The Lasting Pain
from Vietnam Silence
By Ray McGovern
May 03, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" -
Ecclesiastes says there is a time to be
silent and a time to speak. The fortieth anniversary of the ugly end
of the U.S. adventure in Vietnam is a time to speak – and especially
of the squandered opportunities that existed earlier in the war to
blow the whistle and stop the killing.
my friend Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971
eventually helped to end the war, Ellsberg is the first to admit
that he waited too long to reveal the unconscionable deceit that
brought death and injury to millions.
I regret that, at first out of naiveté and then
cowardice, I waited even longer – until my own truth-telling no
longer really mattered for the bloodshed in Vietnam. My hope is that
there may be a chance this reminiscence might matter now – if only
as a painful example of what I could and should have done, had I the
courage back then. Opportunities to blow the whistle in time
now confront a new generation of intelligence analysts – whether
they work on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, ISIS or Iran.
Incidentally, on Iran, there was a very positive
example last decade: courageous analysts led by intrepid (and
bureaucratically skilled) former Assistant Secretary of State for
Intelligence Thomas Fingar showed that honesty can still prevail
within the system, even when truth is highly unwelcome.
The unanimous intelligence community conclusion of
a National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 – that Iran had stopped
working on a nuclear weapon four years earlier – played a huge role
in thwarting plans by President George W. Bush and Vice President
Dick Cheney to attack Iran in 2008, their last year in office. Bush
says so in his memoir; and, on that one point, we can believe him.
After a half-century of watching such things
closely, this is the only time in my experience that the key
judgment of an NIE helped prevent a catastrophic, unwinnable
war. Sadly, judging from the amateurism now prevailing in
Washington’s opaque policymaking circles, it seems clear that the
White House pays little heed to those intelligence officers still
trying to speak truth to power.
For them I have a suggestion: Don’t just wring
your hands, with an “I did everything I could to get the truth
out.” Chances are you have not done all you can. Ponder the
stakes – the lives ended too early; the bodies and minds damaged
forever; the hatred engendered against the United States; and the
long-term harm to U.S. national interests – and think about blowing
the whistle publicly to prevent unnecessary carnage and alienation.
I certainly wish I had done so about what I
learned of the unconscionable betrayal by senior military and
intelligence officers regarding Vietnam. More recently, I know that
several of you intelligence analysts with a conscience wish you had
blown the whistle on the fraud “justifying” war on Iraq. Spreading
some truth around is precisely what you need to do now on Syria,
Iraq, Ukraine and the “war on terror,” for example.
I thought that by describing my own experience –
negative as it is – and the remorse I continue to live with, I might
assist those of you now pondering whether to step up to the plate
and blow the whistle now, before it is again too late. So below is
an article that I might call “Vietnam and Me.”
My hope is to spare you the remorse of having to
write, a decade or two from now, your own “Ukraine and Me” or
“Syria and Me” or “Iraq and Me” or “Libya and Me” or “The War on
Terror and Me.” My article, from 2010, was entitled “How Truth Can
Save Lives” and it began:
If independent-minded Web sites, like WikiLeaks
or, say, Consortiumnews.com, existed 43 years ago, I might have
risen to the occasion and helped save the lives of some 25,000 U.S.
soldiers, and a million Vietnamese, by exposing the lies contained
in just one SECRET/EYES ONLY cable from Saigon.
I need to speak out now because I have been
sickened watching the herculean effort by Official Washington and
our Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) to divert attention from the
violence and deceit in Afghanistan, reflected in thousands of U.S.
Army documents, by shooting the messenger(s) — WikiLeaks and Pvt.
After all the indiscriminate death and destruction
from nearly nine years of war, the hypocrisy is all too transparent
when WikiLeaks and suspected leaker Manning are accused of risking
lives by exposing too much truth. Besides, I still have a guilty
conscience for what I chose NOT to do in exposing facts about the
Vietnam War that might have saved lives.
The sad-but-true story recounted below is offered
in the hope that those in similar circumstances today might show
more courage than I was able to muster in 1967, and take full
advantage of the incredible advancements in technology since then.
Many of my Junior Officer Trainee Program
colleagues at CIA came to Washington in the early Sixties inspired
by President John Kennedy’s Inaugural speech in which he asked us to
ask ourselves what we might do for our country. (Sounds corny
nowadays, I suppose; I guess I’ll just have to ask you to take it on
faith. It may not have been Camelot exactly, but the spirit and
ambience were fresh — and good.)
