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One touchstone of the cult of insiderism — the idea that what the public knows is a smokescreen of lies, that what’s really going on goes on behind the closed doors of institutional secrecy — is the Pentagon Papers. When this top-secret government study of U.S. policy in Vietnam through 1968 was leaked, the legend goes, it told the real story — the inside story — of Vietnam, documenting the callousness of policy-makers’ calculations and the duplicity with which they were sold to a gullible Congress and public. The revelations provoked unprecedented acts of censorship. The Nixon administration went to court to try to bar newspapers from publishing the documents, making the Papers a cause célèbre. The controversy set a template — a conspiracy of the powerful, unmasked by a crusading press that rouses an enraged populace from its slumber — that would inform populist iconography for a generation to come.
But like other insiderist legends, this tale is a myth. To be sure, the Papers document, across 23 years and four presidencies, four constants of U.S. policy: that the unpopular South Vietnamese regime was never anything but the creature of the United States; that Vietnamese interests always took a backseat to the imperial goal of securing America’s “reputation as a guarantor”; that the U.S. blocked negotiations among the Vietnamese that might lead to “neutralism” or “accommodation” with the Communists; and that the U.S. government consistently misrepresented its agenda.
Although the Papers stood the official story on its head, they had virtually no effect on Americans’ perceptions of the war. For all the commotion surrounding their publication in June 1971, they were yesterday’s news. By that time, six years of stalemated fighting had discredited the government’s claims of progress. TV newscasts had broadcast the devastation of South Vietnam by U.S. bombing and search-and-destroy missions. A huge anti-war movement had grown up to contest the government’s pronouncements on the conduct and motives of the war. “We had to destroy the town to save it” had become the war’s absurdist epitaph. By June 1971, the Tet Offensive had driven Johnson from office, the My Lai massacre had made the front pages, students had been shot at Kent State, Jane Fonda had been to Hanoi and a majority of Americans were telling pollsters the war was morally wrong. There was no one left to disillusion.
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That’s the unintended irony of Secrets, a memoir by Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers. His premise is that “secrets of the greatest import … can be kept reliably for decades by the executive branch, even though they are known to thousands of insiders,” to the detriment of democracy. It’s a dubious claim that’s hardly borne out by the evidence in his book, and it’s part of a wrongheaded but still influential idea on the left — that the American people are innocents whose inchoate anti-imperialism will erupt once the facts about the government’s interventionist schemes are exposed. These misapprehensions mar Ellsberg’s often very perceptive account of the times, causing him to grossly inflate the relevance of inside information to the forces that shaped the Vietnam era. Worse, although he was immersed in it, he misses the bigger story of the vast politico-cultural effort by the left to convince Americans of a politics of anti-imperialism.
Ellsberg went from high-level berths at the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation, advising the likes of Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, to center-stage in the peace movement, getting maced by cops while marching shoulder-to-shoulder with Noam Chomsky. Along the way, he spent two years in Vietnam, nominally with the civilian pacification program, but really as a student-at-large of the war. He witnessed the antagonism between the corrupt and brutal South Vietnamese regime and the peasantry, who turned to the Viet Cong as much for protection as out of political sympathy. An ex-Marine, Ellsberg tagged along on American combat patrols and even led an assault on a Viet Cong machine-gun nest. He watched the guerrillas dodge air strikes and run circles around the plodding GIs, who started shooting up and torching random villages in frustration.
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Ellsberg was an insider at the Pentagon, in the rice paddy and on the picket line. The breadth of his experience is probably unique and gives him, at times, a sharply insightful perspective. His take on the Pentagon bureaucracy, while strongly critical, never lapses into Strangelovian clichés and stays alive to the human foibles of the policy-making apparat. He has enough of the Corps in him to condemn the U.S. military as much for its unsoldierly slackness and incompetence as for its overkill, and enough of the Rand analyst to avoid grunts-eye-view sentimentality and pinpoint larger flaws in military doctrine. His chapters from Vietnam, in particular, are some of the best ever written on the war.
But insiderism has its discontents. By the time he returned from Vietnam in 1967, Ellsberg says, the policy establishment agreed with him that the war was a lost cause; but despite his and others’ arguments for de-escalation, the war dragged on. (Ellsberg joined the Pentagon Papers project to try to understand this conundrum.) And there was a deeper problem, which Ellsberg points out to Kissinger:
It will become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have [super-secret] clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: “What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know?” … You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. …
You’ll become something like a moron … incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have.
