h i s t o r y o f w a r m i k e g r a v e l
These are agonizing times for America. This nation has been torn apart by a war that has seared its conscience. We have spent lives and wealth without limit in pursuit of an unworthy goal, preserving our own power and prestige while laying waste the unfortunate lands of Southeast Asia.
For twenty years this nation has been at war in Indochina. Tens of thousands of Americans have been killed, half a million have been wounded, a million Asians have died, and millions more have been maimed or have become refugees in their own land. Meanwhile, the greatest representative democracy the world has even seen, the nation of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, has had its nose rubbed in the swamp by petty war lords, jealous generals, black marketeers, and grand-scale dope pushers.
And the war still goes on. People are still dying, arms and legs are being severed, metal is crashing through human bodies, as a direct result of policy deecisions conceived in secret and still kept from the American people.
H. G. Wells, the English novelist and historian, once wrote:
The true strength of rulers and empires lies not in armies or emotions, but in the belief of men that they are inflexibly open and truthful and legal. As soon as a government departs from that standard, it ceases to be anything more than “the gang in possession,” and its days are numbered.
This is nowhere more true than in the conduct of a representative democracy. Free and informed public debate is the source of our strength. Remove it and our democratic institutions become a sham. Perceiving this, our forefathers included with our Constitution a Bill of Rights guaranteeing the maximum competition in the marketplace of ideas, and insuring the widest opportunity for the active and full participation of an enlightened electorate.
The American people have never agreed that the performance of their elected officials should be immune from public discussion and review. They have never failed to support their government and its policies, once they were convinced of the rightness of those policies. But they should not be expected to offer their support merely on the word of a President and his close advisors. To adopt that position, as many do today, is to demonstrate a basic mistrust in the collective wisdom of the people and a frightening lack of confidence in our form of government.
Our nation was founded at the town meeting, where all citizens had a voice in the decisions of government. Support for policies was insured, for they were made by the people affected. But, with the passage of time, the center of decisionmaking has escaped the people, and has even moved beyond their representatives in the Congress. With its array of specialists, its technology, and its ability to define state secrets, the Executive has assumed unprecedented power of national decision. The widespread and uncontrolled abuse of secrecy has especially fostered distrust and created division between the government and its people.
We now find policies on the most fundamental of issues, war and peace, adopted without the support or understanding of the people affected by them. As a result of these practices, especially with respect to our involvement in Southeast Asia, our youth has virtually abandoned hope in the ability of their government to represent them, much less to stand for the ideals for which the Republic once stood. The trust between leaders and their people, without which a democracy cannot function, has been dangerously eroded, and we all fear the result.
For it is the leaders who have been found lacking, not the people. It is the leaders who have systematically misled, misunderstood, and, most of all, ignored the people in pursuit of a reckless foreign policy which the people never sanctioned. Separated from the public by a wall of secrecy and by their own desires for power, they failed to heed the voice of the people, who saw instinctively that America’s vital interests were not involved in Southeast Asia. Nor could they bring themselves to recognize the knowledge and insight of that large number of private citizens who foresaw the eventual failure of their plans. As we now know, they were able even to ignore the frequently accurate forecasts of the government’s own intelligence analysts.
The barriers of secrecy have allowed the national security apparatus to evolve a rigid orthodoxy which excludes those who question the accepted dogma. The result has been a failure to re-examine the postulates underlying our policy, or to give serious attention to alternatives which might avoid the kinds of disastrous choices that have been made in the past decade.
Nothing in recent history has so served to illuminate the damaging effects of secrecy as has the release of the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s history of American decisionmaking on Vietnam. This study is a remarkable work, commissioned by the men who were responsible for our Vietnam planning but who, by 1967, had come to see that our policy was bankrupt. The study was thus a unique attempt, by the Administration that had developed the policy, to look at its foundations and to see what had gone wrong.
A special task force was assembled, composed of outside experts and civilian and military analysts from within the Defense Department. They were given access to all the documentary evidence available to the Pentagon. The result was the most complete study yet performed of the policymaking process that led to our deepening involvement in Vietnam, and the most revealing insight we have had into the functioning of our government’s national security apparatus.
We were told that we had to make sacrifices to preserve freedom and liberty in Southeast Asia. We were told that South Vietnam was the victim of aggression, and it was our duty to punish aggression at its source. We were told that we had to fight on the continent of Asia so that we would not have to battle on the shores of America. One can accept these arguments only if he has failed to read the Pentagon Papers.
