Shaping the Vietnam Narrative

Controlling the narrative is a key tool for propagandists who realize that how people understand a foreign conflict goes a long way toward determining their support or opposition. So, the U.S. government’s sanitizing of the Vietnam War is not just about history, but the present, as Marjorie Cohn writes.

By Marjorie Cohn

For many years after the Vietnam War, we enjoyed the “Vietnam syndrome,” in which U.S. presidents hesitated to launch substantial military attacks on other countries. They feared intense opposition akin to the powerful movement that helped bring an end to the war in Vietnam. But in 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, George H.W. Bush declared, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!”

With George W. Bush’s wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and Barack Obama’s drone wars in seven Muslim-majority countries and his escalating wars in Iraq and Syria, we have apparently moved beyond the Vietnam syndrome. By planting disinformation in the public realm, the government has built support for its recent wars, as it did with Vietnam.

Now the Pentagon is planning to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War by launching a $30 million program to rewrite and sanitize its history. Replete with a fancy interactive website, the effort is aimed at teaching schoolchildren a revisionist history of the war. The program is focused on honoring our service members who fought in Vietnam. But conspicuously absent from the website is a description of the antiwar movement, at the heart of which was the GI movement.

Thousands of GIs participated in the antiwar movement. Many felt betrayed by their government. They established coffee houses and underground newspapers where they shared information about resistance. During the course of the war, more than 500,000 soldiers deserted. The strength of the rebellion of ground troops caused the military to shift to an air war.

Ultimately, the war claimed the lives of 58,000 Americans. Untold numbers were wounded and returned with post-traumatic stress disorder. In an astounding statistic, more Vietnam veterans have committed suicide than were killed in the war.

Millions of Americans, many of us students on college campuses, marched, demonstrated, spoke out, sang and protested against the war. Thousands were arrested and some, at Kent State and Jackson State, were killed. The military draft and images of dead Vietnamese galvanized the movement.

On Nov. 15, 1969, in what was the largest protest demonstration in Washington, DC, at that time, 250,000 people marched on the nation’s capital, demanding an end to the war. Yet the Pentagon’s website merely refers to it as a “massive protest.”

But Americans weren’t the only ones dying. Between 2 and 3 million Indochinese – in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – were killed. War crimes – such as the My Lai massacre – were common. In 1968, U.S. soldiers slaughtered 500 unarmed old men, women and children in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. Yet the Pentagon website refers only to the “My Lai Incident,” despite the fact that it is customarily referred to as a massacre.

One of the most shameful legacies of the Vietnam War is the U.S. military’s use of the deadly defoliant Agent Orange/dioxin. The military sprayed it unsparingly over much of Vietnam’s land. An estimated 3 million Vietnamese still suffer the effects of those deadly chemical defoliants. Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers were also affected. It has caused birth defects in hundreds of thousands of children, both in Vietnam and the United States. It is currently affecting the second and third generations of people directly exposed to Agent Orange decades ago.

Certain cancers, diabetes, and spina bifida and other serious birth defects can be traced to Agent Orange exposure. In addition, the chemicals destroyed much of the natural environment of Vietnam; the soil in many “hot spots” near former U.S. army bases remains contaminated.

In the Paris Peace Accords signed in 1973, the Nixon administration pledged to contribute $3 billion toward healing the wounds of war and the post-war reconstruction of Vietnam. That promise remains unfulfilled.

Despite the continuing damage and injury wrought by Agent Orange, the Pentagon website makes scant mention of “Operation Ranch Hand.” It says that from 1961 to 1971, the U.S. sprayed 18 million gallons of chemicals over 20 percent of South Vietnam’s jungles and 36 percent of its mangrove forests. But the website does not cite the devastating effects of that spraying.

The incomplete history contained on the Pentagon website stirred more than 500 veterans of the U.S. peace movement during the Vietnam era to sign a petition to Lt. Gen. Claude M. “Mick” Kicklighter. It asks that the official program “include viewpoints, speakers and educational materials that represent a full and fair reflection of the issues which divided our country during the war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.”

The petition cites the “many thousands of veterans” who opposed the war, the “draft refusals of many thousands of young Americans,” the “millions who exercised their rights as American citizens by marching, praying, organizing moratoriums, writing letters to Congress,” and “those who were tried by our government for civil disobedience or who died in protests.”

And, the petition says, “very importantly, we cannot forget the millions of victims of the war, both military and civilian, who died in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, nor those who perished or were hurt in its aftermath by land mines, unexploded ordnance, Agent Orange and refugee flight.”

Antiwar activists who signed the petition include Tom Hayden and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. “All of us remember that the Pentagon got us into this war in Vietnam with its version of the truth,” Hayden said in an interview with The New York Times. “If you conduct a war, you shouldn’t be in charge of narrating it,” he added.

Veterans for Peace (VFP) is organizing an alternative commemoration of the Vietnam War. “One of the biggest concerns for us,” VFP executive director Michael McPhearson told the Times, “is that if a full narrative is not remembered, the government will use the narrative it creates to continue to conduct wars around the world – as a propaganda tool.”

Indeed, just as Lyndon B. Johnson used the manufactured Tonkin Gulf incident as a pretext to escalate the Vietnam War, George W. Bush relied on mythical weapons of mass destruction to justify his war on Iraq, and the “war on terror” to justify his invasion of Afghanistan. And Obama justifies his drone wars by citing national security considerations, even though he creates more enemies of the United States as he kills thousands of civilians.

ISIS and Khorasan (which no one in Syria heard of until about three weeks ago) are the new enemies Obama is using to justify his wars in Iraq and Syria, although he admits they pose no imminent threat to the United States. The Vietnam syndrome has been replaced by the “Permanent War.”

It is no cliché that those who ignore history are bound to repeat it. Unless we are provided an honest accounting of the disgraceful history of the U.S. war on Vietnam, we will be ill equipped to protest the current and future wars conducted in our name.

Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National Lawyers Guild. A veteran of the Stanford anti-Vietnam War movement, she is co-author (with Kathleen Gilberd) of Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent. Her latest book, Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral and Geopolitical Issues, will be published in October. She is also co-coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign. Copyright, Reprinted with permission.

Ellsberg Sees Vietnam-Like Risks in ISIS War

Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defense Department official who leaked the Pentagon Papers exposing the Vietnam War lies, is alarmed at the many parallels between Vietnam and President Obama’s new military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as Barbara Koeppel reports.

By Barbara Koeppel

At a recent talk at the National Press Club in Washington DC, Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, says he believes there’s not one person in the Pentagon who would agree that President Obama can achieve his aim of destroying ISIS in Iraq and Syria with air strikes, along with training and arming local military forces.

Nor, he says, can the Administration do it even if the U.S. sends ground troops, contrary to Obama’s repeated assurances.

Ellsberg described the similarities with Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the near-certainty of comparable failure. I interviewed him after his talk, and updated the discussion this week, after the U.S. airstrikes inside Syria had begun. In his Press Club talk and with me, he read from some documents, as indicated below, and cited Web-links.

Q.  Why are you urging Americans to be warned by what happened in Vietnam, half a century ago?

A.  Well, that was my war.  That makes me pretty old. And at 83, I am. This means I know what Vietnam means as well as Iraq, unlike most members of Congress. The New York Times noted on Sept. 18 that only a third of those voting on authorizing American advisers, arms and trainers for Syrian rebels were in Congress the last time there was a vote on war, which was for Iraq, in 2002. It would be interesting to know what they learned from the earlier vote.

As the Times wrote, “That 2002 vote hung heavily over the six hours of debate on Tuesday and Wednesday. Several veterans of the Iraq War stood against the President’s request. Older Democrats recalled with bitterness their vote to back the invasion of Iraq, a vote that ended many careers.”

“The last time people took a political vote like this in this House, it was on the Iraq War,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-California, said, “and many of my colleagues say it was the worst vote they ever took.”

One member of the House who voted against the new authorization, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California,, was the one member of Congress who voted against the authorization of military force (AUMF) in Afghanistan in 2001, then, as now, because there was inadequate discussion and too many questions left unanswered. And the next year, with Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, she helped organize 133 votes in the House against the AUMF 2002 on Iraq.

She says the earlier request was “an overly broad authorization which I could not vote for because it was a blank check for perpetual war.”

She was right. That authorization is still on the books, and the Obama Administration still cites it (along with the AUMF 2002), 13 years later, as sufficient authority for further escalation in Syria and Iraq. Lee says it should be repealed.

Both times Lee echoed Senators Wayne Morse, D-Oregon, and Ernest Gruening, D-Alaska, the only two members of Congress who voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964. Morse warned that it was an unconstitutional, undated blank check for war in Vietnam, and which President Lyndon Johnson used after deceiving other senators that he would not escalate without coming back to Congress.

In 2002, the only two senators who were in office long enough to have been deceived into voting for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Senators Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia,, said they were ashamed of their 1964 votes and pleaded with colleagues not to make their mistake, which they said they regretted for almost 40 years.

Twenty-one other senators listened, which, incidentally, didn’t include Kennedy’s junior colleague from Massachusetts, Vietnam veteran Sen. John Kerry, who had reason to regret his yes vote which helped lose him the presidency just two years later. I believe he will come to regret his present, shameful role with respect to this war for the rest of his life.

I have my own mistake to regret, not being the whistleblower I could have been in the Pentagon in 1964. Like Byrd and Kennedy in 2002, I’m calling on people in comparable positions to save themselves from such remorse, that they didn’t do what they could to warn and inform Congress and the public now, before decisive escalations occur.

Q. How do U.S. actions in Vietnam compare with what the U.S. is doing today, with advisers in Iraq and air strikes in Iraq and Syria, to destroy ISIS?

A. There are countless parallels. As in Vietnam, the U.S. is heading towards an American ground combat war under a president who assures us, before an election, that it isn’t going to happen. And as in Vietnam, his generals claim he can’t achieve his goal without boots on the ground.

Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army Chief of Staff, says you can’t defeat ISIS without ground troops. Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified he will recommend U.S. ground forces in Iraq if and when air power alone is not sufficient. That day is certain to come, sooner than later, although not before the November elections.

In fact, I doubt there’s a single person in the Pentagon or the CIA who believes Obama can achieve his goals to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria with air strikes and advisers alone.

High-level officers can’t contradict the President publicly, without resigning or being fired. But retired officials can, and have. A former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, put it succinctly: The President’s current strategy “doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell” of succeeding. I’m sure Odierno and Dempsey give it the same odds.

It may be that people in the Pentagon are telling the President and each other that the U.S. can defeat ISIS if you let us do a bigger war, including sizeable numbers of American ground troops. If so, I believe they’re wrong, just as the JCS were in Vietnam and the first Iraq War.

On the other hand, they may not believe that. Either way, here’s where truly honest testimony to Congress is critical. And that’s not likely to happen unless it’s triggered by leaks from inside whistleblowers of internal, classified analyses, estimates and projections of the sort that should have occurred but didn’t before the escalation in Vietnam or earlier in Iraq.

In any case, as Barbara Lee said, the consequences even of Obama’s recent first steps will be to further expand our involvement in a sectarian war, without Congress considering the implications of the larger war that’s coming.

Q. When generals, like Odierno, say ground troops will be needed, whose ground troops do they mean?

A. “Ideally,” General Dempsey has said, they would be Iraqi, Kurdish or Syrian. But he’s also said that half the Iraq army isn’t competent to partner with the U.S. against ISIS. And, the other half has to be partially rebuilt and retrained. How long will that take, since the last 12 years of U.S. training failed so dramatically?

Regarding Syria, Dempsey says there will need to be 12,000 to 15,000 Syrian ground troops, properly trained by the U.S., to take back territory from ISIS.  But the President just asked, and Congress authorized, U.S. training for only 5,000 Syrian troops, which is supposed to take six months to a year or more. Who but the U.S. is going to fill that gap?

Obama’s former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, dismissed these fantasies. He insists the U.S. will not succeed against ISIS “strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga [the Kurds], or the Sunni tribes acting on their own.” He adds “some small number of American advisers, trainers, Special Forces and forward spotters, forward air controllers, are going to have to be in harm’s way.”

Q.  Doesn’t that contradict President Obama’s assurances of “no American boots on the ground”?

A. Yes. That is almost certain to happen. And a question we should ask, based on what we know about Vietnam is “When General Dempsey recommends, and the President agrees, that U.S. advisers, trainers and air spotters should leave their bases and accompany Iraqi troops in combat getting in harm’s way will we be told that’s happening? If so, when?

I vividly recall reading a memo in the Pentagon on April 6, 1965, from McGeorge Bundy, Johnson’s national security adviser, that the President had authorized a change in mission for the Marines at Danang.  They’d been sent there, the first American combat units in Vietnam, ostensibly to defend the base from which we were conducting air operations.

Supposedly, they were politically harmless , just “advisers”, which didn’t involve large U.S. casualties and get us committed the way ground combat units do. Like what we’re doing now, in Iraq and Syria. But in 1965, LBJ had secretly decided as early as April 1 to allow them to leave the base for offensive patrols in the field, precisely the kinds of actions I’d been trained to lead as a rifle company platoon leader and company commander in the Marines.

The memo said, as I noted in my 1972 book, Papers on the War, “The President desires that premature publicity be avoided by all possible precautions. The actions themselves should be taken as rapidly as practicable but in ways that should minimize any appearance of sudden changes in policy. The President desires that these movements and changes in combat mission should be understood as being gradual and wholly consistent with existing policy.”

I remember writing a memo to my boss, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, that “This is dangerous. You can’t keep that secret. There are reporters over there. They’ll know what the Marines are doing and we’ll be shown to be concealing it. You know, we’re actually changing the nature of the war. We’re going to be taking over the war from the South Vietnamese. I don’t think you can keep that secret very long.”

I was wrong. That was April. And by July, about 100,000 troops were over there, doing offensive operations. But until then, there was no word or leak about this.

So on July 28, when President Johnson finally announced we were sending 50,000 more troops, it was actually 100,000, but he lied and said 50,000 to hide where this was heading, a reporter asked, “Mr. President, does the fact you are sending additional forces to Vietnam imply any change in the existing policy of relying mainly on the South Vietnamese to carry out offensive operations and using American forces to guard installations and to act as an emergency backup?”

Johnson answered, “It does not imply any change in policy whatever. It does not imply change of objective.”

And that was true! This was the end of July. He didn’t just change the policy. He changed it four months earlier. He just hadn’t announced it.

To bring us to the present, instead of saying “relying mainly on the South Vietnamese,” insert Syrians, Iraqis and Kurds. When those first steps are taken towards making this mainly an American war steps Obama and his generals and Gates already hint at should we expect to hear about that from the White House? Why? Because Obama is more transparent, less secretive than Johnson, Nixon or George W. Bush? He isn’t.

During the Vietnam build-up was when I could have alerted the American people about what was happening, and I didn’t. That’s why I’m calling on insiders who know that we’re being misled to do better.

However, the big issue now is not the combat role for advisers, intelligence and support units, Special Forces and air spotters. Rather, given the air war, it’s in the cards they will be in harm’s way probably before the end of the year, perhaps even before the election. The real issue will be the deployment of tens if not hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops.

And whether they total 1,600 troops on the ground, what we already have in Iraq, or 16,000 (what LBJ had in Vietnam before the start of the air war and the major ground escalation in 1965), that “small force of Americans” Gates describes won’t be remotely enough to “destroy” ISIS. Both Gates and the generals know it will take a lot more. But even if the number soared to 550,000, as in Vietnam in 1968, or even a million, I believe they still won’t eliminate ISIS permanently. They’ll be back.

Q. Does Obama realize the generals are sure to ask him for tens of thousands or more combat troops?

A. I don’t know. I suspect they’ve told him that, secretly. Just as Johnson knew his generals would ask for that in Vietnam, while he was still promising the electorate “no wider war” in 1964, and saying he wouldn’t send American boys to do what Vietnamese boys should be doing.

Does Obama foresee right now that he’s likely to grant that request? Is he, then, just kidding when he promises, over and over, that we’ll defeat ISIS without his sending American combat units? Or does he think he can and will keep his military under control despite frustrating them and saddling them, as they see it, with stalemate and failure?

That’s what Johnson sought to do, and to some extent did, though the war got much larger than he’d promised or even initially wanted. He gave the Chiefs just enough of what they wanted, in troop levels and bombings, to keep them from resigning, though never close to what they said was essential to succeed. He didn’t really believe that meeting their full demands would make the difference, and he feared war with China. And he was right on both counts. But still, he didn’t want to be accused of “losing” a region for want of “doing nothing.”