As insiders stopped listening to the world, the world stopped listening to insiders.
Much of Secrets is an account of Ellsberg’s efforts to escape this hall of mirrors. As his frustration over the war mounted, he gravitated to the peace movement and began to experience the paradigm shift that was radicalizing so many others. Indeed, his was a classic ’60s journey of protracted consciousness-raising. “She was … beautiful,” he stammers of one Indian pacifist who stayed up all night with him discussing Gandhi. Leaving the theater after seeing Easy Rider, another date stuns him with the news that she is smuggling draft dodgers to Canada. A speech by a draft resister provokes a full-blown conversion experience: “My sobbing sounded like laughing, at other times like moaning. … It was as though an ax had split my head and my heart broke open.”
The tension between his insider and outsider perspectives led to what was clearly an intellectually and emotionally traumatic break with the Rand-Pentagon elite. His leaking of the Papers may have been on some level an atonement for his past association with it.
But Ellsberg has never quite left the blinkered mindset of the insider behind, and it continues to distort his understanding of the Pentagon Papers. His work on the project was a typical insider strategy — more inside information would illuminate the failure of insiders — and the analysis of them in Secrets is in part a vindication of insiders. The files Ellsberg read demolished the “quagmire theory” that the United States had been drawn by well-intentioned miscalculations into an unwinnable conflict.
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Instead, he found that policy-makers understood from the outset that South Vietnam was unsalvageable, that U.S. intervention would require upwards of a million troops (and possibly nuclear weapons), and that even then victory would be doubtful. Rather than being misled by bad advice, presidents from Eisenhower to Johnson had gone against the insider consensus, dragging the American people along through manipulation and fraud. Ellsberg therefore decided to breach the wall of secrecy shielding “inordinate, unchallenged executive power” from accountability for its “desperate, outlaw behavior” in Vietnam.
The somewhat prim lesson Ellsberg draws from this — of the need to buttress the constitutional separation of powers to hobble presidential war-making — is unobjectionable, but inadequate for understanding Vietnam policy. His portrait of an executive branch run amok is no more tenable than the quagmire theory. It downplays serious disagreements among advisers about the prospects for intervention and gives short shrift to the political context of presidential decision-making.
Domestic opinion was never uniformly dovish (Ellsberg admits that the public were usually more hawkish than the insiders), and presidents acted with an eye to powerful pro-war constituencies. Kennedy’s advisers warned of “bitter domestic controversies” that would “divide the country and harass the administration” if South Vietnam fell; as late as the summer of 1967, Senate hawks held hearings demanding an escalation of the air war. Far from a “desperate, outlaw” tangent, presidential policy persistently aligned itself with domestic political pressures.
Even the Tonkin Gulf incident, exhibit A in Ellsberg’s indictment of executive branch deception, tells more about congressional acquiescence than presidential perfidy. Ellsberg quotes Sen. William Proxmire saying he would not have voted for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution had he known the incident was a fraud, but lets this self-serving excuse pass without asking why Proxmire felt a bloodless patrol-boat skirmish justified writing a blank check to the president for unlimited war. Instead of probing congressional support for the war, he offers a morality play about a Machiavellian executive and a bamboozled legislature.
One could argue that the public would have been more dovish had they possessed inside information; that’s Ellsberg’s rationale for leaking the Papers. But secrecy never impeded a substantive anti-war critique, as Ellsberg’s own experience shows. Writing of an anti-war demo in April 1965, just weeks after American ground troops landed in Vietnam, he notes that the speakers “were on solid ground, even if they didn’t have inside information.” They had their own sources, no less (and perhaps more) informed than the Pentagon; journalists like Jonathan Schell had written harrowing exposés quite early in the war. Indeed, Ellsberg’s own keenest insights into the war’s illegitimacy, he tells us, came from reading French historians, not the Papers. The truth was out there — theorized by intellectuals, reported by journalists, confirmed by veterans, propounded by activists — from the start, even if it took a while to sink in.
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Because Ellsberg still sees the war as a struggle between policy factions arguing over intelligence estimates, this larger picture eludes him. Vietnam was not the pet project of a rogue president or a coterie of planners; it was a product of the Cold War consensus. It was the long, twilight struggle Kennedy promised us, a reprise of conflicts over Korea or Berlin of the sort the country had decided it would fight without a clear-cut victory. Insider pessimism was matched by a conviction, widely shared by the body politic and policed by anti-communist ideologues, that the effort was worth it.
