The Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Lying

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.

Bracing Views

Arendt 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. …

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

  1. Sad that it has taken seven years for the death of this morally courageous man to percolate to the national level, but I think remaining under the radar was a conscious element of his life. May he remain resting in peace. De oppresso liber…

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  2. Thank you for honoring Master Sergeant Duncan.

    In case you didn’t see, Chris Antal, an Army Chaplain, has resigned in protest of our drone killing campaign:

    “His letter of resignation stated that he resigned because he could not support “unaccountable killing: through the U.S. armed drone policy and the Executive Branch claiming “the right to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, based on secret evidence, in a secret process, undertaken by unidentified officials.”

    Chaplain Antal, while stationed in Kandahar in 2012 delivered a beautiful and honest sermon entitled “A Veteran’s Day Confession for America”. If you have not ever read it, or have not read it recently, please read it:


  3. One of my favorite quotes from fellow Vietnam veteran Daniel Ellsberg. When someone said to him, “Iraq is not Vietnam,” he replied: “Yeah. Like in Iraq its a dry heat and the language our military and diplomatic personnel don’t speak is Arabic and not Vietnamese.”


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