Remembering Roger Hilsman

March 9, 2014– Roger A. Hilsman has passed away. He passed at home, in Ithaca, two weeks ago. Hilsman was a controversial figure during the Kennedy administration. He is remembered mostly for his involvement in President John F. Kennedy’s Vietnam war decisions, but there was more to Hilsman than that. From World War II through the Johnson administration Roger Hilsman was in some interesting places at key moments. I haven’t much time today but I wanted to post at least a little bit on him.

Historians of the Vietnam war are divided over Hilsman’s role in the South Vietnamese military coup that, with United States support, overthrew the government of Ngo Dinh Diem on November 1, 1963. According to some, Hilsman and a “cabal” of other U.S. policymakers, actually engineered that American support. Others think differently, that the policy was Jack Kennedy’s and that Hilsman served merely as a loyal acolyte. (At the National Security Archive website last November, I posted an “electronic briefing book” which examines the evidence for Hilsman’s role much more closely than is possible here.) Whatever his role actually was, I can testify that Hilsman was certainly a Kennedy acolyte–I studied with him as an undergraduate student at Columbia, where he taught from 1964 to 1990, participated with him in various functions as a graduate, and we renewed our acquaintance assorted times, most recently I believe in 2005 when we were together at a Canadian forum on intelligence issues. In any case, the stories Hilsman told and the views he expressed left no doubt he was close to the Kennedy clan. It happens that Jack Kennedy’s brother Bobby numbered among those who insisted Hilsman was one of that Vietnam policy cabal. Bobby had a clear interest in moving responsibility for the Diem coup away from his brother, the president. Roger Hilsman was loyal enough to take the rap while preserving the friendship, though he squirmed under the charge. In 1967, when Bobby was positioning himself for a run for the presidency, Hilsman was among RFK’s foreign policy advisers.

Another Vietnam issue where Hilsman had a hand was in the strategic hamlet program, one of the counterinsurgency initiatives that repeatedly failed in that war. This reflected his own experiences. In the Big War, Hilsman had fought in Burma with Merrill’s Marauders, transferred to the OSS and worked to create partisan bands behind Japanese lines, the Kachin Rangers. He retained a lifelong interest in guerrilla warfare. When Kennedy came to the presidency and sought to spark U.S. government action on counterinsurgency, Hilsman edited a book excerpting writings  on the subject, one well-received at the Kennedy White House.

Hilsman’s proudest moment came in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. At that time he headed the State Department’s intelligence unit and helped interpret the evidence on Soviet missiles in Cuba for President Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. He also served as an intermediary in the important backchannel contacts between KGB Colonel Alekandr Fomin and ABC TV correspondent John A. Scali, which began to show a path away from war. In class and in conversations Hilsman would regale his audiences with vignettes from that intense period. Asked about the Cold War for an epic television series that Turner Cable did back around the millennium, Hilsman reflected that “there’s no war that’s inevitable.” He’d be remembered more kindly, perhaps, if he had applied that same analysis to Vietnam.

Working at the National Security Archive

The National Security Archive, where I’m a senior fellow, is an advocate for openness and government accountability. I’ve been with the Archive in an active role for more than fifteen years and before that I was an ally. The Archive began in the mid-1980s with donations of documents from a number of scholars and journalists, including me. One day I’ll post the story of its creation. Visit the National Security Archive website and see the breadth of our coverage.

We work on secrecy issues in two ways. The first is to support measures to simplify and streamline the government regulations that apply to the declassification of official records. The other is to apply for the release of specific records which we make available to anyone who wants to use them.

The Archive makes records available in several ways, including “Electronic Briefing Books” (EBBs) which contain small selections of declassified documents that are introduced and contextualized by analysts like me. Those are posted directly on the Archive’s website and can be accessed at any time. Another is a set of larger document collections, often thousands of documents at a time. The third is what we call the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) which contain most of our holdings in an electronic format that is machine-searchable. These two are subscription services which are available at many university libraries and other institutions. Researchers can also come to the Archive’s offices and consult our collections directly, including materials not available on DNSA, among them several hundred donations of materials from individuals. Beyond that the Archive has also provided U.S. documents and expert advice to groups seeking to institute freedom of information procedures in their countries, and to justice officials in foreign countries seeking U.S. information for their enforcement of human rights statutes.

At the Archive I currently focus on the Central Intelligence Agency and on Vietnam, both areas where I direct documentation projects. In the past I also functioned as deputy director of our Iraq project and I did work on Afghanistan. I compiled the Archive’s two sets on Vietnam, and now am engaged in creating an even larger collection on intelligence covert operations, the first set of which was released in the spring of 2013, and the second in the spring of 2015. I’ve also done a number of our Electronic Briefing Books. Those can be found and downloaded from the Archive’s website. I won’t mention all the EBBs I’ve created, but the ones I talk about below are some of my “greatest hits.” Some of the Archive’s “great issues” are mentioned as well. I also discuss my book Hoodwinked: The Documents that Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War.