Among those who found Kennedy’s summons compelling
was Sam Adams, a young former naval officer out of Harvard College.
After the Navy, Sam tried Harvard Law School, but found it boring.
Instead, he decided to go to Washington, join the CIA as an officer
trainee, and do something more adventurous. He got more than his
share of adventure.
Sam was one of the brightest and most dedicated
among us. Quite early in his career, he acquired a very lively and
important account — that of assessing Vietnamese Communist strength
early in the war. He took to the task with uncommon resourcefulness
and quickly proved himself the consummate analyst.
Relying largely on captured documents, buttressed
by reporting from all manner of other sources, Adams concluded in
1967 that there were twice as many Communists (about 600,000) under
arms in South Vietnam as the U.S. military there would admit.
Dissembling in Saigon
Visiting Saigon during 1967, Adams learned from
Army analysts that their commanding general, William Westmoreland,
had placed an artificial cap on the official Army count rather than
risk questions regarding “progress” in the war (sound familiar?).
It was a clash of cultures; with Army intelligence
analysts saluting generals following politically dictated orders,
and Sam Adams aghast at the dishonesty — consequential
dishonesty. From time to time I would have lunch with Sam and learn
of the formidable opposition he encountered in trying to get out the
Commiserating with Sam over lunch one day in late
August 1967, I asked what could possibly be Gen. Westmoreland’s
incentive to make the enemy strength appear to be half what it
actually was. Sam gave me the answer he had from the horse’s mouth
Adams told me that in a cable dated Aug.
20, 1967, Westmoreland’s deputy, Gen. Creighton Abrams, set forth
the rationale for the deception. Abrams wrote that the new, higher
numbers (reflecting Sam’s count, which was supported by all
intelligence agencies except Army intelligence, which reflected the
“command position”) “were in sharp contrast to the current overall
strength figure of about 299,000 given to the press.”
Abrams emphasized, “We have been
projecting an image of success over recent months” and cautioned
that if the higher figures became public, “all available caveats and
explanations will not prevent the press from drawing an erroneous
and gloomy conclusion.”
No further proof was needed that the most senior
U.S. Army commanders were lying, so that they could continue to
feign “progress” in the war. Equally unfortunate, the crassness and
callousness of Abrams’s cable notwithstanding, it had become
increasingly clear that rather than stand up for Sam, his superiors
would probably acquiesce in the Army’s bogus figures. Sadly, that’s
what they did.
CIA Director Richard Helms, who saw his primary
duty quite narrowly as “protecting” the agency, set the tone. He
told subordinates that he could not discharge that duty if he let
the agency get involved in a heated argument with the U.S. Army on
such a key issue in wartime.
This cut across the grain of what we had been led
to believe was the prime duty of CIA analysts — to speak truth to
power without fear or favor. And our experience thus far had shown
both of us that this ethos amounted to much more than just slogans.
We had, so far, been able to “tell it like it is.”
After lunch with Sam, for the first time ever, I
had no appetite for dessert. Sam and I had not come to Washington to
“protect the agency.” And, having served in Vietnam, Sam knew first
hand that thousands upon thousands were being killed in a feckless
What to Do?
I have an all-too-distinct memory of a long
silence over coffee, as each of us ruminated on what might be done.
I recall thinking to myself; someone should take the Abrams cable
down to the New York Times (at the time an
Clearly, the only reason for the cable’s
SECRET/EYES ONLY classification was to hide deliberate deception of
our most senior generals regarding “progress” in the war and deprive
the American people of the chance to know the truth.
Going to the press was, of course, antithetical to
the culture of secrecy in which we had been trained. Besides, you
would likely be caught at your next polygraph examination. Better
not to stick your neck out.
I pondered all this in the days after that lunch
with Adams. And I succeeded in coming up with a slew of reasons why
I ought to keep silent: a mortgage; a plum overseas assignment for
which I was in the final stages of language training; and, not
least, the analytic work — important, exciting work on which Sam and
Better to keep quiet for now, grow in gravitas,
and live on to slay other dragons. Right?
One can, I suppose, always find excuses for not
sticking one’s neck out. The neck, after all, is a convenient
connection between head and torso, albeit the “neck” that was the
focus of my concern was a figurative one, suggesting possible loss
of career, money and status – not the literal “necks” of both
Americans and Vietnamese that were on the line daily in the war.
