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Vietnam: The Public's Need to Know...

Editorial Appearing June 17, 1971

There are a number of things to be said about the McNamara Papers, now in a state of court-ordered suspension--things ceremonial and things substantive. We would begin with a tribute to Mr. McNamara for his initiative to arrange for the collection and preservation of these records documenting our Vietnam involvement for the convenience of historians and scholars and future decision-makers. It was not exactly a selfish gesture: to the extent that the war will be judged as a calamitous mistake and Mr. McNamara as a major contributor, he must have recognized the risk he ran of helping to indict himself. He doubtless was not overjoyed to see it all surface so soon in The New York Times' brilliant and painstaking display--and, neither, in a certain unelevated sense, were we.

But never mind: those of us who believe that the reader, which is to say the public, always gains from the maximum possible comprehension of what the government is doing and how it all works (particularly when it works badly) can only applaud the Times' enterprise; it is hard for us to think of an argument for withholding such material once it was in hand. So we are also grateful to the Nixon administration for at least being good enough to allow this series to run for three days before deciding that the installments as yet unpublished somehow endangered national security in a way which the three installments already published apparently did not. Why the government moved on Tuesday, instead of, let us say, late Saturday night when the first edition became available, is, well, puzzling.

But there is plenty to chew on as it is and there are more than enough lessons to study and absorb. Taking nothing away from the Times, the story that unfolds is not new in its essence__the calculated misleading of the public, the purposeful manipulation of public opinion, the stunning discrepancies between public pronouncements and private plans__we had bits and pieces of all that before. But not in such incredibly damning form, not with such irrefutable documentation. That is what brings you up breathless: the plain command to the Secretaries of Defense and State and the head of CIA from McGeorge Bundy, in the President's name, to carry out decisions to expand and deepen our involvement in the war as rapidly as possible, while making every effort to project a very gradual evolution, with no change in policy; the careful concealment of clandestine intervention in Laos and North as well as South Vietnam in early 1964; the clear "consensus" of at least the main body of presidential advisers in September 1964 in favor of bombing the North even while President Johnson was publicly promising in campaign speeches not to "go North," not to send American boys to fight wars Asian boys ought to fight for themselves.

That is what is so chilling: the contempt for public opinion, the ready recourse to the press as an instrument for misleading the public; the easy arrogance with which these men arrogated to themselves decision which no government ought to take without the knowledge, let alone consent, of the people; the contempt for Congress as yet another inconvenience to be dealt with, when necessary, with blithe duplicity. This is Political Biz, you could say, but it doesn't make it any less sorry a performance.

And yet the deceit is only a part of it because a policy of calculated deception flows quite logically from the larger strategy of a limited war, fought for limited objectives, with limited means. And therein lies perhaps the most important lesson from the McNamara papers now available, for they tell us more explicitly than anything that has so far been said publicly how this strategy was supposed to work__and why, when it didn't work out rather quickly, it was doomed to fail.

It all began, the document tell us, with a recognition in early 1964 that the South Vietnamese were too weak to bargain for a settlement. So the name of the game was to even up the odds, to redress the balance of force to widen the war in the name of peace because only by widening the war could you create the condition that would lead both sides to accept a settlement. This was the New War; you weren't going too win in the old conventional way: by a "graduated response," you were going to project the specter of an almost limitless application of American power on the ground and in the air, in hopes that the enemy looking far ahead would accept the hopelessness of it all, and negotiate long before you had reached the limit of the military measures you were prepared to take. That's where the deceit came in, for you couldn't really tell the American pubic, at least at the outset, everything you contemplated doing without stirring debate, and inflaming war fever and provoking dissent__without projecting to the enemy, in short, precisely the impression of doubtful resolve that you did not want to project. So instead we assembled huge stacks of chips and played them a few at a time in hopes that the North Vietnamese, instead of raising back, would simply call, by suing for peace.

Only it didn't work out that way because Hanoi kept raising back and in early 1968 the Johnson administration ran out of playable chips; there was the Tet offensive and the military demand for more troops and the prospect of economic controls and a run on the dollar and the antiwar movement and Lyndon Johnson had to check. The narcosis of padded progress reports could not dull the hard realities. The resilience and resourcefulness of the enemy had been terribly misread; the effectiveness of the bombing turned out to be a fraud.

There are other lessons, harder to read, because they depend on what is not there; we know much more than we knew about the plans for wider war. But we do not yet know how much attention was given to the alternatives__to doing nothing, or something quite different. And we cannot finally judge the military conduct of the war without knowing a good deal more about the diplomacy, for the key to a limited war is in the terms on which you are prepared to settle it. Were our terms too tough? What opportunities were missed along the way? Not knowing that, it will be dangerous to leap too fast to too sweeping conclusions from these documents, which does not make them any the less valuable__to the public and to the present government. For Mr. Nixon, who must wind up this limited war, as for Mr. Johnson, the first lesson of the McNamara papers is the same: A government which rests on the consent of the governed cannot for long conduct effectively a war policy without some measure of public understanding and, in the end, consent.

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