Sunday, October 7, 2018

On Democratic Accountability in a Republic: The Pentagon Papers

The publication of portions of the Pentagon Papers despite President Nixon’s threats of treason highlighted the fact that four presidents successively lied to the American People on build-up of U.S. involvement in Indochina (most notably, Vietnam) and the Nixon administration lied on the prospects for victory in the Vietnam War—a war that had not even been declared by Congress. Clearly, democratic accountable extends to foreign policy at least in broad outline, such as in whether or not to continue an active engagement militarily in another region of the world. Even in U.S. presidents being able to get away with effectively declaring war even as one of their roles is that of commander-in-chief—a huge conflict of interest!—democratic accountability by the popular sovereign, the People—is important, even vital should the legislative and judicial branches fail as checks in the separation-of-powers feature of the U.S. Constitution.
The first article in the New York Times reported that the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations “built up the American political, military and psychological stakes in Indochina, often more deeply than they realized at the time, with large‐scale military equipment to the French in 1950; with acts of sabotage and terror warfare against North Vietnam beginning in 1954; with moves that encouraged and abetted the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam in 1963; with plans, pledges and threats of further action that sprang to life in the Tonkin Gulf clashes in August, 1964; with the careful preparation of public opinion for the years of open warfare that were to follow; and with the calculation in 1965, as the planes and troops were openly committed to sustained combat, that neither accommodation inside South Vietnam nor early negotiations with North Vietnam would achieve the desired result.”[1]
Meanwhile, the American electorate was being kept in the dark—lied to—in spite of the fact that the People in a republic are tasked with holding the elected representatives and their respective appointees accountable.
“The Pentagon study also ranges beyond such historical judgments. It suggests that the predominant American interest was at first containment of Communism and later the defense of the power, influence and prestige of the United States, in both stages irrespective of conditions in Vietnam.”[2] The U.S. Government’s defense of the escalation, however, was limited to the containment of Communism such that it would not take over the world as Marx had foretold and thus threaten even the U.S. itself. During the Johnson and Nixon administrations, American troops were being killed and taken prisoner increasingly for the prestige of the United States and irrespective of the intractable conditions on the ground in Vietnam. Crucially, these administrations kept the American people in the dark on these points, such that no electoral correction could be effected. Ironically, the administrations were claiming to protect democracy even as they were undermining it by using power to subvert democratic accountability by the popular sovereign (i.e., the electorate).

1. Neil Sheehan, “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement,” The New York Times, June 13, 1971.
2. Ibid.