However, the public has not had access to this study. Newspapers in possession of the documents have published excerpts from them and have prepared their own summary of the study’s findings. In doing this, they have performed a valuable public service. But every American is entitled to examine the study in full and to digest for himself the lessons it contains. The people must know the full story of their government’s actions over the past twenty years, to ensure that never again will this great nation be led into waging a war through ignorance and deception.
It is for this reason that I determined, when I came into possession of this material, that it must be made available to the American public. For the tragic history it reveals must now be known. The terrible truth is that the Papers do not support our public statements. The Papers do not support our good intentions. The Papers prove that, from the beginning, the war has been an American war, serving only to perpetuate American military power in Asia. Peace has never been on the American agenda for Southeast Asia. Neither we nor the South Vietnamese have been masters of our Southeast Asian policy; we have been its victims, as the leaders of America sought to preserve their reputation for toughness and determination.
No one who reads this study can fail to conclude that, had the true facts been made known earlier, the war would long ago have ended, and the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese would have been averted. This is the great lesson of the Pentagon Papers. No greater argument against unchecked secrecy in government can be found in the annals of American history.
The Pentagon Papers tell of the purposeful withholding and distortion of facts. There are no military secrets to be found here, only an appalling litany of faulty premises and questionable objectives, built one upon the other over the course of four administrations, and perpetuated today by a fifth administration.
The Pentagon Papers show that we have created, in the last quarter century, a new culture, a national security culture, protected from the influences of American life by the shield of secrecy. As New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan has written, “To read the Pentagon Papers in their vast detail is to step through the looking glass into a new and different world. This world has a set of values, a dynamic, a language, and a perspective quite distinct from the public world of the ordinary citizen and of the other two branches of the republic, Congress and the judiciary.”
The Pentagon Papers reveal the inner workings of a government bureaucracy set up to defend this country, but now out of control, managing an international empire by garrisoning American troops around the world. It created an artificial client state in South Vietnam, lamented its unpopularity among its own people, eventually encouraged the overthrow of that government, and then supported a series of military dictators who served their own ends, and at times our government’s ends, but never the cause of their own people.
The Pentagon Papers show that our leaders never understood the human commitments which underlay the nationalist movement in Vietnam, or the degree to which the Vietnamese were willing to sacrifice in what they considered to be a century-long struggle to eliminate colonialism from their land. Like the empires that have gone before us, our government has viewed as legitimate only those regimes which it had established, regardless of the views of those governed. It has viewed the Viet Minh and their successors, the Viet Cong, as insurgents rebelling against a legitimate government, failing to see that their success demonstrated the people’s disaffection from the regime we supported. Our leaders lived in an isolated, dehumanized world of “surgical air strikes” and “Viet Cong infrastructure,” when the reality was the maiming of women and children and the rise of a popular movement.
The Papers show that there was no concern in the decisionmaking process for the impact of our actions upon the Vietnamese people. American objectives were always to preserve the power and prestige of this country. In the light of the devastation we have brought to that unhappy land, it is hard to believe that any consideration was given to the costs of our policies that would be borne by the very people we claimed to be helping.
But the American people too were treated with contempt. The Pentagon Papers show that the public statements of optimism, used to sustain public support for an increasingly unpopular policy, were contrary to the intelligence estimates being given our leaders at the time. While we were led to believe that just a few more soldiers or a few more bombing runs would turn the tide, the estimates were quite clear in warning that escalation would bring no significant change in the war.
The Pentagon Papers show that the enemy knew what we were not permitted to know. Our leaders sought to keep their plans from the American people, even as they telegraphed their intentions to the enemy, as part of a deliberate strategy to cause him to back down. The elaborate secrecy precautions, the carefully contrived subterfuges, the precisely orchestrated press leaks, were intended not to deceive “the other side,” but to keep the American public in the dark. Both we and the enemy were viewed as “audiences” before whom various postures of determination, conciliation, inflexibility, and strength were portrayed. The American public, which once thought of itself as a central participant in the democratic process, found itself reduced to the status of an interested, but passive, observer.
The people do not want, nor should they any longer be subjected to, the paternalistic protection of an Executive which believes that it alone has the right answers. For too long both the people and Congress have been denied access to the needed data with which they can judge national policy. For too long they have been spoon-fed information designed to sustain predetermined decisions and denied information which questioned those decisions. For too long they have been forced to subsist on a diet of half-truths or deliberate deceit, by executives who consider the people and the Congress as adversaries.
