A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
In November 1971, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt published “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers” in the New York Review of Books. Earlier that year, Daniel Ellsberg had shared those highly classified government papers with the U.S. media. They revealed a persistent and systematic pattern of lying and deception by the government about U.S. progress in the Vietnam War. By undermining the people’s trust in government, lies and deception were destabilizing democracy in America, Arendt said. Furthermore, America was witnessing two new and related categories of lying. The first was lying as public relations, the creation and distribution of images substituting for facts and premised in human manipulability (a Madison Avenue approach to war and foreign policy). The second was lying tied to a country’s reputation as embraced by professional “problem-solvers” as the basis for political action. Both categories of lying constituted a crisis to the republic.
Widespread lying during the Vietnam War, Arendt explained, had not been aimed at the enemy, as lies often are in war. Rather, governmental lying had targeted Americans. The enemy could hardly be fooled, but most Americans could – at least for a time. Throughout the war, Arendt noted, senior U.S. government and military officials made decisions about Vietnam with the firm knowledge they could not be carried out, a form of self-deception facilitated by constant goal-shifting. As goals changed and chaos mounted, U.S. officials then became driven by concerns about saving face. Image-making and image-saving took precedence over reality. The truth about Vietnam – that the U.S. was losing the war – hurt, therefore it was denied, especially in public discourse.
Official lies can fool even the officials themselves, a fact Pulitzer prize-winning reporter David Halberstam noted in his prescient book, “The Making of a Quagmire,” published in 1965. With respect to the Kennedy Administration’s support of the corrupt Diem/Nhu government of South Vietnam, Halberstam wrote that:
Having failed to get [the Diem/Nhu regime to make needed] reforms, our officials said that these reforms were taking place; having failed to improve the demoralized state of the [South] Vietnamese Army, the Americans talked about a new enthusiasm in the Army; having failed to change the tactics of the [South Vietnamese] military, they talked about bold new tactics which were allegedly driving the Communists back. For the essence of our policy was: There is no place else to go. When reporters began to file stories which tended to show that the [U.S.] policy was not working, its authors, President Kennedy and General [Maxwell] Taylor, clung to it stubbornly. At least part of the explanation for this apparent blindness is that although they knew things were going wrong, they felt that the alternatives were worse.
This “blindness,” a sustained willingness to deny harsh truths about the Vietnam War, persisted throughout the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. U.S. leaders continued to package and sell a losing effort as a winning product. It helped, in Arendt’s words, that U.S. officials had “a truly amazing and entirely honest ignorance of the historically pertinent background” when it came to Vietnam. Their ignorance was “honest” in the sense they did not believe facts were all that important to success. What was needed, U.S. officials concluded, were not incontestable facts but the right premises, hypotheses, and theories (such as the infamous Domino Theory) to fit Vietnam within prevailing Cold War orthodoxies. Overwhelming applications of U.S. military power would serve to actuate these premises, facts be damned.
Upon taking power in 1969, the Nixon Administration, which had promised a quick and honorable end to the war, continued the lies of previous administrations. Even as Nixon and Henry Kissinger spoke publicly of peace with honor, they talked privately of a lost war. To shift the blame for defeat, they cast about for scapegoats (as corroborated recently in the HBO documentary, “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words”). Kissinger settled on South Vietnamese “incompetence” as the primary scapegoat. He reassured Nixon that, after a “decent interval” between U.S. withdrawal and the inevitable South Vietnamese collapse, most Americans would come to see Vietnam as a regrettable (and forgettable) “backwater.” Naturally, harsh facts such as these were ones Nixon and Kissinger refused to share with the American people.
For Hannah Arendt, truth as represented by verifiable facts is the chief stabilizing factor in politics. Lacking truths held in common, action is compromised, judgment is flawed, reality is denied. Deception feeds self-deception until politics is poisoned and collective action for the common good is disrupted. Yet lies cannot be eliminated simply by moral outrage, Arendt noted. Rather, truth must be fought for even as humility before truth must be cultivated.
The American people must fight for the truth: that is the lesson of Arendt’s essay.
Next Week: Part II: More Lies and Deception in the Iraq War of 2003
Copyright 20016 W. J. Astore
Hannah Arendt (Arendt Center at Bard College)