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July 1971: Who Defines the National Interest? The Dispute about the Pentagon Papers Printer Friendly Version
Who Defines the National Interest?
 The Dispute About The Pentagon Papers
James Herod, July 1971
 It is really hard to figure out the significance of events like the dispute between the New York Times and the Justice Department over the publication of the Pentagon Papers. And yet we need so much to have a firm grasp of how the system works, what the enemy is up to, what their problems and alternatives are, and the implications of this for our own strategy.
 The debate in the courts is not the central issue

   The terms in which this dispute was argued in the courts focused strictly on the issue of the freedom of the press. In the oral arguments before the Supreme Court both sides began by admitting that the government had the right to censor the press in some cases, but they then proceeded to argue about whether or not this particular case warranted censorship. The Times argued for a very limited and narrow definition of the government's censorship powers while the government, not unexpectedly, argued for a much broader interpretation. Both sides were agreed on all the basic assumptions – that the constitution should be the ultimate standard; that the courts should decide; that the national security should be defended at all costs; and that the structure of the existing system should be preserved. Thus the battle in the courts focused exclusively on a very narrow, almost technical disagreement: under what circumstances is prior restraint of the press justified. This technical debate in the courts, however, does not begin to catch up what was really at stake in the dispute. There is clearly more to the argument about freedom of the press than meets the eye at first glance. The larger conflict is there, certainly, in between the lines of some of the Supreme Court opinions and in the editorials of the Times, but you do have to read between the lines.
 Who defines the national interest?

   The central issue, I believe, was this: who defines the national interest? We must remind ourselves immediately that the term `national interest' as used by the parties to this dispute does not refer to the interests of the people as a whole, to the interests of the entire nation, or even a majority of it, but only to the interests of a small part of it, namely, the rich, the top business groups, i.e., the ruling class. When these people use phrases like `the needs of society', or `security of the United States', they are speaking about the present structure of the United States and are speaking as if the country were really a democracy; really a society in which the needs of the people, all the people, could be met; really a society in which the will of the people could be translated into policy and function as the final authority. But this is not the case of course. The phrase national interest is a euphemism for ruling class interest, for the defense of the nation as presently structured, a structure that benefits primarily the ruling class.
   This brings us to the real significance of this dispute. There is in a capitalist society organized as a `democracy' a permanent tension between the ruling class and the state. The ruling class does not have direct, immediate control over the governmental machinery. There is no central commit tee of the ruling class in secret session somewhere that can hire and fire presidents when they make mistakes. On the contrary, the state is in a position of relative autonomy vis-à-vis the ruling class. Ruling class control of the society is mediated through the governmental apparatus and associated institutions like political parties, foundations, universities, and the press. It is only in these forms that the ruling class is organized at all. These are the institutions by means of which the ruling class has constituted its power, and it must work through them to exercise that power, debate policy questions, and work out disagreements within the ruling class. This is why the government in this country can be called a businessman's democracy, a democracy of, by, and for the business class. The points of view of the people, and certainly of any people who reject ruling class control, do not even enter into the debate.
   The Times' central assertion, it seems to me, was that the government, i.e., the present administration, is not the sole interpreter of the national interest. The national interest is far broader and far more important than whoever happens to occupy office in Washington and have immediate control over the governmental machinery. The Times was saying that it had every bit as much right to participate in establishing the broad outlines of the national interest as did the administration, and that this was a constitutional right, that is, was part of the system of government established by the ruling class to perpetuate its power.
 Role of the `free press' in a capitalist `democracy'

