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by Gary Gordon
June 15, 2001
Thirty years ago, on June 13, 1971, the New York Times began publishing a Top Secret history of the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, stolen or liberated from the U.S. Government by a Rand analyst, Daniel Ellsberg.
Seven years ago on the same date, L.A. and the nation awoke to the news of the horrible murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman at her condo in Brentwood.
Twenty-nine years ago, on June 17, 1972, burglars known as The Plumbers, working for President Nixon and the Committee to Re-Elect The President (CREEP) broke into the Democratic Party National Headquarters in the Watergate, in D.C.
Seven years ago on the same date O.J. Simpson was allowed to lead police on a slow-speed chase throughout L.A., culminating at his mansion on Rockingham.
The lasting images are the white Bronco and the blood-stained walkway. Then came "the trial of the century", a media circus, an extended photo op. You remember.
Less photo'd and perhaps less snapshot memorable is the case of the Pentagon Papers and the direct relationship between Ellsberg's courageous, illegal, defiant act and the downfall, near-impeachment and resignation of Richard Nixon. Some might have an indelible memory of the New York Times headline, but more likely the memory is of the burglary team member across the street from the Watergate, with binoculars and walkie-talkie, warning the burglars that cops just entered the building-no, that's the movie. No actual photos of that.
For many outside of Santa Monica, where Rand is based and the trial of Daniel Ellsberg occurred, there is probably no memory, nascent or otherwise, of the singular visual moment that cracked the Nixon gang.
For most, the indelible memory of Watergate might be Judge John Sirica, standing tall against over-reaching executive power; or Sam Ervin, committee chair, or Barbara Jordan, the black woman whom Hollywood would probably have cast as a maid, not a U.S. Congresswoman. Or it might be of Sen. Howard Baker, demanding in those possibly immortal words: "What did the President know, and when did he know it?"
The O.J./Nicole murder and trial are more memorable than the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, despite the stark difference in historical significance, because murder is simple and the theft of government papers that reveal a complex history of the government deceit is more complicated. A white bronco chased by police is simple; hearings and trials to determine whether or not the president, claiming "national security" committed illegal acts during times of war and civil unrest is more complicated.
If only Ellsberg had used chloroform to knock out the security guard and the guard was found the next morning and photographed unconscious; if only the Plumbers had knocked out Ellsberg's psychiatrist's secretary when they broke into his office, and she was found the next morning, a cut on her head, photographed with a nasty cut; if only Nixon had lead police in a slow-speed limosine chase down Pennsylvania Avenue--
But remembering the Papers and Watergate is infinitely more important, and so is correcting those who use the 30th anniversary of the Papers' publication to lie about the event and distort its meaning.
Last week on The Capital Gang, conservative Robert Novak emphatically declared the Papers didn't tell us anything we didn't already know.
This was a lie, all too typical of those who want to downplay the substance of the Papers.
To know the extent to which Novak was lying, you don't have to read the entire Pentagon Papers: all you have to do is read about Operation Plan 34A. In 1963 and early 1964 our public policy was that we had military advisors assisting the South Vietnamese in the fight against Viet Cong guerrillas and the threat of a North Vietnamese (NVA) invasion.
The Papers revealed a more insidious involvement, including a secret war against the North Vietnamese; what Operation Plan 34A included was not only a deliberate step-by-step plan to sabotage the North Vietnamese but also a deliberate step-by-step plan to provoke them into a widened, overt war.
Don't take my word for it. Read it.
It was the implementation of Op-Plan 34A that provoked increased NVA patrol boat activity in the Gulf of Tonkin which created the circumstances for "the Gulf of Tonkin incident" in August '64 which gave Lyndon Johnson the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution-- the green light he was looking for to widen the war under his unfettered command. The achievement of this excuse and resolution, as revealed in the Papers, was all part of the plan.
Without the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the fiction that the North Vietnamese launched unprovoked attacks to which we had to respond would have prevailed.
And so began the Slow Speed Pentagon Papers Bronco Chase.
On a cold night in early 1964, a group of men plan murder to appear as if the other guy did it. In August '64 they it happens, then they're off, not in a bronco but in gun-boats, C-5 cargo planes and Huey choppers, chased by a few college students, then some journalists, then a few congressmen and senators, then many more. The slow-speed chase passes My Lai, Hue, Khe San; a little girl running naked, a victim of a napalm attack. During the chase thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese are killed.
Johnson is a suspect, but he passed the Civil Rights bill, so could he be a murderer? Nixon is a suspect, but he proved the can of strawberries was eaten by the messboys, so can he be a murderer?
The chase continues: many folks chasing the suspects are jailed, beaten, gassed; some are shot.
Johnson dies of a heart attack, so he escapes.
Nixon forms a covert unit to go after Ellsberg; to conduct a variety of covert activities culminating in the break-in of the Democrat headquarters, then Nixon makes peace with the same deal that was on the table four years and tens of thousands of lives earlier- Finally Nixon's caught as he returns to his mansion and investigators discover he was taping everything--
But unlike O.J., he avoids trial, and unlike O.J. he is never judged guilty or not guilty.
A photo may show blood, a video may show a getaway car, but neither shows intent or the absence of integrity, neither reveals a complex history or context; neither can solve the question "who can you trust?" or answer Baker's question, "What did he know, and when did he know it?"
And while photos of McVeigh and his execution may delight or anger, the theft of billions and billions of dollars in the energy industries, the biggest robbery in the history of America, goes on.
And this: Operation Plan 34A is probably not the only secret plan the government ever had, or has.
This is where celebration of Daniel Ellsberg and the First Amendment and the use of it by The New York Times and The Washington Post is due, along with the prayer that they rise to the occasion again and again and again.
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