The passage of time dulls our perception of things. The every day challenge of getting along distracts us and blurs the past.
Such it is with the Nixon era and the Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellsburg. Here we are in the present, with everything that happened then, and we find ourselves having completely and utterly missed the point.
The “declassification” of the Pentagon Papers–exactly forty years late–is basically a non-event. The notion that “only small portions” of the report were released forty years ago is pure hype by the Nixon Library. Nearly all of the study–except for the negotiations volumes, which were mostly declassified over twenty years ago– became available in 1971, between the redacted (censored) Government Printing Office edition and the Senator Gravel edition put out by Beacon Press.
(I’ve heard that most if not all of this has long been online. Here’s a link I just looked up; there probably are others: CLICK HERE.)
It would be helpful if the publishers indicated, by brackets or different type, what was withheld earlier. But that would be very embarrassing to the Library and the government; I’ll be surprised if they do it. Most of the omissions in the GPO edition “for security”–a ridiculous claim, since their substance was nearly all available to the world in the simultaneous Gravel/Beacon Press edition–will appear arbitrary and unjustified.
I’d really like to see someone–a journalist or an anti-secrecy NGO– compare this version in detail with the redacted white space in the 1971 GPO edition, for a measure of what the government has regarded as necessarily classified for the last forty years. And then ask: just why was most of what was released by the GPO, covering 1945 to1968, kept secret as late as 1971? Hint: it wasn’t for “national security.”
What that comparison would newly reveal is the blatant violation of the spirit and letter of the FOIA declassification process by successive administrations (including the present one), in rejecting frequent requests by historians and journalists for complete declassification of the Papers over the years.
But if the hype around this belated release got a new generation to read the Pentagon Papers or at least the summaries to the various volumes (my highest hope, pretty unlikely), they’d get from them as good an understanding as they could find anywhere today of our war in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon Papers didn’t explicitly present that last alternative, but their release contributed to that result, eventually. Is it too much to hope that their re-release could do the same?
Only forty years have passed but it may as well have been a million. Those past events seem not to have made a bit of difference. Even though a number of the same people from back then were still around in Washington to make our current mess, it can’t be more apparent that they didn’t learn a thing from their earlier experiences. If anything, they learned the wrong lessons.
Of course, there is the possibility Reagan, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove and others knew exactly what they were about all along. More and more, at least to me, they’re looking like enemies to this nation more than anything.