The road to this particular hell was paved with optimistic public forecasts, which the Pentagon Papers catalog even as they document internal doubts that have been ignored or suppressed. As early as May 1965, when the injection of American combat troops was in its infancy, a senior Defense Ministry official warned of a “widely and strongly held” sentiment among the public that ” the establishment ”is out of his mind. “Among the political elites of the Vietnamese era, both military and civilian, the light at the end of the tunnel, even artificial, has never been extinguished.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of their release, the Pentagon Papers invite us to reflect on how little they have come to matter. The canonical lesson of the Vietnam War was to avoid another Vietnam. But half a century after Pentagon documents exposed the mistaken thinking that led us into this war, illusions and dishonesty about the role of military power persist.
In today’s national security circles, the belief that armed force holds the key to unraveling the complexities of history remains an article of faith for many. In Vietnam, race, religion, ethnicity, ideology, geopolitics and national identity sharpened by a colonial past were among these complexities. While some qualified for a passing mention in Pentagon documents, they did not budge members of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from their insistence on aligning South Vietnam with America’s goals.
The methods employed by the United States included arming and advising South Vietnamese forces, prolonged bombardments of the north, and thousands of troops conducting “search and destroy” missions in the south. While some 58,000 Americans and many more Vietnamese have died as a result, none of the generals’ grand plans have yielded the results promised. It was this sad reality that prompted Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in June 1967 to order the Pentagon Papers in the first place.
Most importantly, the search for the formula that would translate US military might into favorable political outcomes has not stopped. Even as excerpts from the Pentagon Papers grabbed the headlines, the United States was illegally bombing Laos and Cambodia, waging a war that Congress had not authorized and of which the American people knew little.
Other episodes of questionable legality and logic were to follow, even after the fall of the South Vietnamese government. Among the most important: the illegal arms sales to Iran by the Reagan administration to illegally fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua; the clandestine support of the United States for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s; Bill Clinton’s ill-conceived assault on Somalia that culminated in the infamous Mogadishu shooting in October 1993; the manipulation of intelligence by the George W. Bush administration to create a pretext for invading Iraq in 2003; and Barack Obama’s adherence to “targeted murder” as an executive branch.
The assassination of Major General Qassim Suleimani of Iran crowned this entire sequence of events. Just as the Kennedy administration concluded in 1963 that President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam had become consumable, President Donald Trump also ruled in January 2020 that General Suleimani must die.