The Nation: Pentagon Papers: The Secret War

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"independent, non-Communist South Viet Nam." McNamara used identical wording in a memo to L.B.J. the same month, but fuzzed the goal by adding the far broader view of Viet Nam as a "test case of U.S. capacity to help a nation meet a Communist war of liberation . . . not only in Asia, but in the rest of the world." Then, in January 1965, McNamara penciled his approval on a statement by his assistant, McNaughton, that the real U.S. goal was "not to help friend, but to contain China." A month later, McNaughton, demonstrating the McNamara team's fondness for figures, put the U.S. aims in a far different order: "70%—to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat. 20%—to keep SVN (South Viet Nam) territory from Chinese hands. 10%—to permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life. Also—to emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used." That was hardly an idealistic statement of U.S. purposes.

PESSIMISM ABOUT SAIGON. While higher officials sought to knock down persistent reports by newsmen in Saigon that the war was going badly, McNaughton in a memo on Nov. 6, 1964, offered a firm evaluation and prediction: "The situation in South Viet Nam is deteriorating. Unless new actions are taken, the new government will probably be unstable and ineffectual and the VC will probably continue to extend their hold over the population and territory. It can be expected that, soon (6 months? two years?), (a) government officials at all levels will adjust their behavior to an eventual VC takeover, (b) defections of significant military forces will take place, (c) whole integrated regions of the country will be totally denied to the GVN, (d) neutral and/or left-wing elements will enter the government, (e) a popular front regime will emerge which will invite the U.S. out, and (f) fundamental concessions to the VC and accommodations to [Hanoi] will put South Viet Nam behind the Curtain." Generally, officials put a carefully cheerful face on matters and berated the U.S. press for its position while privately agreeing.

CONCEALMENT OF AIR STRIKES. The documents reveal that, in Operation Barrel Roll, the CIA was regularly using U.S. civilian pilots flying U.S. planes to make air strikes along infiltration routes in Laos early in 1964. In December, this campaign was stepped up to semiweekly attacks by regular U.S. Air Force and Navy flyers, but the National Security Council ordered: "There would be no public operations statements about armed reconnaissance [a euphemism for operations in which pilots are allowed to attack any target they find rather than limited to assigned targets] in Laos unless a plane were lost. In such an event the Government should continue to insist that we were merely escorting reconnaissance flights as requested by the Laotian Government."

CONCEALMENT AT TONKIN. The North Vietnamese PT-boat attacks on the U.S. destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 were among the most pivotal and controversial events of the war—and the Johnson Administration clearly deceived the public about them. U.S. officials claimed to be unaware that South Vietnamese naval units had been covertly operating in the area shortly before the Maddox was fired upon. McNamara was asked at a press conference on Aug. 5, 1964: "Have there been any incidents that you know

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