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. [...]
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.
Most Americans knew or guessed the crux of the Pentagon Papers, too. A full year earlier the Senate had repealed the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution; no one needed a “top secret” smoking gun by 1971 to know that L.B.J. had lied about the Tonkin incident.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.
One parallel between Afghanistan and Vietnam is dead nuts: When, not 'if', we leave, and the sooner the better after abandoning the effort and allowing the Taliban to regroup, the locals will still be there. They will take care of their own business as the Vietnamese did. Our involvement there, all the blood and treasure, will have gone for naught.
Thanks again, Georgie.
An unlikely pairing with Frank Rich, Will Durst weighs in:
Unplug the drain and the ring around the tub is we’ve been there 8 years and things are so not getting better. As a matter of fact you could say the movement more resembles whatever is the opposite of getting better. Don’t even mention quagmire. Hah. Hah. We sneer at your quagmire. Our Afghanistan participation makes a quagmire look like a refreshing dip in a spring fed pool with buckets of frosty beer within reach and cold cucumbers slices on our eyelids. Spa spangled bog.
If this leak tells us anything, it’s that this is not a winnable war. Right now, America has a lot of stuff on a lot of plates and keeping them all spinning is neither cheap nor easy. Afghan plates, on the other hand, are not very full and they seem to like it like that. Especially when deep- dish pizza crumbs can get them beheaded. As they say in Animal House, “If I were us, I’d be… leaving.”
It is good to remember that Bluto ("A drunken degenerate with his own style, in his seventh year of college, sporting a GPA of 0.0."), the head party animal in Animal House, ended up as a U.S. Senator. To quote him:
"Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!"
His spirit lives on in the halls of power.