Saturday, June 26, 2021

Why do so many people think the Government is lying to them? A 50-year review

By Aula Minerva
Spy Archivist

The dispatches from the latest United States military debacle grow more alarming by the day:

After 20 years and unknown trillions of dollars, our brave pro-democracy Afghan allies are still stealing their troops' pay? No wonder the troops are throwing away their U.S.-supplied weapons and melting into the hills.  According to The New York Times, the situation has approached its inevitable end:

In the last 24 hours, around a dozen districts have fallen to the Taliban — mostly in the country’s north. Since May 1, when U.S. forces officially began their withdrawal from the country, the Taliban — through local mediation, military offensives and government retreats — have taken more than 50 districts, . . .

Only a small number of districts have been retaken by government forces as the defeats have forced Afghan commanders to consider what territory they can hold following the American departure. . . .

The current situation does not bode well for government forces and militias under the command of northern Afghanistan’s power brokers, some of whom are notorious warlords who have held onto power since the country’s civil war in the 1990s and the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Where have we read this story before?  Here's a dispatch printed in the Spy in April 1975 (shown here as it originally appeared in the Times:)

We'll just pick out a couple of, um, highlights:

Five divisions vanished?  Hundreds of millions of U.S. supplied equipment lost?  Three quarters of the country abandoned? No point in going to war?  Maybe someone should have told Americans that before they sent 50,000 of them into a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people and inflicted grievous lifelong injury on millions more for – nothing.

We were thinking about the parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam when we, and all other print subscribers, received a whole special section of the paper Times recalling the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers:


You young whippersnappers may not know this but the Pentagon Papers was the massive study that proved that the entire Vietnam War was sold and waged on the basis of lies.  It was for this reason that the Republican criminal then serving as President, Dick Nixon, fought so hard to suppress the truth, aided and abetted by pillars of the legal establishment like Erwin Griswold, that sterling lion of the Bar who as Dean of Harvard Law School told Ruth Bader Ginsburg that she was taking a slot that could have been given to a man who wouldn't get pregnant and abandon the law.  Like, let's see, Cancun Ted Cruz.

The Times' report summed up this aspect of the terrible history of the Vietnam War:

Brandishing a captured Chinese machine gun, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara appeared at a televised news conference in the spring of 1965. The United States had just sent its first combat troops to South Vietnam, and the new push, he boasted, was further wearing down the beleaguered Vietcong.

“In the past four and one-half years, the Vietcong, the Communists, have lost 89,000 men,” he said. “You can see the heavy drain.”

That was a lie. From confidential reports, McNamara knew the situation was “bad and deteriorating” in the South. “The VC have the initiative,” the information said. “Defeatism is gaining among the rural population, somewhat in the cities, and even among the soldiers.”

Lies like McNamara’s were the rule, not the exception, throughout America’s involvement in Vietnam. The lies were repeated to the public, to Congress, in closed-door hearings, in speeches and to the press. The real story might have remained unknown if, in 1967, McNamara had not commissioned a secret history based on classified documents — which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. 

You may be reading us thinking: well, so what? Of course our government lies to us 24/7. But the lovable innocents who entered adulthood during and after the New Deal and the thumping victory of World War II had a different view: you could trust FDR, Ike, and all the other men who brought us miracles like interstate highways and DDT.  

Or at least the while male ones thought that.  Black people trapped in what looked like an impregnable fortress of racism had a different view and affluent white women staring at the bennies in their fists knew something was wrong but couldn't quite put their fingers on it.

(As 55% of white women voted for the Former Loser Grifter less than a year ago, we suspect that white women are still having trouble with reality.)

The Times report sums it up pretty adroitly:

The lies revealed in the papers were of a generational scale, and, for much of the American public, this grand deception seeded a suspicion of government that is even more widespread today. 

Since that time, Americans, often admittedly influenced by white supremacy, fear of losing unearned privilege, and other stuff not actually related to the Vietnam debacle, have applied the supposed lesson of the lies that they were fed to justify Vietnam to phenomena that really have nothing to do with it.

Not long after the Vietnam War ended in defeat and ignominy, a jolly criminal Republican President (sensing a pattern here?) canonized now as St. Ronald of Bitburg pushed the lie that government can't do anything to help people.  Someone tell that to the hundreds of government employees today working in rain, heat, and danger to rescue victims of the Surfside building collapse.  

Today we are in danger of being ruled by lies, like the stolen 2020 election or the supposed massive conspiracy to enslave America by, wait for it, protecting them from a frightening disease that has claimed the lives of 600,000 Americans in just a year.

We don't want to excuse white racism as the motivation for the propagation of these lies, but we can't let the 50th anniversary of the exposé of the lies that animated the Vietnam tragedy pass without nothing that it was those lies that led all of us to lose our faith in the truth of what our leaders were telling us.

Of course we need to be skeptical about what comes out of Washington, but at some point we also need to understand that drinking bleach is not the appropriate response.

The final irony of the Pentagon Papers was, as noted by the late great David Halberstam in The Best and The Brightest, that the top-tier liars were mostly Democrats (or supposedly nonpartisan generals):

Machismo, says Halberstam, “was no small part of it.” Johnson “had always been haunted by the idea that he would be judged as being insufficiently manly for the job, that he would lack courage at a crucial moment.” Westmoreland and McNamara are guilty because of their misplaced confidence in ground troops. L.B.J. was the real war criminal when he deceived the American people in July, 1965, by deciding to send over 100,000 to 125,000 troops, but telling the American people that it was only 50,000 and that it “does not imply any change in policy whatever” In fact, notes Halberstam, “it was the beginning of an entirely new policy which would see what was the South Vietnamese war become primarily an American war.” Dean Rusk (“color him neutral or color him hardline. Which side was he on?...”) ought to take the rap because he never spoke up; he never fought; he let McNamara take over State.

President Kennedy: Democrat

President Johnson: Democrat

Rusk and McNamara: Democrats.

Plenty of Republicans lied their asses off too, including many distinguished Harvard professors, like McGeorge Bundy and Henry “the Mad Bomber” Kissinger, but the crucial irrevocable damage was done by the party of Richard Russell and John Stennis.

The lesson, to paraphrase Graham Greene, is that having embarked on a journey of lies, our government is having a hard time getting a passport for a return trip.

Maybe,  just maybe, that if those in power try telling the truth, next time we won't lose 600,000 lives because the President was a corrupt rapist stooge who lied about COVID, and our planet will stop boiling because we were lied to about climate change, and persons of color will not suffer from embedded structural racism because we were lied to about the persistence of that racism.   

On the other hand, this headline from the dying days of South Vietnam may be eerily prescient:

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