Last month, I had the privilege (and pleasure -- he is a personally delightful fellow) of spending a morning with Daniel Ellsberg. Unfortunately, the name is apt to be remembered primarily by those over 40; Ellsberg was a former special assistant in the Department of Defense (during the Johnson administration) and senior staff member of the Rand Corp. who, in October 1969, secretly photocopied a 7,000-page, top secret study on U.S. decision-making regarding the war in Vietnam.
Ellsberg released the purloined papers to The New York Times and The Washington Post where they were quickly dubbed "the Pentagon Papers." Ellsberg, in the words of NPR news analyst Daniel Schorr, "single-handedly changed the course of history." The Pentagon Papers initiated a series of events that led to Watergate, the collapse of the Nixon presidency and, finally, the end of the Vietnam War.
Three decades later, Ellsberg tells his story in a book titled "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers" (Viking Press). It makes for chilling reading, particularly in light of the present, relentless rush toward war in Iraq and the Middle East. "Secrets" ought to be required reading for every American because it is essentially the story of how reporters -- and, by extension, the American public -- were lied to by people in positions of power in the nation's capital who thought they knew what was best for America and the nation's interests.
"Secrets" describes how, in the heady atmosphere of the Pentagon and the White House, loyalty to one's boss overwhelmingly took precedent over personal honesty and integrity.
It details how a set of convictions developed that "it was the president's job to make foreign policy, with the advice of our bosses, not, in any serious sense, with the advice of Congress. It didn't matter that much to us what the public thought." Ellsberg tells of watching Washington's top decision-makers "secretly maneuver the country into a full-scale war with no real promise of success."
He describes watching his colleagues and counterparts moving from "one crisis to another" like the circus juggler "who keeps a dozen plates spinning in the air on the ends of long, flexible poles . . . " Ellsberg concludes, "I asked myself more than once: . . . with all the simultaneous problems (whose range reflected America's post-war sense of its 'responsibilities,' its power, its entitlements) . . . can men even as brilliant and adroit as these -- and for sheer brainpower and energy, the Kennedy crew that Johnson inherited could not easily be bettered -- manage safely and wisely so many challenges at once . . . ? Can you really run the world this way?"
With the war drums pounding incessantly in our ears, Ellsberg's recounting of the atmosphere in the top reaches of government during the Vietnam era takes on an alarming pertinence. In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it's like "déjà vu all over again." The White House is maneuvering this country toward a full-scale war -- the only difference being that, this time, it makes no secret of the fact. The maneuvering is being done by people who believe they know what is best, not only for America but the entire world. And they are people who have amply demonstrated that they do not care what either the American public thinks -- or the rest of the world, for that matter.
They are also the people who confront, in Ellsberg's words, a basketful of "simultaneous problems." Kim Jong II and his nuclear pretensions in North Korea make Saddam Hussein seem like a rank amateur. Iran announced earlier this month that it has begun to mine uranium as part of an ambitious energy program; Iran is said to be only three to five years away from developing a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is about to precipitate a constitutional crisis in the Philippines by sending 3,000 troops to help hunt down members of a terrorist organization that allegedly has ties to Osama bin Laden. The Philippine Constitution prohibits foreign troops from engaging in combat on Philippine soil. And the United States already has 200 troops stationed in Colombia where rebels are holding three Americans as hostages. (The U.S. troops, incidentally, are training Colombian troops to defend an oil pipeline owned by L.A.-based Occidental Petroleum.)
No one would suggest that the current crowd in the White House could hold a candle -- when it comes to brilliance and adroitness -- to those who managed the nation's affairs during the Kennedy years. So Ellsberg's question becomes all the more critical: "Can you really run the world this way?"
Hubert G. Locke, Seattle, is a retired professor and former dean of the Daniel J. Evans Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.
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