Ignoring the Facts as Vietnam Fell

The Burns-Novick documentary reminded me of the misinformation the U.S. government gave to the American people at various times during the Vietnam war. The revelation of the Nixon’s administration’s calculated lies shocked me, but my sense is that at other points during the war, the government statements were less an intent to deceive than an expression of wishful thinking. Ambassador Graham Martin’s failure to call for an evacuation during the fall of Saigon, for example, reflected his incapacity to accept the fact the North Vietnamese were preparing to launch an attack on the city—the idea that Saigon could ever fall to the communists was unthinkable.

One paragraph in Last of the Annamese reflects my own reaction at the time to untrue statements coming out of Washington. It describes the thoughts going through the mind of the protagonist, Chuck Griffin:

“Ahead of him lay the gruesome task of chronicling the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam [South Vietnam] whether or not his own government wanted to hear it. But the job was turning surreal. Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Schlesinger had said publicly that there was relatively little major fighting in Vietnam. Wasn’t anybody reading what Chuck and Sparky and Troiano [all working in the Intelligence Branch in Saigon] were writing? Were the Ford administration and Congress so determined not to get involved again that they were pretending there was no war? Or maybe it was lies for public consumption only. The Defense Intelligence Agency, the secretary’s own intelligence organ, had just issued a classified estimate, paraphrasing Chuck, that the Republic would last less than thirty days. And the Ambassador, under pressure from every side, looked the other way when employees and dependents, under a variety of pretexts, left the country. Why didn’t the story the government was telling the people match the facts?”

To this day I marvel over what I called the Cassandra Effect: foretelling what was going to happen based on signals intelligence and not being believed by military commanders and government officials. Every time the Cassandra Effect held sway, people died.

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