He avoided that accusation, but at the cost of a lot of lives: 58,000 American and several million Vietnamese.

I  suspect that same concern is driving Obama right now. I see him doing what he has to do to keep from being accused of doing “nothing.” But does he really mean to stop at that? Or could he, even if he wanted to?

Gates recommends that President Obama scale down his present objective of “destroying” ISIS, which Gates describes as “very ambitious,” which I translate to mean unattainable.

That’s almost sure to happen. But even with lesser aims, like containment, or, as Gates suggests, driving ISIS out of Iraq, with embedded advisers and Special Forces alone, even with forward air spotters, this won’t be enough. When Gates says it will, he’s either lying about what he believes or he’s a fool. And I don’t think he’s a fool.

I think the Joint Chiefs will recommend to Obama that he bring large numbers of American ground combat units to Iraq in the coming months. One difference from Vietnam is that in those days, when Johnson lied, saying he gave the generals everything they’d asked for and that there was no conflict between the civilians and military in the administration (as the Pentagon Papers were to reveal, year after year),  the military kept their mouths shut. They hoped he would come around to their point of view eventually, and they didn’t want to preclude that by contradicting him and getting fired.

Now, many of them think that was a mistake, even a “dereliction of duty.” This time, the generals will do their own leaking about what they asked (as happened in 2009, when Obama confronted “top secret” recommendations for a surge in Afghanistan). Will the President, as he now implies, reject their recommendation every time they make it? I think he should, but I doubt that he will, any more than LBJ did.

The public doubts it too. The latest polls show that 72 percent of the public expects him to deploy ground combat units in Iraq, contrary to his assurances. I think the generals are of the same mind. It might be almost irrelevant, the way things work, what the President himself thinks about that, privately, at this moment.

Q. Where is Congress and its powers to declare war on this? Will the Administration keep it informed about its military actions and ask for a formal vote?

A. On the day Congress voted on the Administration’s request to authorize sending advisers, arms and trainers for Syrian rebel troops, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said, in supporting it, the bill “is not to be confused with any authorization to go further.” She said, “I will not vote for combat troops to be engaged in war.”

But will she ever be asked by the Administration to vote on that? Every indication is that the White House believes the President can expand this war with the authority Congress granted the Executive in earlier bills, before the U.S. invaded Afghanistan or Iraq, and feels no need to come back to Congress.

Once again, that’s reminiscent of Vietnam. Both the House and Senate approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August 1964, which authorized President Johnson to use military force without a formal declaration of war. He said he needed it to retaliate against a North Vietnamese attack on our destroyers, which, in fact, didn’t happen.

At that time, Sen. William Fulbright, D-Arkansas, assured the Senate that the Administration did not intend to expand the Vietnam War without returning to Congress. But he was duped by the White House, which never again appealed to Congress for consent, and used the Tonkin Gulf Resolution as an open-ended declaration of war.

This time, the White House hasn’t even bothered to assure Congress, however deceptively, that it concedes the need for further authorization. To the contrary, it is asserting that the 2002 authorization of military force which was based on the Bush Administration’s lies about WMDs, as blatantly as was the Tonkin Gulf Resolution is sufficient for anything the President wants to do in the Middle East, along with the even earlier AUMF of 2001.

For that same reason, Rep. Lee is now demanding a real vote on the war before it expands further. She’s saying: “Don’t do this again.” Of the recent authorization, she said “I am reminded of the failure to have a thorough debate in the wake of 9/11, that act of atrocity, that act of terrorism, which frightened people into a very hasty and premature delegation of their powers; now we have two beheadings on television to do that and call for a revenge act ”

Of this recent request, though it’s much more limited than the Tonkin Gulf Resolution or the two AUMFs, she said, “The consequences of this vote, whether it’s written in the amendment or not, will be a further expansion of a war currently taking place and our further involvement in a sectarian war,” again “without adequate debate or any vote in Congress having to do with the larger issues here of the war.”

She’s right. We should be telling Nancy Pelosi to follow her counsel, and to use every constitutional power to force that vote, and precede it with adequate debate.

Q. So many ask, isn’t it better to do something against ISIS — these murderers, fanatics —  than do nothing? How do you answer that?

A. ISIS is not the only murderous, fanatic group in that region but they may well be the most extreme so far, and most successful. But that’s a reason for not doing something that actually strengthens them in their rivalry with others. But that’s exactly what we are doing, with our airpower.

Even before the Syrian airstrikes, FBI Director James Comey testified on Sept. 17 that ISIS’ “widespread use of social media and growing online support intensified following the commencement of U.S. air strikes in Iraq.”

Another news report, in the Israeli daily Haaretz, states, ‘The Islamic State jihadist organization has recruited more than 6,000 new fighters since America began targeting the group with air strikes last month, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. At least 1,300 of the new recruits are said to be foreigners, who have joined IS from outside the swathes of Syria and Iraq that it controls.”

Do we think ISIS hasn’t noticed this? We have to ask, why does ISIS want to show off its public beheadings of Americans on international television? Our ally Saudi Arabia doesn’t televise its beheadings, 19 in August, one for sorcery, nor do our favored rebels, the Free Syrian Army.

But ISIS chose exactly now to boast them to the world. Why? Because they need and welcome U.S. air strikes and the flood of recruits they bring, despite the losses ISIS has to expect. Getting the U.S. to publicize ISIS as the number one American enemy, while U.S. airstrikes are killing Muslim civilians along with ISIS troops and leaders, stamps ISIS as leading the fight against the U.S. and its allied Arab regimes that ISIS believes are infidels.

I watched this happen in Vietnam. Each time we bombed a village in South Vietnam, the young men who survived the attack joined the Viet Cong. In fact, the VC would fire on American planes from a village precisely for that reason. They could count on the retaliatory bombing, and the recruits. I wrote a report for the RAND Corporation about that when I came back, with the title, “Revolutionary Judo.”

History repeated itself in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Matthew Hoh the Marine and then senior State Department official who served in both countries and who resigned his post saw exactly the same thing.

As I noted before, by doing this something, we’re strengthening ISIS and making things worse. But that’s nothing new. Indeed, all the military actions and expenditures of the last 13 years in the Middle East have led to creating, strengthening and expanding ISIS and other militant groups. It’s time to stop.

As Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-West Virginia, said to his colleagues, “Our past experience, after 13 years, everything that we have tried to do has not proven to be at all beneficial. So what makes you think it’s going to be different this time? What makes you think we can ask a group of Islamists to agree with Americans to fight another group of Islamists, as barbaric as they may be?”

With the air strikes in Syria, we are radicalizing moderates who then join ISIS, as the New York Times has noted. It has also allowed Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who led the fight against ISIS until now, to stop his air strikes against it and concentrate on the moderate rebels we support who oppose both Assad and ISIS. Why is he doing this?  Because the U.S. is attacking ISIS, doing his work for him. Then, if he can take moderates off the board, he calculates the U.S. will have to accept him as the only effective ally against ISIS.

Q. What can we do that would be useful?

A. Since ISIS won’t be stopped with military actions alone, not ours or those of groups that join us, including Iraqis and Syrians, and are in fact counter-productive, we should have learned that if there’s ever to be an answer, it has to be largely diplomatic.

In particular, this could mean changing our close relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Mideast allies whose citizens and regimes have long been financing and supplying ISIS and other radical groups at the same time they provide pilots whose attacks also help strengthen ISIS. If we ceased tolerating that ideological and financial support for extremists, this would be a major step to containing and eroding ISIS. But I doubt this will happen.

Serious diplomacy would also mean changing our relationship with Russia and Iran, exploring through direct negotiations the positive contributions they could make to stabilize the region, rather than, as at present, demonizing them.

This, too, isn’t likely. But if we don’t face what we need to do to escape the madness we suffered and inflicted in Vietnam and Iraq, we will be mired in war in the Middle East for decades.

Q. There are posters of you around Washington DC urging those with inside information about the Pentagon’s plans, to leak it. The headline is: “Don’t Do What I Did.” What do you hope will happen?

A. In 1964 and 1965, the lack of whistleblowers caused Vietnam to happen. I was in the Pentagon then and didn’t come forward with what I knew. So I helped Vietnam happen. I very much regret that I didn’t provide information when it would have done the most good, when Congress was voting on this and when the escalation was occurring. In 2002 and 2003, the lack of a Manning or Snowden with high-level access caused Iraq.

Actually, in 1964, many in the Pentagon could have put out the information the public and Congress needed to know. Not random documents. Just one drawer of selected documents showing that President Johnson was deceiving people and leading them into a hopeless war that his own Joint Chiefs believed could never be won at the level he was willing to do it. (The heart of the Pentagon Papers took up about one drawer of a top secret safe in my office at RAND, or earlier in my office in the Pentagon).

I’m sure that comparable documents exist in safes in Washington and Arlington and McLean, Virginia, right now. I’m just as sure that dozens if not hundreds of insiders could provide the information in those documents from their own safes to Congress and the public, if they’re willing to take the risks.

In 1971, after I put out the Pentagon Papers, Sen. Morse told me that if I had given him the documents from my Pentagon safe while he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1964, “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have come out of Committee. And if they bypassed the committee and sent it to the floor, the resolution would never have passed.”

That put a lot of weight on my shoulders, not unfairly. I’m urging insiders now to do better than I did then, and now is the time.

Q. What do you and aim to do?

A.  To encourage whistle-blowing that will lead people to press their congressional representatives, this month, while they’re in their home districts campaigning for votes, to demand hearings, debates and a vote in an effort to block continued and escalated U.S. military involvement in Middle East conflicts.

Just a year ago, constituents did almost exactly that, button-holing representatives at home in their districts to demand “No war on Syria!” The effect on Congress was electrifying, perhaps unprecedented.

It confronted a President who was committed to an attack at the end of August, because of gas attacks in Syria whose perpetrators are still a murky and controversial topic, and who had just remembered that he was head of the “world’s oldest republic” with a duty to get consent from Congress to go to war. Indeed, he could have lost the vote in both Houses. That caused him to make a sharp turn and embrace a Russian proposal to eliminate Assad’s gas menace by peaceful, negotiated means.

We need something like that now. Unlikely as it is, after the ISIS gains, the public beheadings, and, not mentioned by the President before our air attacks but quickly labeled a critical target, the emergence of the dreaded “Khorasan.”

On Khorasan we need serious investigative reporting, fueled by whistleblowing. Could the “classified” leaks about Khorasan just before and after the Syrian airstrikes, a group allegedly more of an imminent danger to the U.S. than ISIS, be designed to manipulate the media and public? Could they be a fraud, just as the all-too-successful fraudulent, authorized classified leaks in 2002 about Saddam Hussein’s supposed nuclear cylinders? Did these recent Khorasan leaks provide a self-defense motive for U.S. air attacks on Syria?

They sound eerily like the alleged Aug. 4, 1964 “attack” on our destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf, 50 years ago this August, an attack that never happened, which gave us the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and 11 years of war.  Is there really solid evidence, as Administration officials have claimed and others leaked, of “an advanced state of planning” for imminent attacks on U.S. airliners, by a group called Khorasan or by any other?  Or might it have been a hoax like that floated by the Bush Administration as Dick Cheney picked up various forgeries and fantasies, to justify our aggression against Iraq 12 years ago?

Could this administration really be re-playing the Bush and Johnson script that closely? And the media applauding the performance just as credulously?

Glenn Greenwald and Murtazsa Hussain make a strong case for this with Khorasan. This cries out for leaked or congressionally-demanded documents.

As the posters put up by say, and one is quite near the Iraq embassy, “Don’t wait until a new war has started.  Don’t wait until thousands more have died before you tell the truth with documents that reveal lies or crimes or internal projections of costs and dangers. You might save a war’s worth of lives.”

State Department, Pentagon, CIA, NSA or White House staff who follow that advice will risk unjust prosecution under the Espionage Act, as I did. Unjust because the Espionage Act was designed to deter or punish spies, not whistleblowers. It was never intended to be used against disclosures to the American public, and never used that way until my own prosecution, which was the first in American history for a leak.

Legal scholars argued then that it was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment to use the Espionage Act against whistleblowers. It’s unjust because it doesn’t allow defendants to tell the jury and public about their motives. [See Melville B. Nimmer, “National Security Issues v. Free Speech: The Issues Left Undecided in the Ellsberg Case,” Stanford Law Review (vol. 26, No. 2, January 1974, 311-333).]

Treating sources of leaks, classified or not, like spies, is exactly what’s happened under President Obama, who has brought more Espionage Act indictments for leaking than any other president, in fact, more than all of them together. And he’s leaving that precedent to his successors.

The risk whistleblowers take is very great. That’s why I think they should remain anonymous, if possible., which sponsored the Washington press conference and encourages whistleblowers, proposes to facilitate their anonymity by the use of encryption.

There will always be a risk of identification, and if classified information is involved (even if it’s evidence of Executive Branch crimes or other malfeasance), there will likely be prosecutions. Until Congress rescinds the wording of certain clauses in the Espionage Act and passes laws to defend the public interest, or as Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler proposes to call it, a “public accountability defense,” they will probably be convicted. They could suffer years in prison, perhaps a life sentence, as I faced (a possible 115 years) but escaped on grounds of governmental criminal misconduct. Chelsea Manning faced the risks and now is serving 35 years. [See Benkler’s recent article, “A Public Accountability Defense for National Security Leakers and Whistleblowers,” Harvard Law and Policy Review, Vol. 8, Summer 2014.]

A heavy prospect. Worth considering only for the grimmest of circumstances. But we face them now, when a war’s worth of lives might yet be saved by courageous, patriotic truth-telling.

John Kerry, as a young, just-returned Vietnam veteran, was admired by many as an outstanding whistleblower, with his unsparing account of U.S. war crimes in testimony on April 22, 1971, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That’s when he famously asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

As things are now heading, he will not have to ask that of an American soldier in Iraq or Syria while Secretary of State. Nor will President Obama The last American combat death there is not now remotely possible within the next two, four or even eight years.

The Pentagon is reported to be planning for a campaign of 36 months, but I don’t think Obama’s and Kerry’s successors will be any more ready over the next decade to admit a mistake.

The final American casualty, or last deaths inflicted in the Middle East by Americans, will not come about unless the American people tell Congress and the Executive what Lt. John Kerry said to the Senate in 1971, speaking for the newly-formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War: “We want this to stop.”

Barbara Koeppel is a freelance investigative reporter based in Washington DC.

Obama’s Risks of Escalation

As President Obama launched the first waves of U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State and other targets in Syria, the risks of further military escalation or other expected developments abound, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The wisdom of any application of military force will involve much more than the goals initially laid out and the resources initially applied to achieve those goals. Those initial conditions are only a snapshot in time of what is inevitably a dynamic process.

History has repeatedly shown that overseas military endeavors have a way of becoming something much different from what they began as. History also has repeatedly shown that the dominant type of change is escalation to something bigger and costlier than originally intended, sometimes even to the point of expanding to blunders of tragic proportions.

Several processes, working together or independently, drive the process of escalation. Some of these processes are, considered in isolation, logical and reasonable. Some of them are rooted in universal human nature; some are more characteristically American.

The “Win the War” Objective. A distinctively American (and non-Clausewitzian) way of approaching the use of military force is to believe that if something is worth fighting for, then we ought to realize that we are “at war” and ought to do whatever it takes to “win” the war. This mindset has had a huge influence through the years on discourse in the United States about using the military instrument in foreign affairs, including in more recent years with a so-called “war on terror.”

The attitude severs the use of force from all other calculations about the costs and benefits of using it in particular ways and particular circumstances. There thus is no limit to potential escalation as the sometimes elusive “win” is pursued.

Standard Procedures and the Military’s Operational Requirements. Military forces, for quite understandable reasons of operational security or effectiveness, insist that if they are called on to perform certain missions then they must be permitted to use certain minimal levels of forces, to put their troops in certain places, or to operate in certain other ways regardless of the political or diplomatic side-effects.

Some of the classic and most consequential examples occurred at the onset of World War I, when mobilization schedules of armies helped to push statesmen into a much bigger armed confrontation than they wanted, and when German troops violated Belgian neutrality because that’s what a military plan called for. More recent U.S. military history has had many more modest examples of military requirements driving escalation, such as ground forces being needed to provide security for air bases. In the interest of force security, a remarkably large amount of firepower has sometimes been used in support of quite small objectives (such as the deposition and capture of Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1989).

