Secrets That Were No Secret, Lessons That Were Not Learned

When The New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers 50 years ago this week, I don’t recall giving the story much attention. As a young Army lieutenant serving in South Vietnam, I did not need a classified account of America’s reckless involvement in the war to tell me that I was participating in a misbegotten enterprise. Abundant evidence was in plain sight.

In the field, a dangerous and elusive enemy lurked. Hardly less dangerous were pathologies imported from a radicalized and bitterly divided home front: epidemic drug use, a poisonous racial climate and contempt for authority. Equally disturbing was the average G.I.’s palpably low regard for the Vietnamese people on whose behalf we were ostensibly fighting.

In the ensuing decades, my appreciation for the revelations of the Pentagon Papers has grown. The portrait of fallible policymakers at the highest levels of government rendering judgments based on little more than ill-informed conjecture, while concealing their ignorance behind a veil of secrecy, has lost little of its ability to shock.

The judgment of the Times editorial board on June 21, 1971, remains incontrovertible: “Congress and the American people were kept in the dark about fundamental policy decisions affecting the very life of this democracy.” The implications of those decisions were “deliberately distorted or withheld altogether from the public.”

Read the full article in The New York Times.

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