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Opinion | The Pentagon Papers’ Lessons Went Unlearned

The road to this particular hell was paved with rosy public forecasts, which the Pentagon Papers catalog even as they document internal doubts that were ignored or suppressed. As early as May 1965, with the infusion of U.S. combat troops still in its early stages, a top Defense Department official was warning of a “widely and strongly held” sense among the public that “‘the Establishment’ is out of its mind.” Among Vietnam-era policy elites, both military and civilian, the light at the end of the tunnel, however contrived, never dimmed.

On the 50th anniversary of their release, the Pentagon Papers invite us to reflect on how little they ended up mattering. The canonical lesson of the Vietnam War was to avoid another Vietnam. But a half-century after the Pentagon Papers exposed the misguided thinking that got us into that war, delusions and dishonesty regarding the role of military power persist.

In present-day national security circles, the conviction that armed force holds the key to untangling history’s complexities remains an article of faith for many. In Vietnam, race, religion, ethnicity, ideology, geopolitics and national identity, sharpened by a colonial past, numbered among those complexities. While some qualified for passing mention in the Pentagon Papers, they did not budge members of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from their insistence on aligning South Vietnam with America’s purposes.

The methods the United States employed included arming and advising South Vietnamese forces, protracted bombing of the North and having thousand of troops conduct “search and destroy” missions in the South. While some 58,000 Americans and far greater numbers of Vietnamese died as a result, none of the generals’ grand plans delivered the promised results. It was that dismal reality that prompted Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, in June 1967, to commission the Pentagon Papers.

Crucially, however, the quest to translate U.S. military might into favorable political outcomes didn’t end. Even as excerpts from the Pentagon Papers were making headlines, the United States was illegally bombing Laos and Cambodia, waging a war that Congress had not authorized and about which the American people knew little.

More such episodes of questionable legality and logic were to follow, even after the South Vietnamese government finally fell. Among the most prominent: the Reagan administration’s illegal sales of arms to Iran to illegally fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua; clandestine U.S. support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s; Bill Clinton’s ill-conceived assault in Somalia culminating in the infamous Mogadishu firefight of October 1993; the Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence to create a pretext for invading Iraq in 2003; and Barack Obama’s embrace of “targeted killing” as an executive power.

Capping this sequence of events was the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran. Much as the Kennedy administration concluded in 1963 that President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam was expendable, so too President Donald Trump decided in January 2020 that General Suleimani should die.

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