The Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Lying

Hannah Arendt (Arendt Center at Bard College)

W.J. Astore

In November 1971, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt published “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers” in the New York Review of Books.  Earlier that year, Daniel Ellsberg had shared those highly classified government papers with the U.S. media.  They revealed a persistent and systematic pattern of lying and deception by the government about U.S. progress in the Vietnam War.  By undermining the people’s trust in government, lies and deception were destabilizing democracy in America, Arendt said.  Furthermore, America was witnessing two new and related categories of lying.  The first was lying as public relations, the creation and distribution of images substituting for facts and premised in human manipulability (a Madison Avenue approach to war and foreign policy).  The second was lying tied to a country’s reputation as embraced by professional “problem-solvers” as the basis for political action.  Both categories of lying constituted a crisis to the republic.

Widespread lying during the Vietnam War, Arendt explained, had not been aimed at the enemy, as lies often are in war.  Rather, governmental lying had targeted Americans.  The enemy could hardly be fooled, but most Americans could – at least for a time.  Throughout the war, Arendt noted, senior U.S. government and military officials made decisions about Vietnam with the firm knowledge they could not be carried out, a form of self-deception facilitated by constant goal-shifting.  As goals changed and chaos mounted, U.S. officials then became driven by concerns about saving face.  Image-making and image-saving took precedence over reality. The truth about Vietnam – that the U.S. was losing the war – hurt, therefore it was denied, especially in public discourse.

Official lies can fool even the officials themselves, a fact Pulitzer prize-winning reporter David Halberstam noted in his prescient book, “The Making of a Quagmire,” published in 1965.  With respect to the Kennedy Administration’s support of the corrupt Diem/Nhu government of South Vietnam, Halberstam wrote that:

Having failed to get [the Diem/Nhu regime to make needed] reforms, our officials said that these reforms were taking place; having failed to improve the demoralized state of the [South] Vietnamese Army, the Americans talked about a new enthusiasm in the Army; having failed to change the tactics of the [South Vietnamese] military, they talked about bold new tactics which were allegedly driving the Communists back.  For the essence of our policy was: There is no place else to go.

When reporters began to file stories which tended to show that the [U.S.] policy was not working, its authors, President Kennedy and General [Maxwell] Taylor, clung to it stubbornly.  At least part of the explanation for this apparent blindness is that although they knew things were going wrong, they felt that the alternatives were worse.

This “blindness,” a sustained willingness to deny harsh truths about the Vietnam War, persisted throughout the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.  U.S. leaders continued to package and sell a losing effort as a winning product. It helped, in Arendt’s words, that U.S. officials had “a truly amazing and entirely honest ignorance of the historically pertinent background” when it came to Vietnam.  Their ignorance was “honest” in the sense they did not believe facts were all that important to success.  What was needed, U.S. officials concluded, were not incontestable facts but the right premises, hypotheses, and theories (such as the infamous Domino Theory) to fit Vietnam within prevailing Cold War orthodoxies.  Overwhelming applications of U.S. military power would serve to actuate these premises, facts be damned.

Upon taking power in 1969, the Nixon Administration, which had promised a quick and honorable end to the war, continued the lies of previous administrations.  Even as Nixon and Henry Kissinger spoke publicly of peace with honor, they talked privately of a lost war.  To shift the blame for defeat, they cast about for scapegoats (as corroborated recently in the HBO documentary, “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words”).  Kissinger settled on South Vietnamese “incompetence” as the primary scapegoat.  He reassured Nixon that, after a “decent interval” between U.S. withdrawal and the inevitable South Vietnamese collapse, most Americans would come to see Vietnam as a regrettable (and forgettable) “backwater.”  Naturally, harsh facts such as these were ones Nixon and Kissinger refused to share with the American people.

For Hannah Arendt, truth as represented by verifiable facts is the chief stabilizing factor in politics.  Lacking truths held in common, action is compromised, judgment is flawed, reality is denied.  Deception feeds self-deception until politics is poisoned and collective action for the common good is disrupted.  Yet lies cannot be eliminated simply by moral outrage, Arendt noted.  Rather, truth must be fought for even as humility before truth must be cultivated.

The American people must fight for the truth: that is the lesson of Arendt’s essay.

Next Week: Part II: More Lies and Deception in the Iraq War of 2003

13 thoughts on “The Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Lying

  1. On a recent Russia Today “Crosstalk” program, panel participant Eric Kraus had a great line describing the organized, endemic lying by goveernment officials and diplomats. “They lie to reporters and then believe what they read in the papers.” I would go much further and say that lying has become such an unquestionable way of life within the largely privatized, corporate subsidiary known as the U.S. Government, that if our “public servants” had a choice between lying and telling the truth, with no adverse consequences either way, then they would lie, just to keep in practice; just so they wouldn’t forget how.