The war would therefore end not with the revelation of secrets but with a revolution in consciousness that repudiated the Cold War consensus — one grounded in public weariness with the material and moral costs of “twilight struggles” and swayed by the New Left’s overt anti-imperialism and nonviolence. Ellsberg’s own change of heart on the war was a microcosm of how that revolution reoriented public attitudes. The revolution penetrated the Pentagon Papers themselves. “A feeling is widely and deeply held,” wrote Assistant Defense Secretary John McNaughton, “that ‘the Establishment’ is out of its mind … that we are trying to impose some U.S. image on distant peoples we cannot understand (any more than we can the younger generation here at home).”
The Papers were an anti-climax. The war continued; six months after their publication, Ellsberg glumly notes, they had accomplished “nothing.” Thus Ellsberg’s hopes that the Papers would help thwart Nixon’s secret intentions to expand the war in Indochina proved illusory. (Although he tries to justify them with this tortured causal chain: in trying to smear Ellsberg after the Papers came out, the Nixon administration ordered the burglary of his psychiatrist’s office, which came to light and added fuel to the Watergate scandal, which depleted Nixon’s political capital so much that when Congress finally cut off funding for the bombing of Indochina, Nixon did not veto the measure.)
But the Papers’ effects were illusory largely because Nixon’s plans were not secret — even the “secret” bombing of Cambodia was rather promptly reported in the New York Times—and not out of line with public opinion. Indeed, the Nixon administration, for all its skulduggery, shows quite dramatically the irrelevance of insiderism. Nixon deliberately cultivated a reputation for desperate outlawry to frighten the Communists. Unlike the Papers, his secret tapes, which Ellsberg generously quotes, are unsettling to this day:
Nixon: I still think we ought to take the [North Vietnamese] dikes out now. Will that drown people?Nixon settled for conventional bombing, with the proviso that “we’re gonna bomb those bastards all over the place. Let it fly, let it fly.” But despite his deranged bunker mentality, his overall policy was one of dutiful de-escalation and withdrawal — cannily calibrated to undercut opposition to the war and win re-election in a landslide. As much as he longed to, he could not ignore the new consensus that the country would not bear any burden or oppose any foe, and that some things would just be too much — the unfinished revolution in consciousness we call the “Vietnam syndrome.”
Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.
N: … I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
K: That, I think, would just be too much.
N: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? … I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes.
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By focusing public ire on corporate evildoers and corrupt politicians, by deflecting attention from bad policy to the coverup of bad policy, the cult of insiderism has left a pernicious legacy. Take the 2000 presidential election, a textbook case of an insider cabal — the Jeb Bush-Katherine Harris cabal, the Supreme Court Five cabal, take your pick — thwarting the popular will, and also a textbook case of insiderist obtuseness. The firestorm over a few hundred Florida ballots took the spotlight off Gore’s extra half-million ballots; while in the debate over which gang had betrayed the Constitution, the Constitution’s betrayal of democracy by way of the Electoral College was swept under the rug. Thus an opportunity for systemic reform, embedded in a priceless teachable moment of constitutional crisis, was dissipated in a trivial search for villains.
Even worse are the insidious long-term effects of insiderism. By deriding the machinery of democratic governance as a sham that disguises the behind-the-scenes machinations of insiders, it implies that democratic government is for suckers, that democracy is inescapably the captive of well-connected interests at odds with the public good. The result is to further a political culture of irresponsibility and uninvolvement that lets everyone off the hook — legislators, who ratify bad policy behind feigned ignorance and belated outrage, and the public at large, who retreat from the hard work of political engagement into free-floating cynicism.
Ellsberg’s concerns about the constitutional separation of powers and abuses by the executive branch are pertinent today, as an undeclared war gathers under the most venal and secretive administration in recent history. The Republicans’ wholesale auction of policy to campaign donors, their lockdown on formerly public information and their penchant for incognito detentions make such anxieties plausible again. And unlike the witch hunts of the Clinton years, suspicions about the Bush administration are well-founded in real damage done to the public weal.
But it would be a mistake to revive the cult of insiderism. All of Bush’s misdeeds are done in the glare of press coverage, with the informed consent of Congress. And they are in no way a departure from our national culture of heedless, oil-addicted crony capitalism. Bush comes from Texas; Texas doesn’t come from Bush. What we need is not secret information, but a revolution in consciousness that will, as in the ’60s, challenge the national consensus in far-reaching ways.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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