Hoping That Just a Little More Will Do It. If a given level of force does not accomplish the declared objective, then an understandable and quite reasonable next question is whether a bit more force will be sufficient to do the trick. It may be logically sound to decide that it is worth trying some more force. The calculation of the moment weighs the marginal costs of doing so against the marginal benefits.

The marginal cost of a slight escalation may be low, with the benefit being the chance of a significant breakthrough. But a series of individual decisions like this, while they may be individually justifiable, can result in escalation to total costs that are far out of proportion to any possible benefit. The U.S. escalation of the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1968 is an example.

One Objective Leads to Another. The nature of some objectives is such that if they are to be achieved, or as a consequence of being achieved, some other objective needs to be pursued as well. Or even if it does not really need to be pursued, it comes into play naturally and is not easily dismissed amid the momentum and fog of war. This is the process that often is given the name mission creep. An example is how Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which began as an offensive to oust the Taliban, became a long-term nation-building effort.

Responding to the Adversary’s Escalation. It takes two to tango and to make war. The adversary has many of these same reasons to escalate a conflict against us, and perhaps other reasons as well. When he does, we are apt to counter-escalate, not only for emotional reasons of revenge but also perhaps for more justifiable reasons of deterrence. This is the chief type of escalation that was the subject of much strategic doctrine developed during the Cold War.

Domestic Political Vulnerability. Statesmen do not make their decisions about military force in a political vacuum. They have domestic political flanks to protect. Mitigating charges of weakness or wimpiness is an added, and possibly even the principal, motivation to escalate the use of force against what is widely perceived as a threat.

The emerging military campaign against ISIS will not become another World War I or Vietnam War, but all of the above factors are seeds of escalation of that campaign, possibly to levels well above what either the Obama administration or its more hawkish critics are talking about. Some of the factors are already quite evidently in play.

The absolutist vocabulary about being at war and having to win the war is very prevalent. The President already has been pushed by the political and rhetorical forces this vocabulary represents toward greater use of military force than he otherwise would have preferred. The dynamic of each side in the armed conflict escalating in response to the other side’s escalation also has already begun.

A major stimulant for the American public’s alarmist and militant attitude toward ISIS was the group’s intentionally provocative videotaped killings, which the group described as retaliation for U.S. military strikes against it.

The military’s operational requirements are also starting to come into play as a mechanism of escalation, as we hear military experts telling us how air and ground operations really are inseparable, and how effective air strikes depend on reliable spotters on the ground. There also will no doubt be decision points ahead about whether a little more use of force will do the job, as the United States pursues the impossible to accomplish declared objective of “destroying” ISIS.

Finally, the potential for mission creep is substantial, with unanswered questions about what will follow in the countries in conflict even if ISIS could be “destroyed.” Perhaps the most glaring such question is in Syria, where, given the anathema toward dealing with the Assad regime, it remains unclear what would fill any vacuum left by a destroyed ISIS, and what the United States can, should, or will do about it. The much-discussed “moderate” forces are far from constituting a credible answer to that question

There is significant danger of the campaign against ISIS and the costs it incurs getting far, far out of proportion to any threat the group poses to U.S. interests.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

Fleshing Out Nixon’s Vietnam ‘Treason’

Exclusive: Out of the Watergate scandal came a favorite mainstream media saying: “the cover-up is always worse than the crime.” But the MSM didn’t understand what the real crime was or why President Nixon was so desperate, as James DiEugenio explains in reviewing Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows.

By James DiEugenio

One of America’s great political mysteries continues to come into sharper focus: Did Richard Nixon sabotage President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks in 1968 to win that election and did Nixon’s fear of exposure lead him to create the burglary team that got caught at Watergate in 1972?

Pieces of this puzzle began to fall into place even in real time as Beverly Deepe, the Christian Science Monitor’s Saigon reporter, got wind of Nixon’s treachery before the 1968 election although her editors spiked her article when they couldn’t get confirmation in Washington. [See’s “The Almost Scoop on Nixon’s ‘Treason.’”]

In the ensuing years, other journalists and historians began assembling the outlines of Nixon’s peace-talk sabotage with the story getting its first big splash of attention when Seymour Hersh made reference to it in his 1983 biography of Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power.

Then, in 2012, investigative reporter Robert Parry discovered that Johnson’s long-missing file on Nixon’s 1968 operation, which was later turned over to the Johnson library, helped explain another mystery: why Nixon launched his Plumbers’ operation in 1971 and thus set in motion a series of burglaries that led to the Watergate scandal in 1972.

Nixon had been told by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that Johnson had evidence from wiretaps about Nixon’s peace-talk sabotage, but an alarmed Nixon couldn’t find the file whose absence became critical after the Pentagon Papers’ history of the Vietnam War was leaked in 1971. Nixon knew there was a potential sequel somewhere that could end his presidency. [See Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

Now, journalist Ken Hughes, a resident scholar at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, has filled out the story even more in his new book, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair and the Origins of Watergate.

Johnson’s Peace Initiative

Hughes begins his book with the dramatic day of March 31, 1968, when President Johnson announced on national television that he would not run for reelection that fall. Or, as he put it, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

But Johnson said something else: he intended to end the Vietnam War before leaving the White House. Since his election in 1964, Johnson had overseen a massive military escalation of the war, inserting 550,000 American troops in theater and ordering the greatest bombing campaign in the history of warfare, called “Rolling Thunder.”

Despite all the carnage, Johnson finally concluded that a military victory in Vietnam was illusory. He therefore announced a limited bombing halt over 90 percent of North Vietnam and promised a complete bombing halt if the North Vietnamese would show some reciprocal restraint.

Though many Vietnam War critics were dubious about Johnson’s peace initiative, the historical record is now clear that Johnson was sincere about his plan. He wanted peace talks to begin as soon as possible. He was seeking a U.S. exit strategy.

As Hughes notes, there had always been advisers around Johnson who told him it was futile to fight in Vietnam. As early as 1964, Sen. Richard Russell, D-Georgia, advised his former protégé, “It isn’t important a damn bit. I never did want to get messed up down there. I do not agree with those brain trusters who say this thing has tremendous strategic and economic value and that we’ll lose everything if we lose Vietnam.”

Russell said the problem was how to get out of Vietnam without looking weak, a dilemma that Johnson a classic Cold Warrior who believed in the Domino Theory could not overcome. But the war’s futility and its political damage had become apparent to Johnson by the time of the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive in January-February 1968, leading to his decision to withdraw from the presidential race and his plan to end the war.

Johnson also sought to be fair to the major candidates running to replace him: Vice President Hubert Humphrey, former Vice President Richard Nixon and independent candidate, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. Johnson promised to keep them equally informed of developments in the peace process. And, Hughes writes, that as far as the declassified record reveals, Johnson kept that promise.

Nixon’s Dilemma

But the political problem from Johnson’s peace initiative soon grew acute for Nixon, who remained bitter about his narrow loss to John Kennedy in 1960. During the late summer of 1968, Nixon had a big lead over Humphrey, swelling to about 15 points after the disastrous Democratic convention in Chicago.

But Nixon recognized that the Democrats were likely to unify especially if the anti-war faction thought that Johnson was making progress on a peace deal. Humphrey also began reaching out to disaffected Democrats with increasingly clear overtures on resolving the war. If Johnson could deliver on a full bombing halt and the start of a U.S. withdrawal, Nixon might again be denied his dream of the presidency.

Whatever one thinks of Richard Nixon, the man had the (deserved) reputation of a consummate infighter in the political arena. This went back to his smearing of Congressman Jerry Voorhis in 1946, his 1948-50 destruction of State Department diplomat Alger Hiss from Nixon’s seat on the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and his tarring of senatorial candidate Helen Gahaghan Douglas in 1950. In fact, on now-declassified Nixon tapes that Hughes cited, Nixon admits that he unethically had access to grand jury proceedings against Hiss, and he used them to convict Hiss in the press before trial.

Thus, Nixon might have viewed Johnson’s peace initiative as just one more political obstacle to overcome. And Nixon had in his campaign apparatus people like China Lobby figure Anna Chennault who could sink Johnson’s negotiations by getting the South Vietnamese government to stay away from the Paris talks.

Anna Chennault was the widow of legendary Flying Tigers pilot Claire Chennault, who was 32 years her senior when they were married in 1947.  The Chennaults were part of the China Lobby, the campaign that smeared President Harry Truman and the Democrats for “losing China” to the communists in 1949. The Chennaults also suffered financially with the fall of China since they were planning on running the CIA-related airline Civil Air Transport under Chiang Kai-shek, but the operation was forced to move to Taiwan.

The Chennaults and the China Lobby were quite effective in portraying the Democrats as being soft on communism in the 1952 election. Chennault died in 1958 but his widow remained active in Republican politics and in Washington’s social life. She rented a suite at the Watergate Hotel and became a founder of the Flying Tiger Line, a freight loading operation.

Helping Nixon 

Because of her political effectiveness, her wealth and her status as a woman ethnic, Anna Chennault became involved in the 1968 Nixon campaign under campaign chief John Mitchell. She was co-chair of the Women’s Advisory Committee and raised over $250,000 for Nixon, the top sum by a female fundraiser.

By early July 1968, Anna Chennault was already in contact with Bui Diem, the South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, about her work for the Nixon camp, according to a memo by Nixon’s foreign policy adviser Richard Allen, cited by Hughes.

In her 1980 memoir, The Education of Anna, Chennault also described a meeting in New York City involving herself, Bui Diem, Nixon and Mitchell on July 12, 1968, a get-together corroborated by Bui Diem’s memoir, In the Jaws of History. At this meeting, Nixon anointed Anna Chennault, “the sole representative between the Vietnamese government and the Nixon campaign headquarters.”

As the back-channel between the Nixon campaign and the South Vietnamese government, Chennault passed a series of messages to Bui Diem, President Thieu and other senior officials in Saigon essentially promising them a better deal if Nixon won. Chennault told Thieu through Diem that Johnson’s peace talks were simply a ploy to get Humphrey elected president and that Humphrey opposed the Americanization of the war.

Chennault indicated that Nixon favored more direct American intervention, an appealing message to convey to Thieu because without U.S. support, Thieu’s regime could not last long against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.

Nixon’s Assurances

While Nixon was putting in motion his plan to disrupt the peace talks, Johnson continued to brief all three candidates. On July 26, Johnson told them that he was pushing to have a four-point negotiation at the table, involving the U.S., North Vietnam, Thieu’s government and the National Liberation Front (NLF), the political arm of the Viet Cong.

Nixon assured Johnson that he was in full support of the peace initiative and that the President’s emissaries in Paris should be able to speak with the confidence and authority of the U.S. government. Nixon said nothing should be done in the political arena that might undermine the effort.

Hughes shows Nixon’s hypocritical side again when he points to Nixon’s acceptance speech at the GOP convention in Miami in August, saying: “We all hope that there’s a chance that current negotiations may bring an honorable end to that war, and we will say nothing during this campaign that might destroy that chance.” (italics added)

Meanwhile, Humphrey trying to rebuild the shattered Democratic unity began to suggest that peace was possible and that U.S. troops could be coming home as early as 1969. Johnson responded by saying that although everyone hoped to see the day the troops come home no one could predict when that day would come. He added, “We are there to bring an honorable, stable peace to Southeast Asia, and no less will justify the sacrifices that our men have died for.”

Later, Humphrey went even further, saying he would stop the bombing for good in return for good-faith negotiations from the North. Though Humphrey’s public peace talk annoyed Johnson, it helped the Vice President cut into Nixon’s once-formidable lead what had been a 15-point margin shrank to 8 points. The stakes for Nixon were raised.

The first warning that Johnson got about Nixon’s sabotage of the peace talks came from Wall Street. In late October, banker Alexander Sachs told State Department official Eugene Rostow that Nixon was alerting his allies on Wall Street that he had a plan to “block” Johnson’s peace talks and they should place their investment bets accordingly. [See’s “Profiting Off Nixon’s Vietnam ‘Treason.’”]

Thieu’s Resistance

When Eugene Rostow’s information was passed to Johnson by his national security aide Walt Rostow (Eugene’s brother), Johnson had just learned that South Vietnamese President Thieu had decided not to send a delegation to Paris to negotiate.

Johnson also had a second source who revealed that Mitchell, Nixon’s campaign manager, was working to frustrate Johnson’s attempt at peace talks and a truce. Mitchell had been heard to say words to the effect that they would foul up these peace talks as they had frustrated Johnson’s attempt to make Abe Fortas the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Johnson revealed this information to his friend Sen. Russell in a phone conversation. Johnson said he had ways to confirm whether or not the rumors were true. What he meant was that he could use the surveillance powers of the FBI, CIA and NSA to monitor certain communications necessary to carry out the subversion of the peace process.

Johnson did just that. The NSA placed a bug inside Ambassador Bui Diem’s office in Washington, and the CIA did the same in the office of President Thieu in Saigon. Even though Hughes writes that these partially declassified cables are still heavily redacted, it’s clear from them that Johnson told Russell that Anna Chennault was in contact with Bui Diem. LBJ was convinced she was the go-between from the Nixon camp to the South Vietnamese representatives.

NSA intercepts revealed that Ambassador Bui Diem told Thieu that the longer the situation dragged out the more it would favor the Republicans and South Vietnam. Bui Diem added that he was in direct contact with the Nixon entourage, which meant, of course, Chennault.

In fact, the FBI knew that Chennault had visited Bui Diem at the embassy on Oct. 30 for 30 minutes. Besides the wiretap, Johnson ordered the FBI to report on anyone entering or leaving the embassy and to tail Chennault. He also wanted her phone tapped at the Watergate, but the FBI didn’t go that far.

Trying to pressure Nixon to back off, Johnson called Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen and asserted that he (Johnson) knew what was going on. “I really think it’s a little dirty pool for Dick’s people to be messing with the South Vietnamese ambassador and carrying messages around to both of them, and I don’t think the [American] people would approve of it if it were known,” Johnson told Dirksen with the implicit threat to expose publicly what Johnson privately called Nixon’s “treason.”

Hughes writes that Johnson never told Humphrey specifically about what Chennault was doing. He only mentioned some interference from the “China Lobby” and “Nixon’s entourage.” Nor did Johnson show Humphrey the intelligence cables he had from the FBI, NSA, and CIA.

The Final Days

Despite Johnson’s warning to Dirksen, Chennault did not stand down. On Nov. 2, just three days before the election, another embassy message was intercepted revealing that she told Ambassador Bui Diem to convey to his superiors, “hold on, we are gonna win.”

Thieu followed up by telling the South Vietnamese legislature that he would boycott the negotiations. At the same time, Nixon announced that he had been assured that the peace talks would begin. The combination of the two public announcements made Johnson look like either a con man or someone who had lost control of his own negotiations (which he had).

On Sunday, Nov. 3, Johnson asked Nixon about his knowledge of the Republican interference, and Nixon told Johnson that he was fully behind the President’s efforts to bring the war to an end as quickly as possible. Nixon would lie about his role in the sabotage to the end.

There was one last twist to the story, playing out the day before the election. The Christian Science Monitor’s Saigon correspondent Beverly Deepe filed a story based on her local sources describing the Republican gambit to prevent the peace talks. In Washington, the Monitor’s Saville Davis ran Deepe’s information past Bui Diem, who denied it, and then past the White House.

President Johnson considered confirming the story but consulted with several of his top advisers national security adviser Walt Rostow, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford who all urged him to stay silent. Clifford warned that if the story was published and Nixon still won, Nixon might be unable to lead the country. With the White House declining comment, the Monitor decided not to go with Deepe’s scoop.

Humphrey ended up losing the election by less than one point in the popular vote, leaving history to ponder the painful question of whether the disclosure of Nixon’s operation might have cost him the election and brought the war to an end years earlier saving countless lives.

The Watergate Tie-in

But there was another reason to expose Nixon’s covert operation. Hughes concurs with journalist Robert Parry’s revelations two years ago that it was probably Nixon’s awareness of Johnson’s knowledge about the sabotage that inspired the formation of the Plumbers and set the stage for the Watergate scandal which destroyed Nixon’s presidency.