But if there is nothing for which you would risk
your career “neck” – like, say, saving the lives of soldiers and
civilians in a war zone – your “neck” has become your idol, and your
career is not worthy of that. I now regret giving such worship to my
own neck. Not only did I fail the neck test. I had not thought
things through very rigorously from a moral point of view.
Promises to Keep?
As a condition of employment, I had signed a
promise not to divulge classified information so as not to endanger
sources, methods or national security. Promises are important, and
one should not lightly violate them. Plus, there are legitimate
reasons for protecting some secrets. But were any of those
legitimate concerns the real reasons why Abrams’s cable was stamped
SECRET/EYES ONLY? I think not.
It is not good to operate in a moral vacuum,
oblivious to the reality that there exists a hierarchy of values and
that circumstances often determine the morality of a course of
action. How does a written promise to keep secret everything with a
classified stamp on it square with one’s moral responsibility to
stop a war based on lies? Does stopping a misbegotten war not
supersede a secrecy promise?
Ethicists use the words “supervening value” for
this; the concept makes sense to me. And is there yet another value?
As an Army officer, I had taken a solemn oath to protect and defend
the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and
How did the lying by the Army command in Saigon
fit in with that? Were/are generals exempt? Should we not call them
out when we learn of deliberate deception that subverts the
democratic process? Can the American people make good decisions if
they are lied to?
Would I have helped stop unnecessary killing by
giving the New York Times the not-really-secret,
SECRET/EYES ONLY cable from Gen. Abrams? We’ll never know, will we?
And I live with that. I could not take the easy way out, saying Let
Sam Do It. Because I knew he wouldn’t.
Sam chose to go through the established grievance
channels and got the royal run-around, even after the Communist
countrywide offensive at Tet in January-February 1968 proved beyond
any doubt that his count of Communist forces was correct.
When the Tet offensive began, as a way of keeping
his sanity, Adams drafted a caustic cable to Saigon saying, “It is
something of an anomaly to be taking so much punishment from
Communist soldiers whose existence is not officially acknowledged.”
But he did not think the situation at all funny.
Dan Ellsberg Steps In
Sam kept playing by the rules, but it happened
that – unbeknown to Sam – Dan Ellsberg gave Sam’s figures on enemy
strength to the New York Times, which published them on
March 19, 1968. Dan had learned that President Lyndon Johnson was
about to bow to Pentagon pressure to widen the war into Cambodia,
Laos and up to the Chinese border – perhaps even beyond.
Later, it became clear that his timely leak –
together with another unauthorized disclosure to the Times
that the Pentagon had requested 206,000 more troops – prevented a
wider war. On March 25, Johnson complained to a small gathering,
“The leaks to the New York Times hurt us. … We have no
support for the war. … I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.”
Ellsberg also copied the Pentagon Papers – the
7,000-page top-secret history of U.S. decision-making on Vietnam
from 1945 to 1967 – and, in 1971, he gave copies to the New York
Times, Washington Post and other news organizations.
In the years since, Ellsberg has had difficulty
shaking off the thought that, had he released the Pentagon Papers
sooner, the war might have ended years earlier with untold lives
saved. Ellsberg has put it this way: “Like so many others, I put
personal loyalty to the president above all else – above loyalty to
the Constitution and above obligation to the law, to truth, to
Americans, and to humankind. I was wrong.”
And so was I wrong in not asking Sam for a copy of
that cable from Gen. Abrams. Sam, too, eventually had strong
regrets. Sam had continued to pursue the matter within CIA, until he
learned that Dan Ellsberg was on trial in 1973 for releasing the
Pentagon Papers and was being accused of endangering national
security by revealing figures on enemy strength.
Which figures? The same old faked numbers from
1967! “Imagine,” said Adams, “hanging a man for leaking faked
numbers,” as he hustled off to testify on Dan’s behalf. (The case
against Ellsberg was ultimately thrown out of court because of
prosecutorial abuses committed by the Nixon administration.)
After the war drew down, Adams was tormented by
the thought that, had he not let himself be diddled by the system,
the entire left half of the Vietnam Memorial wall would not be
there. There would have been no new names to chisel into such a
Sam Adams died prematurely at age 55 with nagging
remorse that he had not done enough.
