IT was on a Sunday morning, June 13, 1971, that The Times published its first installment of the Pentagon Papers. Few readers may have been more excited than a circle of aspiring undergraduate journalists who’d worked at The Harvard Crimson. Though the identity of The Times’s source wouldn’t eke out for several days, we knew the whistle-blower had to be Daniel Ellsberg, an intense research fellow at M.I.T. and former Robert McNamara acolyte who’d become an antiwar activist around Boston. We recognized the papers’ contents, as reported in The Times, because we’d heard the war stories from the loquacious Ellsberg himself.
But if we were titillated that Sunday, it wasn’t immediately clear that this internal government history of the war had mass appeal. Tricia Nixon’s wedding in the White House Rose Garden on Saturday received equal play with the Pentagon Papers on The Times’s front page. On “Face the Nation” the guest was the secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, yet the subject of the papers didn’t even come up.
That false calm vanished overnight once Richard Nixon, erupting in characteristic rage and paranoia, directed his attorney general, John Mitchell, to enjoin The Times from publishing any sequels. The high-stakes legal drama riveted the nation for two weeks, culminating in a landmark 6-to-3 Supreme Court decision in favor of The Times and the First Amendment. Ellsberg and The Times were canonized. I sold my first magazine article, an Ellsberg profile, to Esquire, and, for better or worse, cast my lot with journalism. That my various phone conversations with Ellsberg prompted ham-fisted F.B.I. agents to visit me and my parents only added to the allure.
I mention my personal history to try to inject a little reality into the garbling of Vietnam-era history that has accompanied the WikiLeaks release of the Afghanistan war logs. Last week the left and right reached a rare consensus. The war logs are no Pentagon Papers. They are historic documents describing events largely predating the current administration. They contain no news. They will not change the course of the war.
About the only prominent figures who found serious parallels between then and now were Ellsberg and the WikiLeaks impresario, Julian Assange. They are hardly disinterested observers, but they’re on the mark — in large part because the impact of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War (as opposed to their impact on the press) was far less momentous than last week’s chatter would suggest. No, the logs won’t change the course of our very long war in Afghanistan, but neither did the Pentagon Papers alter the course of Vietnam. What Ellsberg’s leak did do was ratify the downward trend-line of the war’s narrative. The WikiLeaks legacy may echo that. We may look back at the war logs as a herald of the end of America’s engagement in Afghanistan just as the Pentagon Papers are now a milestone in our slo-mo exit from Vietnam.
What was often forgotten last week is that the Pentagon Papers had no game-changing news about that war either and also described events predating the then-current president. By June 1971, the Tet offensive and Walter Cronkite’s famous on-air editorial were more than three years in the past. The David Halberstam article that inspired “The Best and the Brightest” had already appeared in Harper’s. Lt. William Calley had been found guilty in the My Lai massacre exposed by Seymour Hersh in 1969. Just weeks before the Pentagon Papers surfaced, the Vietnam veteran John Kerry electrified the country by asking a Senate committee, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Most Americans had long been telling pollsters the war was a mistake. By the time the Pentagon Papers surfaced, a plurality also disapproved of how Vietnam was handled by Nixon, who had arrived in office promising to end the war.
The papers’ punch was in the many inside details they added to the war’s chronicle over four previous administrations and, especially, in their shocking and irrefutable evidence that Nixon’s immediate predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, had systematically lied to the country about his intentions and the war’s progress. Though Nixon was another liar, none of this incriminated him. His anger about the leak would nonetheless drive him to create a clandestine “plumbers” unit whose criminality (including a break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist) would lead to Watergate. Had Nixon not so violently overreacted that June — egged on by Henry Kissinger and fueled by his loathing of The Times and the antiwar movement — the story might have ebbed. Yes, the Pentagon Papers were labeled “top secret” — as opposed to the Afghanistan war logs’ “secret” status — but, as Richard Reeves writes in his book “President Nixon,” some 700,000 people in and out of government had clearance to read “top secret” documents. Compelling as the papers were, they were hardly nuclear code.
