The Top Secret File
For readers who missed part 1 of this series of posts, I am summarizing a fictional novel written almost forty years ago.
When we left George and Jenny Leader’s soiree last week, the 13 people at the dinner table were locked in intense discussions about what sort of government could have elected (that is, reelected) Lyndon Johnson, allowing him to escalate a wildly unpopular and increasingly deadly war.
When the dinner party finally broke up around 3 a.m., tempers were frayed but no next course of action had been agreed upon. George and Jenny, however, stayed up the rest of the night, putting together a decision making matrix.
Over the following week, the dinner party group of 13 expanded to nearly 50 people from all walks of life, who constituted a large executive committee. The task of that committee was to mount a complete reconsideration of the way the U.S. government was organized, questioning every aspect of the American Constitution.
Over time, more than 40 working groups—nearly 200 people—had been recruited to work through the Constitution literally line-by-line. The existing Constitutional language was compared to other constitutions around the world, including both actual governing constitutions and “model” constitutions that had been proposed by various bodies.
In addition, the task force and working groups—the overall group came to be known informally as the Georgetown Convention—identified specific times in American history where a particular Constitutional provision had not worked out well, and how a change might have saved the country a lot of grief.
This enterprise had no particular secrecy to it, but it generally operated under the radar. Occasionally a journalist would take an interest, but for the most part the Georgetown Convention was considered to be a dry, scholarly affair of serious interest to almost nobody.
The ultimate goal was to publish a book—it would be issued by the Engaged Intellectual’s Book Club—suggesting ways in which the U.S. governmental structure could be improved. Attached as an appendix would be a completely rewritten Constitution. At least theoretically, that Constitution could have been proposed to the States and ratified.
You might suppose that, with so many different people working on the project, there would have been many, many disagreements about which Constitutional provisions to change and which to leave intact. In fact, there was much less disunity than anyone had expected.
This was in part because George and Jenny Leader, as head of the overall effort, had set up a relatively small group of people who would have final say on what went into the proposed Constitution. There were 10 people on the Approvals Panel, including George and Jenny.
The way the panel worked, if seven out of the 10 members voted to approve a particular provision, it went into the proposed Constitution. If seven of 10 voted against, it stayed out. If there weren’t seven votes for or against, more discussion would be required.
All went well for nine months, and the project was just finishing up, when George and Jenny’s plans were knocked into a cocked hat.
At just after 2 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, September 5—Monday would be Labor Day—General William E. Green, Jr., known to his friends as “Willy,” was still at his desk at the Pentagon. Gen. Green was one of the original attendees at the Leaders’ soiree in Georgetown nine months earlier, and he had been a core member of the project team, serving on the Approvals Panel, ever since.
Gen. Green had been named Commandant of the United States Marine Corp earlier that year and he had a long, fancy title at the Pentagon. But Willy Green had learned quickly that his real job, the one that mattered to his future career, was serving as right-hand-man (formally, Assistant to the Chairman) to General David Garner, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJOS).
Three months earlier Gen. Garner had asked Gen. Green to recommend how U.S. forces in Vietnam might be reorganized—belatedly—to better address changes in the enemy’s strategy.
Following the failure of the Tet Offensive in 1968—a country-wide attack by the Viet Cong that the U.S. media had, bizarrely, portrayed as a success—the Viet Cong were no longer an effective fighting force.
The enemy now was the North Vietnamese regular army, but U.S. forces hadn’t pivoted, at least organizationally, to adjust to this fact, and commanders in the field were winging it.
Willy Green was, personally, furious at the way the war had been conducted, both by the politicians in Washington and by commanders in the field. But he was also a loyal soldier and he worked hard and well on his assignment.
Gen. Green was happy with his proposals to reorganize U.S. forces in the Vietnam theater. Even so, he was going through the report with a fine-toothed comb, crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s. He wanted to be sure his first major project for the CJOS was a home run.
Gen. Green carried his report down the hall and set it in Gen. Garners’ inbox, then turned to head back to his own office. But he tripped over something. Looking down, he saw a file folder lying partly under Gen. Garner’s desk.
Gen Green picked up the file and was astonished to see a red legend across the front of it reading TOP SECRET ORCON EYES ONLY JCOS. (ORCON meant “originator controlled dissemination.”)
Gen. Green held a top secret clearance, but he was certainly not authorized to see material marked EYES ONLY JCOS. The file must have fallen out of Gen. Garner’s briefcase when he’d left, bleary-eyed, around 1 a.m.
Carrying the file back to his own office, Gen. Green intended to lock it in his personal safe until he could get it back to Gen. Garner in the morning. But once back in his office, Gen. Green—he was only human, after all—couldn’t resist taking just a quick peek inside the file.
What Gen. Green saw shocked him to his core and set off a series of events that were unprecedented in the history of the United States of America.