    To illustrate the point, a bit of history from only the two U.S. administrations before the current one. And with You-Know-Her and You-Know-Him soon back for an encore performance of that “two-for-the-price-of-one” thing, expect no changes to the accepted American policy of:

    Boobie Official Mendacity
    (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

    The characters in government
    Will change from time to time
    As fashion colors change from green
    To slightly lemon-lime
    But lying never changes, like
    The meter of this rhyme

    The former Clinton government
    Once wanted to inflict
    The normal needless bombing on
    A country it had picked
    Because its petty potentate
    Our boots had never licked

    It seems that of the suspects whom
    We normally accuse
    One stood apart in infamy
    Thus him we would abuse
    Because he could not stop us so
    That made him great to use

    Inspectors roamed across his land
    Discovering not much
    Of mass-destructive weaponry,
    And gas, and germs, and such
    Thus did Saddam Hussein refuse
    To come through in the clutch

    So in frustration Bubba Bill
    Turned Madam Albright loose
    To use up some “diplomacy”
    Much like a hangman’s noose
    To threaten peace with war until
    War seemed our only ruse

    A decade’s worth of sanctions failed
    To bring the tyrant down
    But only starved his children which
    Caused few of us to frown
    If hungry Arab kids can’t swim
    We say: “Then let them drown”

    “We think the price is worth it,” said
    Ms Albright in her way
    Yet glib and airy phrases left
    No food upon the tray
    Just surly scorn for diplomats
    Who never have to pay

    But still those damned inspectors caused
    Our President to pout:
    To bomb might make them hostages
    Which could extend the bout
    To something more than half a round
    And not the hoped-for rout

    This Bubba Bill could not abide:
    So he asked the UN
    To have its people leave and tell
    Him where and how and when
    So he could blame their absence on
    Saddam and all his men

    To pull off this duplicity
    He needed lies to spout
    And so he took the muzzle off
    Of Madam Albright’s snout
    So she could lie and say Saddam
    Had forthwith “kicked them out”

    And so with the inspectors gone
    And nothing more to say
    The bomber pilots got to fly
    Three miles above harm’s way
    And blitz some helpless cities
    Just to earn their monthly pay

    Just so with Boobie Bumbler George
    Who also wanted in
    To knock about the whipping boy
    And all his clan and kin
    Yet once again inspectors proved
    An obstacle to spin

    They’d gone ahead and done their jobs
    And found no smoking gun
    Which vexed another President
    Who so much needed one
    To validate more lies and his
    Vendetta left undone

    “He tried to kill my daddy!” swore
    The vengeful Boobie Bush
    “I know because the CIA
    Has searched the Hindu Kush;
    And found out lots of stuff, so now
    I say shove comes to push”

    So Boobie George told the UN
    That its men hadn’t found
    What Boobie George and Dick and Don
    Knew lay somewhere around
    Someplace where only they could see
    On undiscovered ground

    And Boobie Condoleeza Rice
    And Colin Powell, too,
    Proved once again that Black folks lie
    Just like the White ones do
    Repeating what no one believed
    Exactly right on cue

    With summer coming on so soon
    And springtime cool so short
    The bombing had to start at once
    Lest hot weather abort
    Mad plans to land upon a ship
    Sent steaming back to port

    And so once more the snoops and hounds
    Packed up and left Iraq
    The UN wished to take no part
    In Bush’s planned attack
    Yet still the obvious and bald
    Required a little slack

    To cover for their rush to war
    The Bush Bunch needed spin
    They claimed they had no choice because
    They wanted so to win
    And bad Saddam had not allowed
    Inspectors to come in

    Thus here we have a sorry tale
    Of two groups sworn to tell
    No truth if they could help it
    And they could, so what the hell?
    And Boobies, anyway, had grown
    Accustomed to the smell

    Saddam Hussein had let a host
    Of spies stay at his inn
    But yet it didn’t change a thing
    Or mitigate his sin
    Bill lied about the “kicking out”
    And George the “letting in”

    The Presidents who work for us
    Decline to let us know
    The things we need to supervise
    Their fumbling tell-and-show
    So wars begin on schedule and
    The piles of bodies grow

    Bill Clinton swore one type of lie;
    George Bush another kind
    They both had lied so much that each
    Thought none would ever mind
    With Boobies all so fast asleep
    The bland could lead the blind

    If once their lips commence to move
    A lie we should suspect
    And if their lips should move again
    We should at once reflect
    That we can — in their moving lips —
    A naked lie detect

    Their lying we should not expect
    To bother them that much
    To make them tell the truth would be
    To rob them of their crutch
    If they could choose, they’d lie so that
    They wouldn’t loose their touch

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2005


  2. Reblogged this on Bracing Views and commented:

    In today’s New York Times, there’s an obituary for Donald Duncan, a Green Beret and master sergeant who became an early and outspoken critic of America’s war in Vietnam. The obituary is at this link, and I want to highlight some of what Duncan said about that war. Here are two excerpts: “The whole thing [the war] was a lie,” Mr. Duncan wrote. “We weren’t preserving freedom in South Vietnam. There was no freedom to preserve. To voice opposition to the government meant jail or death. Neutralism was forbidden and punished. Newspapers that didn’t say the right thing were closed down. People are not even free to leave, and Vietnam is one of those rare countries that doesn’t fill its American visa quota.” Another quotation: He concluded that America was destined to lose the war. “I don’t think Vietnam will be better off under Ho’s brand of communism,” he said. “But it’s not for me or my government to decide. That decision is for the Vietnamese. I also know that we have allowed the creation of a military monster that will lie to our elected officials, and that both of them will lie to the American people.” These words, coming from a decorated combat veteran with direct knowledge of events in Vietnam, must be remembered. Yet as the NYT obituary makes clear, Duncan died in obscurity, all but forgotten. We need to remember people like him: people who are willing to speak up and tell uncomfortable truths.


    1. Appreciated that you made electronic copy of Donald Duncan’s obit and written words about Vietnam War lies available. Thank you.
      Vietnam War Drafted-for-Combat Honorable Service


  3. Well done. Important. Timely. Needed. Thank you. The dejasvu US Militarism of today is sickening.
    -draft age during ‘Nam, gassed in Chicago’68, and sick of the “America” that is epitomized in the Michael Ware documentary Only The Dead See The End Of War.


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