After Nixon won the election in 1968, FBI Director Hoover flew to New York for a private conference with Nixon and his chief of staff H. R. Haldeman. During the meeting, Hoover revealed the bugging operation ordered by Johnson over the Chennault affair. But the Director exaggerated its extent, claiming that the FBI had bugged Nixon’s campaign plane, which was not true. Hoover also said the FBI had wiretapped Chennault’s phone at her home, which Johnson had sought but which was not done.

There could have been a reason for Hoover’s falsehoods. By claiming that Nixon’s plane had been bugged, Hoover may have wanted Nixon to believe that he himself had been caught on tape directly implicated in the sabotage scheme. That could have led Nixon to think that Hoover had something politically lethal on him. By hyping the story, Hoover also undercut one of his younger FBI rivals, Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, by telling Nixon that some of the bugging had been DeLoach’s idea.

What Nixon didn’t know was that Johnson removed the Chennault file when he left office in January 1969 and entrusted the top-secret information to Walt Rostow, rather than ship it to the Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas. The missing file and the paranoia instilled in Nixon by Hoover’s exaggerated account had huge consequences for history.

When Nixon took office he assigned Haldeman to find the Chennault file, a task that was passed on to Thomas Charles Huston, who later became famous for the Huston Plan proposing more domestic surveillance of leftist anti-war groups. Huston’s recommendations went too far even for Hoover. But Huston’s work on national security issues made him a natural for Haldeman’s assignment to locate the Chennault file.

Huston couldn’t find the file but believed that some of the information about why the peace talks had failed might have ended up in a Defense Department study supervised by Clifford, Paul Warnke and Leslie Gelb. When Gelb left office for the Brookings Institution, he supposedly took the report with him, Huston believed. [See’s “An Insider’s View of Nixon’s ‘Treason.’”]

Confusion Reigns

As Hughes notes, this information conveyed by Huston seems, at best, garbled. It more accurately describes the Pentagon Papers, which Gelb was actually involved in, rather than the Chennault affair, which Gelb had no role in. But even though Huston’s information was dubious on its face, Haldeman conveyed it to Nixon, who predictably replied: “I want that goddamn Gelb material and I don’t care how you get it!”

But as yet, Nixon lacked his own team for conducting illegal break-ins. So, the issue of the missing Chennault material was pushed to the proverbial back burner. But an historic event in 1971 returned this concern to the center of Nixon’s paranoid mind.

On June 13, 1971, the New York Times started publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret study of the Vietnam War commissioned by former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara tracing the conflict from its beginning to 1967. The American public was suddenly riveted by disclosures about how various presidents, mostly Democrats, had deceived the country about the Vietnam War.

Four days later, Nixon returned to the issue of the missing file and the possibility that Gelb had taken it to the Brookings Institution and placed it in the think tank’s safe. On June 17, 1971, Nixon summoned Haldeman and national security advisor Henry Kissinger into the Oval Office and pleaded with them again to locate the missing file. “Do we have it?” Nixon asked Haldeman. “I’ve asked for it. You said you didn’t have it.”

Haldeman: “We can’t find it.”

Kissinger: “We have nothing here, Mr. President.”

Nixon: “Well, damnit, I asked for that because I need it.”

Nixon then added that he wanted a break-in of Brookings “implemented. Goddamnit, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

On June 30, 1971, Nixon again berated Haldeman about the need to break into Brookings and “take it [the file] out.” Nixon even suggested using former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt to conduct the Brookings break-in. “You talk to Hunt,” Nixon told Haldeman. “I want the break-in.”

Nixon’s Paranoia

From here in the book, Hughes draws a portrait of a man who is a victim of his own past and his own prejudices. Nixon begins to compare those who leaked the Pentagon Papers with the communist conspiracy he railed about back in his HUAC days.

Feeling under pressure regarding leaks or potential leaks Nixon starts scheming about leaking negative information about former Democratic icons. He wanted to get the goods on Franklin Roosevelt’s prior knowledge about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Nixon wanted files on President Kennedy because he thought there might be some dirt about the Bay of Pigs fiasco or the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In effect, Nixon wanted a dual-track program: 1.) He wanted to break into private institutions to save himself from potential political damage from the Chennault affair, and 2.) He wanted to disclose damaging classified materials on the Democrats, possibly to muddy the waters just in case his 1968 peace talk sabotage was exposed.

Nixon soon brought onboard Hunt to oversee the creation of a Special Investigations Unit, better known as the Plumbers. The unit would be governed from above by Nixon, Haldeman, and White House aide John Ehrlichman, but it would have support from the FBI and the CIA.

At this point, with the Plumbers formed and their target list forming, Hughes reveals another Nixon pathology: his hatred of the Harvard People. Nixon did not come from a privileged background and did not get into an Ivy League college. He seemed to resent those who did, like Hiss, Kennedy and Roosevelt.

Nixon began to demand head counts in certain agencies of government like Treasury and Justice of, respectively, Jews and Ivy Leaguers. Incredibly, his subordinates actually compiled these counts. Fred Malek was put in charge of finding the Jewish cabal inside government after Nixon said, “I really feel that I want the Jews checked.”

In a conversation with White House counsel Chuck Colson about the Treasury Department, Nixon said: “Well. Listen are they all Jews over there?” Colson replied, “Every one of them. Well, a couple of exceptions.” This conversation concludes with Nixon saying that they have to find a man who is not Jewish to control the Jews in the administration.

Haldeman later wrote that he understood the dark pathology of Nixon’s mind and would not follow through on some of his wilder demands. The problem, as Haldeman saw it, was that Colson would. Colson and Nixon would then do things that Haldeman would not know about until afterwards. In other words, Colson enabled the worst in Nixon.

Acting on Nixon’s worst impulses, Colson and G. Gordon Liddy, a leader of the Plumbers, thought up a wild scheme to burglarize Brookings in pursuit of the missing file. They would first firebomb the building. Then, after the fire engines were called in, a burglary team would take advantage of the confusion and bust open the safe.

But after John Caulfield and Anthony Ulasewicz, veteran detectives working for Nixon, heard about the scheme, they counseled against it and Ehrlichman canceled the operation. As Hughes notes, Ehrlichman then lied under oath about Nixon’s approval of the project, which was the only burglary that Nixon clearly authorized on tape.

On to Watergate

Still, the Plumbers continued to undertake other illegal break-ins, including rifling files and planting bugs inside the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee in late May 1972. When five burglars returned on June 17, 1972, to do more espionage, they were caught by Washington D.C. police, setting in motion the Watergate scandal. That, in turn, created a constitutional crisis as Nixon refused to surrender his White House tapes to investigators.

On July 24, 1974, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes, it spelled the doom for Nixon’s presidency by corroborating allegations from ex-White House counsel John Dean and others that Nixon had overseen a criminal cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.

However, Nixon’s sabotage of Johnson’s peace talks although it may have extended the war for four years and caused the deaths of some 20,000 U.S. soldiers and a million Vietnamese never received the attention that the Watergate cover-up did. Nor has Official Washington ever come to grips with the new evidence suggesting that the two scandals were actually one.

Hughes ends the book deftly. In the David Frost interviews with Nixon in 1977, Frost asked him about the Chennault affair. Nixon replied that he did nothing to undercut Johnson’s attempts at negotiations. About Chennault’s interference, he said that he did not authorize these attempts at subterfuge.

Building on the investigative work of Robert Parry and other researchers, Ken Hughes has written a well-documented, incisive and hard-hitting book. He takes us up close to a man who never should have been president and who appears to have gotten into the White House through an act approaching treason. Nixon then lied about the crime for the rest of his life.

James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His most recent book is Reclaiming Parkland.

The Heinous Crime Behind Watergate

Exclusive: The mainstream media’s big takeaway from Richard Nixon’s Watergate resignation is that “the cover-up is always worse than the crime.” But that’s because few understand the crime behind Watergate, Nixon’s frantic search for a file on his 1968 subversion of Vietnam peace talks, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

To fully understand the Watergate scandal, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation 40 years ago, you have to know the back story starting in 1968 when candidate Nixon took part in a secret maneuver to scuttle the Vietnam peace talks and salvage a narrow victory over Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

In essence, what Nixon and his campaign team did was to contact South Vietnamese leaders behind President Lyndon Johnson’s back and promise them a better deal if they stayed away from Johnson’s Paris peace talks, which President Nguyen van Thieu agreed to do. So, with Johnson’s peace talks stymied and with Nixon suggesting that he had a secret plan to end the war, Nixon edged out Humphrey.

After his election, Nixon learned from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that President Johnson had amassed a detailed file on what Johnson called Nixon’s “treason,” but Nixon couldn’t locate the file once he took office and ordered an intensive search for the material that explained why the Paris peace talks had failed. But the material stayed missing.

Nixon’s worries grew more acute in mid-June 1971 when the New York Times and other major U.S. newspapers began publishing the Pentagon Papers leaked by former Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg. Though the Pentagon Papers covering the years 1945 through 1967 exposed mostly Democratic deceptions, Nixon knew something that few others did, that there was a potential sequel that could be even more explosive than the original.

By mid-1971, an increasingly angry and radical anti-war movement was challenging Nixon’s continuation of the conflict. In early May, a series of demonstrations had sought to shut down Washington. Some 12,000 protesters were arrested, many confined at RFK Stadium in a scene suggesting national disorder.

In June, the Pentagon Papers further fueled the anti-war fury by revealing many of the lies that had led the nation into the bloody Vietnam quagmire. So, Nixon recognized the political danger if someone revealed how Nixon’s pre-election maneuvers in 1968 had prevented President Johnson from bringing the war to an end. Nixon became desperate to get his hands on the missing report (or file) about the failed peace talks.

In a series of tape-recorded meetings beginning on June 17, 1971, Nixon ordered a break-in (or even a fire-bombing) at the Brookings Institution where some Nixon insiders believed the missing material might be hidden in the safe.

“I want it implemented,” Nixon fumed to his senior aides, Henry Kissinger and H.R. “Bob” Haldeman. “Goddamnit, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

On June 30, 1971, Nixon returned to the topic, berating Haldeman about the lack of action and suggesting that a team be formed under former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt to conduct the Brookings break-in. “You talk to Hunt,” Nixon told Haldeman. “I want the break-in. Hell, they do that. You’re to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in. Just go in and take it. Go in around 8:00 or 9:00 o’clock.”

There was even talk about fire-bombing the centrist Washington think tank, but the break-in never apparently happened, although Brookings’ historians say there was an attempted break-in during that time frame. The historians also say that Brookings never possessed the missing file or report.

Nevertheless, Nixon and his advisers had crossed an important Rubicon, creating a team of burglars who would become known as the Plumbers.

This team, under Hunt’s command, would break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist seeking information to discredit the whistleblower and into the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate building on May 28, 1972, to plant bugs and rifle through files. On June 17, 1972, when the team returned to the Watergate to plant more bugs, five of the burglars were arrested by Washington police.

Though Nixon and his team were able to keep a lid on the scandal until the November election, which he won handily over Sen. George McGovern, the cover-up eventually proved to be Nixon’s undoing. As investigators closed in on Nixon’s use of hush money and other obstructions, some insiders, such as White House counsel John Dean, began to talk.

When Congress learned that Nixon had taped many of his Oval Office conversations, the President faced demands for these recordings, which Nixon fought furiously to protect. Eventually, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the tapes be turned over and Nixon’s political fate was sealed. On Aug. 8, 1974, he announced to the nation that he would resign and, on Aug. 9, he signed the official papers and departed from the White House aboard a Marine helicopter.

But the mistaken lesson that the U.S. mainstream media derived from the scandal was that “the cover-up is always worse than the crime,” a silly saying that reflected the media’s ignorance about what the underlying crime was. In this case, the historical record now shows that Nixon set the Watergate scandal in motion in 1971 out of fear that perhaps his greatest crime would be exposed how he sabotaged Vietnam peace talks to gain a political edge in an election.

Of the 58,000, U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam more than 20,000 died during Nixon’s presidency. Possibly a million more Vietnamese died in the Nixon years. But, in the end, Nixon accepted a peace deal in late 1972 similar to what Johnson was negotiating in 1968. And the final outcome was not changed. After U.S. troops departed, the South Vietnamese government soon fell to the North and the Vietcong.

The Missing File

Several years ago, I located the missing file at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas. Before leaving office in January 1969, Johnson had ordered his national security adviser Walt Rostow to take the top secret material out of the White House with instructions to hold it until after Johnson died and then decide what to do with it.

Rostow labeled the file “The X-Envelope” and retained possession until after Johnson’s death on Jan. 22, 1973, just two days after Nixon began his second term. Eventually, Rostow decided to turn over the file to the LBJ Library with instructions to keep it sealed for at least 50 years. However, library officials decided to open “The X-Envelope” in 1994 and began the process of declassification.

The documents many based on FBI wiretaps show that Johnson had strong evidence about Nixon’s peace-talk sabotage, particularly the activities of campaign official Anna Chennault who passed messages to South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem in Washington urging the South Vietnamese leaders to maintain their boycott of the Paris peace talks.

On Nov. 2, the FBI intercepted a conversation in which Chennault told Bui Diem to convey “a message from her boss (not further identified),” according to an FBI cable. Chennault said “her boss wanted her to give [the message] personally to the ambassador. She said the message was that the ambassador is to ‘hold on, we are going to win’ and that her boss also said, ‘hold on, he understands all of it.’ She repeated that this is the only message ‘he said please tell your boss to hold on.’”

That same day, Thieu recanted on his tentative agreement to meet with the Viet Cong in Paris, pushing the incipient peace talks toward failure.

Several years ago, the National Archives released tape recordings of Johnson’s phone calls further clarifying the depth of Johnson’s knowledge and anger. On the night of Nov. 2, Johnson telephoned Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois and urged him to intercede with Nixon.

“The agent [Chennault] says she’s just talked to the boss and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until after the election,” Johnson said. “We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We’re pretty well informed at both ends.”

Johnson then issued a thinly veiled threat to go public. “I don’t want to get this in the campaign,” Johnson said, adding: “They oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”

Dirksen responded, “I know.”

Johnson continued: “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don’t want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to. I know what they’re saying.”

Though Johnson personally spoke with Nixon about the Chennault issue, Nixon simply denied doing anything wrong and the peace stalemate continued through the final days of the campaign. On the day before the election, Johnson had one last chance to expose Nixon’s “treason” when the White House was asked by the Christian Science Monitor to respond to a Saigon-datelined article drafted by correspondent Beverly Deepe who had discovered the Republican obstruction from her South Vietnamese sources.

Johnson consulted with Rostow, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford in a Nov. 4 conference call. Those three pillars of the Washington Establishment were unanimous in advising Johnson against going public, mostly out of fear that the scandalous information might reflect badly on the U.S. government.

“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”

Johnson concurred with their judgment. An administration spokesman refused to confirm or deny the story, leading the Christian Science Monitor’s editors to spike Deepe’s scoop.

Nixon’s interference with the Paris peace talks remained secret as Americans went to the polls, many believing that Nixon did have a plan to end the war. Instead, once in the White House, Nixon escalated the war with heavier bombing of North Vietnam and an invasion of Cambodia. U.S. combat involvement would continue for four more years.

Yet, even as the historical record has become clearer in recent years, the old conventional wisdom about Watergate as a “third-rate burglary” that only proved politically devastating to Nixon because he engaged in an ill-advised cover-up remains the prevailing narrative. If you ask most mainstream U.S. journalists about the prime lesson of Watergate, they’ll probably tell you that it shows that “the cover-up is always worse than the crime.”

[For more on this topic, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative, or go to’s “LBJ’s X-File on Nixon’s ‘Treason’” or “An Insider’s View of Nixon’s ‘Treason’.”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

The Long Reach of Vietnam War Deceptions

America’s war in Vietnam, which was authorized by the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution a half century ago, had lasting consequences for the nation, including deeper public distrust of government and government’s determination to restrict the people’s right to know, as retired JAG Major Todd E. Pierce explains.

By Todd E. Pierce

A half century ago, on Aug. 10, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution though he knew its justification was based entirely on deception. Indeed, it was a continuation of a pattern of deception begun with a series of clandestine acts of war against North Vietnam by U.S. forces known as “Oplan 34-A.”

Oplan 34-A consisted of sabotage and psychological warfare attacks directed against and into North Vietnamese territory. This reality was only brought to light seven bloody years later with the release of the “Pentagon Papers” by courageous whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.

