Language and Its Consequences
Daniel Ellsberg, in describing and defending his release of the Pentagon Papers, said that the Vietnam War was “a moral and political disaster, a crime.”
Now, the words “moral disaster” and “crime” suggest that some kind violations had occurred, moral violations or criminal violations. As a result, the focus lands on the violators, and the question becomes, who violated and why. But what if there were no such violations? That is, what if the war was the result of a particular, let us say an imperialistic kind of politics? That war wasn’t a moral disaster or a crime. It was merely the consequence of an imperialistic political order. There was no “moral disaster” or “crime” at all. Rather, the political order worked precisely as it was meant to work, imperialistically. Spoken of in this way, the focus shifts from persons and their alleged “crimes” to the character of US politics. The war was not an anomaly or an aberration. As Leslie Gelb put it, although in a different way, “the system worked.”
From this viewpoint, the Pentagon Papers were diversionary in that their focus was on events and personalities, on moral failings, crimes, or mistakes. Those papers led people to ask: What was wrong with Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson? They did not lead them to ask: What was wrong with the American political order? And the unspoken implication was that that political order was healthy, even exceptional. For all the fuss they caused, the Pentagon Papers ultimately reinforced American exceptionalism and, therewith, American imperialism.