THE PENTAGON PAPERS

Review by Christopher Farley


A careful reading of the Pentagon Papers on Indo-China is the necessary and rewarding duty of anyone willing to discard the fantasy world of pseudo-politics for the realities of Washington. For here are the inner workings of the machinery of the executive branch of the world's leading imperial power. Since well over one million copies of the Papers have been printed, the realities are to hand. Indeed, within less than a fortnight of the writing of the introduction, the book was on sale in London.

The Pentagon Papers, commissioned by Secretary of Defence McNamara, cover the years from 1945 to May 1968 and comprise 47 volumes. The present book is edited by New York Times writers from most of these volumes, but they never saw the four volumes on the secret diplomacy of the Johnson period (which was doubtless a great relief to Harold Wilson and the leaders of other client states). In addition, much material from other departments, including the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency was unavailable, along with records of many oral discussions at the highest policy-making level. Nevertheless this is substantially more than a glimpse of the handiwork of men at the levers of power: comparison with the release of Czarist archives after the October Revolution is not far-fetched.

There are countless revelations, though the surprise of the reader will be in direct proportion to his previous gullibility. American acts of sabotage and terror warfare against North Vietnam began in 1954 immediately after the Geneva Agreements. The United States encouraged and abetted the murder of Diem in 1963. The Johnson Administration began planning in the spring of 1964 to wage overt war in Vietnam, and by September 7 had reached a "general consensus" that air attacks against the North would probably have to be launched. (It was immediately after this that Johnson fought as the candidate of "reason and restraint" against Goldwater's presidential campaign for bombing the North.)

It is worth looking at a few such incidents in more detail. On August 3, 1954, immediately after the Geneva Conference, Eisenhower's National Security Council termed the settlement (which the US had just promised not to disturb) a "disaster", and decided to destroy it. Truly the ink was not yet dry on the Agreements. By October CIA sabotage teams were operating inside the North, whilst in the South the US had taken over the future of the territory. In April of the following year Foster Dulles instructed his Embassy in Saigon to find an alternative "leader" to Diem, a course which led remorselessly to the puppet President's eventual murder. But when the coup of November 1, 1963 eventually occurred (the lack of candidates had made the search somewhat lengthy) the US was ready with both a naval task force to stand off the coast "if events required" and a denial of any complicity. Indeed Ambassador Lodge was able on the telephone to tell Diem in his last hour when the Presidential palace was surrounded that he had an offer of safe conduct and "I admire your courage and your great contribution to your country." It is more difficult for the reader to feel thus about Lodge.

Then there is the Tonkin Gulf incident of August 1964 with which Johnson took the American people into the war on the North. Now it is confirmed that six months beforehand the US had been making clandestine military attacks on the North. The target list for the "retaliation" in August had been drawn up in May. Only Senators Morse and Gruening voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution granting the President unlimited power. Fulbright accepted the Administration's lies that the US destroyers had not been supporting coastal attacks. The Administration must have thought him a pushover.

But the basic theme running through the Papers is the need and the failure of successive Administrations to manipulate foreign governments, the Senate, the news media, the American public and international opinion in an age of mass communications. At every turn it was people who let them down.

These ex-Harvard deans, lawyers and assorted criminals who had conscripts, weapons and money in abundance at their disposal, were constantly betrayed by the South Vietnamese who didn't love them, the North Vietnamese who wouldn't surrender, American families who didn't want their sons killed, allies who had no enthusiasm for the war and eventually an army which became demoralised. Document after memorandum refers to the preparation of public opinion. "Depending on US public reaction", this or that set of options is advanced. Every expansion of the war is to be played down or denied, so that the press becomes another enemy whose alertness causes constant alarm or fury. Thus United Press International on January 14 1965 "in effect blew the lid on the entire Yankee Team operation in Laos since May of 1964" (which the Administration had constantly denied).

But of all the failures of people to trust, support and submit to the rulers in Washington, the greatest failure of all was in South Vietnam, which was always the heart of the war. The combination of devastating victories by the National Liberation Front and the disappearance of any credible puppet regime in Saigon was a mortal blow to the imperialists, which they could never overcome. It was the unwillingness of Johnson and most of his key advisers to accept intelligence analyses that "the primary sources of Communist strength in South Vietnam are indigenous", which led to Johnson's nightmare and decision not to run for a second term of office. Even in the week of the Tonkin Gulf incident, Ambassador Taylor was cabling Johnson that the Khanh regime in Saigon had only "a 50-50 chance of lasting out the year" and therefore the US had to be ready to implement contingency plans against North Vietnam. On August 26 1964 the Joint Chiefs of Staff produced a memorandum declaring air warfare against the North "essential to prevent a complete collapse of the US position in South-East Asia." A fortnight later a White House session on "provocation strategy" was held to plan "deliberate attempts to provoke the Democratic Republic of Vietnam into taking actions which could then be answered by a systematic US air campaign."

At the same time the Johnson Administration feared that the tripartite talks on Laos in Paris might lead to a new Geneva Conference at which Vietnam might also have to be discussed. Therefore "a Laotian ceasefire was not compatible with current perceptions of US interest", says the Pentagon writer. For this reason the "independent" Prince Souvanna Phouma was instructed in Paris in "a useful delaying gambit".

The following spring, with the bombing of the North in earnest only a few weeks old, Johnson decided on the use of ground troops in South Vietnam because the bombing could not stave off collapse in the South. (Marshal Ky had insisted personally on joining the first bombing raid on February 8, but dumped his bombs on an unassigned target "to avoid colliding with USAF aircraft". With virtually no government in Saigon, this is straight from Dr. Strangelove, though the Pentagon writer contents himself with a quiet reference to "this Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere.")

The Hitler-loving Ky is not the only personality to emerge true to form from the Papers. In a cable to Johnson in June 1965 there is Harold Wilson toadying and fence-sitting in inimitable style: "I am most grateful to you for asking Bob McNamara to arrange the very full briefing about the two oil targets near Hanoi and Haiphong . . . Our reservations about this operation will not affect our continuing support for your policy over Vietnam . . . But while this will remain the Government's position, I know that the effect on public opinion in this country - and I believe throughout Western Europe - is likely to be such as to reinforce the existing disquiet and criticism that we have to deal with."

And so with the extraordinary Tet offensive of February 1968, and the President's dilemma of whether to call up the reserves and thus provoke yet more American opposition, the Papers conclude with Johnson refusing to run for a second term, defeated by the ever-increasing price of ever-elusive victory. It is a devastating authoritative indictment of paranoid anti-communism, butchery and mass deceit. Part of the cost has been the lives of 45,000 Americans, 95,000 men of the French colonial army and some two million Vietnamese, though perhaps this last figure will prove to be far larger. Every page is crowded with the reality of imperial subterfuge. There is General Taylor recommending to Kennedy in the autumn of 1961 sending an 8,000-man combat task force under the cover of a flood-relief mission. There is the open admission that South Vietnam is "essentially the creation of the United States". There is the US refusal to permit any independent South Vietnamese efforts to negotiate. There is the secret use of the Canadian representative on the Geneva Conference's International Control Commission, J. Blair Seaborn, to threaten Hanoi with ever-increasing devastation unless it abandons the Agreements Seaborn is there to uphold. If all this helps the reader to focus on the reality level of Washington politics, we should contemplate the memoranda doubtless now being exchanged on the desirability of an Hiroshima-style action to mark the end of a war long since hopelessly lost.

Chris Farley
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