These deceptions, culminating with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, triggered an unwinnable war fought entirely on false pretenses and further deceptions of the American people until defeat could no longer be postponed.

Yet, in addition to the massive loss of life and irreparable wounds to so many participants, along with the enormous economic costs, the other U.S. victim of the Vietnam War was the U.S. Constitution itself. Specifically, it was the Bill of Rights, which, taken together, provide the American people the “right to know.”

The Bill of Rights was enacted so the U.S. citizenry could act as “centinels,” as James Madison put it, over government officials, including intelligence and military officials, not the opposite. This was to protect the Republic against both perfidious and incompetent officials.

But officials during the Vietnam War worked to turn that principle upside-down. These officials would succeed in institutionalizing within the military their belief that the “people” themselves couldn’t be trusted with information of what was being done in their name.

Military and intelligence leaders saw the need for themselves and their institutions to act as “sentinels” over the citizens so civilians could never again appreciably interfere with the military’s contemplation, planning or conduct of a “war.” The constitutional right to know became the “center of gravity,” the main target, for the military’s effort to suppress any future civilian “interference” with the military, a strategy that violated the very purpose of the Constitution.

Beyond infringing on the constitutional right of the American people to know what their government is doing, this reversal of who is supposed to control whom also came at the cost of national security. The “right to know” is not a mere privilege or luxury Americans have as a birthright; it is in the Constitution as part of the system of checks and balances the Framers created to provide for the “common defence,”  and has been the greatest strength the U.S. has had through its history, as other militaristic regimes that have come and gone show.

A Deep Cynicism    

While the “Pentagon Papers” revealed nothing of military significance at the time of their release in 1971, they did reveal the “deep cynicism by the military towards the public and a disregard for the loss of life and injury suffered by soldiers and civilians,” as one historical assessment noted.

More threatening to President Richard Nixon, however, was H.R. “Bob” Haldeman’s observation that the disclosures led the ordinary guy to believe that “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.”

Military leaders such as General William Westmoreland had a similar view of any information that could prove embarrassing to the military when published by the press corps.

So Nixon, in his role as Commander in Chief presiding over a war that practically everyone  conceded as lost, and the military leaders who had run the war with their  self-defeating “strategies,”  counter-attacked  against the press whom they blamed for turning Americans against the war. They charged the media with a “stab in the back” of the military. This became a common belief in the military and among pro-war civilians to the ultimate detriment of the United States. In fact, Nixon had called the press “our worst enemy” in the war.

Getting It Right

There were wiser officials who saw the war as unwinnable from the beginning. Undersecretary of State George Ball advised against entering what he recognized as a Vietnamese civil war.

The military had officers who knew the war was unwinnable as well, at least by 1967 when “only” 12,269 Americans had been listed as killed. General Fred Weyand, though only identified much later, told reporters “Westie just doesn’t get it. The war is unwinnable. We’ve reached a stalemate and we should find a dignified way out.”

This recognition led to a very accurate New York Times article of Aug. 7, 1967, unlike the intelligence reports that Westmoreland’s G-2 (Intelligence) staff produced. Two unidentified generals were quoted, one later revealed as Weyand, who stated that he had destroyed a single North Vietnamese division three times:

“I’ve chased main-force units all over the country and the impact was zilch. It meant nothing to the people. Unless a more positive and more stirring theme than simple anti-communism can be found, the war appears likely to go on until someone gets tired and quits, which could take generations.”

The other general’s quote was “Every time Westie makes a speech about how good the South Vietnam Army is, I want to ask him why he keeps calling for more Americans. His need for reinforcements is a measure of our failure with the Vietnamese.”

The article’s author wrote, referring to the South Vietnamese, that “The best talent in the current generation has long since been lost: Thousands of men who might be leading South Vietnamese troops in combat are serving with the North  Vietnamese or the Vietcong, heirs to the country’s nationalist revolution against the French.” Or they were languishing in exile following South Vietnamese purges.

But it being truthful, the article enraged President Johnson and Generals Westmoreland and Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Had Johnson shaped his decision-making to the astute analysis of the “press” in this case, the losses of the Vietnam War would have been much lower. Instead, he granted Westmoreland’s wish for a “surge,” and sent an additional 205,000 soldiers to Vietnam.

Westmoreland’s Bigotry

Westmoreland expressed what he understood of the Vietnamese people when he said, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. … We value life and human dignity. They don’t care about life and human dignity.” This viewpoint was passed on to too many  subordinates we now know, as seen in the far more common occurrence of American war crimes than previously known, which further alienated Vietnamese from the U.S.

Taking such bigotry as a license to treat Vietnamese villagers in the harshest manner, Westmoreland’s policy included destroying their rice paddies and herding the people into “relocation camps.”

“Herding” villagers and their livestock was literally true as the Army described “Operation Rawhide” in a press release after Westmoreland decreed there would be no more farming, or farmers, in the Central Highlands. In this case, the old adage — “it was worse than a crime, it was a blunder” understated the case.

Nixon’s attacks on the press were easily dismissed as routine for him and he eventually shuffled off in disgrace anyway. But most insidiously, American military leaders who couldn’t agree amongst themselves on how to fight the war could agree on who was responsible for losing it: the press.

Their accusation against the press was that it reported negative news, even though true, causing Americans to lose their “will” to fight, and an antiwar movement grew out of that. These military leaders believed or convinced themselves that they would have won the war if not for the media’s “negativity.”

This “stab in the back” myth became conventional wisdom within much of the military down to the present day, as shown in numerous military journal articles, due to these officers’ efforts to revise history at the expense of their country.

This hostility toward the press is best shown in some of the writings of retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, who has even suggested that journalists may have to be targeted; killed. Short of that though has come the military’s strict grip on the message through the information control policies of today.

These policies are to classify and over-classify practically all information related to the military, total surveillance over the population, both foreign and domestic, and the harshest of consequences for whistle blowers, even though or maybe because they reveal illegality by military and intelligence officials.

Stab in the Back Origin

German General Erich Ludendorf created the template for how guilt was to be assigned by a military after they’ve lost a war. In his case, it was World War I. He created the “stab in the back” myth that laid blame for Germany losing the war on civilians who were alleged to be defeatist and who undercut morale or were insufficiently loyal.

Germany had become ever more militarized as World War I went on, just as the other belligerents had, so there was no longer a press free of military censorship to cast the blame on. But Ludendorf’s accusations of disloyalty against German civilians paved the way for the eventual Nazi takeover and the draconian system of censorship, surveillance and military commissions over civilians that the Nazis put into place.

Political dissent was criminalized as a violation of German’s absolute duty of loyalty to the nation under the law of war during wartime, which the Nazis worked to make permanent. (Today, some American legal commentators glibly echo this by suggesting that censorship may be necessary to suppress “antigovernment speech” which “may demoralize soldiers and civilians,” while arguing that we’re now in a “long war” of indefinite duration against a tactic known as “terrorism.”)

In World War II Germany, trying cases of “disloyalty” primarily fell to the infamous “People’s Court;” in actuality a military commission or a “war court.” Anyone “disloyal” in any manner or degree was said to degrade the war-fighting “will” of the German people. Representative examples of these offenses include suggesting the war was the cause of food shortages or making an innocuous joke about a German leader.

Vietnam War Lost

In the style of Ludendorf, senior American military officers in charge of the conduct of the Vietnam War similarly accused civilians of stabbing the military in the back after South Vietnam fell to the North. Their accusation against elected officials was that they didn’t give the military everything the military asked for to fight the war, as if the resources of the U.S. were inexhaustible or as if that was a strategy in itself.

General H.R. McMaster added a slight twist by including the Joint Chiefs of Staff for not demanding even more troops and inflicting even greater harm by increasing costs to the civilian economy. But the most insidious charge was against the press of the day, the media. Leading officers accused the media of having caused the American people to lose their “will” to fight the war.

It wasn’t that these officers didn’t give credit to Americans for drawing conclusions from seeing the dead and wounded returned, it was that civilians had no right to their own conclusions if they were in conflict with military leadership. The solution seen by these military leaders was to deny information to the citizenry regarding military operations except for “feel good” news.

The officers accusing the press were all responsible for the conduct of the war,
including General Westmoreland. In his 1976 book, A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland revealed that President Johnson expressed regrets he had not imposed censorship and the General obviously shared that regret.

But Westmoreland was coy enough to damn the press with faint praise. While disclaiming any vendetta against the press, in spite of their “errors, misinterpretations, judgments, and falsehoods,” Westmoreland quoted an Australian journalist who had said “there are those who say it was the first war in history lost in the columns of the New York Times.”

Westmoreland lamented elsewhere: “Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.
But Westmoreland is who was confused. He wrote: “Reflecting the view of the war held by many in the United States and often contributing to it, the general tone of press and television comment was critical, particularly following the Tet offensive of 1968.”

Not be critical was to be confused. Westmoreland could not fathom that the American people and the press, along with soldiers in his own Army, could see his war strategy was completely irrational and failing, even while he was deliberately covering that fact up with a disinformation campaign.

Accept What You’re Told

Westmoreland, like Nixon, believed the citizens’ duty was to accept anything they were told by the government, especially by the military. This would explain why neither could understand that the role of the press under the U.S. Constitution is to act as the people’s watchdog; to protect the people’s interests. This is especially so in wartime as a check on incompetent officers, as Westmoreland proved to be.

Though Westmoreland had sworn an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, he wrote: “It may well be that between press and official there is an inherent, built-in inherent conflict of interest. There is something to be said for both sides, but when the nation is at war and men’s lives are at stake, there should be no ambiguity. . . . If the nation is to wage war — declared or undeclared — a policy should be set to protect the interests of both press and government and avoid the ambiguity that characterized relationships in South Vietnam.”

Here, Westmoreland laid the ideological cornerstone of strict military information and media control which the U.S. has now. This allows the appearance of a free press, but one thoroughly conditioned to defer to the government, the military or the intelligence services.

An example of this is the suppression for a year by the New York Times of an article written by James Risen about President George W. Bush’s use of warrantless wiretaps against Americans in his “war on terror.” Unlike so many “journalists” who merely celebrate the military and the intelligence agencies, Risen acted as a journalist should.

That the military and the intelligence agencies need the oversight meant to be provided by a free, critical press, the so-called Fourth Estate, is made convincingly, though perhaps unintentionally, by retired Army Lt. Col. Lewis Sorley in his book: Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. Paradoxically, or ironically, Sorley was one of the officers who blamed the press for determining the course of the war but his book on Westmoreland refutes that argument.

Vainglorious Westie

Westmoreland was a vainglorious officer of shallow intellect in the George Armstrong Custer mold. He had advanced through lower-level commands, not without some controversy regarding his judgment. His major accomplishment in the decade before going to Vietnam seemed to be as Superintendent of West Point. His “accomplishments” there were to get a new football stadium funded, expand the size of the Corps of Cadets so the football team would have more cadets to draw upon, and having a pamphlet sent to influential people, “West Point Points the Way in Post Efficiency.”

But upon being appointed Commander of U. S. Forces in Vietnam, Westmoreland immediately assumed he was now an expert on Vietnam.

Brimming with his customary conceit, fresh off his successful campaign for the new football stadium, Westmoreland, according to Sorley, wrote to his father shortly after arrival in Vietnam in April 1964, “this war has been very badly reported to the American people through the press, and I might say the New York Times is perhaps the best example of what I mean.”

He claimed that the New York Times had not sent their best reporters to the war zone and that many were “young, immature, impetuous men who have been unprepared to report the situation objectively.” He viewed other leading journalists in Vietnam with similar disdain.

But Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett pointed out: “When Westy took command in 1964, I was thirty years of age. I had been in Southeast Asia for eight years, and had been all over Vietnam. I was married to a Vietnamese woman. My father-in-law was a colonel in the Vietnamese army. I knew John Paul Vann and most of the American advisors. What did he [Westmoreland] mean that we were too young and didn’t know anything? Westy was wrong.”

Information Warfare 

According to Sorley, when Westmoreland was decrying the “errors, misinterpretations, judgments, and falsehoods” of the press, all of which pertained to himself, he was actively creating falsehoods of success for the press to report. Sorley describes Westmoreland’s active role in LBJ’s “Progress Offensive,” an active disinformation campaign, or Information Operation as it would be called today, designed to mislead the American people and their elected representatives.

Its objective was consistent with Joint Chief of Staff Chairman General Earle Wheeler’s guidance to portray the war in the most favorable light, in disregard of the facts.

The “Progress Offensive” was “a systematic effort to convince the American people that the war in Vietnam was being won,” according to Sorley, especially in 1967. Westmoreland was a willing partner in that. But Westmoreland’s deceit began even before he was brought on board the “Progress Offensive.”

Westmoreland had submitted statistics to Wheeler in early 1967 showing that the enemy was increasing the “tactical initiative.” Sorley wrote that Wheeler was distraught and wailed: “If these figures should reach the public domain they would, literally, blow the lid off Washington.”

So Wheeler first instructed Westmoreland not to release the figures to the news media. As more information became available showing the situation worsening, with Westmoreland’s maltreatment of Vietnamese villagers probably being a cause, Wheeler sent a general officer out to help Westmoreland “fix” the problem.

Later, Westmoreland sent a memorandum to Wheeler stating: “Lieutenant General Brown’s team and members of my staff have developed terms of reference in the form of new definitions, criteria, formats and procedures relating to the reporting of enemy activity which can be used to assess effectively significant trends in the organized enemy combat initiative.”

In fact, this amounted to manipulation of intelligence by Westmoreland which later became the “order of battle” controversy and set the stage for Americans to be shocked by the Tet Offensive in January-February 1968. How many additional American lives would be lost and ruined due to this chicanery did not seem to be relevant to the numbers fixers.

A Conspiracy to Deceive       

That this numbers manipulation was a conspiracy to deceive the public and the policymakers is shown by a message sent by General Bruce Palmer on Aug. 19, 1967, stating that Westmoreland was concerned that “the U.S. press is painting a pessimistic, stalemated situation in RVN.” Palmer continued: “To counteract this distorted impression of the true situation, he [Westmoreland] is launching a local campaign to portray and articulate the very real progress underway in the Vietnamese War.”

As Sorley put it, far from being the reluctant participant Westmoreland claimed to be, he “was opening his own branch office of the Progress Offensive.”

Westmoreland reported his plans to Wheeler and others in August 1967, at the time of the New York Times article cited above, that “of course we must make haste carefully in order to avoid charges that the military establishment is conducting an organized propaganda campaign, either overt or covert.”

As he saw it in Vietnam, “while we work on the nerve endings here we hope that careful attention will be paid to the roots there — the confused or unknowledgeable pundits who serve as sources for each other.” And as shown, a couple of his own generals including General Weyand also served as sources for those “confused or unknowledgeable pundits.”

Sorley notes that General Wheeler could have told President Johnson the truth and “provided him with the information he needed to make informed decisions about the future course of the war. But he did not.”

This subversion of the constitutional principle that the military is subordinate to civilian officials by a deliberate deception could be said to be tantamount to treason, and should have been cause for Court Martial of Wheeler, Westmoreland and their co-conspirators, without excusing Johnson for his misconduct.

Hammering Home the Point  

Following Westmoreland’s lead after the war, other senior military leaders came out with their own books disclaiming any responsibility for the Vietnam disaster. Among them were Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Jr., Commander in Chief, Pacific; Lt.Gen. Phillip Davidson, MACV J-2, (Westmoreland’s chief intelligence officer); General Bruce Palmer, Jr.; and Westmoreland’s one-time aide, Lt. Gen., Dave R. Palmer. All in essence accused the press of stabbing the nation and the military in the back, in the Ludendorf model.

In Summons of the Trumpet, written in 1978, Lt. Gen. Dave R. Palmer wrote: “Dissent and dissenters inside America itself did much to discredit the war by spreading doubt and sowing despair.”

Palmer allowed that the dissenters covered a wide spectrum of society, from housewives to retired generals, adding that they had two things in common, they were highly visible and their ranks grew as the war years stretched on.

This caused “confusion” in Dave Palmer’s view. He wrote that “debate and dissent, based on emotion as well as logic, grew apace as the war progressed, serving mightily as major contributors to confusion.” But to Palmer, the news media bore responsibility “for having muddied issues in the war,” concluding that “the American press failed to clarify the war in Vietnam and, not unfairly, can be accused of adding to the public bewilderment.”

