The Nation: Pentagon Papers: The Secret War

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The paradox and tragedy of Viet Nam, argues Gelb, was that "most of our leaders and their critics did see that Viet Nam was a quagmire, but did not see that the real stakes—who shall govern Viet Nam—were not negotiable. What were legitimate compromises from Washington's point of view were matters of life and death to the Vietnamese." How can this kind of thinking be changed? Gelb contends that a President must demand much more of his security advisers; they must probe more deeply into what really is in the national interest. The President must also take the risk of "re-educating the public and congressional opinion about Communism." If Nixon and his predecessors, it now seems clear, had not spoken so often about the need for "victory" and the humiliation of "defeat," and had more coolly assessed the real stakes—as well as the terrible price—in Viet Nam, there would be less trauma over withdrawal and countless lives might have been saved.

Learning From the Past

Has the Nixon Administration learned any such lessons? How much different is the Nixon Administration's decision-making process? There have been qualitative changes. Nixon is a more orderly, more disciplined and less instinctive thinker than Johnson. He would rather read than talk; he probably demands and gets better briefs. Henry Kissinger is a more brilliant thinker than Walt Rostow or McGeorge Bundy. Under Nixon, there have been efforts to elicit a more systematic range of views from federal agencies, but whether they get any closer to the top man is doubtful. There is no convincing indication that the psychology and life-or-death motivation of the enemy is any clearer to Nixon officials, and fears of a U.S. "defeat" still unduly haunt the White House. The exaggerated claims of success in Laos and Cambodia carry hints of continuing attempts at deception. But Nixon is of course disengaging, however slowly, and that is in itself proof of a new realism.

Last week the Administration seemed more intent on proving that, as one White House source put it, the New York Times "has taken stolen goods and printed them." As for the war, a high Administration official argued that "when the records of this Administration are stolen, they will show that we made monumental efforts to end the war. But the question is whether it is possible to end the war when everybody is kicking and shoving you to surrender." Conceding that this Administration, too, has lost credibility with its critics, the official declared: "Ultimately we can disarm our critics only by our performance. All we can do is prove by deeds that we meant what we said."

That is fair enough. Whether Daniel Ellsberg has advanced the end of the war by his transmission of the stolen documents remains doubtful. But his larger purpose may yet be served. If the Government and the public come to understand the atmosphere, the pressures, the false and strained hopes, and the futile decisions that pervade the whole secret history of Viet Nam, the wrong decisions may not be made again—or at least not so easily.

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