Socialist Worker

War lies and cover-ups

The lies used by the United States to justify the Vietnam War eventually came home to destroy President Nixon. Jonathan Neale thinks that Blair would do well to take note

Issue No. 1862

SINCE DAVID Kelly's death, I have been seeing everywhere the parallels with the Watergate scandal that brought down US president Richard Nixon in 1974. And it's not just me. Liberazione, the Italian daily, filled its front page with Blair, a Union Jack and one word, 'Blairgate'. Bush is in trouble over weapons of mass destruction too.

The American columnist John Dean wrote last week, 'In the three decades since Watergate, this is the first potential scandal I have seen that this could make Watergate pale by comparison... If Bush has taken Congress and the nation into war based on bogus information, he is cooked.'

Dean goes on to warn that this could mean impeachment of the president for 'high crimes', and many leading government figures could go to prison for felonies. John Dean should know. As Nixon's personal lawyer, he served time for his own Watergate crimes. Dean adds that over in Britain Blair seems to be in even worse trouble.

What happened in Watergate was this. In 1972 the sitting Republican president, Richard Nixon, was running against McGovern, a Democrat opposed to the Vietnam War. One night six men were arrested burgling the Democratic campaign headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington. The six men were employed by the Republican campaign to find dirt on the Democrats.

This was obvious at the time, but utterly concealed. The burglars were promised money now and pardons later if they kept quiet. Nixon was re-elected. Then, almost a year later, the truth began to come out, bit by bit. It took another year in all. Eventually Nixon's equivalents of Campbell, Hoon and Mandelson went to prison. Nixon himself was forced to resign in exchange for a pardon.

As the truth came out, the big boys kept trying to unload the blame on each other, like Hoon, Campbell and Blair now. Nixon, like Blair, wanted to sacrifice his closest aides but couldn't, because they knew too much. It was also fun to watch Nixon, like Blair, caught in ever more obvious lies. The two men both sweat the same way when they lie, their eyes go funny, and the worse the lies they tell the more sincere they try to sound.

If you're up in court for murder, it's much easier to put up a good defence if you're innocent. If you're guilty, you have to tell lies at key points, and get tripped up. Then you have to tell more lies. Pretty soon the jury can tell. That's Blair's problem. He now has to lie about how he tried to cover up the many different ways how he lied about whether or not he lied about weapons of mass destruction.

But the real similarity goes much deeper. With Nixon, as with Blair, important parts of the ruling class machine were against him. In the US, the two most important newspapers, the senior judges, conservatives in Congress and parts of the CIA all turned on Nixon. Blair is facing attack from the newspapers and the BBC - the BBC, for God's sake. For weeks now the CIA, MI6 and Australian intelligence have been briefing steadily against Blair and Bush.

In both cases sources high up in the government were crucial to the exposure of the lies - 'Deep Throat' in Washington and Kelly in London. Why? Why are the CIA and MI6 out to get Blair and Bush?

On one level there's a simple answer. The Financial Times reported that before the war Rumsfeld set up his own intelligence unit in the Pentagon to make the case for the invasion. He staffed the unit with 100 people from right wing think tanks. He then gave these men, without security clearances, the CIA's raw station reports to read. No intelligence service can permit such risks to their people on the ground.

But the problem goes deeper. With Nixon it was the Vietnam War. Nixon had been first elected in 1968 on a promise to end that war. He didn't. Almost a million demonstrated on one day against the war, and four million college students went on all-out strike and closed their colleges.

The ordinary American soldiers and marines in Vietnam refused to fight, and killed hundreds of their officers who insisted they go out on patrol. The troops had to be withdrawn. That withdrawal was going on when the Watergate burglary happened. No important part of the ruling class wanted to let the anti-war candidate win. It would only strengthen the general opposition movement in the US.

But after Nixon was safely back, they felt differently. He'd lost the war. If he went, they could dump the failure on bad old Nixon. And they couldn't trust him. Nixon was still bombing South Vietnam. He might go to war again. In the last days before Nixon resigned, his chief of staff, General Haig, instructed all American units to ignore any instructions from the White House to start World War Three.

Any of this sound familiar? The occupation in Iraq is going badly. The lies are becoming obvious. The occupation of Afghanistan two years ago was the same. Hardly any one noticed. Now, because we had millions on the streets round the world, Iraq is still covered. Our demonstrations in Hyde Park and New York and Cairo have given many Iraqis the courage to demonstrate and resist.

