THE PENTAGON PAPERS number among the least read and most influential set of publications on American foreign policy available to the public since the Second World War. The Paper's contents have long since been over-shadowed by the circumstances a surrounding their release and various derivative books, articles, and arguments have begun to spin off from them. From the manner in which the press handled the legal aspects of disclosure it is apparent that the Papers became more important to journalists as an issue over which prior restraint and First Amendment guarantees of the press could be tested than as documents which might end the war. Certainly Sanford J. Unger '67 focused on that issue in an article which he wrote for Esquire magazine and then lengthened into The Papers and The Papers.
Meanwhile Daniel Ellsberg '52 continues to try to end the Indochina war. Papers on the War collects his recent essays, speeches, papers, reviews, and testimony and then fills out that collection with some memoranda he produced while stationed in Vietnam during the middle sixties.
But really good books are rarely written while their authors are under indictment, and really coherent books are seldom compiled while their editors are being systematically dragged back and forth across the continent to plead, testify or be tried. Papers on the War, which Ellsberg has thrown together and Simon and Schuster marketed as a book, has any number of admirable qualities but coherence is not one of them.
There is no particular reason why the components of this book should complement each other. Some of the articles were written by author who would be called a hawk while others, such as "Murder in Laos," were written by a dovish individual. Some of them were written by a Pentagon insider and directed toward fellow insiders; one is transcribed testimony given before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; while another is a speech delivered before a church group. Written for different audiences and by a individual with changing attitudes, the pieces are a very mixed, and rather unpolished, bag.
BUT ONCE PAST basic requirements of grammar, books on Vietnam are no longer (if they ever were) expected to be particularly polished. Almost anything is an improvement over the jargon pervading the documents that constitute the Pentagon Papers. Papers on the War is comprehensible, and at times rather well written.
Some of the memoranda that Ellsberg wrote for American policy makers while he was stationed in Vietnam are very remarkable when compared to the sort of documents that make up the bulk of the Pentagon Papers. "Visit to an Insecure Province" and "The Day Loc Tien Was Pacified" both abandon the sad reliance on quantitative indices of progress (such as kill ratios) in favor of reporting impressions and representative conversations.
The central essay in Papers on the War is something called "The Quagmire Myth and Stalemate Machine." It has the enormously important saving grace of being pretty accurate. It counters a thesis, embraced by some liberals and championed most effectively by Arthur Schlesinger '38, that the tragic course of American involvement in Vietnam came about because each decision maker thought that the escalation which he chose would be the last necessary to 'win' in Vietnam. Through ignorance the U.S. got caught in a quagmire in South Vietnam. Ellsberg proposes an alternative that is very persuasive in light of memoranda those decision makers were writing to each other in the fifties and sixties. Ellsberg believes that the paths of escalation chosen by President were never those that would lead to victory, but rather the minimal exertions necessary to retain a stalemate position.
A nasty kicker in the stalemate machine was that each decision in favor of escalation increased the American commitment to avoiding defeat. But the foremost consequence of the process was, of course, the indefinite contiuation of the war at ever-increasing levels of violence.
As Ellsberg fully develops the hypothesis he becomes more and more persuasive. A two phase stalemate machine with inadequate lines of internal communication would produce the sort of policy that we have.
He describes that two rules which delineate the maneuvering room for American war policy--(1) Vietnam must not be lost before the next election and (2) do not pass certain escalatory thresholds. For Americans, the two thresholds with the greatest domestic political consequences were decisions calling up the reserves or committing ground troops to an Asian land war. The first of these was never crossed in a major way, but Johnson did commit ground troops. Buried in a footnote on page 72 Ellsberg admits that quite possibly the introduction of ground troops was motivate by the belief that the U.S. was not merely buying time, but rather embarking on a course that could lead to victory. In other words, at a crucial point the stalemate machine may have ordered victory and gotten stuck in the quagmire.
The underlying fear that supports the first rule of administrative conduct--don't lose an Asian country to communism--Ellsberg ascribes to the aftermath of McCarthyism. Certainly neither the China White Paper of 1949 nor the Pentagon Papers have exactly secured the public confidence in the foreign policy establishment of the country. But Ellsberg does little to document that McCarthyite fears are what has motivated the American response to Vietnam.
The remainder of this collection of essays deals with Ellsberg's concerns in the last few years. It takes a different form from that which had been written previously. The memoranda-producing insider began discussing his opinions in speeches, conferences, and book reviews. He ends Papers on the War with a discussion of "The Responsibility of Officials in a Criminal War." This final essay grew out of a lecture he delivered before a church group in Boston during the interval between his delivery of the Pentagon Papers to Neil Sheehan and their publication.
AND WITH COMMENTS on that issue he ends the collection. The book is neither the story of the progressive disappointment of a Rand Corporation Department of Defense insider, nor is it a comprehensive examination of American Indochinese policy. Rather, it is Ellsberg's multifaceted and discontinuous response to the impact and nature of American policy in a variety of arenas.
While Ellsberg has produced a rather unpolished but very thoughtful collection of essays, Sanford J. Unger has written, almost overwritten, an account of the ways that the press handled the Pentagon Papers and the course of the legal action that accompanied them. The book tends to be heavier on narrative than analysis, and includes a phenomenal amount of trivia surrounding the publication of the Papers.
But all of the trivia is very intriguing. The idea of the Chief Justice of the United States meeting reporters who have come to visit him in the middle of the night with a long-barrelled pistol is a novelty of considerable entertainment value. Descriptions of the Rand Corporation are interesting, though they tend to focus more on the place's interior decoration and mickey-mouse office rules than its serious functioning. But by itself the trivia is insufficient to carry the book, and aside from that there is not that much there.
THE DESCRIPTIONS of the maneuvering and decision-making within the corporations that publish newspapers is perhaps Unger's strongest suit. The dust cover promises that the book will not be "a legal treatise on the First Amendment issues of free speech and free press," and it is not. Revelation of the fact that the district court in Washington does not meet on summer weekends because the air conditioning is turned of in its building cannot replace a thorough discussion of the legal aspects of publishing the papers.*
Unger has no explicit thesis, and though he occasionally comes to a tentative conclusion, he doesn't develop such musings into a sustained explanation of the underlying motivation for prosecution or for publication. If he had he would probably have produced a longer and more boring book, but as it is, he merely explores some alternately tedious and fascinating trivia tangentially related to the issues involved in the Papers.
Unger's concern is not with the contents of the Papers--one of the more intriguing facts that he has uncovered is that the lawyers arguing the case and the judges trying it were not only ignorant of the paper's contents at the outset of the litigation, but remained that way throughout the proceedings. But since the content of the papers is not the subject of the book, the decision to publish and the consequences must be central. The account the Unger has written of that decision read well enough in a magazine, but when expanded to along book it seems rather insubstantial.