The allegations were nothing short of devastating: at the risk of the lives of American and allied troops, and in the face of compelling contrary evidence, responsible, high-ranking U.S. intelligence officers had knowingly and systematically understated enemy force levels. The idea was to preserve the impression back home that the war was being won.
A four-star general had played along. He had just given the president, Congress and the American public an upbeat progress report. The president had gambled his credibility on it. The general couldn't bring himself to entertain, let alone offer, second thoughts.
And so his trusted subordinates, by their own admission, resorted to "falsification of facts" and "dishonorable" conduct in their rigging of itelligence estimates. Life and death issues-- estimates of enemy strength--were "negotiated" between rival intelligence bureaucracies for the sake of appearances.
This sorry record was laid bare in a recent CBS documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception." Perhaps it escaped your notice. Or maybe you were put off by the high- pitched prosecutorial tone, the trick-and-fancy camera work zooming in tight on only enough of the face of the four-star general, William C. Westmoreland, to show a tense licking of lips. Quite possibly you heard only about Westmoreland's response. In a press conference three days later, the former U.S. military commander in Vietnam called the whole thing a "preposterous hoax" and accused its perpetrators of "premeditated malice." The row quickly degenerated into vituperation and squalid dispute over technicalities--and sank from sight. It was, said the former U.S. Ambassador to Saigon, Ellsworth Bunker, "just like the old days": one more acrimonious clash between press (scandal- seeking) and government (covering up).
And that, alas, is the point. CBS set out to demonstrate a "conscious effort, indeed a conspiracy, at the highest levels of American intelligence, to suppress and alter critical intelligence (reports)"--and pretty well succeeded. But the net effect was to demonstrate, yet one more time, that apart from a relative handful of those directly involved, nobody much cares.
That strikes me as a telling commentary on the American psyche, if that's the word. Whatever's at work here, denial or withdrawal or guilt, it's evident that almost nobody--not yesterday's leaders, not today's, and still less the American public--is yet ready to confront "the only war we ever lost" in a civil and instructive search for the reasons why.
A "conspiracy" to cook intelligence estimates tells you something about the reliability of intelligence, not just then but now. And that's an interesting question, as we watch the Reagan administration shoving more chips into El Salvador while officials confess to very little certain knowledge about what's going on.
But the consequences of the "conspiracy," as compellingly argued in the CBS documentary, take you far beyond the ethics of juggling enemy troop numbers or the dependability of intelligence reports to questions having to do with institutional traditions and practices; to the workings of the military "honor, duty, country" code; to the interplay of strategy and politics; to the forces confounding crisis management in a free society.
CBS amply documented the cause-and-effect relationship between gross understatements of enemy strength and infiltration rates in 1967 and the heavy initial losses by American and South Vietnamese in the face of the country- wide Tet offensive in January 1968. But nothing of the dimension of Tet could be reconciled with the government's earlier progress reports. It was the beginning of the unraveling of Lyndon Johnson's control of events.
By March, his committee of "wise men," armed with the no-longer-suppressible evidence, reversed its judgment of five months earlier, and told Johnson the war was no longer winnable.
Surely there must be some lessons in all this for today's crisis managers--something to be learned from the tactics, strategy, policy and politics, as well as the intelligence-assessment process that contributed to one of this country's longest and grimmest learning experiences.