Yesterday was the 41st anniversary of the Pentagon Papers’ publication. A year ago on the 40th anniversary, Daniel Ellsberg took a moment to air a few regrets that he didn’t release the Papers sooner, and to encourage the current possessors of information on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to similarly spill whatever beans they possess, in order to do to those countries what he helped do in Vietnam:
Putting the policy-making and the field realities together, we see [in Iraq and Afghanistan] the same prospect of endless, bloody stalemate – unless and until, under public pressure, Congress threatens to cut off the money (as in 1972-73), forcing the executive into a negotiated withdrawal.
To motivate voters and Congress to extricate us from these presidential wars, we need the Pentagon Papers of the Middle East wars right now. Not 40 years in the future. Not after even two or three more years of further commitment to stalemated and unjustifiable wars.
Ellsberg wants it to happen sooner rather than later:
Don’t make my mistake. Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until a new war has started in Iran, until more bombs have fallen in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, Libya, Iraq or Yemen. Don’t wait until thousands more have died, before you go to the press and to Congress to tell the truth with documents that reveal lies or crimes or internal projections of costs and dangers. Don’t wait 40 years for it to be declassified, or seven years as I did for you or someone else to leak it.
I’ve written about the war in Vietnam ad nauseum, so I’m not going to fight that battle here. Let’s just stick to the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg’s finest hour.
Or was it? Fortunately, I’ve written about the Pentagon Papers before, too, and so now I’ll quote liberally from myself:
Take the Pentagon Papers. We all know the drill: fearless Daniel Ellsberg, at the risk of prosecution, spirits away classified information…and gives it to the press, who publish it in brave defiance of government efforts and a Supreme Court case trying to enjoin them from doing so. But Ellsberg’s–and the Times and Post‘s–devotion to truth won out, the American people were informed of the government’s deceptions, and we finally disengaged from an unwinnable battle.
We can forever debate the Vietnam war itself–its morality, justification, execution, and results; I’m trying not to do that in this post. This is about the sorting through of information.
So, what about the press lies about the government lies? Who will tell that story, and who has the patience to listen? It’s a marathon, not a sprint; to tell it requires a laborious wade through a mind-numbing number of documents, and to even read about it requires a bit of work, as well, and a troubling rethinking of old perceptions.
For example, just for the Pentagon Papers alone, the task of evaluation would require actually reading the original Papers, and then reading all the major press stories about them, sorting through the excerpts from the Papers that were published in newspapers at the time, and seeing how they compare to the Papers as a whole. It’s something I must confess I’ve never done, and probably never will do. But others have, and they report some curious goings-on.
A fascinating piece on the subject of war coverage by the MSM–both then and now–was written by James Q. Wilson and appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. Take a look at this, on the Papers:
Journalist Edward Jay Epstein has shown that in crucial respects, the Times coverage was at odds with what the documents actually said. The lead of the Times story was that in 1964 the Johnson administration reached a consensus to bomb North Vietnam at a time when the president was publicly saying that he would not bomb the north. In fact, the Pentagon papers actually said that, in 1964, the White House had rejected the idea of bombing the north. The Times went on to assert that American forces had deliberately provoked the alleged attacks on its ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify a congressional resolution supporting our war efforts. In fact, the Pentagon papers said the opposite: there was no evidence that we had provoked whatever attacks may have occurred.
In short, a key newspaper said that politicians had manipulated us into a war by means of deception. This claim, wrong as it was, was part of a chain of reporting and editorializing that helped convince upper-middle-class Americans that the government could not be trusted.
I’m not trying to absolve Johnson of all wrongdoing; there’s enough blame to go around. And some of it most definitely goes to our old friends, those dragon slayers in the MSM.
Speaking of dragon slayers, in the Atlantic, Peter Osnos writes about the Pentagon Papers and mourns the passing of journalism’s “glory days.” He writes about the Supreme Court decision in favor of the publication of the papers and against Nixon’s attempt to block them:
The outcome was a glorious victory for a robust press and launched an era of aggressive reporting about Washington. What a time it was…Ultimately, the contents of the Pentagon Papers mattered less to events than the great confrontation over whether the press could override government’s objections to their release.
It’s hard to escape the notion that Osnos sees the entire conflict as press-centric: was it good for the MSM and its journalists? His answer is a resounding “yes.”