   The Times was absolutely correct. The role of a `free press' (i.e., a press monopolized by the rich) in a capitalist society of the `democratic' type is to serve as one of the many mediators between the ruling class and the governmental machinery proper. The big media are thus not only huge and profitable industries in their own right, and important molders of false consciousness and perpetuators of the myths that legitimize capitalism, they are also powerful checks on the policy decisions of any particular, temporary office holder. Presidents come and go, after all, and many of them have no real base in the ruling class, whereas the Times is a bona fide member of long standing. The big media are thus one of the many channels through which ruling class views, disagreements, and consensuses are aired and communicated to government officials.
   Now, placed in the context of the raging debate in this country, even within the ruling class, about the Vietnam war, this battle over freedom of the press takes on added significance. The Times, as it happens, has come to believe that the war in Vietnam is a mistake. Moreover, numerous other powerful figures and organizations in the establishment have become critics of the war, some of them even outspoken critics, and more become so with each passing month it seems, although it is hard to sort out where the balance of opinion rests. The recent majority vote in the Senate to withdraw from Vietnam within nine months is surely indicative of a major shift of opinion about Vietnam in the higher circles. The administration's response to that vote was really incredible – ``that's only the opinion of 57 Senators.''
   What appears to be happening then is that there is an emerging consensus among wider and wider sectors of the establishment (including some governmental sectors like the Senate) that the U.S. has to get out of Vietnam. On the other hand, this policy consensus is faced with an administration staffed at this juncture by fanatic anti-communists who doggedly pursue a policy of total victory come hell or high water, and, what is even worse, launch vicious attacks on everyone who disagrees, including the establishment press, accusing it of treason against the national interest. This has been going on for several years now. CBS's decision to stand its ground on its ``Selling of the Pentagon'' program was a signal that the big media was going to start fighting back a little more vigorously than heretofore. The near unanimous support for the Times by other newspapers is some indication that the press in general has been smoldering with resentment from its treatment at the hands of Agnew and the Nixon administration in general.
   Nixon, flanked by such staunch neo-fascists as Mitchell and Agnew, is apparently unresponsive to the more normal forms of nongovernmental ruling class influence on presidents. One thinks of the high-level but nongovernmental advisory group of ruling class elders that met in March 1968 during the Johnson administration and had such a huge impact on Johnson's war policy and on his ultimate decision not to run for a second term. The reassertion of the freedom of the press at this particular time then is a way of countering this Nixon/Agnew/Mitchell clique which appears to be insensitive to advisory group mechanisms, and whose policies therefore reflect increasingly an aberrant or minority ruling class view. It is a way of putting these men in check, of reminding them that decisions of such scope are not make in Washington, at least they never have been so far. Such a situation can arise precisely because the state in a bourgeois democracy is relatively autonomous from the ruling class and is not under its direct, immediate control.
 A chunk of the empire or a chunk of legitimacy

   This brings us to the final important aspect of this whole episode. The main reason why some members of the ruling class want to withdraw from Vietnam is that they fear that the war is dividing the nation. This fear appears in statement after statement. The war is ``tearing the country apart,'' ``destroying faith in democracy,'' ``undermining the credibility of the government,'' and ``generating social unrest.'' What they are really afraid of is the very rapid and widespread radicalization taking place in this society, and the even more widespread general disillusionment with the government and the decline in the legitimacy accorded the major institutions. This is not just a domestic phenomenon either, but also an international one. Many villagers in Tunisia and Turkey (and people the world over) still see the U.S. as a land of freedom and opportunity, or at least they did as recently as a year or two ago. One of the peculiar aspects of U.S. imperialism has been its possession and maintenance of an anti-colonial ideology – the myth of the United States as the first ex-colony and the defender of freedom and independence throughout the world. Obviously, this myth as been seriously undermined both at home and abroad by the war against the Vietnamese. The ruling class is thus caught in a terrible bind: holding on to a chunk of the empire means losing a chunk of legitimacy and further decay of the myths that shield its power. The argument over the relative value of these two chunks is surely at the heart of the debate over Vietnam within the ruling class.
 Liberal versus neo-fascist tendencies in the ruling class

