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Better to keep quiet for now, grow in gravitas, and live on to slay other dragons. Right?
One can, I suppose, always find excuses for not sticking one's neck out. The neck, after all, is a convenient connection between head and torso, albeit the "neck" that was the focus of my concern was a figurative one, suggesting possible loss of career, money and status -- not the literal "necks" of both Americans and Vietnamese that were on the line daily in the war.
But if there is nothing for which you would risk your career "neck" -- like, say, saving the lives of soldiers and civilians in a war zone -- your "neck" has become your idol, and your career is not worthy of that. I now regret giving such worship to my own neck. Not only did I fail the neck test. I had not thought things through very rigorously from a moral point of view.
Promises to Keep?
As a condition of employment, I had signed a promise not to divulge classified information so as not to endanger sources, methods or national security. Promises are important, and one should not lightly violate them. Plus, there are legitimate reasons for protecting some secrets. But were any of those legitimate concerns the real reasons why Abrams's cable was stamped SECRET/EYES ONLY? I think not.
It is not good to operate in a moral vacuum, oblivious to the reality that there exists a hierarchy of values and that circumstances often determine the morality of a course of action. How does a written promise to keep secret everything with a classified stamp on it square with one's moral responsibility to stop a war based on lies? Does stopping a misbegotten war not supersede a secrecy promise?
Ethicists use the words "supervening value" for this; the concept makes sense to me. And is there yet another value? As an Army officer, I had taken a solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
How did the lying by the Army command in Saigon fit in with that? Were/are generals exempt? Should we not call them out when we learn of deliberate deception that subverts the democratic process? Can the American people make good decisions if they are lied to?
Would I have helped stop unnecessary killing by giving the New York Times the not-really-secret, SECRET/EYES ONLY cable from Gen. Abrams? We'll never know, will we? And I live with that. I could not take the easy way out, saying Let Sam Do It. Because I knew he wouldn't.
Sam chose to go through the established grievance channels and got the royal run-around, even after the Communist countrywide offensive at Tet in January-February 1968 proved beyond any doubt that his count of Communist forces was correct.
When the Tet offensive began, as a way of keeping his sanity, Adams drafted a caustic cable to Saigon saying, "It is something of an anomaly to be taking so much punishment from Communist soldiers whose existence is not officially acknowledged." But he did not think the situation at all funny.
Dan Ellsberg Steps In
Sam kept playing by the rules, but it happened that -- unbeknown to Sam -- Dan Ellsberg gave Sam's figures on enemy strength to the New York Times, which published them on March 19, 1968. Dan had learned that President Lyndon Johnson was about to bow to Pentagon pressure to widen the war into Cambodia, Laos and up to the Chinese border -- perhaps even beyond.
Later, it became clear that his timely leak -- together with another unauthorized disclosure to the Times that the Pentagon had requested 206,000 more troops -- prevented a wider war. On March 25, Johnson complained to a small gathering, "The leaks to the New York Times hurt us. ... We have no support for the war. ... I would have given Westy the 206,000 men."
Ellsberg also copied the Pentagon Papers -- the 7,000-page top-secret history of U.S. decision-making on Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 -- and, in 1971, he gave copies to the New York Times, Washington Post and other news organizations.
In the years since, Ellsberg has had difficulty shaking off the thought that, had he released the Pentagon Papers sooner, the war might have ended years earlier with untold lives saved. Ellsberg has put it this way: "Like so many others, I put personal loyalty to the president above all else -- above loyalty to the Constitution and above obligation to the law, to truth, to Americans, and to humankind. I was wrong."
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