It happened today - June 13, 2015

Robert McNamara One curious aspect of growing older is that you increasingly find yourself holding strong opinions, even obsessions in some cases, on public policy controversies few people even remember let alone care about, like the New York Times publishing the “Pentagon Papers” starting on June 13, 1971. If you study history, you even get to be militant about controversies that “ended” decades or centuries before you were born like the Tudor usurpation of the crown of England from Good King Richard III.

In case you’re not old or weird enough to remain fixated on the divisive Vietnam War, the “Pentagon papers” were a top-secret internal study by the U.S. Department of Defence of that war’s history, commissioned by LBJ’s increasingly disillusioned Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara in 1967. It portrayed U.S. involvement in a highly unflattering light, with considerable justification. And it was kept secret until a disillusioned Defence Department employee named Daniel Ellsberg smuggled portions out.

Publication of these excerpts stoked anti-war sentiment as the Times clearly intended that they should. It was by then editorially strongly against the war and against Republican President Richard Nixon, who tried in vain to get the Supreme Court to block publication of further installments.

There is no question that the study was legitimately news. But it did dovetail with the Times’ policy preferences. And the Times became increasingly irresponsible as time went by and Nixon acted both irresponsibly and lawlessly himself. I still have not forgiven the Times for its April 13 headline “Indochina Without Americans: For Most a Better Life” datelined the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where the Khmer Rouge genocide was about to erupt.

As a matter of fact the New York Times has been editorially wrong, and often irresponsible, on foreign policy for much of the last century. I’m still angry about their stand on both Nazism and Bolshevism in the 1930s, for instance (Google “Duranty” and “Pulitzer” for a taste of the latter; for the post-war period you might look at Russ Braley’s Bad News: The Foreign Policy of the New York Times), and on Reagan in the 1980s. Still, publication of the Pentagon Papers was, I concede through clenched teeth, a service to American democracy and national security.

Some things must be kept secret for reasons of state. But not nearly as many things as people in government think. And they cannot be kept so secret within government that the legislative branch does not know what the executive is doing. National security is the first duty of government. Liberty under law must be protected. But to say so is not to excuse doing national security wrong, or sacrificing liberty under law to its supposed defence. Besides, as president John Quincy Adams told Congress, “liberty is power” and the capacity of democracies to examine their mistakes frankly makes them far stronger, not weaker, over the long run.

The short run can be a different story. Within two years of publication of the Pentagon Papers, American disillusionment with the war, and Nixon’s self-immolation in Watergate, led to a “peace” agreement that was in fact a fraudulent cover for North Vietnamese conquest of the South over the next two years while the U.S. stood feebly by. (Le Duc Tho, North Vietnam’s chief negotiator, refused to share the Nobel Peace Prize with Henry Kissinger for the peace agreement; Kissinger later returned his when it became clear how brutally cynical the North Vietnamese and their Soviet backers had been.)

I’m still mad about that treacherous conquest of South Vietnam too, by the way. And about how the Times and much of what was then the mainstream media covered national security in the mid-1970s. The Pentagon Papers were not wrong about the deceit and folly that led the U.S. into Vietnam. But Nixon for all his faults was not wrong about the consequences of making such a commitment and then “bugging out”. There is a reason Carter’s single term in office was followed by Reagan winning twice to the Times’ unconcealed and contemptuous dismay. That’s why I clench my teeth while admitting the Times was right to publish the Pentagon Papers. But the fact is they were.

Richard III, on the other hand, should not have been deposed, mutilated and buried in an unmarked grave that wound up under a parking lot. But that’s a subject for another day.