But who was truly confused? Later in his book, Palmer quotes part of Westmoreland’s summary of 1967, which reached Washington four days before the Tet Offensive began. As Palmer says, “Like nearly every official, the general was optimistic. He confidently reported:

“‘In many areas the enemy has been driven away from the population centers; in others he has been compelled to disperse and evade contact, thus nullifying much of his potential. The year ended with the enemy resorting to desperation tactics in attempting to achieve military/psychological victory; and he has experienced only failures in these attempts.’”

But Palmer stated, “the government had not deliberately misled the American people.” He explains that was why they were so stunned, because the “President and his entourage truly believed their own assurances.” But that wasn’t true.

Selling the Public

As a close associate of Westmoreland’s, Palmer would have known of Westmoreland’s “Progress Offensive” which was designed to mislead the American people into believing that “progress” in the war was being made. Palmer’s disingenuous accusation that the press was responsible for the confusion of the American people when it was his own commander working to sow confusion and mislead the people he was supposed to be working for, the American public, can only be seen as shameless blame shifting from his military cronies onto the press.

Continuing this theme was the other commander over the Vietnam War, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, CINCPAC. As CINCPAC, Sharp was in charge of the air war by the Navy and the Air Force over North Vietnam during Westmoreland’s tenure.

Sharp wrote Strategy for Defeat, wherein he explained how he and General Westmoreland would have won the war but for those “civilian politico decision makers” who had “no business ignoring or overriding the counsel of experienced military professionals” in the conduct of the war.

But in the end, Admiral Sharp accused the American press of losing the war by eroding our “will” because “we were subjected to a skillfully waged subversive propaganda campaign, aided and abetted by the media’s bombardment of sensationalism, rumors and half-truths about the Vietnam affair — a campaign that destroyed our national unity?”

Another Westmoreland crony, General Bruce Palmer, Jr., deputy commander in Vietnam, bewailed in his 1984 book that “the United States seems to share a common weakness of Western democracies, an inability to inculcate in people the kind of determination and almost religious zeal which communist countries have achieved.”

But it wasn’t for lack of trying to artificially “inculcate’ this zeal. Palmer claims that many of the officers in Vietnam resented “having our field commander being put on the spot” by being called back to the U.S. and being used for political purposes by LBJ, such as to testify to Congress on how well the war was going. But Palmer acknowledged that Westmoreland enjoyed those occasions and would return to Saigon still “up on cloud nine.”

But General Palmer’s arguments were logically conflicted. With his book, The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam, one wonders if the author isn’t schizophrenic. He gives all the evidence for why it was self-evident that Vietnam was an unwinnable war being run by amateurs, even listing the multitudinous errors committed in Vietnam by U.S. military leaders, including their own disputes on strategy.

Palmer also calls congressional members hypocrites for making antiwar speeches while voting money for the war, as if there were not harsh political consequences for anyone not “supporting the troops.” He also faulted teachers and professors for opposing the war. Yet, at the time he was writing his book, General Palmer claimed that, in hindsight, the war might not have been winnable all along. Still, he criticized those who questioned it.

Back in Time

None of the above officers could match Lt. Gen. Phillip B. Davidson, however, in hostility toward the press and the Constitution, which he was sworn to protect. Davidson’s books on Vietnam transports one back to the Second German Reich of Kaiser Wilhelm, when Prussian militarism was at its peak and war was celebrated for its own sake.

Davidson argued that Congress should have declared war on the Vietnamese so the U.S. government could exercise censorship and prosecute dissenters for treason. This, in fact, is a suggestion made today by some authoritarian law school commentators, with the so-called “Long War” that we’re in.

But it was Col. Harry Summers, Jr., relying on works by arch-neoconservative and militarist Norman Podhoretz, who took deception to an even higher level than Westmoreland while making the “stab in the back” accusation against the media.

In doing so, Summers also deceived his intellectually lazy fellow military officers by substituting a parody of On War by Carl von Clausewitz, with his own On Strategy, which then became very influential in the U.S. military according to David Petraeus and remains on many military reading lists today.

In fact, Summers’s On Strategy was a revisionist falsification of Clausewitz’s principles. A slight knowledge of Clausewitz and On War is necessary to understand this.

Understanding Clausewitz

Clausewitz fought a war of resistance against Bonaparte imperialism. With an anti-imperial viewpoint and respect for the sovereignty of other nations, Clausewitz saw the defensive as the stronger form of war at the strategic level, not the offensive.

He wrote: “we must say that the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive. This is the point we have been trying to make, for although it is implicit in the nature of the matter and experience has confirmed it again and again. It is at odds with prevalent opinion, which proves how ideas can be confused by superficial writers.”

Those superficial writers today would include Dick Cheney who has always favored the offensive form of war called “forward leaning” that he wants other Americans to fight.

Clausewitz understood that when nations did go to war, “the reason always lies in some political situation, and the occasion is always due to some political object. War therefore, is an act of policy.”

Since war is driven by its political object, “the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration,” but once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow. Westmoreland and other pro-Vietnam War advocates failed to understand this.

Clausewitz also wrote, “Be that as it may, we must always consider that with the conclusion of peace the purpose of the war has been achieved and its business is at an end.” For Clausewitz, even between adversarial states, the objective of war policy is to restore peace, not to maintain a permanent state of war against a concept such as “terrorism” or with a permanent occupation of territory seized in war, such as the West Bank and Gaza.

An Informed Electorate

Policy for any nation will be what its sovereign decides. In a democratic republic, the sovereign is supposed to be its citizens and, therefore, it is for them to consider how best to pursue national policy. That requires the electorate to be informed, necessitating the free flow of information; a fundamental requirement of democratic governance and its greatest strength.

Without the “right to know” and an involved citizenry, including an active and critical press, there is no gauge for when “the “expenditure of effort, exceeds the value of the political object” to determine when “the object must be renounced and peace must follow.”

Or if the “object” should never have been pursued in the first place. Military leaders, with only a few exceptions, only demand more “surges.” For the political calculation on war or peace to be made with any accuracy, there also must be tolerance for dissenting opinions.

Clausewitz’s theory of war was fully consistent with the attitudes of many American Founders on the need to avoid “entangling alliances” that could drag the young nation into ill-considered wars. In the early years of the Republic, American leaders were particularly on guard against pressures that sought to involve them in conflicts between France and England.

Contrast this with On Strategy, the “Bible” for the “stab in the back” crowd. What its author, Col. Harry Summers, Jr., did was to flip Clausewitz’s strategic theory upside down, ignoring Clausewitz’s recognition that the defensive was the stronger form of war than the offensive.

Unfortunately, Summers’s book, by its association with Clausewitz, acquired a veneer of strategic legitimacy for which the United States is still paying today. Primarily, that cost is paid by the loss of the constitutional “right to know” as most post-Vietnam War administrations have accepted the fallacious claim that the press was responsible for “losing” Vietnam and thus have further curtailed the public’s access to “national security” information.

Why Does This Matter?

This process of over-classification and excessive secrecy has reached an apex with the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama despite the latter’s promises of greater “transparency.” Instead, the antagonism toward a free press and an informed public that came out of the Vietnam War have continued to guide information policy, including aggressive prosecutions aimed at whistleblowers, such as Pvt. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, and legal intimidation of journalists, such as James Risen and Glenn Greenwald.

Fanatics such as Fox News commentator retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters have even called for “targeting” members of the media.

And, despite the Obama administration’s zeal in protecting “national security” secrets, there is now an echo of the “stab in the back” complaint against President Obama for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, even though it was President Bush who accepted the timetable demanded by the Iraqi government.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and daughter Liz virtually accused Obama of treason against the United States when they claimed “he abandoned Iraq and we are watching American defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.”

The inestimable Lt. Col. Ralph Peters went even further when he charged Obama with “the creation of the first jihadi state in modern history stretching from central Syria to central Iraq and now approaching Baghdad all because President Obama saw everything through a political lens.”

But a more accurate “stab in the back” accusation against President Obama would be that he has continued the post-Vietnam approach of hiding as much “national security” information as possible from the American people and trying to use the press more as a conduit for propaganda than for dissemination of truth.

For decades now, the deadliest “stab in the back” to the American Republic has been the one inflicted on the Bill of Rights, with President Obama seeming to give it a final twist.

Todd E. Pierce retired as a Major in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps in November 2012. His most recent assignment was defense counsel in the Office of Chief Defense Counsel, Office of Military Commissions. 

How LBJ Was Deceived on Gulf of Tonkin

As war hawks today push President Obama into more and more confrontations, there is an echo from a half century ago when Vietnam War hawks manipulated President Johnson into a bombing campaign in retaliation for the phony Gulf of Tonkin incident, as Gareth Porter recalls.

By Gareth Porter

For most of the last five decades, it has been assumed that the Tonkin Gulf incident was a deception by Lyndon Johnson to justify war in Vietnam. But the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam on Aug. 4, 1964, in retaliation for an alleged naval attack that never happened — and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that followed was not a move by LBJ to get the American people to support a U.S. war in Vietnam.

The real deception on that day was that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s misled LBJ by withholding from him the information that the U.S. commander in the Gulf — who had initially reported an attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats on U.S. warships — had later expressed serious doubts about the initial report and was calling for a full investigation by daylight. That withholding of information from LBJ represented a brazen move to usurp the President’s constitutional power of decision on the use of military force.

McNamara’s deception is documented in the declassified files on the Tonkin Gulf episode in the Lyndon Johnson library, which this writer used to piece together the untold story of the Tonkin Gulf episode in a 2005 book on the U.S. entry into war in Vietnam. It is a key element of a wider story of how the national security state, including both military and civilian officials, tried repeatedly to pressure LBJ to commit the United States to a wider  war in Vietnam.

Johnson had refused to retaliate two days earlier for a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. naval vessels carrying out electronic surveillance operations. But he accepted McNamara’s recommendation for retaliatory strikes on Aug. 4 based on reports of a second attack. But after that decision, the U.S. task force commander in the Gulf, Capt. John Herrick, began to send messages expressing doubt about the initial reports and suggested a “complete evaluation” before any action was taken in response.

McNamara had read Herrick’s message by mid-afternoon, and when he called the Pacific Commander, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp Jr., he learned that Herrick had expressed further doubt about the incident based on conversations with the crew of the Maddox. Sharp specifically recommended that McNamara “hold this execute” of the U.S. airstrikes planned for the evening while he sought to confirm that the attack had taken place.

But McNamara told Sharp he preferred to “continue the execute order in effect” while he waited for “a definite fix” from Sharp about what had actually happened.

McNamara then proceeded to issue the strike execute order without consulting with LBJ about what he had learned from Sharp, thus depriving him of the choice of cancelling the retaliatory strike before an investigation could reveal the truth.

At the White House meeting that night, McNamara again asserted flatly that U.S. ships had been attacked in the Gulf.  When questioned about the evidence, McNamara said, “Only highly classified information nails down the incident.” But the NSA intercept of a North Vietnamese message that McNamara cited as confirmation could not possibly have been related to the Aug. 4 incident, as intelligence analysts quickly determined based from the time-date group of the message.

LBJ began to suspect that McNamara had kept vital information from him, and immediately ordered national security adviser McGeorge Bundy to find out whether the alleged attack had actually taken place and required McNamara’s office to submit a complete chronology of McNamara’s contacts with the military on Aug. 4 for the White House indicating what had transpired in each of them.

But that chronology shows that McNamara continued to hide the substance of the conversation with Admiral Sharp from LBJ. It omitted Sharp’s revelation that Capt. Herrick considered the “whole situation” to be “in doubt” and was calling for a “daylight recce [reconnaissance]” before any decision to retaliate, as well as Sharp’s agreement with Herrick’s recommendation. It also falsely portrayed McNamara as having agreed with Sharp that the execute order should be delayed until confirming evidence was found.

Contrary to the assumption that LBJ used the Tonkin Gulf incident to move U.S. policy firmly onto a track for military intervention, it actually widened the differences between Johnson and his national security advisers over Vietnam policy. Within days after the episode Johnson had learned enough to be convinced that the alleged attack had not occurred and he responded by halting both the CIA-managed commando raids on the North Vietnamese coast U.S. and the U.S. naval patrols near the coast.

In fact, McNamara’s deception on Aug. 4 was just one of 12 distinct episodes in which top U.S. national security officials attempted to press a reluctant LBJ to begin a bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

In September 1964, McNamara and other top officials tried to get LBJ to approve a deliberately provocative policy of naval patrols running much closer to the North Vietnamese coast and at the same time as the commando raids. They hoped for another incident that would justify a bombing program. But Johnson insisted that the naval patrols stay at least 20 miles away from the coast and stopped the commando operations.

Six weeks after the Tonkin Gulf bombing, on Sept. 18, 1964, McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk claimed yet another North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. destroyer in Gulf and tried to get LBJ to approve another retaliatory strike. But a skeptical LBJ told McNamara, “You just came in a few weeks ago and said they’re launching an attack on us they’re firing at us, and we got through with the firing and concluded maybe they hadn’t fired at all.”

After LBJ was elected in November 1964, he continued to resist a unanimous formal policy recommendation of his advisers that he should begin the systematic bombing of North Vietnam. He stubbornly argued for three more months that there was no point in bombing the North as long as the South was divided and unstable.

Johnson also refused to oppose the demoralized South Vietnamese government negotiating a neutralist agreement with the Communists, much to his advisers’ chagrin. McGeorge Bundy later recalled in an oral history interview that he concluded that Johnson was “coming to a decision to lose” in South Vietnam.

LBJ only capitulated to the pressure from his advisers after McNamara and Bundy wrote a joint letter to him in late January 1965 making it clear that responsibility for U.S. “humiliation” in South Vietnam would rest squarely on his shoulders if he continued his policy of “passivity.” Fearing, with good reason, that his own top national security advisers would turn on him and blame him for the loss of South Vietnam, LBJ eventually began the bombing of North Vietnam.

He was then sucked into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War, which he defended publicly and privately, leading to the logical but mistaken conclusion that he had been the main force behind the push for war all along.

The deeper lesson of the Tonkin Gulf episode is how a group of senior national security officials can seek determinedly through hardball and even illicit tactics to advance a war agenda, even knowing that the President of the United States is resisting it.

Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, was published Feb. 14.

An Insider’s View of Nixon’s ‘Treason’

Special Report: A recently released oral history by one of President Nixon’s secretive operatives sheds new light on perhaps Nixon’s darkest crime, the sabotaging of Vietnam peace talks so he could win the 1968 election, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Tom Charles Huston, the national security aide assigned by President Richard Nixon to investigate what President Lyndon Johnson knew about why the Vietnam peace talks failed in 1968, concluded that Nixon was personally behind a secret Republican scheme to sabotage those negotiations whose collapse cleared the way to his narrow victory and to four more years of war.

“Over the years as I’ve studied it, I’ve concluded that there was no doubt that Nixon was would have been directly involved, that it’s not something that anybody would’ve undertaken on their own,” Huston said in an oral history done for the Nixon presidential library in 2008 and recently released in partially redacted form.

Huston, who is best known for the 1970 Huston Plan to expand spying on the anti-Vietnam War movement, said he was assigned the peace-talk investigation after Nixon took office because Nixon was told by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that President Johnson had learned of Nixon’s sabotage through national security wiretaps.

Those wiretaps had revealed that Nixon’s campaign was promising South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu a better deal if he boycotted the Paris peace talks, which Thieu did in the days before the U.S. presidential election in 1968.

“I think clearly there was no doubt that the Nixon campaign was aggressively trying to keep President Thieu from agreeing,” Huston said in his oral history [To see the transcripts, click here and here.]

Johnson’s failure to achieve a breakthrough stalled a late surge by Vice President Hubert Humphrey and enabled Nixon to prevail in one of the closest elections in U.S. history. Nixon then expanded the war with heavier strategic bombing over Indochina and with an invasion of Cambodia before winding down U.S. troop levels by 1973.

In those Nixon years, a million more Vietnamese were estimated to have died along with an additional 20,763 U.S. dead and 111,230 wounded. The war also bitterly divided the United States, often turning parents against their own children.

Hoover’s Double Game

According to Huston, Hoover briefed Nixon on his potential vulnerability regarding Johnson’s wiretap evidence even before Nixon took office. “That goes back to the meeting that Nixon had with Hoover at the Pierre Hotel in New York after the election, at which Nixon made it clear to Hoover that he was going to reappoint him, which is what Hoover wanted.

