A generation betrayed

The war in Indochina is the seminal political event of the baby-boom generation and thus still exerts an enormous influence on American life today. At a deep and often unconscious level, many baby boomers—both those who opposed the war early and those who fought there—felt betrayed by their leaders’ and parents’ generation. Much of the anger, lack of shared values and inability to reach consensus on basic policies in America today can be traced to the domestic consequences of the Vietnam War. It is thus impossible to understand our society today without a comprehension of how the war unmoored many of those who had most believed that America stood for democracy, human rights and decency.

Perhaps no single person more symbolizes how the U.S. government betrayed its young than former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg, whose new book Secrets may be the most important work to emerge regarding the Indochina war. Perhaps because he was 14 years older than the oldest baby boomers, Ellsberg had a particularly strong belief and personal history of supporting America and its values. His story makes fascinating reading, as he describes his transformation from a believing Marine officer and Pentagon official to an advocate of nonviolence who risked jail by revealing the top-secret history of the war, known as the Pentagon Papers. In response to his actions, former President Richard Nixon set up a paramilitary operation that eventually led to Watergate and Nixon’s downfall.

Part of the power of Ellsberg’s story derives from the extraordinary breadth of his experience in Vietnam, which included serving as a top assistant in the Pentagon, where he read top-secret cables like those sent from the Gulf of Tonkin during the non-existent attack on U.S. warships there. At one point in the book, Ellsberg describes explaining to Robert McNamera why America’s Vietnam strategy was failing, while the men were on a trip back from Saigon in October 1966, at a time when more than 100,000 Americans were fighting in Vietnam and many more were about to be sent. McNamera turned to an aide and said, “This proves what I’m saying! We’ve put more than a hundred thousand more troops in the country over the last year, and there’s been no improvement.” After the flight, McNamera lied to the public at a press conference on the tarmac. “I’m glad to be able to tell you that we’re showing great progress in every dimension of our effort,” McNamera declared.

Let us be clear about what this means. McNamera was not only lying to the public but to the young people he was sending to die. Ellsberg documents how numerous other leaders and people of influence put their own careers and self-interest first instead of opposing a war that they admitted in private could not be won. Our society is still paying and will pay indefinitely for those people betraying our young in this way.

Ellsberg’s book also addresses a more timeless question: How are citizens to respond when they believe their government is acting immorally or failing to serve the national interest? His description of the process he went through to come up with his own answer to this question is of historical importance. He is, in fact, urging citizens to resist the Bush administration’s coming war in Iraq, on the grounds that it is as immoral and dangerous as our intervention in Vietnam.

Ellsberg’s most significant contribution may be his insistence that we take our responsibilities as citizens seriously and personally, rather than treating issues of war and peace as distant from our real lives.