In a letter appearing in the (then
independent-minded) New York Times on Oct. 18, 1975, John
T. Moore, a CIA analyst who worked in Saigon and the Pentagon from
1965 to 1970, confirmed Adams’s story after Sam told it in detail in
the May 1975 issue of Harper’s magazine.
Moore wrote: “My only regret is that I did not
have Sam’s courage. … The record is clear. It speaks of misfeasance,
nonfeasance and malfeasance, of outright dishonesty and professional
“It reflects an intelligence community captured by
an aging bureaucracy, which too often placed institutional
self-interest or personal advancement before the national interest.
It is a page of shame in the history of American intelligence.”
Tanks But No Thanks, Abrams
What about Gen. Creighton Abrams? Not every
general gets the Army’s main battle tank named after him. The honor,
though, came not from his service in Vietnam, but rather from his
courage in the early day of his military career, leading his tanks
through German lines to relieve Bastogne during World War II’s
Battle of the Bulge. Gen. George Patton praised Abrams as the only
tank commander he considered his equal.
As things turned out, sadly, 23 years later Abrams
became a poster child for old soldiers who, as Gen. Douglas McArthur
suggested, should “just fade away,” rather than hang on too long
after their great military accomplishments.
In May 1967, Abrams was picked to be
Westmoreland’s deputy in Vietnam and succeeded him a year later. But
Abrams could not succeed in the war, no matter how effectively “an
image of success” his subordinates projected for the media. The
“erroneous and gloomy conclusions of the press” that Abrams had
tried so hard to head off proved all too accurate.
Ironically, when reality hit home, it fell to
Abrams to cut back U.S. forces in Vietnam from a peak of 543,000 in
early 1969 to 49,000 in June 1972 — almost five years after Abrams’s
progress-defending cable from Saigon. By 1972, some 58,000 U.S.
troops, not to mention two to three million Vietnamese, had been
Both Westmoreland and Abrams had reasonably good
reputations when they started out, but not so much when they
Comparisons can be invidious, but Gen. David
Petraeus is another Army commander who has wowed Congress with his
ribbons, medals and merit badges. A pity he was not born early
enough to have served in Vietnam where he might have learned some
real-life hard lessons about the limitations of counterinsurgency
Moreover, it appears that no one took the trouble
to tell him that in the early Sixties we young infantry officers
already had plenty of counterinsurgency manuals to study at Fort
Bragg and Fort Benning. There are many things one cannot learn from
reading or writing manuals — as many of my Army colleagues learned
too late in the jungles and mountains of South Vietnam.
Unless one is to believe, contrary to all
indications, that Petraeus is not all that bright, one has to assume
he knows that the Afghanistan expedition is a folly beyond repair.
So far, though, he has chosen the approach taken by Gen. Abrams in
his August 1967 cable from Saigon. That is precisely why the
ground-truth of the documents released by WikiLeaks is so important.
And it’s not just the WikiLeaks documents that
have caused consternation inside the U.S. government. Investigators
reportedly are rigorously pursuing the source that provided the
New York Times with the texts of two cables (of 6 and 9
November 2009) from Ambassador Eikenberry in Kabul. [See
Ignores Key Afghan Warning.”]
To its credit, even today’s far-less independent
New York Times published a major story based on the
information in those cables, while President Barack Obama was still
trying to figure out what to do about Afghanistan. Later the
Times posted the entire texts of the cables, which were
classified Top Secret and NODIS (meaning “no dissemination” to
anyone but the most senior officials to whom the documents were
The cables conveyed Eikenberry’s experienced,
cogent views on the foolishness of the policy in place and,
implicitly, of any eventual decision to double down on the Afghan
War. (That, of course, is pretty much what the President ended up
doing.) Eikenberry provided chapter and verse to explain why, as he
put it, “I cannot support [the Defense Department’s] recommendation
for an immediate Presidential decision to deploy another 40,000
Such frank disclosures are anathema to
self-serving bureaucrats and ideologues who would much prefer
depriving the American people of information that might lead them to
question the government’s benighted policy toward Afghanistan, for
As the New York Times/Eikenberry cables
show, even today’s FCM (fawning corporate media) may sometimes
display the old spunk of American journalism and refuse to hide or
fudge the truth, even if the facts might cause the people to draw
“an erroneous and gloomy conclusion,” to borrow Gen. Abrams’s words
of 43 years ago.