The public’s reaction to the Afghanistan war logs has largely been a shrug — and not just because they shared their Times front page with an article about Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. President Obama is, to put it mildly, no Nixon, and his no-drama reaction to the leaks robbed their publication of the constitutional cliffhanger of their historical antecedent. Another factor in the logs’ shortfall as public spectacle is the fractionalization of the news media, to the point where even a stunt packaged as “news” can trump journalistic enterprise. (Witness how the bogus Shirley Sherrod video upstaged The Washington Post’s blockbuster investigation of the American intelligence bureaucracy two weeks ago.) The logs also suffer stylistically: they’re often impenetrable dispatches from the ground, in contrast to the Pentagon Papers’ anonymously and lucidly team-written epic of policy-making on high.
Yet the national yawn that largely greeted the war logs is most of all an indicator of the country’s verdict on the Afghan war itself, now that it’s nine years on and has reached its highest monthly casualty rate for American troops. Many Americans at home have lost faith and checked out. The war places way down the list of pressing issues in every poll. Nearly two-thirds of those asked recently by CBS News think it’s going badly; the latest Post-ABC News survey finds support of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan at a low (45 percent), with only 43 percent deeming the war worth fighting.
Perhaps more telling than either these polls or the defection of liberal House Democrats from last week’s war appropriations bill are the signs of wobbling conservative support. The gung-ho neocon axis was predictably belligerent in denouncing WikiLeaks. But the G.O.P. chairman Michael Steele’s recent “gaffe” — his since-retracted observation that “a land war in Afghanistan” is doomed — is no anomaly in a fractured party where the antiwar Ron Paul may have as much currency as the knee-jerk hawk John McCain. On the night of the logs’ release, Fox News even refrained from its patented shtick of shouting “Treason!” at the “mainstream media.” Instead, the go-to Times-basher Bernie Goldberg could be found on “The O’Reilly Factor” telling Laura Ingraham, a guest host, that the war “has not been going well” and is a dubious exercise in “nation-building.”
Obama was right to say that the leaked documents “don’t reveal any issues that haven’t already informed our public debate in Afghanistan,” but that doesn’t mean the debate was resolved in favor of his policy. Americans know that our counterinsurgency partner, Hamid Karzai, is untrustworthy. They know that the terrorists out to attack us are more likely to be found in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia than Afghanistan. And they are starting to focus on the morbid reality, highlighted in the logs, of the de facto money-laundering scheme that siphons American taxpayers’ money through the Pakistan government to the Taliban, who then disperse it to kill Americans.
Most Americans knew or guessed the crux of the Pentagon Papers, too. A full year earlierthe Senate had repealed the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution; no one needed a “top secret” smoking gun by 1971 to know that L.B.J. had lied about the Tonkin incident. The papers didn’t change administration war policy because we were already pulling out of Vietnam, however truculently and lethally (the Christmas 1972 bombing campaign, most notoriously). In 1971, the American troop level was some 213,000, down from a peak of 537,000 in 1968. By 1973 we were essentially done.
Unlike Nixon, Obama is still adding troops to his unpopular war. But history is not on his side either in Afghanistan or at home. The latest Gallup poll found that 58 percent of the country favors his announced timeline, with its promise to start withdrawing troops in mid-2011. It’s hard to imagine what could change that equation now.
Certainly not Pakistan. As the president conducts his scheduled reappraisal of his war policy this December, a re-examination of 1971 might lead him to question his own certitude of what he is fond of calling “the long view.” The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its 1971 Pentagon Papers coup. But another of the Pulitzers that year went to the columnist Jack Anderson, who also earned Nixon’s ire by mining other leaks to expose the White House’s tilt to Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistani War. The one thing no one imagined back then was that four decades later it would be South Asia, not Southeast Asia, that would still be beckoning America into a quagmire.
Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company