 

*Petition to Unseal 1942 Grand Jury Proceedings: National Security Archive joined with the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press to support an initiative to open the secret records of the grand jury the U.S. convened in 1942 in an attempt to obtain an indictment of the Chicago Tribune newspaper for an article it had published about the Battle of Midway in the Pacific theater of World War II. The backstory is that the Tribune’s article mentioned the names of Japanese aircraft carriers sunk at the battle, which the U.S. knew due to breaking enemy naval codes. The U.S. government did not understand at first that the same information had been incorporated into an information sheet posted on many U.S. Navy ships, from which a Tribune reporter copied it. The Justice Department dropped the case once authorities realized that a prosecution of the newspaper would alert the Japanese to the fact their codes were being read. These grand jury proceedings have been secret ever since. In Carlson et. al. v U.S. the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sued to open the proceeding material. The National Security Archive joined the petition to argue the substance of the issue that the Grand Jury proceedings no longer required the protection of secrecy and that, conversely, the contents would be of value to history.

*Cheney Suppresses CIA Assassination Report: Back in 1975, known as the “Year of Intelligence” for all the investigations of the security services that occurred, one had been chaired by the Vice-President of the United States, Nelson A. Rockefeller. While the Rockefeller Commission inquiry was underway, President Gerald R. Ford revealed the CIA had been involved in plotting assassinations. The Rockefeller investigation had to be widened to include the assassination issue, but once its report had been completed, Richard Cheney, then the deputy assistant to the president, edited it. Cheney’s edit inserted recommendations the commission had not approved, dropped ones they had, and changed the Rockefeller Commission presentation. One of Cheney’s biggest edits was to drop the commission’s entire assassinations report. The reason that only the Church Committee’s study of CIA assassination plotting is known is that the one assembled by the Rockefeller commission was suppressed in this way. Electronic Briefing Book 543, on February 29, 2016, includes the White House-edited text of the Rockefeller report, the suppressed assassinations report, commentary from commission staff warning against this action, and more.

*President’s Daily Briefs: The Archive marched in the forefront of efforts to obtain the declassification of the President’s Daily Briefs, the series of intelligence reports produced especially for presidents to see. They serve to index the concerns of America’s top leaders. In 2004 the Archive teamed with scholar Larry Berman to file suit for declassification after the CIA denied Berman a couple of these reports with the (silly) argument that the reports–which embody intelligence analyses–were about “sources and methods.” Remarkably, the agency succeeded in protecting the two documents, except that in 2007 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit threw out the agency’s blanket “sources and methods” justification, forcing the government into a systematic review for declassification of this entire class of documents. As a result the Obama administration adopted a rule that PDBs will be reviewed for secrecy at the 40-year mark. In September 2015 the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence held an event at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, at which the agency opened a collection of roughly 2,500 PDBs. The Archive marked this event by posting our EBB No. 530 on the PDBs (September 16, 2015).

*White House Attempts to Blunt Church Committee Investigation: From the materials gathered for Part II of the Archive’s CIA document collection I selected a cross-section of exemplars that illustrate just how the Ford White House, spearheaded by Dick Cheney and Philip Buchen, attempted to evade congressional investigation of the CIA, NSA, and other elements of U.S. intelligence EBB-522, July 20, 2015). It is a story exactly parallel to the very recent one in which Obama administration officials worked to undermine a Senate Intelligence Committee inquiry into CIA torture programs and then to eviscerate the committee’s report. If past is prologue, then this 1975 case, which also involves a presidential blue ribbon commission chaired by Vice-President Nelson A. Rockefeller has lots to teach us.

*CIA Operations Document Collection, Part II: In May 2015 Proquest released Part II of the Archives’s CIA document collection. This presents a thousand key documents, all from the year 1975, when U.S. intelligence agencies were successively investigated by the Rockefeller Commission, the Church Committee of the United States Senate, and the Pike Committee of the United States House of Representatives. The set shows in explicit detail how the intelligence agencies and White House collaborated to fend off inquiries into all manner of intelligence activities, including abusive domestic operations.

*CIA Operations Document Collection, Part I: In the fall of 2013 the Proquest Publishers released the initial part of Archive’s CIA document collection. This selection of more than 2,200 documents illustrates CIA operations across the globe from the time of President Jimmy Carter through the administration of Barack Obama.

* History of Vietnam’s Southern Resistance: In 2008 the Vietnam Documentation Project of the Archive began an initiative together with the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) that sought to encourage the Vietnamese government and veterans of the National Liberation Front to open their records to researchers. The context was that a council of Vietnamese scholars and war veterans had begun assembling a semi-official history of the Resistance in South Vietnam to cover the entire period from 1945 through 1975. We were disappointed at being unable finally to get archives opened, but the Vietnamese published their history and it became available to us in late 2012. Archive and CWIHP recruited an expert panel to evaluate the multi-volume history. In September 2013 we held a symposium at the Wilson Center to discuss the panel’s findings. It took more than a year to obtain written versions of all the presentations, review and edit the results, and for me to craft the introduction to the symposium package, which was posted at the CWIHP website on October 23, 2014.