“But, you know, Hoover was a piece of work. I mean, at the same time that pursuant to instructions from Lyndon Johnson he’s got his agents scurrying all over the damn Southwest, you know, trying to dig up dirt on the vice president-elect [Spiro Agnew for his purported role in the peace-talk sabotage], [Hoover]’s sitting with the President-elect and telling him that Johnson had bugged his airplane during the ’68 campaign,” a specific claim that was apparently false but something that Nixon appears to have believed.

Faced with uncertainty about exactly what evidence Johnson had, Nixon ordered up a review of what was in the files, including whatever obstacles that the peace talks had encountered, an area that Huston felt required examining the issue of Republican obstruction, including contacts between Nixon campaign operative Anna Chennault and senior South Vietnamese officials.

“I wasn’t really asked specifically to address Chennault, but you couldn’t really look at [Johnson’s] bombing halt and the politics of the bombing halt without — at least in my judgment, without looking at what Johnson was looking at,” Huston said. “What Johnson was looking at was this perception that the Nixon campaign was doing whatever it could to sabotage his efforts to achieve a bombing halt.”

Huston found that nearly all the national security files at the White House had been packed up and shipped to the Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas, so Huston began piecing together the material from records recovered from the FBI and other federal agencies. According to the National Archives, Nixon, as the sitting president, would have had relatively easy access to the material shipped to Austin if he had wanted it.

The X-Envelope

But Johnson had taken no chances that Nixon’s team might recover the file containing the evidence on what Johnson called Nixon’s “treason.” As Johnson was leaving the White House in January 1969, he ordered his national security aide Walt Rostow to take that file and keep it in his personal possession. Rostow labeled the file “The X-Envelope,” although it has since become known to Johnson archivists as the “X-File.”

Describing his investigation, Huston said he eventually “got so frustrated because I knew I wasn’t getting all of the information that would allow me to really understand what had happened in Paris. And so I decided to go out and start bird-dogging on my own,” reaching out to other federal agencies.

Huston said “there is no question” that the Nixon campaign approached senior South Vietnamese officials with promises of a better deal if they stayed away from the Paris peace talks.

“Clearly, [campaign manager John] Mitchell was directly involved. Mitchell was meeting with her [Chennault], and, you know, the question, was the candidate himself directly involved, and, you know, my conclusion is that there is no evidence that I found, nor that anyone else has found that I can determine, that I regard as credible, that would confirm the fact that Nixon was directly involved.

“I think my understanding of the way in which — having been in the ’68 campaign, and my understanding of the way that campaign was run, it’s inconceivable to me that John Mitchell would be running around, you know, passing messages to the South Vietnamese government, et cetera, on his own initiative.”

Though Huston reported to Nixon that the Johnson people apparently lacked a “smoking gun” that personally implicated him in the scheme, the whereabouts of the missing evidence and exactly what it showed remained a pressing concern to Nixon and his inner circle, especially in June 1971 when major American newspapers began publishing the leaked Pentagon Papers. That report revealed the deceptions that had pervaded the Vietnam conflict from its post-World War II origins through 1967, covering mostly Democratic lies.

A Dangerous Sequel

But Nixon knew what few others did, that there was the potential for a devastating sequel, the story of how the Nixon campaign had torpedoed peace talks that could have ended the war. Given the intensity of anti-war sentiment in 1971, such a revelation could have had explosive and unforeseeable consequences, conceivably even impeachment and certainly threatening Nixon’s reelection in 1972.

Huston had come to believe that a detailed report on the failed Paris peace talks, possibly containing the evidence of the Republican sabotage, had ended up at the Brookings Institution, then regarded as a liberal think tank housing many of Nixon’s top critics.

“I send [White House chief of staff H.R. “Bob”] Haldeman a memo and I said, basically, ‘You’re not going to believe this.’ Here I’ve spent all these months, I’ve been chasing all over the God-dang’d government try to get everybody to give me bits and pieces and trying to do this job that you told me to do, and the God-dang’d Brookings Institution is sitting over here with a God-dang’d multi-volume report that I don’t have. And if Brookings can get the damn thing, I don’t see any reason why I can’t get it.”

According to Brookings officials and U.S. government archivists, Huston appears to have been wrong in his conclusions about the existence of such a “multi-volume report” hidden at Brookings, but his memo would have historical repercussions because it became the focus of a frantic Oval Office meeting on June 17, 1971, as Nixon and his top aides were assessing their own exposure as the Pentagon Papers filled the front pages of the New York Times.

Blow the Safe

Nixon summoned Haldeman and national security advisor Henry Kissinger into the Oval Office and as Nixon’s own recording devices whirred softly pleaded with them again to locate the missing file. “Do we have it?” Nixon asked Haldeman. “I’ve asked for it. You said you didn’t have it.”

Haldeman: “We can’t find it.”

Kissinger: “We have nothing here, Mr. President.”

Nixon: “Well, damnit, I asked for that because I need it.”

Kissinger: “But Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together.”

Haldeman: “We have a basic history in constructing our own, but there is a file on it.”

Nixon: “Where?”

Haldeman: “Huston swears to God that there’s a file on it and it’s at Brookings.”

Nixon: “Bob? Bob? Now do you remember Huston’s plan [for White House-sponsored break-ins as part of domestic counter-intelligence operations]? Implement it.”

Kissinger: “Now Brookings has no right to have classified documents.”

Nixon: “I want it implemented. Goddamnit, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

Haldeman: “They may very well have cleaned them by now, but this thing, you need to “

Kissinger: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Brookings had the files.”

Haldeman: “My point is Johnson knows that those files are around. He doesn’t know for sure that we don’t have them around.”

But Johnson did know that the key file documenting Nixon’s peace-talk sabotage was safely out of Nixon’s reach, entrusted to his former national security advisor Walt Rostow.

Forming the Burglars

On June 30, 1971, Nixon again berated Haldeman about the need to break into Brookings and “take it [the file] out.” Nixon even suggested using former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt to conduct the Brookings break-in.

“You talk to Hunt,” Nixon told Haldeman. “I want the break-in. Hell, they do that. You’re to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in. Just go in and take it. Go in around 8:00 or 9:00 o’clock.”

Haldeman: “Make an inspection of the safe.”

Nixon: “That’s right. You go in to inspect the safe. I mean, clean it up.”

For reasons that remain unclear, it appears that the Brookings break-in never took place although Brookings officials say an attempted break-in was made but Nixon’s desperation to locate Johnson’s peace-talk evidence was an important link in the chain of events that led to the creation of Nixon’s burglary unit under Hunt’s supervision. Hunt later oversaw the two Watergate break-ins in May and June of 1972.

While it’s possible that Nixon was still searching for the evidence about his Vietnam-peace sabotage when the Watergate break-ins occurred nearly a year later, it’s generally believed that the burglary was more broadly focused, seeking any information that might have an impact on Nixon’s re-election, either defensively or offensively.

As it turned out, Nixon’s burglars were nabbed inside the Watergate complex during their second break-in at the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972, exactly one year after Nixon’s tirade to Haldeman and Kissinger about the need to blow the safe at the Brookings Institution in pursuit of the missing Vietnam peace-talk file.

Ironically, too, Johnson and Rostow had no intention of exposing Nixon’s dirty secret regarding LBJ’s Vietnam peace talks, presumably for the same reasons that they kept their mouths shut back in 1968, out of a benighted belief that revealing Nixon’s actions might somehow not be “good for the country.” [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

The Scandal Grows

In November 1972, despite the growing scandal over the Watergate break-in, Nixon handily won reelection, crushing Sen. George McGovern, Nixon’s preferred opponent. Nixon then reached out to Johnson seeking his help in squelching Democratic-led investigations of the Watergate affair and slyly noting that Johnson had ordered wiretaps of Nixon’s campaign in 1968.

Johnson reacted angrily to the overture, refusing to cooperate. On Jan. 20, 1973, Nixon was sworn in for his second term. On Jan. 22, 1973, Johnson died of a heart attack.

In the weeks that followed Nixon’s Inauguration and Johnson’s death, the scandal over the Watergate cover-up grew more serious, creeping ever closer to the Oval Office. Meanwhile, Rostow struggled to decide what he should do with “The ‘X’ Envelope.”

On May 14, 1973, in a three-page “memorandum for the record,” Rostow summarized what was in “The ‘X’ Envelope” and provided a chronology for the events in fall 1968. Rostow reflected, too, on what effect LBJ’s public silence then may have had on the unfolding Watergate scandal.

“I am inclined to believe the Republican operation in 1968 relates in two ways to the Watergate affair of 1972,” Rostow wrote. He noted, first, that Nixon’s operatives may have judged that their “enterprise with the South Vietnamese” in frustrating Johnson’s last-ditch peace initiative had secured Nixon his narrow margin of victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

“Second, they got away with it,” Rostow wrote. “Despite considerable press commentary after the election, the matter was never investigated fully. Thus, as the same men faced the election in 1972, there was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off, and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit and beyond.” [To read Rostow’s memo, click here, here and here.]

Tie to Watergate

What Rostow didn’t know was that there was a third and more direct connection between the missing file and Watergate. Nixon’s fear about the evidence in the file surfacing as a follow-up to the Pentagon Papers was Nixon’s motive for creating Hunt’s burglary team in the first place.

Rostow apparently struggled with what to do with the file for the next month as the Watergate scandal expanded. On June 25, 1973, fired White House counsel John Dean delivered his blockbuster Senate testimony, claiming that Nixon got involved in the cover-up within days of the June 1972 burglary at the Democratic National Committee. Dean also asserted that Watergate was just part of a years-long program of political espionage directed by Nixon’s White House.

The very next day, as headlines of Dean’s testimony filled the nation’s newspapers, Rostow reached his conclusion about what to do with “The ‘X’ Envelope.” In longhand, he wrote a “Top Secret” note which read, “To be opened by the Director, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, not earlier than fifty (50) years from this date June 26, 1973.”

In other words, Rostow intended this missing link of American history to stay missing for another half century. In a typed cover letter to LBJ Library director Harry Middleton, Rostow wrote: “Sealed in the attached envelope is a file President Johnson asked me to hold personally because of its sensitive nature. In case of his death, the material was to be consigned to the LBJ Library under conditions I judged to be appropriate.

“After fifty years the Director of the LBJ Library (or whomever may inherit his responsibilities, should the administrative structure of the National Archives change) may, alone, open this file. If he believes the material it contains should not be opened for research [at that time], I would wish him empowered to re-close the file for another fifty years when the procedure outlined above should be repeated.”

Ultimately, however, the LBJ Library didn’t wait that long. After a little more than two decades, on July 22, 1994, the envelope was opened and the archivists began the long process of declassifying the contents.

Yet, by withholding the file on Nixon’s “treason,” Johnson and Rostow allowed for incomplete and distorted histories of the Vietnam War and Watergate to take shape and for Nixon and his Republican cohorts to escape the full opprobrium that they deserved.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

The Cost of Iraq War Immunity

If Official Washington were not the corrupt and dangerous place that it is, the architects and apologists for the Iraq War would have faced stern accountability. Instead, they are still around holding down influential jobs, making excuses and guiding the world into more wars, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

The Iraq War, as Heather Marie Stur tells us, should not be lumped together with the Vietnam War as blindly and repeatedly as many seem wont to do. Although the two military expeditions both rank among the costliest blunders in American history, there are indeed many differences between the two.

Stur is correct to emphasize differences over similarities, but she completely misses the most significant differences, significant partly because of their implications for avoiding similar blunders in the future.

Difference number one sets the invasion of Iraq in 2003 apart not only from the intervention in Vietnam but from almost every other substantial use of U.S. military force. There was no policy process leading to the decision to launch the war.

Whether invading Iraq was a good idea was never on the agenda of any meeting of policymakers, and never the subject of any options paper. Thus no part of the national security bureaucracy had any opportunity to weigh in on that decision (as distinct from being called on to help sell that decision to the public).

Sources of relevant expertise both inside and outside the government were pointedly shunned. The absence of a policy process leading to the decision to launch the war is the single most extraordinary aspect of the war.

The U.S. intervention in Vietnam was entirely different. Although as the war went on the decision-making of Lyndon Johnson and his Tuesday lunch group became increasingly closed, the original decisions in 1964 and 1965 to initiate the U.S. air and ground wars in Vietnam were the result of an extensive policy process. The bureaucracy was fully engaged, and the policy alternatives exhaustively discussed and examined. However mistaken the decisions may have turned out to be, they could not be attributed to any short-cuts in the decision-making process.

A second distinctive aspect of the Iraq War is that it was a war of aggression. It was the first major offensive war that the United States had initiated in over a century. Every overseas use of U.S. military force in the Twentieth Century was either a minor expedition such as ones in the Caribbean or, in the case of major wars, a response to the use of force by someone else. The U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia was a case of the latter: a direct response to the use by North Vietnam of armed insurgency to take over South Vietnam.

This is another respect that sets the Iraq War apart not only from Vietnam but from many other U.S. wars, including a couple of relatively recent ones that Stur incorrectly likens to the Iraq War. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 was a direct response to a terrorist attack by a group that was resident in Afghanistan and allied with its regime. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 was a direct response to blatant aggression by Iraq in invading and swallowing Kuwait. When that aggression was reversed by expelling the Iraqis from Kuwait, the U.S. mission really was accomplished.

Sometimes earlier wars have a lot to do with explaining much later events, and the centenary of World War I has stimulated some interesting analysis of how that war set in train events that still bedevil us today, but Stur’s attempt to say something similar about the war in 1991 is mistaken.

Some neoconservatives grumbled about Saddam Hussein being left in power, but the grumbling did not have to do with any problems created by Operation Desert Storm; it instead reflected the neocons’ desire for other reasons to have a larger regime-changing war in Iraq.

This gets us to a third major difference, which is related to the first one. The Iraq War of 2003 was the project of a small, willful band of war-seekers, what Lawrence Wilkerson has called a “cabal”, who managed to get a weak and inexperienced president to go along with their project for his own political and psychological reasons.

An assiduous selling campaign lasting more than a year, which exploited the post-9/11 political mood by conjuring up chimerical alliances with terrorists, mustered enough national support to launch the war. But the base for starting the project was always quite narrow.

By contrast, the United States sucked itself into the Vietnam quagmire on the basis of a very broadly held conventional wisdom about a global advance of monolithic communism, falling dominoes, and the need to uphold U.S. credibility. At the time of the intervention, opposition to the intervention was exceedingly narrow.

The Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the use of military force in Vietnam passed against only the lonely nay votes of Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening in the Senate and no opposition at all in the House. The conventional wisdom pervaded the public and the media, including prominent journalists such as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan who only later would become identified with publicizing the war’s faults and fallacies.

Looking back on the mistakes involved in the Vietnam War became a national exercise in painful retrospection. It included soul-searching by some of those most directly involved in launching the U.S. expedition; some of the most candid and insightful came from former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The difference with the post-war posture of the people who brought us the Iraq War has been stark. Despite the much narrower original responsibility for that war, mea culpas from those who promoted it have been hard to find. The promoters have instead tried to find creative ways to blame the damage they caused on those who later had to clean it up.

All of this has implications for avoiding comparable blunders in the future. The Cold War is over, and the parts of the Vietnam-era conventional wisdom involving the nature of international communism are gone as well.

We still see similar thought patterns, however, applied in other ways, especially with notions of upholding credibility and domino-like scenarios of geographically expanding threats. There still is Cold War-type thinking that treats Russia as if it were the Soviet Union, and that treats radical Islam as if it were a monolithic foe that is our enemy in a new world war.

Avoiding another blunder like the Iraq War means being wary not only of these sorts of thought patterns but also of a more direct hazard. The neocons who brought us that war are not only unrepentant but also very much around and still selling their wares. We most need to remember what they sold as the last time, and not to buy anything from them again.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)


Learning No Lessons About War

Americans like to think of themselves as a peace-loving people but their record has been one of war-making with the pace of interventions picking up in recent decades as the U.S. military and intelligence services are dispatched around the world, notes ex-State Department official William R. Polk.

By William R. Polk

America appears to be on the brink of another war. This time the conflict is likely to involve Syria and/or Iraq (which U.S. troops just left in 2011). If we jump into one or both of these wars, that will bring the number of significant military operations since American independence from Great Britain to about 200, according to my count.