Every day now, several hundred thousand more people in the US and Britain realise that Blair and Bush have lied to them, and that the occupation is not working.

When Nixon was losing in Vietnam, he invaded neighbouring Cambodia. The same mad logic is working on Bush. If Bush invades Iran or Saudi Arabia, Blair will follow him. The result, in Britain, could be strikes, riots and maybe an occupation of parliament.

Many people at the top know this. Because of the strength of our movement, some of them think Blair has become a liability, and possibly a danger to them. But it's also not simple for them. On a world scale, Tony Blair is the single most important apologist for selling off the world. Blair recently received 18 standing ovations from the US Congress. If he is removed, Americans will notice. Tens of millions will conclude that Bush's policies now have no support in the world. That would bring closer a US retreat from Iraq, and that would strengthen opposition not just to the American Empire but to Washington's economics all over the world.

So the ruling class feel torn. There are dangers in taking on Blair, let alone Bush or Nixon. However, there came a time for Nixon when the people at the top suddenly realised he was probably going to lose, and they fell over themselves to do deals with the prosecution.

There was a moment when a Daily Mail reporter in Japan asked Blair if he had blood on his hands. For ten seconds Blair said nothing. Not, I think, because he didn't know what to say. It was because the very fact that he could be asked that question, in public, to his face, told him he was in serious trouble.

For those of you not born last time round, the best bit comes when the big guy has to make a television address to the nation. He's sweating, he's lying, and most people, finally, know.

What the US had to hide

1959 March US sends first 800 'advisers' to back up repressive South Vietnamese regime.

1960 November Kennedy elected president. US forces increase to 1,500 by end of 1960, 3,500 in 1961, 11,300 in 1962 and 15,000 in 1963.

1963 November Kennedy assassinated. Johnson becomes president.

1964 August US stages 'Gulf of Tonkin incident' to act as fake justification for wider war and bombing of North Vietnam.

1965 July Johnson orders huge increase in US troops, which rise to over 180,000.

1967 December Increase in anti-war protests in US as US troops rise to 485,000.

1968 January Tet Offensive by Vietnamese NLF forces rocks US forces to their foundations.
March US troops massacre over 400 civilians at My Lai.
November Richard Nixon wins presidential election. US troops peak at 580,000. The US dropped a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than it used globally during the Second World War. Eventually the US was to kill three million in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

1969 March Nixon orders secret bombing of neutral Cambodia.
May Nixon orders illegal phone taps by FBI to discover who leaked details of Cambodian bombing.
October Massive anti-war demonstrations in Washington, DC. US troops reduced to 475,000. By now the US had spent $150 billion on the Vietnam War, destroyed 70 percent of villages in the North and left ten million hectares of productive land barren.

1970 February Nixon announces invasion of Cambodia.
May Huge student anti-war protests in US. Four students killed by National Guard in protests at Kent State University (Ohio). US troops in Vietnam reduced to 334,000.

1971 June Daniel Ellsberg indicted for theft, conspiracy and espionage for leaking papers that expose government's plans in Vietnam. White House creates 'Plumbers Unit' to turn up dirt to discredit Ellsberg.

1972 January 'Plumbers' draw up plan for $1 million programme of kidnapping, wiretaps and other illegal campaign activities to re-elect Nixon campaign.
April Nixon authorises bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong.
June Watergate break-in-five secret White House operatives arrested. White House dismisses event as 'third rate burglary'.
September White House gives $220,000 to convicted Plumbers in exchange for promise of silence.
November Nixon re-elected in landslide victory.

19573 January Ceasefire agreement with Vietnam signed.
April Nixon fires top aides Erlichman and Haldeman as scapegoats for Watergate.

1974 April Nixon releases heavily edited transcripts of secret White House tape recording system.
August 5 New tapes reveal Nixon ordered cover-up of illegal activities from June 1972.
August 8 Nixon resigns.
September President Ford pardons Nixon.

1975 April NLF forces reach Saigon. The legacy of Vietnam has haunted US leaders ever since.

Jonathan Neale is the author of The American War: Vietnam 1960-1975, published by Bookmarks, £9.99.

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Sat 26 Jul 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1862
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