The Nation: Pentagon Papers: The Secret War

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The study was begun in 1967 by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had become disillusioned by the futility of the war and wanted future historians to be able to determine what had gone wrong. For more than a year, 35 researchers, including Ellsberg, Rand Corporation experts, civilians and uniformed Pentagon personnel, worked out of an office adjoining McNamara's. With his backing, they were able to obtain Pentagon documents dating back to arguments within the Truman Administration on whether the U.S. should help the French in their vain effort to put down Communist-led Viet Minh uprisings in Viet Nam. The work was carried up to mid-1968, when it was delivered to McNamara's successor, Clark Clifford, who says he never took the time to read it. One of the scholars called in early to help guide the project was Harvard's Henry Kissinger, who is now President Nixon's national security adviser and chief White House strategist on the war. Yet the study was so completely ignored that until last week even he had not examined it.

By early 1964, the U.S. was supporting and directing a number of covert operations: air strikes over Laos by CIA-hired civilian pilots and by Thai flyers, South Vietnamese harassment raids (Operation 34A) along the North Viet Nam coast, and U-2 reconnaissance flights over the North. Announced U.S. retaliatory air strikes against the North started in August 1964. A sustained air campaign (Rolling Thunder) was ordered to assault the North in February, 1965. The first U.S. ground troops landed in force in South Viet Nam during the spring of 1965. By the end of the year, 184,000 U.S. troops had been deployed in the South.

The Cast of Characters

Each step seems to have been taken almost in desperation because the preceding step had failed to check the crumbling of the South Vietnamese government and its troops—and despite frequently expressed doubts that the next move would be much more effective. Yet the bureaucracy, the Pentagon papers indicate, always demanded new options; each option was to apply more force. Each tightening of the screw created a position that must be defended; once committed, the military pressure must be maintained. A pause, it was argued, would reveal lack of resolve, embolden the Communists and further demoralize the South Vietnamese. Almost no one said: "Wait—where are we going? Should we turn back?"

As the documents bared the planning process, they also demolished any lingering faith that the nation's weightiest decisions are made by deliberative men, calmly examining all the implications of a policy and then carefully laying out their reasoning in depth. The proliferation of papers, the cabled requests for clarification, the briskness of language but not of logic, convey an impression of harassed men, thinking and writing too quickly and sometimes being mystified at the enemy's refusal to conform to official projections.

Ambassador to Saigon Maxwell Taylor, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, candidly declared in November 1964: "We still find no plausible explanation of the continued strength of the Viet Cong if our data on the Viet Cong losses are even approximately correct. Not only do the Viet Cong units have the recuperative powers of the phoenix, but they have an amazing ability to maintain morale." The experienced Taylor

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