Anatomy of a leak, 1966-67

By Jack Shafer
May 8, 2012

Every leaker of information has an agenda. The leaker can be an honest whistleblower, a spinner, a junior Machiavelli, a nut job, a misinformed flunky or a combination of several of the above. But with every trickle of privileged information, the leaker invites other interested parties to leak their side of the story, setting institutions against institutions and publications against publications.

An extraordinarily well documented account of battling leaks appears in Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam, a new book by George Washington University history professor James G. Hershberg. Professor Hershberg’s exhaustive book – and by exhaustive I mean 936 pages long – draws on declassified diplomatic cables, foreign archives, countless interviews, and reporters’ private notes to recount the breakdown of secret Polish-Italian efforts in 1966 – code-named “Marigold” – that hoped to coax the United States and North Vietnam into direct peace negotiations.

Like all history lessons, Marigold charges a high price for admission. If you’re not already a student of the Vietnam War or weren’t reading newspapers in the 1960s, the players will sound sketchy and the dispute ephemeral. But I promise a payoff: Marigold etches a template that can provide relief for today’s news consumers who find themselves perplexed by dueling accounts in competing publications. It teaches that sometimes the real news is often who is leaking, and that’s news that can’t often be found in newspapers.

Hershberg explained the importance of “Marigold” in a recent conversation with me.

“Marigold seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough to open direct talks between the U.S. and North Vietnam in December 1966, when about 6,250 Americans had been killed in Vietnam as opposed to the more than 58,000 who would be killed by the end of the war,” he said. But the talks collapsed spectacularly in the middle of that month. The Poles (and implicitly the North Vietnamese) blamed the resumption of U.S. bombing of Hanoi for Marigold’s end. The Americans disputed this, saying that no pledge not to bomb had been made.

“It was a policy dispute, but internationalized as a diplomatic dispute which turned into an exercise in competitive leaking, first to various governments and third parties in secret, but which gradually made its way out to the front pages of the Washington Post and New York Times and contributed in important ways to President Lyndon Johnson’s widening credibility gap,” Hershberg said.

Polish-U.S. recriminations started immediately after the talks ended. The U.S. ambassador to Poland, John A. Gronouski, met with Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rapacki in Warsaw on Dec. 19 to give the Poles grief over the aborted negotiations. An outraged Rapacki responded that the collapse was Washington’s fault. Warsaw had, after all, warned Washington not to bomb.

Then came the war of leaks, pitting the Poles against the Americans, a duel that eventually made its way into the press. Rapacki set a course of revenge-by-leaks, ordering up documents “enshrining Warsaw’s version of events, suitable for presentation to third parties,” Hershberg writes. Meanwhile, the Americans tried spinning U.N. Secretary-General U Thant, a former journalist, with their version of the peace-negotiation breakup in the form of a letter from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg, which was made public. The New York Times constructed a pro-Washington editorial from the letter in its Dec. 20, 1966, edition, which had to have pleased the U.S. government. At about the same time, the Poles were leaking their side of the story to Pope Paul VI, who had previously attempted to broker peace. When the Poles learned that the U.S. was dancing with U Thant, they cut in for a spin of their own on Dec. 23, leaking their Marigold dossier to the secretary-general.

“Then the U.N. secretary-general, for his own reasons, tells the Canadians, and tells the French, and then it takes a couple of days for word to get to the Americans,” said Hershberg. The U.S. response was, Hershberg said: “Hey, the Poles are leaking their side of the story, so we had better start counter-leaking!” So as 1967 commenced, the Americans took their pissing match to the British, the Canadians, the pope, and others to contest the Polish version.

The Poles escalated by talking to journalist-activist Norman Cousins, then editor of the Saturday Review. In a memo, Cousins memorialized the Polish diplomatic visitor to his Park Avenue apartment as “Mr. X.” The same diplomat also spoke of Marigold to Canadian diplomats and others during his New York visit.

The first journalistic product of the leaks appeared in the Feb. 2, 1967, Washington Post, where U.N. correspondent Robert H. Estabrook’s short piece about the dead talks reported an “informed source” saying, “The Americans bungled it.” Other evidence of the leaks working their way into the press: Two weeks earlier, columnist Drew Pearson learned from an unnamed “Communist source” that U.S. bombings had scuttled the negotiations, but he wrote no story after Ambassador Goldberg warned him off it. The New York Daily News, the Boston Globe and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were also nibbling on the story.

