On the morning of May 8, 1970, around a thousand mostly young people gathered at the junction of Wall Street and Broad Street to honor four students who had been shot on the campus at Kent State University four days earlier by the Ohio National Guard during a demonstration against Richard Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam War.
I was in Lower Manhattan that day and watched as the streets became a battleground that foreshadowed the sort of political polarization in America that remains to this day.
The student demonstration was disrupted suddenly by about 200 construction workers who materialized from nearby sites. Their response had flared up spontaneously from atop scaffolding. They’d shouted derisory taunts of “commies and pinkos” and hurled debris down at the students.
The construction workers in their hard hats yelled “All the way, USA!” with the passion of men who felt that the long-haired war protesters not only were an affront to patriotism but an offense to the commitment of their own families, who had willingly sent their sons off to war. There was a palpable blue collar sense of national duty versus a middle class that was educated and felt entitled to question the logic of war—and also was able to defer the draft, or to dodge it entirely.
There was no reconciling the two factions. The hard hats easily broke through the police lines and set about beating any students they could catch.
The sudden counter-protest was an unexpected boost for Nixon and hard-had demonstrations swiftly grew in numbers. On May 20, 150,000 pro-war marchers went unopposed through the streets of Lower Manhattan. Six days later a group of labor union leaders presented the president with a hard hat of his own to show their solidarity.
Of course, blind support of a catastrophic war did not stop with Vietnam. But it is that conflict which, in its numerous escalations and miscalculations, best reveals the persistent flaw in American political leadership—in both parties—that curses us to this day: the multiplication of error, the doubling down on mistakes.
In Robert Asprey’s masterful 1975 analysis of guerrilla wars, War in the Shadows, he called this the “arrogance of ignorance compounded by arrogance of power.” And what we have learned this year is that the arrogance of ignorance can be every bit as dangerous in a “war” against a pandemic as it was in wars against guerrillas.
In 1965, the CIA’s analysts took a look at the military’s plan to escalate the bombing of North Vietnam and take out its supply lines of gasoline. They decided that this was “unlikely to cripple the Communist military operations in the South.”
At that point the CIA—or, at least, its politically neutral analysts—had recognized something that future U.S. military planners never were ready to accept: that they were in an asymmetrical war where their massive firepower and weaponry was of very limited use.
A year later, in 1966, after the U.S. had flown 148,000 sorties and dropped millions of bombs against the North, nothing had blunted the Viet Cong’s offensive in the South. The Viet Cong had no bombers, no helicopters and no heavy artillery, yet they were winning.
President Lyndon Johnson’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara, was infamously dedicated to the doctrine that America, as the pre-eminent technological superpower, was invincible, and remained so.
The full extent of the error multiplier at work in that war was not publicly known until 1971, and the revelations contained in the Pentagon Papers, first published in the New York Times.
These were the contents of a report commissioned in 1967 by McNamara that reviewed the U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945.
The report disclosed an extraordinary history of failures: four administrations, those of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, had been drawn deeper and deeper into following the so-called Domino Theory, which said that communism would capture the whole of South East Asia unless stopped in its tracks—Vietnam being seen as the first domino, which must not be allowed to fall.
The Kennedy and Johnson administrations launched numerous and often illegal covert operations while they concealed real casualty numbers and the repeated setbacks being suffered on the battlefield.
One of their persistent motivations was to avoid having to admit a humiliating defeat, and nothing multiplies errors more quickly and dangerously than a scramble to save face.
Johnson had claimed that he wanted “no wider war” while secretly extending it into Cambodia and Laos. He had consistently lied to both Congress and the public.
The Pentagon report was not delivered until a few days before Johnson left office and it was rejected by his successor, Richard Nixon. Its findings would have remained unknown but for the fact that one of its authors, Daniel Ellsberg, revealed them to the Times.
The impact of the revelations on war vets often was deeply traumatic. As one of them recounted:
“I wasn’t pro-war, I wanted to end it. I knew the body counts were bullshit. I wanted a real end with some justification for all the men who had died. I thought, ‘they should have pulled us out in 65.’
“I didn’t know what happened until one Sunday morning I woke up and went downstairs and bought the the New York Times. I opened it up and there were the Pentagon Papers. I read as much as I could on that Sunday afternoon. I became violently ill. … I was rolling around on the floor of my apartment. I couldn’t fight the pain, I couldn’t succumb to it—it just blew me the fuck away.”
