The Peace That Never Was 5

The U.S. commanders knew that the answer to the problem was to end the war and repatriate the GIs, for whom the conflict had become as pointless as it had for the rest of the American people. In March 1971, a poll reported that public confidence in Nixon had dropped to 50 percent, the lowest rating since he entered office. Sup¬port for his conduct of the war slid to 34 percent, another survey stated, with 51 percent of Americans persuaded that the conflict was “morally wrong.”
Street protests resumed in America, some now spearheaded by Viet¬nam veterans, and two hundred thousand demonstrators marched on Washington to stage a huge rally in late April. One of the most elo¬quent speakers was John Kerry, a former naval officer later to be elected senator from Massachusetts, who said that his fellow veterans were determined to “reach out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war.” The House of Representatives, usually prudent, began to stir as the Democratic whip, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, prompted a group of colleagues to urge the repatriation of all GIs by the close of the year. On June 22, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield prevailed on the Senate to pass a similar resolution that, while not legally binding on the president, reflected the climate on Capitol Hill.
Remarkably subdued, Nixon replied to the antiwar sentiment by saying that “while everybody has a right to protest peacefully, policy in this country is not made by protests.” But his fury was rekindled on June 13, when the New York Times began publishing lengthy excerpts from the “Pentagon Papers,” the news media’s inevitable nickname for a mammoth collection of confidential government memorandums on the war that had been compiled and analyzed by Defense Department officials during the Johnson administration. Why the archive was commissioned in 1967 by Robert McNamara, then secretary of defense, has never been made clear. Among other expla¬nations, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk and others have spec¬ulated that McNamara aimed to give the record on Vietnam to his friend Robert Kennedy, who was contemplating a bid for the presi¬dency at the time.
The appearance of the documents shocked Nixon, since any dis¬closure of squabbles and duplicity within the government—even the Johnson administration—might damage the public’s faith in his own leadership. When the Supreme Court denied his appeal to stop their publication, he staged a tantrum: “I want to know who is behind this and I want the most complete investigation that can be con¬ducted. … I don’t want excuses. I want results. I want it done, whatever the costs.” Kissinger, equally appalled, worried that the “hemorrhage of state secrets” would cramp his delicate diplomatic endeavors—especially his covert talks with the North Vietnamese and his tentative early maneuvers toward China. Uneasy among the right- wing zealots in the Nixon entourage, Kissinger may have also felt tainted because of his acquaintance with Daniel Ellsberg, the former bureaucrat who confessed to having purloined the classified material.
Ellsberg, just turned forty, was a familiar figure in the Vietnam cast of characters. Lean, nervous and volatile, he was a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard who had become one of the Pentagon “whiz kids,” the brilliant young scholars recruited by McNamara. When our paths first crossed in 1966 in Saigon, where he belonged to a special counterinsurgency team headed by Edward Lansdale, he was a fervent believer in the war who hotly disputed my lack of enthusiasm. Four years later, when we met again in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he had become an ardent foe of the war who seemed to be disappointed by my detachment from it. Kissinger had consulted him for ideas on Vietnam during the transition period before Nixon took office, but now, after the publication of the documents, maligned him to Nixon as a “fanatic” and a “drug abuser.” Attorney General John Mitchell suggested that Ellsberg might be part of a Communist “conspiracy,” and there was even apprehension inside the White House that his action could inspire conservative officials to leak information about the plans that Nixon and Kissinger were formulating for rapprochements with the Soviet Union and China.
For all their alarm about national security, however, Nixon and his staff discerned benefits in the Pentagon Papers crisis. Just as he had used the Alger Hiss case to vault to the forefront of the anti- Communist crusade two decades before, so he could use the Ellsberg flap to discredit leftists, liberals and other adversaries of the Vietnam war—and, by extension, Democrats and everybody else he deemed inimical. Egil “Bud” Krogh, an earnest young White House assistant, put it succinctly: “Anyone who opposes us, we’ll destroy. As a matter of fact, anyone who doesn’t support us, we’ll destroy.”
On Nixon’s instructions to organize an investigation of Ellsberg, Krogh and a young lawyer, David Young, were appointed to manage a clandestine unit jokingly known as the “plumbers” because its the¬oretical task was to plug “leaks.” Nixon’s special counsel, Charles Colson, helped to broaden the group with clandestine experts like E. Howard Hunt, formerly of the CIA, and G. Gordon Liddy, a retired FBI agent. Soon their activities ranged from the smelly to the illicit. Colson composed a list of some two hundred Nixon “enemies,” among them Gregory Peck, Carol Channing, Joe Namath, President Derek Bok of Harvard and several journalists, including me. The aim of the plan was to make “life more difficult” for Nixon’s critics through tax audits and other forms of harassment. After Nixon pro¬posed a campaign to blame the Democrats for the Vietnam war, Hunt faked two State Department cables purporting to implicate John F. Kennedy in the murder of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. The forgeries were to be planted with William Lambert, a Life writer, but the magazine folded before he could verify their authen¬ticity. Hunt and his team broke into the California home of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Lewis Fielding—an act for which they were eventually convicted, along with Krogh, Colson and John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s assistant for domestic affairs. And, of course, the illegal intrusion of Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate build¬ing was on the agenda. Thus Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, was to write that “without the Vietnam war there would have been no Watergate.”

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