(9 of 10)
No Diverting Debate
Whether the papers will have any impact on next year's presidential campaign seems to hinge partly on the outcome of the legal contest now under way and on what the rest of the papers reveal. With the documents beginning to circulate, more disclosures seem inevitable as other publications probe the war's secret history. Certainly Hubert Humphrey's tentative candidacy for the presidency has been weakened. Although his aides insist he so persistently opposed Johnson's war policies that he was finally excluded from planning sessions, Humphrey cannot completely sever his ties with L.B.J. in the public mind.
What lessons can be lifted from all of those pages of secret papers? The most instructive revelation may be how little faith the leaders had in those they led—a classic case of the arrogance of the powerful. The deceptions and misrepresentations stemmed from a conviction that the public would not face up to the harsh realities of Viet Nam. Even within the Government, sound intelligence estimates were often rudely ignored if they failed to fit policy preconceptions. There was a self-deception that if the U.S. unfailingly demonstrated its determination to persevere, Hanoi would buckle. But the North Vietnamese always knew that the struggle was ultimate for them, peripheral for the U.S.
Partly because they held secrecy so dear, the Johnson officials rarely had to face publicly those questions that Bill Bundy described as "disagreeable," and thus they never had to think through the tough answers. Although complete candor is not always possible, policies that must stand the test of grueling public debate tend to be better policies, as Harvard's John Kenneth Galbraith argued last week. Through it all, there seemed to be no time for quiet contemplation. Exhausted men concentrated on immediate means rather than eventual ends. A poignant example of this thinking was recalled by TIME Correspondent Jess Cook. In the spring of 1967, after a long and fruitless retrospective interview, he asked McNamara: "Isn't there anything you regret at all about how the war was conducted?" There was a long pause. "Yes," replied the weary Secretary. "There is one thing. We should have been able to come up with a better technique for population control."
Pointers from History
The man who directed the Pentagon study, Brookings Historian Leslie Gelb, recently declared in a Foreign Policy article that the question is not "Why did the system fail?" but "Why did it work so tragically well?" The men who had decided that Viet Nam must not fall into Communist hands—"and almost all of our leaders since 1949 shared this conviction"—dominated the decisions.