PARIS -- More than a generation has passed. At last an important part, although by no means all, of the official U.S. documents on the Vietnam War are being declassified. A new book by Larry Bermam called "No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam" uses these records to confirm what was long evident.
There is still a feeling of being sated with the stories of horror and deceit, so that more specifics, more facts are not drawing a lot of attention. But the importance of these revelations goes well beyond restoring some truth to the past. They hold the key to much of the skepticism and even a certain sense of hostility that have come to mark attitudes of the American press and public toward officialdom.
That matters if there is ever to be a renewed sense of common interest and responsibility. There will probably never be a return to the discretion, really collusion, with which the media used to treat presidents, and it is just as well. The extravagance of John Kennedy's sexual indulgences both within the White House and outside and the extramarital affairs of Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt, among many other titillating stories, came to light well after their presidencies. They could count on a cover-up that is no longer available.
There was a tendency to accept their presentation of policies at face value, without too much checking out of actual effects. Now the virtual certainty of doubt invites spin control, which in turn reinforces incredulity, sapping confidence on both sides. The result is public disbelief and disinterest in what should be public affairs.
I remember the moment when it first struck me clearly that I was hearing the truth from a North Vietnamese spokesman while his American counterpart was lying to me. It was during the Paris Vietnam talks, in 1972, and it came as a shock that I could take the enemy's word but not my own countryman's.
I had long understood that American officials answered questions in a manner to produce the most favorable effect for their explanations. But it was assumed that while there might be omissions, shading, a degree of misleading, they didn't tell us correspondents flat lies, while the representatives of hostile governments did. Again and again, as the war proceeded, that turned out to be the reverse of the fact. And it didn't start with President Richard Nixon. At the beginning of the American involvement, General Maxwell Taylor was sent out to recommend a policy by President Kennedy, who urged him to use the excuse of river floods in Vietnam to disguise the dispatch of American military advisers, calling them engineers. That was done.
It was to make clear the steady, unremitting use of false information by one administration after another that Daniel Ellsberg decided to make public the Pentagon Papers. The disclosures of what the government had really been doing came as a thunderbolt.
But until now the real purpose of his desperate decision has not been served. It requires a careful day-by-day collation of what was being said and done by the government in secret and what it was telling the public at the same time. That remains a worthwhile project, and no doubt it would answer a lot of questions that still are mysteries. When Robert McNamara was eased out of his job as secretary of defense by Lyndon Johnson, hiding the truth that he had come to oppose the war by giving him the new job of president of the World Bank, a Pentagon review of options was ordered. The Pentagon Papers showed that every possibility was discussed, including another big increase in the number of troops deployed, except for one. That was to get out of the war.
Why? Because, I was told, everybody in the cabinet knew that President Johnson would never stand for anyone to tell him such a thing. After long agonizing, Mr. McNamara unloaded his conscience by writing a book that revealed for the first time the progression of his doubts and his final conviction that it was a tragic mistake. He was bitterly attacked, which I thought unfair because it was better to make the admission late than never.
But I criticized him, in a conversation, for failing to take account of all the lies which had been told to justify the policy. To my amazement, he said, "I never told any lies." That was not true, but no doubt he believed it. Stanley Kutler, who reviewed the Berman book , pointed out that "for whatever reason," Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese negotiator, never accepted the Nobel prize that he was awarded jointly with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for their agreement, which Mr. Nixon claimed brought "peace with honor." But he did give his reason at the time. He said his goal was "not peace but victory," which Hanoi achieved in 1975.
The truth can be painful, but a democracy is injured by lies. These must then be cleared away if it is to regain a healthy relation of the governing, the reporting and the governed. The United States has not got there yet.
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune