Wrong cannot be vanquished by more wrong. A country cannot save another country by burning it, killing its people and systematically lying about it. Lies are only needed to cover wrongs. If one does right, no lies are needed; one can stand on the truth and the value of one’s actions. A fight against corruption cannot be won with more corruption. Covering the deaths of two million men, women and children under a veil of lies to protect America’s reputation and forward our political agenda is, at the very least, corruption.
Families cooking rice outside their homes in My Lai, Vietnam, in the early morning of March 16, 1968 may have known these truths by experience as they lived their last, horrific moments. At 7:30 AM US soldiers began dropping out of helicopters with orders to destroy My Lai. The soldiers had been lied to, told that all villagers would leave by 8:00, that only Viet Cong would be left, all of whom should be killed.
Somehow a group of 20 older women kneeling and praying at a temple appeared to be Viet Cong and were each shot in the back of the head. A man was shot and tossed in a well along with a live hand grenade. Another stabbed in the back with a bayonet. Children were shot point blank. Eighty villagers were removed from their homes, forced into the town square and fired on until dead. By sunset, My Lai was destroyed and 500 dead were buried in mass graves dug by US hands.
It took until November of 1968 for the news of the My Lai Massacre to reach the US public. When it did, it began to turn the tide of opinion against a war that the public had for five years been duped into supporting through a narrative based on less than half truths. My Lai could have remained unknown if the military cover-up, which started before all the victims were even dead, had succeeded. The first military report submitted was 128 enemy dead, no US casualties. Success. It took three years for one, lone officer to be found guilty of manslaughter in a court-martial case that nearly didn’t happen. He was sentenced to life in prison and let out on parole by President Nixon just 5 years later.
No such ire was provoked by the deaths of the other 2 million Vietnamese that died for the cause of democracy in Vietnam. On the ground, “Military leaders encouraged and rewarded kills in an effort to produce impressive body counts that could be reported to Saigon as an indication of progress. GIs joked that ‘anything that's dead and isn't white is a VC’ for body count purposes. Angered by a local population that said nothing about the VC's whereabouts, soldiers took to calling natives ‘gooks’,” recalls an Army Officer. Would these tactics produce a free and democratic South Vietnam? Four years earlier, Daniel Ellsberg had been hired by the Pentagon to try and answer that very question.
Dan Ellsberg had a Ph.D. from Harvard and two years experience as a Marine commander. Even that may not have prepared him for his first day of work in the Pentagon in 1964. Tasked with researching attacks against Americans in Vietnam for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the Gulf of Tonkin incident happened almost as soon as he walked in the door. He was hired specifically to compile evidence of violence against Americans that would support the White House policy of active Containment. He had come into the war as a hawk. He would leave the war as a dove.
The Tonkin Gulf had a lot to do with that process. It dumped the government’s capacity to lie, and the results of that ability to lie, right in his lap. On his first day at work, long before lunch, barely familiar with his office, an out of breath courier handed him an urgent cable. The USS Destroyer Maddox was under fire in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam. Within ten minutes there were two more ending with, “Am under continuous torpedo attack."
Cables continued to flow in, reaching Ellsberg within half an hour from when they were sent from the Maddox. Under attack and firing in pure darkness, with no moon, on an overcast night, the Maddox believed it may have sunk an enemy destroyer. Firing only by radar, it was impossible for the Commander to tell for sure. It was even more impossible for Ellsberg reading the flurry of cables half a world away. Not an easy first day at work.
This was only the second time the US Navy had been fired on since the end of World War II. The first had been just three days earlier. Three North Vietnam PT boats had launched torpedoes and fired on the Maddox on patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was a daytime attack, landing just one shell on the Maddox before the attack was driven off by fire and air support from a nearby carrier. That attack, on August 2nd, had been confirmed.
As August 4th wore on, cables began to arrive that questioned the second attack and it became clear it was possible it had not happened at all. The Captain of the Maddox was professing insecurity about the details and incident on the whole. This as the President was planning a retaliatory air attack. Instead of waiting for confirmation, plans for attack continued and at 11:30 that night, President Johnson appeared on camera to lie to the American people. Ellsberg noted two main lies in that speech. First, that the August 4th attack was “unequivocal.” It was the opposite. Much doubt lingered. The second was that it was “unprovoked.” Dan Ellsberg knew that the US had been carrying out raids against North Vietnam through the CIA and that the August 2nd attack had been retaliatory. In fact, the Commander of the Maddox had requested to leave the Gulf in order to avoid retaliation. His request had been denied. Daniel knew this as he watched the President on TV, lying to the public and inadvertently warning Vietnam that planes were coming, losing the US the element of surprise. Daniel Ellsberg’s first day at the Pentagon had lasted 24 hours.
Officials, including Daniel Ellsberg’s boss, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, also lied to Congress about this subject just days later. McNamara claimed that the CIA raids had been carried out by South Vietnam without US assistance or knowledge, when he and other top US officials had signed off on detailed reports of the raids just days before.
Fabrication of fact to fit political objectives filled Ellsberg’s two years at the Pentagon. As did Patricia Marx, an anti-war journalist Ellsberg started dating and fell in love with in 1964. He could be seen, at times, at her side at peace rallies, an odd place for a Vietnam war planner. He heard the side of the anti-war marchers from their own mouths and the untruths and contradictions of the government from theirs. At the time, President Johnson was deciding whether or not to take over responsibility for the war from the South Vietnamese and was being advised that if we offered up 500,000 men and five years, we could win.
Not satisfied to research the war from behind a desk, Ellsberg traded his comfortable office chair for a hard, old jeep seat in the line of fire. He found the war did not look, from Vietnam, much like it did from DC. He was shocked to learn that military strategists had invented entire ground campaigns, patrols were only purported and the majority of the war consisted of dropping millions of pounds of bombs and evading the Viet Cong.
Ellsberg saw firsthand the human toll during his two years in Vietnam and came to have a deep compassion for the mass of innocent civilians obliterated by napalm and politics gone wrong. He also realized the futility of attempting to eradicate the Viet Cong from the South. On the flight back from Vietnam, Ellsberg had briefed Robert McNamara on the bleak outlook for anything resembling victory. When they landed Ellsberg watched as McNamara lied inot the camera, misleading the press by stating that the war was going well. Ellsberg knew his boss was lying. McNamara knew the US was in a quagmire. Ellsberg prayed he would never have a job that would force him to make that choice, lie or loose your career. Apparently, God wasn’t listening. He would indeed have to make that choice, and an even harder one; should he risk life in prison to end and immoral war?
His Vietnam experience made it clear the combination of Congress’ lack of interest and battling opinions in President Nixon’s team meant the war could conceivably go on until we ran out of ammo or the American people chose to stop it. It also made glaringly real to him the depth of lies being told to the American people and the question of whether the war was moral. Yet, turning against the political tide was nearly impossible in 1969. Martin Luther King’s speech against the war in 1967 was so controversial; it caused divisions among his own supporters. Yet who can argue with his choosing the quote from Dante, “The hottest part of hell is reserved for those who, in a time of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality”. Daniel Ellsberg had heard that speech. His time in Vietnam was beginning to make that truth real for him.
Ellsberg did not go back to the Pentagon on his return. He rejoined the Rand Corporation in creating policy reports concerning the war. He felt his now less supporting ideas might be better received at Rand. That same year, Rand received a copy of a 7,000 page report written at the request of Robert McNamara, on the history of the Vietnam conflict from 1945-1967. A Top secret document, it was specifically not to be seen by the President. That year he also attended a War Resisters League conference where he heard a protester speak who was about to go to jail for resistance. The young man’s bravery pricked Daniel’s heart and he committed himself to stop the war at all cost.
Ellsberg then made the choice to risk life in prison to stop the cover up of the reality of the Vietnam war. He began taking McNamara’s Vietnam War report home with him each night, staying up night after night making copies, one page at a time. He often engaged the help of his two young children. Still, the task of copying the 7,000 page document that would come to be known as “the Pentagon Papers”, took seven months. He knew every day of those months, that he could lose his freedom for the rest of his life for taking this action. Returning home early in the morning, after a night at the copier, he would look at his children and wonder if he would watch them grow up separated by thick glass.