In August, 1965, polls showed that 61 percent of the American public supported the war and only 24 percent thought it was an error. By April 1968, 40 percent supported the war while 48 percent thought it an error. By May 1971 only 28 percent still supported the war.
When Americas finally—and humiliatingly—fled Saigon in the spring of 1975 The Washington Post editorialized: “The fundamental lesson of Vietnam surely is not that we as a people are intrinsically bad, but rather that we are capable of error—and on a gigantic scale.”
President Barack Obama came into office 33 years later, and he was clear-eyed about how his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, had been suckered into two more unwinnable wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, by another combination of military hubris and falsehoods—like nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
But Obama soon discovered, as many leaders over the centuries have ruefully admitted, that wars are much easier to start than to finish.
In 2009, Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen persuaded Obama that, instead of pulling out, he should “surge” in Afghanistan as Bush had done in Iraq, by adding another 33,000 troops to the 68,000 already there.
Once more, the military were offering the hallucinatory idea that increasing the forces would be enough to reverse a failing war.
But as soon as the surge forces were pulled out in 2012 the Taliban reappeared and expanded their grip on the countryside. Today they are not only resurgent, they are setting the terms for a U.S. withdrawal in negotiations that keep collapsing and, if completed, will amount to another humiliating defeat for America.
In Iraq, Obama honored an agreement made by Bush with the Iraqis to withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of 2011 (with the support of three-quarters of the American people).
As in Afghanistan, the withdrawal was followed by disintegration and bloody anarchy. The centuries-old blood feud between the Sunnis and Shiites reignited and a vicious new menace appeared, ISIS. By 2016 there were 5,000 U.S. troops back in Iraq, assisting the Iraqis to drive ISIS from its stronghold in Mosul and crush the so-called caliphate.
Obama was prudent enough to fear the error multiplier, and refused to join in the Syrian war even when his chemical weapons “red line” was crossed by the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Yet he was was led into one intervention that he later confessed was the worst mistake of his presidency, joining the NATO-led bombing of Libya in 2011 that led to the death of Muammar Gaddafi and the disintegration of the country that still plagues it today.
This long trail of American entrapment in foreign wars always involved multiplying what were fundamentally errors of commission. But now, as we are locked in a global struggle with the novel coronavirus, the multiplying errors in the White House are the reverse of that, errors of omission, and they can be just as deadly.
After the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, the National Security Council’s remit was expanded with the inclusion of the Directorate of Global Health Security and Biodefense.
Its staff were essential canaries in the coal mine, part of a global network of scientists who had tracked the development of SARS, “an atypical pneumonia” that first appeared in southern China in 2002, and MERS, a virus identified in 2012 that may have originated in Egyptian tomb bats. To the experts, both were ominous precursors of what they feared would be a potent new virus capable of triggering a pandemic.
None of the scientists believed, however good the intelligence, that a new virus would ever be stifled at birth. They did believe that with proper planning an outbreak could be contained before becoming an epidemic or a pandemic. Quick response was of the essence, and governments should never let a virus dictate its own speed of contagion.
After John Bolton became national security adviser, the directorate was shut down and the canaries were dispersed. Donald Trump’s aversion to inconvenient truths delivered by science fatally set the conditions for the way he would deal with the novel coronavirus threat, dismissing it for two months as no worse than the flu and asserting that by some “miracle” it would leave America virtually untouched.
Unfortunately for us, this was the mother of all multipliers. For every day that was lost before the states began to lock down, thousands of people died.
Added to the magical thinking was the kind of blatant cooking of the statistics that the U.S. military indulged in during the Vietnam War. When Trump did not like the mortality predictions of the administration’s own scientists, he turned to someone with no medical acumen at all, Kevin Hassett, the former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Hassett concocted what he called a new “cubic model” for predicting the American death rate, with a graphic that showed the rate falling to zero by May 15. This backed up Vice President Mike Pence’s asinine happy talk that it would be safe for the whole country to open up by Memorial Day. And yes, much is re-opening, but with consequences only the arrogance of ignorance could obscure.
Meanwhile the University of Washington’s epidemiologists have been predicting 135,000 deaths by August 1, assuming the “premature relaxation of restrictions” that is now under way.
Long before that, on current trends, the death rate in America after just six months of the pandemic will be more than double the number of Americans killed in the 20 years of the Vietnam War, 58,318.
And so it goes. Trump, incapable of admitting any errors, will, for sure, go on repeating them. He has a lot of company.