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Senators’ Confidential Worries About Democracy Itself

Amid the constant fracas of daily political life, it is often hard to see the big picture of power in America (and, for that matter, the world.) In researching my book, Family of Secrets, I came to a fresh appreciation of this big picture, assembling a vast amount of new evidence of the extent to which the visible democratic process has historically been covertly shaped by powerful interests, and how this shaping has gone largely unnoticed and unremarked-upon, right to the present.

My work has been praised by some and attacked by others, but since its publication, new evidence keeps emerging, in bits and pieces, that the public, its elected representatives (and often even presidents too) are being constantly manipulated to support outcomes favorable to wealthy elites.

The latest comes in the New York Times. In an article headlined “Records Show Doubts on ’64 Vietnam Crisis,” Elisabeth Bumiller reports on newly released documents that confirm this.

In an echo of the debates over the discredited intelligence that helped make the case for the war in Iraq, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday released more than 1,100 pages of previously classified Vietnam-era transcripts that show senators of the time sharply questioning whether they had been deceived by the White House and the Pentagon over the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident.

…”If this country has been misled, if this committee, this Congress, has been misled by pretext into a war in which thousands of young men have died, and many more thousands have been crippled for life, and out of which their country has lost prestige, moral position in the world, the consequences are very great,” Senator Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee, the father of the future vice president, said in March 1968 in a closed session of the Foreign Relations Committee.

…President Lyndon B. Johnson cited the [Tonkin Gulf] attacks to persuade Congress to authorize broad military action in Vietnam, but historians in recent years have concluded that the Aug. 4 attack never happened….

[T]he transcripts show the outrage the senators were expressing behind closed doors. “In a democracy you cannot expect the people, whose sons are being killed and who will be killed, to exercise their judgment if the truth is concealed from them,” Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, said in an executive session in February 1968.

…At another point, the committee’s chairman, Senator William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas, raised concerns that if the senators did not take a stand on the war, “We are just a useless appendix on the governmental structure.”

….In the end, however, the senators did not further pursue their doubts. As Mr. Church said in one session that was focused on the staff report into the episode, if the committee came up with proof that an attack never occurred, “we have a case that will discredit the military in the United States, and discredit and quite possibly destroy the president.”

He added that unless the committee had the evidence to substantiate the charges, “The big forces in this country that have most of the influence and run most of the newspapers and are oriented toward the presidency will lose no opportunity to thoroughly discredit this committee.”

Now, having read this, consider what happens when one tries to show how this is an ongoing problem – that those “big forces” Senator Church warned against have been doing much more than creating a false justification for a huge escalation in Vietnam. When I showed the pervasive role of these interests in shaping the American presidency, over decades,  people began coming after me. A Los Angeles Times reporter angrily accused me of “paranoia,” and an outside reviewer selected by the Washington Post tried to minimize my work by suggesting that I was “overreaching.” Overreaching? I’d like to know what Albert Gore Sr., William Fulbright and Frank Church would say if they were alive today, about the long-term evidence of constant falsification of events-including, of course the case for invading Iraq, but also the scores of other false stories I lay out for the first time in the book.

Also, consider what the New York Times does not say in this article, and cannot quite bring itself to talk about: That when the military and the president mislead the people, they don’t do it always just on their own. They, too, have other masters to serve. What goes unsaid is about the basic nature of power in  America-and ultimately, it leads not to government, with all its strengths and weaknesses, but to the “private sector,” where those “big forces” Frank Church cited can be found. That’s where we need to be looking, but so rarely do.

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  • Soularddave

    EXACTLY! That’s why I read books like “Family of Secrets” and so many others. I learn to spot the lies like yellowcake from Niger, and Colin Powell’s vial of anthrax (which, I learned, looses its lethality quickly. Many eager warmongers were so intent on invasion of iraq that they disregarded that little voice screaming in their head “Its all fake!”, but went ahead and did what they knew was wrong. Obama voted against invasion, but barely spoke up.