The Pentagon Papers detailed some of the lies that led up to and escalated the war and expressed defense officials’ concerns with the lack of effectiveness a prolonged military engagement in the region could ever have. The fundamental deceptions it outlined were that President Kennedy had not been shocked and surprised at the overthrow and murder of the South Vietnamese President in 1963. The US had, in fact, led the coup. President Johnson claimed that we desired the South Vietnamese to fight their own war and did not desire a to widen the conflict while changing the mission of ground troops, less than a month later, to permit more engagement with the enemy. In 1964 President Johnson and Secretary McNamara had claimed the reason for the war was an independent, non-communist Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers showed that 70% of our reason for involvement was to “save face.” Those were just the highlights.
Once he had a few copies, he began trying to get government officials who had been opposed to the war to leak the papers or use them against the pro-war administration. In 1970, Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) refused to make public the Pentagon Papers saying, “Isn't it after all only history? Does it really matter?” The political fallout from exposing the government was too much for them to face. Ellsberg spent 1970 shopping the papers to possible interested parties to no avail.
In 1971 he approached the press. Although he knew this was a more dangerous path, it seemed the only one left him. The New York Times reporters were floored by the contents of the Pentagon Papers. Many of them had reported the very stories and remembered being lied to point blank by government officials. They now had the real story. The New York Times ran the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971. The government brought suit immediately and ordered them to halt. For 15 days, the Times was stopped from publishing the articles by court order from the Nixon administration. So, Ellsberg gave the documents to The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers. They ran them. Two weeks later, the Supreme Court ordered the Times to resume. The Times concealed Ellsberg as the source and he went into hiding with Patricia for 13 days, locked in a Washington hotel watching his drama unfold on the news. When the Times won the Supreme Court case, the most important First Amendment case in the court’s history, Ellsberg faced America. Nixon, who had won the Presidency by promising a noble end to the Vietnam war, while secretly planning to escalate it, was furious.
The fact that Ellsberg now faced a possible 115 year sentence under the espionage act was not enough. Nixon decided to convict him in the press. He set up a series of covert operations to break into Ellsberg psychiatrist’s office and remove and expose his files. The break-in occurred, but the file was not found. These facts were made public in Ellsberg’s trial in 1973, along with further evidence of illegal wiretapping by the Nixon Administration. This got Ellsberg’s case thrown out and those who had participated in the break in fired. It ultimately led to the resignation of Richard Nixon as President of the United States. Not an outcome Ellsberg had shot for, but key to the end of the Vietnam war.
Under Nixon, the war had grown to include massive bombing of Cambodia and Laos, with no attempts at estimates of civilian death tolls there, the details of which were virtually unknown to the American people. Still, Ellsberg found that getting the press to continue the story was virtually impossible. Every time he was interviewed for months, he relayed how many tons of bombs had been dropped in Vietnam, yet the papers did not print it. The story faded. The American people either failed to understand or didn’t care to. By the end of the Vietnam war, we had dropped 4 times as many tons of bombs on indo China as we had dropped on Western Europe in WWII.
Before he resigned, Nixon had some choice words for another young official in his administration, Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld had just completed 6 years as a Congressman, and was now Advisor to President Nixon. He advised Nixon about the Pentagon Papers, “To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing.... It shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it's wrong, and the president can be wrong." Nixon was recorded saying about Rumsfeld "at least Rummy is tough enough" and "He's a ruthless little bastard. You can be sure of that.”
When Donald Rumsfeld led America to war in Iraq under even more dubious circumstances, he proved that the government can now, just as easily, occupy countries under the veil of lies. That it is possible we will never face the truth that fighting wrong with more wrong is nothing more than wrong. That we may never learn that a country cannot save another country by burning it, killing it’s people and systematically lying about it. That lies are only needed to cover wrongs. That if one does right, no lies are needed, one can stand on the truth and the value of one’s actions. No fight against corruption can be won with more corruption. It is also possible that the government, even in this “Information Age” can do whatever it pleases without public support, behind the veil of lies. In the end, that should lead us all to ponder the value of our supposed “Democracy.”
1971--Daniel Ellsberg, a top-level Vietnam War strategist, concludes the war is based on a decade of lies. Trailer for the movie "Danliel Ellsberg, The Most Dangerous Man in America"
Ellsberg presents an explosive inside account of how and why he helped bring an end to the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon's presidency.
How dick Cheney used The Veil of Lies