But now there is a great awakening in our land. There is a yearning for peace, and a realization that we need never have gone to war. There is a yearning for a more free and open society, and the emerging recognition of repression of people’s lives, of their right to know, and of their right to determine their nation’s future. And there is a yearning for the kind of mutual trust between those who govern and those who are governed that has been so lacking in the past.
If ever there was a time for change, it is now. It is in this spirit that I hope the past, as revealed in the Pentagon Papers, will help us make a new beginning, toward that better America which we all seek.
The text of this book consists of public documents drawn from the official record of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds.
Early in June 1971, the New York Times, and then other newspapers, began printing reports on, and excerpts from, a lengthy Defense Department study of American decisionmaking on Vietnam. Shortly thereafter, the Justice Department succeeded in obtaining injunctions halting further publication of these stories. On the evening of June 29, 1971, while there was still doubt as to whether the newspapers would be permitted to continue publishing their stories, United States Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska attempted to read a collection of the Pentagon Papers in his possession on the floor of the Senate. However, his effort was frustrated by a parliamentary maneuver which prevented him from gaining access to the Senate floor.
As Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds, Senator Gravel immediately convened a hearing, to receive testimony from Congressman John Dow of New York on the war-related lack of funds to meet our nation’s needs for public buildings. As his opening remarks, and during the course of the evening, Senator Gravel read part of the Pentagon Papers into the record. The remaining portions of the Papers were incorporated into the record of the subcommittee and then were released to the press.
The material from the Pentagon Papers that was entered into the record, and is reprinted here, consisted of about 2900 pages of narrative, 1000 pages of appended documents, and a 200-page collection of public statements by government officials justifying U.S. involvement in Vietnam. According to information reported in the press, the Defense Department study included in total a narrative of about 3000 pages and documents amounting to about 4000 pages.
The material presented here includes a full history of U.S. decisionmaking on Vietnam from the early 1940s through March of 1968. Even though the documents included with the narrative were only a portion of those appended to the original study, they were of sufficient interest and importance to warrant inclusion in these volumes. (There are extensive quotations within the narrative from many of the other documents included with the original study.) In its published account of the study, the New York Times included a number of documents which did not appear in the subcommittee record. These have been reprinted here also, in proper chronological sequence, and their source is indicated. The collection of public statements was drawn from the U.S. Department of State Bulletins and the Public Papers of the Presidents, and was prepared in the form shown here by the Defense Department task force which performed the study.
The preparation of the subcommittee record was performed under the direction of Senator Gravel. The chapter sequence was arranged to provide a convenient, nearly chronological four-volume format. The documents and public statements pertaining to each period are appended to the material in each volume.
No material was added to or changed in the study or appended documents and statements. In some cases, material was illegible or missing. If this occurred within a direct quotation, the omission was indicated with a bracketed statement. If it occurred in narrative text, it was bridged by removing the entire sentence in which it appeared, when it was evident that no substantive material would be lost by this procedure; otherwise, the omission was indicated by a bracketed statement. All other bracketed insertions appear in the original study. Some maps were removed when they were not of sufficient quality to be adequately reproduced as unretouched facsimiles; these omissions have been indicated in the text. Footnotes in the original study, referring primarily to internal government reports, have been removed. A glossary of specialized terms and acronyms was added.
These volumes provide the most complete text of this history of American involvement in Vietnam yet made available, in a form which should make it fully accessible to the American people.
Introduction copyright © 1971 by Mike Gravel
The contents of this volume are drawn from the official record of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds. No copyright is claimed in the text of this official Government document. Published by Beacon Press, Boston. Beacon Press books are published under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Sen. Gravel’s introduction is published in Archipelago with permission of Sen. Gravel and Beacon Press, and with thanks to the Miller Center of Public Affairs for their assistance.
Write to us:
Letters to the Editor
Further reading, selected:
The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition
The Pentagon Papers Case
NEW YORK TIMES CO. v. UNITED STATES, 403 U.S. 713 (1971)
James C. Goodale, “The First Amendment and Freedom of the Press”
Mike Gravel 2008
Daniel Ellsberg (Website) conversation with,“Iraq’s Pentagon Papers”
Vietnam Veterans of America/Pentagon Papers
Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” YouTube
The new Pentagon papers: Salon