    Yeah, big forces push the dumbest stuff – like tax cuts during war. How can elected people be so intellectually lazy??? Our kids, and Iraquis, are real people; why treat them as mere pieces on a game board?

    Is the Republic lost?

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  • Matteo

    You write: “What goes unsaid is about the basic nature of power in America-and ultimately, it leads not to government, with all its strengths and weaknesses, but to the “private sector,” where those “big forces” Frank Church cited can be found. That’s where we need to be looking, but so rarely do.” This is surely true. However, the problem is not that people with private interests will misuse power (this is a given), the problem is that we have permitted such a mass of power to accumulate at all. It is the state, with its powers to legislate, tax and kill almost at will that is the necessary means for these “big forces” to realize their goals. Not only that but it is the massive state which has symbiotically nurtured these forces in the first place. Pull the plug on the gross over-extension of the state and we will defang the wealthy private interests who depend on its massive powers at the same time.

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  • Christopher

    It is ethically bankrupt to whip the “private sector” (corporatism?) for empowering demogogic and corrupt politicians who fail to provide sufficient information for an informed decision without also revealing that it is a “systemic” problem. We have a system of political economy in this nation and another that we pay lip service to. We have a socialist, elitist merchantilism that is the real power and a “free market capitalism” that is the whipping boy. The real power is fascist and the establishment corrupting influence, while we are supposed to have laissez faire as the nation was founded. “Capitalism” (free markets) is held up as a failure but mercantilism (some may call it crony capitalism) is the operative system. Markets are by no means “free” and regulation is merely a fig leaf for repetition and continuity. It begs corruption.

  • James Wahler

    Christopher is exactly correct!!

    The ‘free market’ in the US began to be warped and twisted into mercantilism early in our history by the Federalists, but it really began to steamroller after 1912 when the ‘Progressives’ of both parties took over the White House.

  • Henry Pelifian

    This is a classic example where the checks and balances did not prevail, for the U.S. Senators were too afraid to pursue the dire consequences of a president’s administration misleading the American people to pursue war. If these Senators had shown courage in pursuing the lies to misled the country the president of the United States would have probably been removed from office and the impending escalation of the Vietnam War would have been halted. Instead, they cowered because in the end the primacy of the political parties and their financial backers are more important than in pursing the truth no matter where it leads.

    If those Senators had been politically courageous and pursued the truth and proved the lies, then the utter incompetence and official negligence of the Bush Administration would likely never had occurred in the Iraq and Afghan wars. The course of country has taken is that the elected leaders often do not serve the people, the people tend to serve the elected representatives in war and peace.

    My own experiences in South Vietnam from ’67 to ’68 are chronicled in “A Final Quietus” a war novella which is part of Stellar Energies To America.

  • George

    “the consequences are very great,” Senator Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee.”
    I have been a keen observer of the political scene since around the time of the “Tonkin” and am saddened to say that I have not heard of any consequences to the ruling parties for their actions. It’s been almost 50 years and nothing has changed on that front. In fact the subterfuge is getting more brazen, it seems to me.

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  • Bastiat’s Ghost

    If you ever wanted to know what it was like to live in the Roman Empire during the fall of Rome, or perhaps during the fall of the Weimar Republic during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, well now you know.

    All “great empires” fall by stirring up too many hornet’s nests of enemies as they cannibalize their own economy through taxation and regulation. The American Empire is no different. All imperial citizens also believe their resident empire to be “exceptional” and incapable of fault (or default). These same citizens, should they fail to prepare for what is to come, also suffer greatly when their empires do collapse as fantasy collides with reality.

  • frang

    To those who praise “free markets”, please point to one example where “free markets” exist and where the majority of the population benefits from such a system.

    We are now experiencing the result of decades of tax cuts and deregulation. How anyone can think that more of the same will get us out of a situation where there is at least 20% real unemployment and growing poverty reminds me of the old definition of insanity: keep doing the same thing over and over, each time expecting a different result.

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