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Senators’ Confidential Worries About Democracy Itself

Jul 15, 2010 by

Categories: Politics

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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