In the summer of 1959 there occurred a series of events which demonstrated our national ignorance in a shameful and nearly fatal manner. Briefly, the United States threatened intervention in a foreign country for reasons which, it turned out, had no basis in fact… Our Secretary of State called the situation grave; our ambassador to the U.N. called for world action; our press carried scare headlines; our senior naval officer implied armed intervention and was seconded by ranking Congressmen, including the Chairman of the National Committee of the Republican Party, which was then in power (p. 12-13)…. In the eyes of the world, the United States looked very foolish at best, and very dangerous at worst (p. 28)…. We have thrown away our good will and political strength by an ignorance which led to false confidence and corruption. We have clumsily alienated potential supporters by neglecting them for a few “pets” and have repelled others by maladroitness (p. 30).
Those are excerpts from William Lederer’s 1961 account of how the United States almost went to war in Laos in 1959, which he took to be “an omen with the most frightening implications.” His book, A Nation of Sheep (only $0.47 from Amazon at last check and well worth it), was intended to be a call to action, a warning to the American people so that such foolishness would not result in war. Of course, it has on at least two occasions now: 1) Vietnam, which went to full-scale US involvement because of faked “intelligence” about the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident and 2) the WMD fiasco in Iraq. It’s frightening to read Sheep and realize that in most cases, if the dates and countries were changed, it could have been written today.
Lederer details how the US ignorance of foreign affairs and foreign languages was playing into the hands of the communists in Vietnam and playing against us in Taiwan. For example, he notes that the US educational exchange programs usually only targeted those students with a decent command of English and typically only the privileged sons of the powerful who used their crony connections to get scholarships for their children. Furthermore, we doled out scholarships as a means to reward loyalty. Meanwhile, the communists offered a full scholarship to the top student from every village in Vietnam, regardless of language skills (Russian or Chinese) and party affiliation. These students, not surprisingly, often returned to their villages as ardent communists and thus it was that we lost the battle for the hearts and minds. That, of course, was unknown to Lederer in 1961 and rather than predict that it would happen, he suggested how it could be stopped. Nobody listened and, in case you weren’t paying attention, we lost that war.
The book is about Southeast Asia rather than the Middle East, about communists rather than Islamic fundamentalists, political schools rather than madrasas, about the 1950s rather than the 2000s, but there would not be much real difference in the message if it were written today. He details how Americans threw away our good money and good will for little return in nations we didn’t bother to understand. Sure, in retrospect our industrial resources allowed us to spend the Soviets into the ground and win the Cold War, but Lederer shows how poorly that money was spent and how much more effective we could have been had we bothered to send diplomats and journalists who actually knew the local language rahter than ones that had to depend utterly on translators who often fed them a line of bull, as just one example.
Lederer then outlines how our government uses misinformation and secrecy to keep information from citizens. At that time, he warned that the cult of secrecy was growing and that one out of every 180 Americans had the ability to classify information as secret. Frequently this was done, as it is today, for the most specious of reasons, often simply to protect politicians and bureaucrats. For example, Lederer discovered that “pictures of plush furnishings inside military transport planes, requested by Rep. Daniel J. Flood, were stamped ‘secret’ and then even the Congressman’s letter of request was stamped ‘secret’”. In other words, the secret was that taxpayer money was being misspent.
Not even guessing at where we would be today with an army of press secretaries and lobbyists and fewer and fewer resources for investigative journalism, Lederer noted that there were twice as many government public relations men as there were journalists in Washington. “Officials try by selective information releases to have us accept what they believe is proper; as if fearing the decisions we might make on our own if we had all of the truth.”
On the leading edge in his time, Lederer feared then, as most thinking people fear now, that the cult of secrecy and the spin in Washington is killing democracy. The American government seems to fear its own people, which is a hallmark of a failing democracy. It has gotten worse. Recall that the Clinton administration gave the order to declassify as much material as possible and not to classify materials unnecessarily. One of Bush’s first actions was to rescind that order. Of course, it is a matter of degree and there was still far too much spin and secrecy under Clinton, but at least things were headed in the right direction. Lederer envisions a future which could save democracy in America (and I’m not exaggerating, Lederer believed that the cult of secrecy and government by press release was edging us toward totalitarianism).
The President should assume that his fellow countrymen are tough-minded and patriotic. We will not become timorous or demoralized if told the truth about our blunders, failures and defeats. Quite the contrary, we will respond with strength and intelligence. But first we must have the truth.
Lederer is not, of course, suggesting that truly sensitive strategic of purely personal information be released to the public, but merely that the people should be kept informed rather than having to wait for the scandalous photos to appear on the internet, smuggled out by some insider, before the government fesses up to what happened.
All of this is rather old hat at this point. What Lederer showed to a Nation of Sheep in 1961 has become commonplace knowledge among thinking people (but what percentage is that?). The troubling aspect is that 45 years on, we still appear to be a Nation of Sheep, led into conflicts we don’t understand for reasons that turn out to have been false. Maybe it’s time to look at Lederer’s advice seriously:
- Badger your Senators and Representatives and make sure that they understand that you don’t think secrecy for secrecy’s sake is okay.
- Badger the same and perhaps local university officials to build scholarhips programs that include English-language instruction and target promising kids from lost villages throughout the Middle East. True, some will fail and some will stay here, but some will return and the overall cost will be cheaper than sending standing armies over there, not to mention that fewer people get killed.
- Demand that our diplomats speak the local language. No more ambassadorships handed out as political favors. When ambassadors come up for confirmation, if they don’t speak the local language, (or at least one local language) write your politicians and tell them to block the nomination, simple as that!