Five Decades After the Pentagon Papers: Presidential Lies and Foolish Forecasts

Fifty years ago the Pentagon Papers exploded politically in a nation weary of the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg worked on a Defense Department study about Washington’s involvement in Vietnam. He was so appalled with the findings that he leaked the document to the New York Times.

The embarrassed Nixon administration sought to block publication. Attorney General John W. Mitchell, later imprisoned for his role in the Watergate scandal, sent a telegram to the Times demanding return of the materials: "further publication of information of this character will cause irreparable injury to the defense interests of the United States." The legal battle went to the Supreme Court, which upheld the paper’s right to publish the drearily titled "Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force."

The documents further undermined the credibility of an administration was continuing a war the president had promised to end. In 1996 R.W. Apple, Jr., of the Times looked back at the disclosures: "They demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance." Based on these falsehoods 58,000 mostly young Americans died.

Although some observers imagined that truth and honesty to government would be restored with the end of the Nixon administration, international affairs and especially war continued to bring out the worst in governments. Ronald Reagan had the Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton promoted fake atrocity stories to build support for the first Iraq War. George W. Bush and his administration employed their unique "bodyguard of lies" to almost completely supplant the truth to win public support for the catastrophic invasion of Iraq.

Perhaps looking most like Vietnam was Afghanistan, which is nearing its 20th anniversary. The Washington Post published a detailed history of the latter war, which it called "THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A secret history of the war." Like the Pentagon Papers, the Afghanistan Papers’ overwhelming theme was dishonesty. The story was formally titled "At War with the Truth." The Post explained: "U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it."

As terrible as was the loss of American life in Vietnam, the true horror was the civilian death toll. Estimates start around 200,000 Vietnamese and run to well over one million for when the US was involved. Hundreds of thousands of South and North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong insurgents also died. America was not responsible for all those deaths, but US involvement greatly prolonged the war, resulting in many casualties for no ultimate gain.

What followed America’s military departure was ugly, but inevitable, unless America was willing to stay forever. The peace agreement was signed with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in January 1973. The last American combat troops departed on March 29th. Fighting soon resumed and the Republic of Vietnam collapsed in April 1975. As the North Vietnamese army closed in on the capital of Saigon evacuation of American personnel along with selected Vietnamese began. After the airport was disabled, the final airlift shifted to the embassy, with helicopters using the embassy roof as a landing pad. On April 30 the city fell.

The visual was humiliating for the supposed leader of the free world. Indeed, fear of repeating a "Saigon moment" has infused debate over later, ill-fated interventions. The specter often is used against proposals to end US involvement in other wars. For instance, in 2006 author Patrick Cockburn wrote: "Iraq may be getting close to what Americans call ‘the Saigon moment,’ the time when it becomes evident to all that the government is expiring."

In 2019 Juan Cole warned: "In Syria, this is Trump’s Saigon Moment. All US special forces personnel are being withdrawn from Syria after Turkish artillery targeted some of their bases to force them back from the border, and after Turkey cut off their supply lines. … Not since 1975 have [US troops] had to rush for the exits in quite this ignominious a fashion, and it is said that they are angry about it, especially about the US betrayal of the Kurds who bravely fought alongside them against ISIL." Writer Stephen Lendman penned an article entitled "US Syria Pullout? A Saigon Moment?"

The National’s Thomas Harding reported: "Afghanistan faces a ‘Saigon moment’ of comprehensive defeat with the Taliban taking over Kabul after the withdrawal of US and NATO troops, leading politicians and academics have warned." British Conservative politician Tobias Ellwood feared the most "likely scenario is that as the withdrawal becomes more evident the Taliban will get more aggressive, far bolder, and we’re going to see more attacks, which will usher in an expedited retreat, even leading to scenes that we saw in Saigon a few decades ago." The Diplomat’s Luke Hunt observed: "there is a genuine sense of foreboding that Afghanistan will tread the same path as South Vietnam did after President Richard Nixon pulled US troops out in 1973."

Yet the debate surrounding the Vietnam War was dishonest in two ways. The first was the false narrative of past progress. The second was the false narrative of future disaster – if US military efforts failed. Vietnam-era hawks repaired to the famed "domino theory," which predicted that not supporting the Republic of Vietnam would undermine America’s Asian allies and devastate Washington’s regional influence. Southeast Asia would go communist. Japan would go neutral. China and the Soviet Union would go big.