Polished Pentagon Spokesman
Remember “Baghdad Bob,” the irrepressible and
unreliable Iraqi Information Minister at the time of the U.S.-led
invasion? He came to mind as I watched Pentagon spokesman Geoff
Morrell’s chaotic, quixotic
on Aug. 5 regarding the WikiLeaks exposures. The briefing was
revealing in several respects. Clear from his prepared statement was
what is bothering the Pentagon the most. Here’s Morrell:
“WikiLeaks’s webpage constitutes a brazen
solicitation to U.S. government officials, including our military,
to break the law. WikiLeaks’s public assertion that submitting
confidential material to WikiLeaks is safe, easy and protected by
law is materially false and misleading. The Department of Defense
therefore also demands that WikiLeaks discontinue any solicitation
of this type.”
Rest assured that the Defense Department will do
all it can to make it unsafe for any government official to provide
WikiLeaks with sensitive material. But it is contending with a
clever group of hi-tech experts who have built in precautions to
allow information to be submitted anonymously. That the Pentagon
will prevail anytime soon is far from certain.
Also, in a ludicrous attempt to close the barn
door after tens of thousands of classified documents had already
escaped, Morrell insisted that WikiLeaks give back all the documents
and electronic media in its possession. Even the normally docile
Pentagon press corps could not suppress a collective laugh,
irritating the Pentagon spokesman no end. The impression gained was
one of a Pentagon Gulliver tied down by terabytes of Lilliputians.
Morrell’s self-righteous appeal to the leaders of
WikiLeaks to “do the right thing” was accompanied by an explicit
threat that, otherwise, “We shall have to compel them to do the
right thing.” His attempt to assert Pentagon power in this regard
fell flat, given the realities.
Morrell also chose the occasion to remind the
Pentagon press corps to behave themselves or face rejection when
applying to be embedded in units of U.S. armed forces. The
correspondents were shown nodding docilely as Morrell reminded them
that permission for embedding “is by no means a right. It is a
privilege.” The generals giveth and the generals taketh away.
It was a moment of arrogance — and press
subservience — that would have sickened Thomas Jefferson or James
Madison, not to mention the courageous war correspondents who did
their duty in Vietnam. Morrell and the generals can control the
“embeds”; they cannot control the ether. Not yet, anyway.
And that was all too apparent beneath the
strutting, preening, and finger waving by the Pentagon’s fancy silk
necktie to the world. Actually, the opportunities afforded by
WikiLeaks and other Internet Web sites can serve to diminish what
few advantages there are to being in bed with the Army.
What Would I Have Done?
Would I have had the courage to whisk Gen.
Abrams’s cable into the ether in 1967, if WikiLeaks or other Web
sites had been available to provide a major opportunity to expose
the deceit of the top Army command in Saigon? The Pentagon can argue
that using the Internet this way is not “safe, easy, and protected
by law.” We shall see.
Meanwhile, this way of exposing information that
people in a democracy should know will continue to be sorely
tempting — and a lot easier than taking the risk of being
photographed lunching with someone from the New York Times.
From what I have learned over these past 43 years,
supervening moral values can, and should, trump lesser promises.
Today, I would be determined to “do the right thing,” if I had
access to an Abrams-like cable from Petraeus in Kabul. And I believe
that Sam Adams, if he were alive today, would enthusiastically agree
that this would be the morally correct decision.
My article from 2010 ended with a footnote about
Sam Adams Associates for
Integrity in Intelligence (SAAII), an organization
created by Sam Adams’s former CIA colleagues and other former
intelligence analysts to hold up his example as a model for those in
intelligence who would aspire to the courage to speak truth to
At the time there were seven recipients of an
annual award bestowed on those who exemplified Sam Adam’s courage,
persistence and devotion to truth. Now, there have been 14
recipients: Coleen Rowley (2002), Katharine Gun (2003), Sibel
Edmonds (2004), Craig Murray (2005), Sam Provance (2006), Frank
Grevil (2007), Larry Wilkerson (2009), Julian Assange (2010), Thomas
Drake (2011), Jesselyn Radack (2011), Thomas Fingar (2012), Edward
Snowden (2013), Chelsea Manning (2014), William Binney (2015).
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the
publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in
Washington, DC. During his career as a CIA analyst, he prepared and
briefed the President's Daily Brief and chaired National
Intelligence Estimates. He is a member of the Steering Group of
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
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