The controversy over “cooking the books” on Iraq intelligence to promote an aggressive war might make one think that Dick Cheney and his minions were somehow breaking new ground. But the precedent for fabricating a threat to justify the use of military force was set by the high-ranking national security officials who brought us the Vietnam War more than four decades ago. The Vietnam hawks wrote the book on how to get around inconvenient intelligence analysis.
I’m not referring to the well-known fact that the second alleged attack on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin never happened. The Vietnam-era equivalent of today’s neocon cabal created a Communist threat to all of Southeast Asia out of whole cloth, because the intelligence analysis of the issue said the opposite of what they wanted.
The story of that first conspiracy to fake an external threat, which I discovered in writing a book on how and why the United States went to war over Vietnam, suggests that “cooking the books” is a fundamental characteristic of U.S. national security elites bent on war.
Just as the Bush war party believed it had to demonstrate a WMD threat from Iraq and links between Saddam and the 9/11 attacks to sell the invasion of Iraq, the top national security officials of the early 1960s felt the need to concoct a Communist threat to all of non-Communist Southeast Asia.
Inconveniently for that cabal, however, outside of South Vietnam and Laos, the non-Communist Southeast was still enjoying a period of relative calm and stability that had begun in the mid-1950s. Communist insurgencies in Burma, Malaya, and the Philippines had long since died out, and the threat of internal Communist subversion was remote at best.
Reflecting that reality, the CIA issued a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in the very first weeks of the Kennedy administration asserting that, even if the Communist movements took power in South Vietnam and Laos, the rest of non-Communist Southeast Asia would remain independent. The worst that could happen, according to the estimate, was that Thailand and other states in the region would “take a neutralist position between the two power blocs.”
That conclusion suggested that there was no need to go to war over South Vietnam, so John F. Kennedy’s national security advisers had to pretend the NIE didn’t exist or said something quite different. They created a variant on the long-discredited “domino theory.” In a November 1961 letter to Kennedy urging him to commit U.S. troops to South Vietnam, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara wrote that, if South Vietnam was lost, “We would have to face the near certainty that the remainder of Southeast Asia and Indonesia would move to a complete accommodation with Communism, if not formal incorporation within the Communist bloc.”
In early 1964, shortly after Lyndon Johnson became president, that pattern was repeated. The CIA issued a Special National Intelligence Estimate that reaffirmed its previous findings: the effect of the loss of South Vietnam and Laos would be an increased tendency toward neutralism in the region, not the loss of the region to the Communists.
Only days after the new estimate was issued, however, McNamara ordered the drafting of a paper supporting a recommendation to bomb North Vietnam. The paper portrayed a region in danger of sliding into Communist domination if South Vietnam was lost, with Thailand under “grave pressure” and Malaysia falling under the domination of an Indonesia that would probably go Communist.
These claims were directly contradicted both by CIA estimates and State Department reporting, as the author, William Bundy, knew perfectly well. Although Johnson rejected the bombing option, the cabal of pro-war advisers succeeded in getting the that phony assessment of Southeast Asia included in an official NSC decision document on March 17, 1964, thus corrupting the policymaking process.
In October 1964, even Bundy, who had drafted that deliberately falsified analysis of a Southeast Asia tipping toward communist domination, renounced that fabrication. He was now assistant secretary of state for East Asia and free to speak for himself. He began arguing to Johnson’s principal advisers that they should give up their ersatz “domino theory” and accept the CIA’s more sober estimate of the impact of withdrawal from Vietnam on Southeast Asia.
But McNamara and Rusk refused to let Bundy’s defection from their invented threat stand in the way of their plan to get Johnson to support the bombing. They summoned Bundy to Rusk’s office and told him, in effect, that he had to give up his dissenting view. Then they excised his analysis from the policy document that was to go to LBJ.
Viewing the Vietnam and Iraq cases together makes it clear that the elbowing aside of the real intelligence analysts before a war is no accident. Whenever officials decide to promote an aggressive war, the creation of fraudulent threats is sure to follow. By definition, an aggressive war is not a response to a genuine threat. Real intelligence analysis, therefore, is bound to contradict the rationale for war. Cooking the books is thus a symptom of a state apparatus organized for aggressive war and a political system in which constraints on such wars are weak and ineffective.