Communist insurgents did take control in Laos and Cambodia. The results were particularly gruesome in the latter. However, little more than three years later Hanoi invaded what had been renamed Kampuchea and ousted the Khmer Rouge, a movement crazy even by communist standards. Laos was isolated and insular, and made no effort to export its ideology. Thailand remained independent. General turned President Suharto had previously crushed Indonesia’s communist movement with great bloodshed. Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, and other states remained unmolested.

Even more dramatic were the changes scrolling forward a couple decades. The Soviet Union was gone. The Warsaw Pact had dissolved. NATO was expanding, incorporating former Soviet satellite states. Moscow largely disappeared as a geopolitical power in East Asia. Mao Zedong was dead. The People’s Republic of China radically relaxed economic and social controls. The Chinese people enjoyed the fruits of capitalism. PRC leaders were warmly welcomed in America. Japan had the world’s second largest economy. Asian-Pacific waters became an American lake.

As for Vietnam, it fought a short, sharp war with Beijing. Hanoi and Washington Eventually began a diplomatic dance that ended in official recognition. Explained the State Department:

"Twenty-five years after the establishment of bilateral relations in 1995, the United States and Vietnam are trusted partners with a friendship grounded in mutual respect. U.S.-Vietnam relations have become increasingly cooperative and comprehensive, evolving into a flourishing partnership that spans political, economic, security, and people-to-people ties. The United States supports a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam that contributes to international security; engages in mutually beneficial trade relations; and respects human rights and the rule of law. Relations are guided by the 2013 U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, an overarching framework for advancing the bilateral relationship, and Joint Statements issued by our two countries’ leaders in 2015, 2016, and in May and November 2017. In 2020, Vietnam and the United States commemorated 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, renewing their commitment to strengthened cooperation."

State included a fact sheet on security cooperation. There have been financial and technical assistance to deal with mines and unexploded ordinance, 11 Political, Security, and Defense Dialogues, military assistance under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program, Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (SAMSI), and weapons sales.

Perhaps even more incredibly, given the earlier role of American aircraft carriers: "On March 9, 2020, the United States completed its second aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam with the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s five-day port call to Da Nang. Sailors participated in cultural exchanges and community service projects including making crafts, playing sports, a language exchange, gardening, and painting, demonstrating the importance of people-to-people ties between the United States and Vietnam."

War, what war?

Of course, the shift in relations was not an endorsement of the Hanoi government. Freedom House rates the country as "not free," with especially few political liberties. Explained the group: "Vietnam is a one-party state, dominated for decades by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Although some independent candidates are technically allowed to run in legislative elections, most are banned in practice. Freedom of expression, religious freedom, and civil society activism are tightly restricted. The authorities have increasingly cracked down on citizens’ use of social media and the internet to voice dissent and share uncensored information."

Vietnam also flunks basic religious liberty. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom labels Vietnam a Country of Particular Concern. The Commission’s latest annual assessment reported: "Authorities continued to actively persecute independent religious minority communities, including Protestant Hmong and Montagnard Christians, Hoa Hao Buddhists, the Unified Buddhists, Cao Dai followers, Catholics, and Falun Gong practitioners. Ethnic minority communities faced especially egregious persecution for the peaceful practice of their faith, including physical assault, banishment, detention, imprisonment, and forced renunciation of faith."

However, Hanoi’s victory proved to be a wave of one, a harbinger of none . Vietnam remains a war that America should never have fought. France committed the original sin of colonialism. Washington blundered by helping Paris try to reassert control after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Then the Kennedy administration made America the de facto colonial power, with disastrous results.

Against both France and America Hanoi triumphed by harnessing the power of nationalism, offering rule by Vietnamese over Vietnamese, an end to foreign control, and a united people. Washington’s alternative – mouthing platitudes about freedom while allying with local elites and fueling corruption and repression – proved inadequate. Many Vietnamese, especially those who did not understand the reality of the communist party, backed the North. America is now leaving Afghanistan after doing poorly in a similar conflict. One can only hope – again! – that Washington will learn, and remember, the lessons of defeat.

The Vietnam War was a disastrous failure. The Pentagon Papers remind us that policymakers, civilian and military, in Washington, not grunts in the field, were to blame. The former compounded an unnecessary war with a misguided strategy which they attempted to disguise with lies. For these crimes 58,000 Americans died needlessly. It is time to resurrect the "Vietnam Syndrome" against repeat performances. And to make it permanent.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.