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© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2003
WASHINGTON -- "You can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say, and you can't rely on their judgment. . . . People do things the president wants to do even though it's wrong, and the president can be wrong."
Those words, uttered in the Oval Office in the early 1970s by then White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, paraphrased the thinking of another presidential adviser: Donald Rumsfeld.
According to Haldeman, Rumsfeld, who was then working in the White House, understood that the American public had lost faith in government as a result of the publication in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers, which showed the administration was not being entirely truthful with the public about the Vietnam war.
But 30 years later, Rumsfeld, now the defense secretary, tells us to trust President Bush's unproven claim that Iraq poses imminent danger to the United States.
It seems that Bush, Rumsfeld and most U.S. citizens -- including the press -- have forgotten the lessons of Vietnam. We have forgotten that our fears of the government's dishonesty in the early 1970s were proven correct many times over.
Remember that former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, in his memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, acknowledged that he and Nixon misled the nation about the prospects for victory in Vietnam. He apologized for failing to negotiate an early settlement of the war that could have saved thousands of young American lives.
In a subsequent book, McNamara admitted the war was prolonged by a lack of communication between the leaders of the United States and Vietnam. He said Nixon made a big mistake by acting without the support of U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere.
The Vietnam War was a searing experience for this nation. For nearly a quarter-century after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saigon, we as a nation likened every potential conflict to the war in Vietnam. But now that we are on the verge of a war that has more similarities to Vietnam than anything since then, almost everyone seems reluctant to make the comparison. We seem bored with the Vietnam analogy.
One person who is not yet tired of thinking about Vietnam is Daniel Ellsberg, the former military officer who leaked the Pentagon Papers. In an interview published in the Jan. 27 issue of Editor & Publisher, Ellsberg accused the American press of failing to report dissent within the government to Bush's assertion that Hussein poses a threat to our security.
"There is as much lying going on (now) as in Vietnam, as in Iran-Contra, as in the Catholic Church sex scandal, as in Enron -- you can't have more lying than that, and that's how much we have," Ellsberg said.
"The first lie is: Saddam represents the No. 1 danger to U.S. security in the world. To allow the president and Rumsfeld to make that statement over and over is akin to them saying without being challenged from the press that they accept the flat-earth theory. . . . More dangerous than al-Qaida? North Korea? Russian nukes loose in the world? An India-Pakistan nuclear war?"
Ellsberg noted Gen. Anthony Zinni, Bush's mediator in the Middle East, has said that Iraq is only sixth or seventh on the list of dangers facing the United States.
Nor is Zinni alone among military men in raising doubts. Former Gens. Wesley K. Clark and Norman Schwarzkopf are also questioning whether the president is acting hastily. Clark worries that a U.S. attack on Iraq will help to radicalize more young Muslim men, turning them into anti-American terrorists.
Under normal circumstances, we might look to the opposition party to ask these hard questions. But Democrats, even Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, himself a Vietnam vet, are clearly afraid of having their patriotism impugned by Bush.
Thus the job of the loyal opposition has fallen to the oldest member of Congress, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, a history buff who at age 85 is one of the few Democrats who does not dream of sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office.
"This administration has put this country on a bull-headed rush to war without regard for the implication such unilateral action will have on America's relationship with other nations," says Byrd. "Congress has been complicit, and in my 50 years in Washington, I have only seen this cloak of secrecy as it is twice, in particular in the Nixon administration and now in this administration."
-- Sara Fritz can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone at (202) 463-0576.