, was also taking place, heavily, in northern Laos as part of the Laotian war. They had not known that the CIA was running a military-assistance program in Laos, supporting and training a large Laotian irregular force. They had not known the extent of American military participation in the bombing by the Laotians themselves.
Following, for example, is a colloquy as it emerged after censorship by the Administration:
Mr. Paul. Do they [American air attachés in Laos] have great influence with respect to the day-to-day operation of the Laotian Air Force?
Colonel Tyrrell [Air Force Attaché in Vientiane, Laos]. Well, as far as assisting them, maintaining their equipment, and showing them how to do things properly. But as far as the combat sorties are concerned, target directions, they do not.
Senator Symington. Where do our pilots and their pilots get instructions as to what to hit?
Colonel Tyrrell. As to what they are hitting?
Senator Symington. As to what to hit?
Colonel Tyrrell. Their targets are generated at the joint operations center, and the military region commander and his staff and members of our staff and ARMA [Army Attaché] staff sit in on these meetings, and‚ at this time, targets are developed.
Senator Symington. Your people are in there at that time also?
Colonel Tyrrell. Yes, sir; they are.
And then the hearing brought out the versatility of the secret bombing in Laos:
Mr. Paul. Now, with respect to American aircraft, we have had a considerable amount of testimony with respect to strikes of the bombing types. Are there other flights such as reconnaissance and defoliation types also flown by American aircraft over Laos?
Colonel Tyrrell. Yes, sir; on occasion.
Mr. Paul. Is defoliation a rare event, speaking mainly of Northern I-ios, not the trail?
Colonel Tyrrell. Is it a rare event?
Mr. Paul. Yes.
Colonel Tyrrell. Well, I believe since I returned to Laos in June of last year we have had four defoliation missions. . . .
Mr. Paul. Do American aircraft ever drop napalm over Northern Laos?
Colonel Tyrrell. Under certain restrictions; yes sir.
Mr. Paul. Would you develop what the conditions and restrictions are with respect to this ordnance.
Colonel Tyrrell. They are authorized to hit moving targets on approved armed reece (reconnaissance) route which is an LOC (line of communication), and they are also authorized to use napalm against occupied and antiaircraft positions. All other targets have to be approved specifically by the ambassador.
American representatives in Laos told the subcommittee investigators that the way it was done in Laos was the way to run a war. The trouble with Vietnam, they said, was that it was too public.
The search for justifications for what we are doing led the subcommittee through the kind of labyrinthine reasoning that the government usually constructs when it has no coherent design. The subcommittee was told that the government’s activities in Laos were justified “under the executive authority of the President to conduct foreign relations.”
“Are you saying,” asked Symington, “that the President of the United States, under our Constitution, can supply military spotters over a period for bombing a foreign country with which there has been no request from this government for declaring war; that he also has the right to put U.S. military troops in airplanes over a foreign country over a period and direct the bombing of that country; that he has that right under the Constitution?” The only precedent the government witnesses could supply for such extended action, without authorization by Congress, was when Thomas Jefferson sent the Navy against the Barbary Pirates. (The precedent, as it turns out, is not all that instructive, for Mr. Jefferson forbade the Navy to take offensive or retaliatory action until Congress had authorized it to do so.)
We are in Laos, the witnesses explained, “to preserve the integrity of the country, and also to protect Thailand. We are in Thailand‚ ‘they said, in order to conduct the wars in Laos and in Vietnam. We are also protecting Thailand against threats to its security, as we are bound to do by the SEATO treaty. The Americans are the only SEATO signers there, however, because of a subsequent bilateral agreement between the United States and the Thai government, an agreement that was never submitted to the Senate for approval.
The “threat” to Thailand was a movable menace—it was “internal subversion,” it was North Vietnam, it was China.
“How can we judge,” asked Senator Fulbright, “and how can anybody judge whether these activities are in our national interests when we do not know what we are doing?” That is a good question, and the hearings are as much a reflection on the prior failures of the Congress and the press as they are on the civilians and the military of the executive branch for moving in the freedom of inattention. The subcommittee’s revelations of the elusive rationales, and the secrecy, have already had some effect. The hearings led to a secret session of the Senate late last year, during which the thenclassified hearings on Laos were discussed, and this led in turn to Senate adoption of a restriction on the sending of ground troops into Laos and Thailand without the consent of Congress. It didn’t seem necessary to include Cambodia, then, happily, neutral. It is believed in the Senate that there would be more American troops in Laos now if it hadn’t been for the restriction. When it was announced that Thai “volunteers” would fight in Cambodia, there was questioning of the arrangement that would not have occurred a year ago. There is a deeper suspicion now of government operations abroad. “In terms of Cambodia,” said a Senate man, “what the hearings show is that the Administration can be hiding all sorts of things nobody knows about, and chances are they are; they are free to make any sort of agreement with the Cambodian government, and chances are they are.”