*Inside Story of the Pueblo Incident: On the 46th anniversary of the day in 1968 that North Korean warships opened fire upon and captured the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo the Archive posts a fresh analysis of the incident, in which the American crew were imprisoned and interrogated for nearly a year, and the U.S. lost a mass of top secret encryption gear. For this project I teamed up with author Jack Cheevers to present a selection of key documents that reveal the inside story of the Johnson administration’s efforts to cope with this crisis. It’s a revealing story that includes President Johnson’s deliberations, U.S. military contingency plans, NSA damage assessments, even a CIA psychological profile of the ship’s skipper (EBB 453, January 23, 2014).

* Secret History of CIA Director William E. Colby: CIA historians write classified biographies of the agency’s directors. Bill Colby figures as a key figure because on his watch the present system of congressional oversight of intelligence emerged, while Colby’s own innovations within the agency included creation of the system for drafting intelligence estimates which is still used today. When this CIA document became available I added an analysis and introduction and presented it to the public. (EBB 362, October 28, 2011.)

* Complete Pentagon Papers at Last: The famous leak of the “Pentagon Papers,” a study of U.S. decisionmaking in the Vietnam War, influenced the politics and analysis of that conflict. For many years, even though incomplete versions of the Papers were published and widely available, the original documents remained in the government’s secret vaults. I’ve worked the Pentagon Papers case for a long time. In the early oughts I succeeded in getting the government to declassify the full text of the “negotiating volumes,” works that documented U.S. peace feelers to Hanoi during the Johnson administration. I’d already applied for the full Papers, twice, but the government resisted releasing them. In 2001 I organized a conference on the Pentagon Papers. When these were finally declassified in 2011, I gathered specialists at the National Security Archive to present a comprehensive EBB that displays side-by-side the pages of the several main editions of the Pentagon Papers. Working from a basic structural analysis I supplied, Archivistas Charlotte Karrlson-Willis and Wendy Valdez compiled a cross-index to the editions, while Carlos Osorio created a web-based framework that displayed the pages. I added the introductory notes. (EBB 359, September 22, 2010.) Unknown to the American public, by and large even today, is that the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) in 1969 prepared a similarly comprehensive retrospective on its intelligence work regarding the Vietnam war. The Archive also presented this document to the public, and I contributed an article assessing INR’s involvement with Vietnam. (EBB 121, May 2, 2004.)

* Deciding to Invade Iraq: In 2010 I teamed up with my National Security Archive colleague Joyce Battle and with British journalist Christopher Ames to do an in-depth study presenting the real documents on the George W. Bush administration’s ill-considered decision to invade Iraq. Detailed introductions plus documents appeared in three of the Archive’s electronic briefing books. (EBB 326, September 22, 2010; EBB 328, October 1, 2010; EBB 330, October 4, 2010.)

* John F. Kennedy and the Diem Coup: Audiotapes of his national security meetings secretly recorded by President Kennedy reveal that the U.S. decision to back a coup d’etat by generals in South Vietnam—a coup which actually occurred in November 1963—was really made that August. Standard historical accounts of these events were flawed because paper records of the same meetings failed to present the full picture. I contributed an analysis of the historical record, summaries of the tapes and the related documents, and presented all of them for the interested reader. (EBB 444, November 1, 2013; EBB 302, December 11, 2009.) An earlier electronic briefing book I had also prepared provided an even wider selection of the secret records on the Diem coup. (EBB 101, November 5, 2003.)

* The CIA’s Secret Histories of Vietnam: As a result of my Freedom of Information Act request, after seventeen years the agency declassified large portions of a series of internal histories it had compiled regarding its work in the Vietnam war. I supplied an introduction and summaries and made these materials available to the public. (EBB 283, August 26, 2009.)

* Breakthrough on Vietnam war records: At my request the Archive had requested the declassification of a series of records on fighting the war in Southeast Asia, including an Air Force official history of the air war in northern Laos. Because that campaign had had the Air Force is a role supporting a CIA secret army, a large segment of the history involved CIA activities. As originally released, the Air Force history had much of this material deleted. The Archive sued, arguing the deletions had been inappropriate, and we won. We combined this and other Air Force histories on Vietnam and made them available to the public. (EBB 248, April 9, 2008.) In large part due to this legal precedent, the CIA’s grounds for withholding its own Vietnam histories (above) were eroded.

* Mysteries Solved on the Tonkin Gulf Affair: After repeated declassification requests the National Security Agency released the full texts of cables it had sent, which existed in White House files and represented its reporting on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, an important milestone in the Vietnam War. We were able to show in a concrete fashion that claims of a “second attack” on August 4, 1964 had been wrong. (EBB-132, August 4, 2004.)

* The real story on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction: Within months of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s United Nations speech asserting that Saddam Hussein was hiding powerfully destructive weapons, I began work on Hoodwinked, a book that took the Bush administration’s key pronouncements and claims, deconstructed them in detail, and showed how they had been used to create a sense of hysteria about Iraq among the American people. (2004.)