Not all, of course, were officially “wars.” There also have been many “proactive” interventions, regime-change undertakings, covert-action schemes and search-and-destroy missions. In addition, the United States has provided weapons, training and funding for a variety of non-American military and quasi-military forces throughout the world, including five new African countries in recent months.

History and contemporary events show that we Americans are a warring people. So we should ask: what have we learned about ourselves, our adversaries and the process in which we have engaged? The short answer appears to be “very little.”

As both a historian and a former policy planner for the U.S. government, I will very briefly here illustrate what I mean by “very little.” (I will expand on this thesis in an upcoming book to be called A Warring People.)

I begin with us, the American people. There is overwhelming historical evidence that war is popular with us. Politicians from our earliest days as a republic, indeed even before when we were British colonies, could nearly always count on gaining popularity by demonstrating valor. Few successful politicians were pacifists.

Even supposed pacifists found reasons to engage in the use of force. Take the man most often cited as a peacemaker or at least a peace-seeker, President Woodrow Wilson. He promised to “keep us out of war,” by which he meant avoiding a big, expensive European war, the so-called Great War, better known now as the First World War.

Before becoming president, however, Wilson approved the American conquest of Cuba and the Philippines and described himself as an imperialist; then, as president, he occupied Haiti, sent the Marines into the Dominican Republic and ordered the cavalry into Mexico.

By 1917, Wilson also plunged the United States into the European conflict on the side of Great Britain, France and their allies. In 1918, Wilson put American troops into Russia, following the victory of the Bolsheviks over the Tsar.

Many Reasons

The purpose and explanation of our wars have varied. Many U.S. conflicts, particularly those against the Native Americans, would today be classified as war crimes. But strong justifications can be mounted for the Revolutionary War, the First World War and the Second World War. One could argue the United States had no real choice on the Civil War and, perhaps, the War of 1812. An argument can be made in defense of the Korean War, too.

However, it is the middle grouping of America’s wars that seem to me to be the most important to understand. I see them like this: Some military ventures were really misadventures in the sense that they were based on misunderstandings or deliberate misinformation.

I think most students of history would put the Spanish-American, Vietnam, Iraq and a few other wars in this category. Basically, the government lied to us: the Spaniards did not blow up the USS Maine; the Gulf of Tonkin was not a dastardly attack on innocent U.S. ships, and Iraq was not about to attack with nuclear or chemical weapons, which it did not have.

But we citizens listened uncritically. We did not demand the facts. It is hard to avoid the charge that we were complicit, lazy or ignorant. And afterwards, we did not hold our government to account.

Several wars and other forms of intervention were justified by supposed local or regional requirements of the Cold War. We told one another that the “domino theory” in Indochina was real. So, any hint of Communist subversion or even criticism of U.S. policy sent us racing off to protect almost any form of political association that pretended to be on “our” side.

And we believed or feared that even countries that had little or no connections with one another would topple at the first touch of Communist contamination — even before their neighbors appeared to be in trouble. Therefore, regardless of their domestic political style —  monarchy, dictatorship or democracy — these governments had to be protected.

Our “protection” often included threats of invasion, paramilitary operations, subversion, bribery and direct intervention all in support of our proclaimed intent to keep them free, at least from Soviet control or influence. A partial list of such conflicts includes Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam and various African countries.

Some interventions involved acquisition of their resources or protection of U.S. economic assets; Guatemala, Chile, Iraq, Iran and Indonesia come to mind. Few if any of these conflicts were to establish peace or even to bring about ceasefires. Those tasks we usually left to the United Nations or regional associations.

High Costs

The costs for all these conflicts have been high. Just counting fairly recent interventions say, since World War II they have cost America over 100,000 fatalities and some multiple of that in wounded; they have cost “the others” — both “enemies” and “friends” even larger multiples of those numbers. The monetary cost is perhaps beyond counting both to them and to us. Figures range upward from $10 trillion.

Beyond the staggering costs, the rate of success of these foreign conflicts has been low. Failure to accomplish the desired or professed outcome is shown by the fact that within a few years of the initial American intervention, the condition that precipitated U.S. involvement had recurred. This rate of failure has dramatically increased in recent years.

That is because we are operating in a world with heightened political sensitivities and global public awareness of these events. Today even poor, weak, uneducated and corrupt nations become focused by the actions of foreigners. Whereas before, a few members of the native elite made the decisions, today we face various national “fronts,” including political parties, tribes and independent opinion leaders. So the “window of opportunity” for foreign interventions that can be carried out in relative anonymity is now often shut.

I will briefly focus on five aspects of this transformation:

–Nationalism has been and remains the predominant way of political thought of most of the world’s people. Its power has long been strong (even when we called it by other names). It was given impetus by the emergence of Communism and popular demands for more equitable economic structures. Religion has also played a part. Today, nationalism in Africa, much of Asia and parts of Europe is increasingly magnified by the rebirth of Islam in the salafiyah movement.

Attempts to crush these nationalist-ideological-religious-cultural movements militarily have generally failed. When foreigners arrive on the scene, local inhabitants tend to put aside their mutual hostilities to unite against the outsiders. The U.S. saw this vividly and painfully in Somalia. The Russians saw it in Chechnya and the Chinese among the Uighur peoples of Xinjiang (former Chinese Turkistan).


–Outside intervention has usually weakened local moderate or conservative forces or at least those more stable tendencies within national movements. People espousing the most extreme positions are more likely to prevail against the invaders. Thus, particularly in protracted hostilities, extremists are more likely to take charge than their moderate domestic rivals.

We have seen this tendency in each of the guerrilla wars in which we have gotten involved. Look, for instance, at the insurgent movements in Syria and Iraq. (For my analysis of the philosophy and strategy of the Muslim extremists, see my essay “Sayyid Qutub’s Fundamentalism and Abu Bakr Naji’s Jihadism” on my website,

What is true of the resistance movements is even more evident in the effects on civic institutions and practices within an embattled society. In times of acute national danger, the “center” does not hold. Centrists get caught between the insurgents battling both the outsiders and the regimes which may be seen as puppets of the foreigners.

Insurgents have to destroy many of the traditional social and governmental bonds to “win.” Thus, in Vietnam, for example, doctors and teachers who interfaced between the French- or U.S.-backed governments and the general population were prime targets for the Vietminh in the 1950s.

And, as the leaders of governments against whom the insurgents are fighting become more desperate, they more aggressively suppress their perceived rivals and critics, often driving these political activists, journalists and judges into the arms of the radicals. And, as the regime’s grip on power weakens, the foreign-backed leaders scramble to create safe havens for themselves by stealing money and sending it abroad. Thus, the institutions of government are weakened and the range of enemies widens.

Over the last half century or so, prominent examples of this pattern have been Vietnam and Afghanistan.

In Vietnam at least by 1962, senior members of the U.S.-backed regime had essentially given up the fight and were preparing to bolt the country. The army commanders were so focused on earning money that they sold U.S.-supplied bullets and guns to the Vietminh.

In Afghanistan, the U.S.-backed regime’s involvement in the drug trade, its draining of the national treasury into foreign private bank accounts (as even President Hamid Karzai has described) and in “pickpocketing” hundreds of millions of dollars from aid projects is well documented. [See, for example,, the monthly reports of the American Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.)

Short Memories 

–America’s institutional memory of programs, events and trends is shallow, usually no longer than a decade. Thus, we repeat policies even when the record clearly shows that they did not work when previously tried. And we address each challenge as though it is unprecedented. We forget the American folk saying: When you find yourself in a hole, the best course of action is to stop digging.

It isn’t only that the U.S. government (and the thousands of “experts,” tacticians and strategists it hires) do not “remember” the past mistakes, but they often reject the obvious lessons and decide that what they need to do is get a bigger shovel to dig even deeper.

–Despite America’s immigrant origins, we are a profoundly insular people. Few of us have much appreciation of non-American cultures and even less empathy for them. Within a generation or so, few immigrants can even speak the language of their grandparents. Many even shun their ethnic origins.

For example, at the end of the Second World War, despite many Americans being of German or Italian or Japanese descent, the U.S. government was markedly deficient in people who could help implement policies in those defeated countries.

Americans are even more alienated from other important world cultures. When I began to study Arabic, there were said to be only five Americans not of Arab origin who knew the language. Beyond language, grasp of the broader cultural understanding petered off to near zero.

Today, after the expenditure of significant government subsidies to universities (in the National Defense Education Act) to teach “strategic” languages, the situation should be better. But, while we now know much more, I doubt that we understand people from Islamic societies much better.

Take Somalia as an example. Somalia was not, as the media put it, a “failed state;” it was and is a “non-state.” That is, the Somalis do not base their effective identity on being members of a nation-state. Like almost everyone in the world did before recent centuries, they thought of themselves as members of clans, tribes, ethnic or religious assemblies or territories. It is we, not they, who have redefined their political identity.

We forget that the nation-state is a concept that was born in Europe only a few centuries ago and became accepted only late in the Nineteenth Century in Germany and Italy. The idea of nationhood has remained fragile even in many parts of Europe, such as the former Yugoslavia and today’s Ukraine.

For the Somalis, it is still an alien construct. So, not surprisingly, the U.S. attempt to force them or entice them to shape up and act within our definition of statehood has not worked. And Somalia is not alone. If we peek under the flags of Indonesia, Burma, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Mali, Sudan and other nation-states we find powerful forces of separate ethnic nationalisms.

These tensions are often made worse by arbitrarily drawn borders often dating back to colonial times when Western powers divided up the spoils of their overseas conquests and by the sophisticated tools of repression that Europe and the United States provide to many national governments.

When these governments fail to acquire legitimacy in the eyes of significant political or tribal groupings, violence often results, sometimes leading to long, debilitating conflicts with the local regimes serving essentially as proxies for Western interests, a process with ancient and troubling roots.

Since Roman times, foreign rulers have sought to save money by governing through local agents who would do the dirty work of keeping order and extracting wealth. Centuries later, the British imperialists used the Copts to collect taxes from Egyptians and assigned the Assyrians the task of controlling the Iraqi Sunnis. In the modern era, the United States has groomed local elites to manage populations within the U.S. broad spheres of influence.

The echoes of those years continue to reverberate in the Third World today. Ethnic, religious and economic jealousies rooted in those arrangements still abound. Americans may not be sensitive to them, but to many local inhabitants these memories remain painful.

Vast Reach

–Finally, as today’s preeminent nation-state America has a vast reach. There is practically no area of the world where the U.S. does not have one sort of interest or another, with over a thousand military bases in more than a hundred countries. The United States also trains, equips and subsidizes dozens of armies and even more paramilitary or “special” forces.

While these economic and geopolitical interests are a source of strength and richness, they also generate conflicts between what Americans may wish to accomplish in one country and what we think we need to accomplish in another. At the very least, handling or balancing these diverse aims within acceptable means and at a reasonable cost is a challenge, one that we seem less and less able to meet.

Take, for example, Iraq. As a corollary of U.S. hostility toward Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush and his administration essentially turned Iraq over to Hussein’s enemies, the Iraqi Shia Muslim. (For details, see my Understanding Iraq, New York: HarperCollins, 2005, 171 ff.)

There was some justification for this policy. The Shia community has long been Iraq’s majority and because they were Saddam’s enemies, some “experts” naively thought they would become “our friends.” But immediately two negative aspects of Bush’s policy became evident.

First, the Shiites took revenge on the Sunni Muslim community and thus threw the country into a vicious civil war. What the U.S. called “pacification” often amounted to “ethnic cleansing,” as Shiites and Sunnis violently separated into their own enclaves.

Second, the Shiite Iraqi leaders (the marjiaah) made common cause with coreligionist Iranians with whom the United States had strained relations. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Bush had clumsily lumped Sunni-ruled Iraq and Shiite-ruled Iran into his artificial “axis of evil.”

At several points in the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, there were opportunities to shift toward a more coherent, more moral and safer policy. But it seemed that few of the U.S. authorities even grasped the problem; certainly they did not find ways to work toward a solution of the dysfunctional policy.

When I was on the State Department’s Policy Planning Council in the early 1960s, we saw our objective as making the world at least somewhat safer, even if not exactly safe for democracy. We surely made many significant mistakes (and our advice often was not heeded by our superiors), but I would argue that we worked within a more coherent framework than the U.S. government has in recent years.

Increasingly, it seems that Washington is in a mode of leaping from one crisis to the next without having understood the first or anticipating the second. I see no strategic vision; only tactical jumps and jabs.

Constitutional Restraint

So what to do? At the time of the writing of the American Constitution, Gouverneur Morris, the principal author of the famous Preamble, remarked that one of the Framers’ goals was “to save the people from their most dangerous enemy, themselves.”

He and other delegates to the Constitutional Convention were especially frightened by the dangers of militarism and tried to restrain the temptation toward unnecessary warfare by imposing checks and balances, such as dividing the war-making powers between the Executive and the Legislature.

The nation’s early leaders, including Presidents George Washington and John Adams, certainly did not look to the military to solve problems of policy. They would have agreed, I feel sure, that very few of the problems that America faced could be solved by military means. They did what they could to keep the young country out of the ongoing conflict between France and England.

I believe many of the Framers would be horrified by the national security state that the United States has become and the gunslinger mentality of careless military actions that has taken hold.

Over the past several decades, the U.S. has been frequently misled by the successes of the postwar policies toward both Germany and Japan, successfully helping those two countries embark upon a new era.

Perhaps consequent to those successes, when the U.S. decided to destroy the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, little thought was given to what would follow. U.S. policymakers just assumed that things would get better, but they did not. Instead, the societies imploded.

Had U.S. forces invaded Iran as another “regime change” experiment, the results also would have been a moral, legal and economic disaster. By now Americans should know that we should not make proactive war on foreign nations.

Beyond the practical effects, the United States has sworn not to engage in aggressive warfare as part of the treaty creating the United Nations. In short, we need to be law-abiding, and we should look before we leap. We should weigh several factors.

The first is to be realistic: there is no switch we can flip to change our capacities. To look for quick and easy solutions is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The second  is a matter of will and the costs and penalties that attach to it. We would be more careful in foreign adventures if we had to pay for them in both blood and treasure as they occurred. That is, “in real time.” We now avoid this by borrowing money abroad and by inducing or bribing vulnerable members of our society and foreigners to fight for us.

All our young men and women should know that they will be obliged to serve if we get into war, and we should not be able to defer to future generations the costs of our ventures. We should agree to pay for them through immediate taxes rather than foreign loans.

The third is to demand accountability. Our government should be legally obligated to tell us the truth. If it does not, the responsible officials should be prosecuted in our courts and,  if they violate our treaties or international law, they should have to go before the World Court of Justice. We now let them off scot-free.

Punishment is reserved for some “culprits” like the guards at Abu Ghraib prison who get caught carrying out distasteful policies and for “leakers” like Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning who reveal secret activities to the public.

Fourth, in the longer term, the only answer to the desire for better policy is better public education. For a democracy to function, its citizens must be engaged. They cannot be usefully engaged if they are not informed. Yet few Americans know even our own laws on our role in world affairs. Probably even fewer know the history of our actions abroad — that is, what we have done in the past with what results and at what cost.

Ignorance of the World

And as a people we are woefully ignorant about other peoples and countries. Polls indicate that few Americans even know the locations of other nations. And beyond geography, there is nearly a blank page when it comes to other people’s politics, cultures and traditions.

Isn’t it time we picked up the attempt made by such men as Sumner Wells (with his An Intelligent American’s Guide to the Peace and his American Foreign Policy Library), Robert Hutchins, James Conant and others (with the General Education programs in colleges and universities) and various other failed efforts to make us a part of humanity?

On the surface, at least, resurrecting these programs is just a matter of (a small amount of) money. But results won’t come overnight. Our education system is stodgy, our teachers are poorly trained and poorly paid, and we, the consumers,  are distracted by quicker, easier gratifications than learning about world affairs.

I had hoped that we would learn from Vietnam and other failures, but we did not. The snippets of information which pass over our heads each day do not and cannot make a coherent pattern. Absent a matrix into which to place “news,” it is meaningless.

We are like a computer without a program. When we do get data, we lack the means to “read” it. To us, it is just gibberish.

Our biggest challenge therefore comes down to us: unless or until we find a better system of teaching, of becoming aware that we need to learn and a desire to acquire the tools of citizenship, we cannot hope to move toward a safer, more enriching future.

William R. Polk is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor who taught Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. President John F. Kennedy appointed Polk to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His books include: Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Personal History: Living in Interesting Times; Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times; and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.