When the subcommittee’s work is finished it will have raised questions about America’s maintenance of so many military bases around the world, some constructed for the use of planes that are no longer flown. There will be questions about our subsidies to countries like Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Ethiopia for their contributions to the defense of the free world. There will have to be explanations of our storage of nuclear weapons in the Far East and Europe—of what they are there for, of who maintains the controls.
What all of this really shows is the power of information. Senator Symington’s role has been critical in this sense. It is not clear that the Symington subcommittee, particularly since it will expire when this Congress adjourns, will cause any serious disruption of the process and forces of intrication. Such forces have a way of surviving. But there has at least been a loss of innocence here that will never be recovered. The American Ambassador who tried to keep Senator Symington from coming to Laos to see what was going on made one of the great mistakes of his career. “People say I’ve changed,” says Symington. “I haven’t changed. I just began to get all the story.”
“Thick of thin things”
These have been a tense few months in this city. The citizens who inhabit the political world here willingly preoccupy themselves with the large and small matters of national affairs, to the exclusion of some of the more pleasurable things in life, and at the cost of jangled nerves. It is all taken very seriously, and personally. Good spirits have not been fashionable here for some time. When there is not a major event to discuss, minor ones will do. “We are,” it has been remarked, “in the thick of thin things.”
The President’s Cabinet changes provided the capital with badlyneeded new subjects for speculation. One of the continuing topics of conversation, because one has to know even less than usual to talk about it authoritatively, has been: Who is resigning from the government, or should resign? There are quite a few experts here on what other people should do about this kind of decision, which is, like love, one of those intensely personal things. It is debated whose resignation, when, and how, might have changed policy. McNamara’s when he first began to have doubts? Rogers’ when the President decided to go into Cambodia? When a more junior man leaves, does it make any difference? The press encourages resignation to some degree, because it is a good story. A well-staged exit, in turn, can transform a minor figure into an instant celebrity.
Many people in the government have been facing the question of resignation. Their friends tell them (a) they should get out, speak out, and thereby try to affect policy; (b) stay in, keep fighting, and thereby try to affect policy. People’s reasons for leaving have to do with everything from their inability to explain themselves at cocktail parties and an interest (particularly for liberals, especially the few Democrats around) in keeping their credentials intact for the future, to serious reasons of conscience.
“Why are you in the government?” mused someone who was on the way out. “Private gain in the long run, personal satisfaction, and public service. You trot out all the reasons for playing it safe. At the same time, and it sounds self-serving, you test your own ethics and standards. It’s easy to make judgments about the rest of the bureaucracy, and say you’re impervious, but you find yourself compromised. It’s not just a question of defending policy at dinner parties; you start to believe it yourself. The rationalizations are even easier to make at higher levels —salaries, perquisites, telling yourself you can still be effective help you. You defend things, saying it’s not a matter of principle, and then you start to sound like the people you despise.”
“At some point,” said a troubled man who has elected to stay on, “you suffer a psychic defeat, but you never know until it has already happened. There is a very important argument that you should stay in because if and when policy does get changed by the outside you need people on the inside who can do it. Or is that a rationalization?” “There’s work to be done,” said another man, simply. “I’m staying.” Meanwhile the government goes on.
The people in the White House who so seem to enjoy shuffling and carving up offices for the President’s constantly growing staff are still at it. There are now two White House messes, access to them governed by a hierarchical caste system. The press corps still shows slight discomfort at the plush new press quarters, with its suede sofas, thick carpets, and Muzak. There is debate whether the decor is more California-motel or bordello.
The President’s smartly uniformed trumpeters, a Nixon innovation, still blow their medieval horns, draped with heraldry, to announce the imminent approach of the Chief Executive. Outside the West Wing, a sort of neo-Parthenon portico is being constructed. The Nixons are reported in the women’s pages to be buying $100,000 worth of new china, in a pattern they feel to be more suitable than that of the Johnsons’ to the dignity of the office. . . . The vocational education officer still makes grants for vocational education, and the technical assistance representative to Botswana is still taking technical assistance to Botswana. . . . An Assistant Secretary of Commerce is trying to figure out how to make high tariffs an issue that will generate the enthusiasm of young people.
-ELIZABETH B. DREW