Pivotal moments in war and peace come when least expected. And that's just the way things worked out, in 1967 - long after America had cautiously backed itself into the quicksand of Vietnam.
That's when the architect and public advocate-in-chief of America's ever-escalating war in Vietnam gave in to his ever-increasing inner doubts - that had suddenly swelled to full-blown private disillusionment. Robert Strange McNamara (yes that really was his middle name) had finally recognized the reality that would be the legacy of what would forever be called his war.
On May 19, 1967, JFK's and LBJ's famously confident defense secretary wrote a memo, telling his commander-in-chief what he could finally see clearly after more than two years in which U.S. bombs had been pounding North Vietnam.
"There continues to be no sign that the bombing has reduced Hanoi's will to resist or her ability to ship the necessary supplies south," McNamara wrote. "Hanoi shows no signs of ending the large war and advising the VC (Viet Cong) to melt into the jungles. .We should not bomb for punitive reasons if it serves no other purpose - especially if analysis shows that the actions may be counterproductive. It costs American lives; it creates a backfire of revulsion and opposition by killing civilians; it creates serious risks; it may harden the enemy."
Just four weeks later, McNamara assembled a special group of 36 best and brightest military analysts - including Daniel Ellsberg - to create the famous official history of how the United States got itself into that mess of a war it could not win or even successfully end. Yes, it's the study that came to be called "The Pentagon Papers" - after it was photocopied and leaked to The New York Times and then other newspapers by Ellsberg, who was disillusioned because its crucial conclusions were stamped secret and limited to insider eyes only. Then President Richard Nixon got a court injunction to halt the Times and then The Washington Post from publishing it.
But Ellsberg, who died this month at age 92, was determined to talk truth not just to power - but to the people. So were other journalists, including a young Newsday Washington correspondent (I still shave him daily). I'd heard Ellsberg was the leaker and flew to Boston to tell someone he knows well that Newsday will publish the unseen chapters.
Eight other newspapers ultimately published chapters before the Supreme Court sided with the First Amendment. Newsday got the last of the leaked chapters - that McNamara memo to President Lyndon Johnson.
Today, as a tribute to Daniel Ellsberg's patriotic crusade, we're going to recall the clandestine comic ritual of how Newsday got its leak. Then we'll put into perspective an often overlooked insight of the Pentagon Papers.
Leaking the Leak: On Sunday, my Newsday editor was called by a fellow calling himself Sam Adams. He said I should take a specific flight to Boston. At Logan Airport, my name was paged. At the airline counter a young fellow (my age) approached, gave me an orange paper that described a green shopping bag bearing a store's name. Go down the escalator, turn left; the bag is on a chair. Inside the green bag was a white bag; inside the white bag were two Pentagon Papers chapters.
I took the bag to Newsday's Long Island headquarters, where my colleagues, Myron S. Waldman and Russell Sackett and I read and wrote about McNamara's pivotal 1967 memo. In 1968, McNamara left the Pentagon. LBJ angered his military chiefs with big bombing reductions - then stunned most politicos by not seeking reelection, after all.
But I have always thought that the most important contribution in the Pentagon Papers came in a very early chapter - about President Dwight D. Eisenhower's years. It's the revelation about how America did all it could to prevent an election from being held in Vietnam, as provided by the 1954 Geneva Accords, on whether the people of North and South Vietnam wanted to unify.
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said in a secret cable that it was "undoubtedly true that elections might eventually mean unification Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh." As Ike later wrote in his memoir: "I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indo-China affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh."
No wonder The Pentagon Papers' analysts concluded that America's policy was "to give no impression of blocking elections while avoiding the possibility of losing them."
So America deep-sixed its democracy values, slowly backed itself into its unwinnable Vietnam War. And lo, we ended up working and trading rather well with a unified Communist Vietnam.
©2023 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.