Estabrook piece’s gave the Johnson administration a fit. Had it been as legal to bomb Post headquarters at 15th and L Streets NW as it was to bomb Hanoi, LBJ might have ordered a sortie. Secretary of State Dean Rusk plotted immediate damage control to nullify Estabrook. In private, he blamed the Poles for the end of the talks, and proposed asking Washington Post editor Russ Wiggins to send Estabrook back to re-report the story, presumably to his liking. When Estabrook published a more detailed piece on the topic, which ran at the top of Page One, Rusk phoned Wiggins to complain about the “highly fragmentary” piece of “Polish propaganda distortion.” (As it turns out, Estabrook’s key source was a Danish diplomat, with an off-the-record U Thant session and hints from the Canadians helping assemble the story.)

Wiggins was editor of both the Post news pages and the paper’s editorial page, which still supported the Johnson war. He dutifully expressed Rusk’s views by publishing a Feb. 8, 1967, editorial that essentially told Post readers to ignore the Estabrook scoops. The editorial called the “recent peace rumors … less serious omens of peace than significant as part of a worldwide propaganda effort.” Wiggins was way too close to the administration. Upon leaving the Post in late 1968 he accepted Johnson’s nomination to serve as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. “The president and the editor were friends, and Mr. Wiggins was chosen because of his support of the president’s policies in Vietnam,” Wiggins’s obituary in the Post reads.

The battle of the leaks climaxed on May 9, 1967, when the New York Times published on Page One an article by Associated Press reporter John M. Hightower titled “4-Month U.S. Bid Ignored by Hanoi.” The piece took the Johnson administration’s line on the failed negotiations, ripping the Poles and blaming Hanoi for impeding the peace talks. “Spoon-fed” is what Hershberg calls the article, which attributed its findings to U.S. “high officials.” Indeed, Rusk’s private papers show that Rusk and key aide William Bundy midwifed the story. On May 5, Hershberg reports, Rusk invited Hightower to bring him a draft of the piece. A Rusk office memo in the National Archives reads: “Sec. thought if H. wished to pull it together Sec. maybe could tidy it up for H.”

Rusk alerted others in the administration of his Marigold leak to Hightower, and a background briefing for reporters supporting the piece was authorized. As an AP exclusive, the story ran in hundreds of newspapers across the country and around the world, almost inspiring the Poles to leak more.

Who was the reading public to believe? A team from the Los Angeles Times, including most notably Stuart H. Loory and David Kraslow, essentially found in favor of Estabrook in their newspaper, with the duo going on to write the 1968 book about the affair and other dashed efforts to end the war, The Secret Search for Peace in Vietnam. But even as Loory and Kraslow were conducting their inquiry, the White House was leaking selectively to the press, including the Washington Post and Life magazine, to preempt their account. Marigold – as well as Loory and Kraslow’s book – got lost in the shuffle when another peace initiative flowered in spring 1968, with direct negotiations commencing later that year.

“The reporting of Marigold was somewhat unusual in that it involved not only sources with various viewpoints within the executive branch, and between the executive branch and Congress – note the key leak by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair [William] Fulbright’s top aide, Carl Marcy – but also involving multiple governments, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, especially Poland, Italy, Canada, Britain, France and the U.N. secretary-general,” said Hershberg.

These multiple points of entry gave reporters who were willing to do the work a way to get the story. Even the “spoon-fed” Hightower, in Hershberg’s opinion, probably did some quality reporting.

“I don’t want to pretentiously pontificate, but certainly [Marigold is] another cautionary tale for consumers of national security journalism to read any reporting on controversial, still-classified, national security subjects with some skepticism – and to try to read multiple publications likely to obtain information from multiple, and varying, sources,” said Hershberg.

Hershberg’s book illustrates the perils that await not just reporters who become captive to their official sources (as did Wiggins and Hightower) but the readers who rely on co-opted journalists. Like a trusty decoder ring, Marigold also provides readers with an interpretive framework to understand dueling coverage that will always be with us. Think of Marigold, Hershberg said, when reading news accounts about the state of Iran’s nuclear program, which like Marigold is “a murky classified dispute” with many international players.

“It obviously makes sense to track not only U.S. publications but also Israeli and other interested countries’ publications,” said Hershberg.

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PHOTO: James Hershberg by Annie Hershberg

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A “leak” is information from some “flunky” (i.e. someone below top policy making power elite leaders) about a failure of leadership. It reveals information embarrassing by revealing incompetence or duplicity or both by the power elite. The power elite does not like that. It does not make them look good when they should not look good.

We need more “leaks” as a society.

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