   But there is another dimension to the debate. There are two major tendencies within the ruling class about how to deal with the radicalization of the society. These two tendencies were beautifully highlighted in the case of the Times versus the Government. The Times feels strongly that the democratic version of their capitalist society must be preserved at all costs, and that the best way to preserve it is ``to restore faith in democracy.'' Their action should be seen as an attempt to do this, even though in the short run the effect was to further discredit the administration (but not necessarily the entire system). In the long run the effect will surely be to shore up faith in the system. After all, isn't the press free, aren't disagreements being aired openly, hasn't public debate been resumed, hasn't secrecy in government been curtailed, didn't the Supreme Court overrule the administration, haven't the corrupt bureaucrats been purged, and honesty in government restored?
   The Times and its friends must also feel, we can surmise, that the loss of Indochina, although very painful, is still only a chunk of the whole, while a revolution in this country would threaten everything. The defense perimeters of the Free World in South East Asia will simply have to be redrawn a little further back, say in the Philippines or Thailand.
   The other tendency in the ruling class, the neo-fascist tendency, represented by Mitchell/Agnew/Nixon/Laird, but obviously with substantially more backing than that, is more willing to give up the guts of a bourgeois democracy, keeping only the shell of democracy as a veneer, in order to mount a direct and undisguised attack on the enemies of capitalism, apparently believing that this is the best way to preserve the existing system. This is largely a disagreement about the seriousness of the threat, it seems to me, a disagreement about the point at which tough tactics become necessary (although there are a few fanatic liberals of course who would never agree to tough tactics). Thus when most liberals defend the Weather underground against Mitchell's wire-tapping they are not defending the right of a people to overthrow the government and make a revolution. They agree with Mitchell that no one has the right to overthrow the government and that the present system must be defended. But they do not believe that the Weather underground represents a serious enough threat to justify abandoning the institutional forms of bourgeois democracy. This is what the dispute is all about. If liberals did consider the Weather underground a serious threat they would have no qualms whatsoever about squashing it, Bill of Rights notwithstanding. It was the same in the Times' case for freedom of the press. The Times argued that the publication of the Pentagon Papers did not constitute a serious enough breech of the national security to warrant dismantling the traditional institutional forms of capitalism in its democratic version. It went even further than this, claiming that, far from threatening the national interest, it was directly serving it, because it was no longer confident that the administration in fact knew what the national interest was. This clearly reveals the Times' firm, if belated, resistance to the neo-fascist tendencies of Mitchell and Agnew, who seek to locate the authority to define and interpret the national interest more directly and immediately in the state bureaucracy, rather than in the ruling class at large.
 Between the devil and the deep blue sea

   The real question then, and it is one that I am unable to answer, is: how much longer will the democratic form of capitalism, as opposed to some neo-fascist variety, continue to be a workable possibility. In other words, is there still time, still room enough for a bourgeois democracy? Who is right, the liberals or the neo-fascists, about the seriousness of the threats to ruling class hegemony on the domestic and international fronts?
   I have always felt that the right has a more clear-headed and accurate grasp of the realities of the power structure than do the liberals. There is an ultimate illusion resting at the heart of the liberal world view. The liberal theory works only so long as most people continue to believe the myths. When these myths begin to break down, as they have been during recent years, liberals are forced to the right, into the camp of the neo-fascists, or else they have to join the revolution. The Times, apparently, is as yet unwilling to concede the fight to the neo-fascists, and I doubt very seriously if it is ready to join the revolution. Instead, it is trying to restore faith in democracy, to oil the creaking machinery of the businessman's state. It is undoubtedly correct in this, in my view. If the majority of the people in this country ever became really convinced that the United States is not a democratic society all hell would break loose. A neo-fascism will have to be very, very slick to survive in the land of freedom and democracy.
   The Times, obviously, has scored a temporary victory. This is a mixed blessing for us. It is certainly not to our advantage to have to try to make the revolution under the handicaps imposed by fascism; but then again, it is not exactly fun to see all the old myths brought back to life. The left is thus torn between the devil and the deep blue sea. We must fight to discredit the bourgeois state, on the one hand, and strip away the myths that shield the ruling class. On the other hand, however, we must try not to give up even one of the freedoms that have been won from the ruling class in past struggles and instituted in the bourgeois state. Thus it would seem that we have to seek to destroy bourgeois democracy by stripping it of any legitimacy, while simultaneously seeking to preserve bourgeois democracy by preventing it from degenerating into neo-fascism. This clearly is a difficult feat.
 This article was published in the Liberated Guardian, July, 1971.