The Inspired Leak

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The fact that the leak has been elevated to one of the most important mechanisms by which the democracy governs itself simply means that the overwhelming power of public opinion is finally being recognized; or, if that power has always been recognized, it is at least being called on to act much earlier than ever before. In the old days public opinion came into play after congressional debates or presidential announcements; now it comes first, applying a final Inexorable verdict to actions, programs, and ideas that are still in the formative stage. The process of government has taken on a new velocity and is responsive to a new set of controls. Nobody, including those who have the most immediate access to those controls, really kriows what responsibilities are involved or what the ultimate consequences may be. Like so many of the great changes in American life, this one has gone into operation without the benefit of any advance planning whatever. The blithe insouciance with which the new controls are being handled is most engaging and also just a little bit disturbing.

Nothing quite like the modern manipulation of the leak can be found in the past. (The emphasis here, of course, is on the word quite . The thing is organized and systematized now in a way the Founding Fathers never could have anticipated.) But ours has always been a democratic government, which means that it has always been somewhat loose-jointed, which in turn means that there have always been leaks. Some of these, like some of today’s, have had an important part in the nation’s history.

Consider, for instance, the once-famous case of the Ostend Manifesto.

In 1853 a pleasant nonentity from New Hampshire named Franklin Pierce was President of the United States. His administration wanted to annex Cuba—an idea strongly supported by militant spokesmen for the slave states and by fuzzy-minded folk who had a vague belief that America just ought to expand somewhere regardless, but strongly opposed by Northerners who were having increasing doubts about slavery and the people who supported it. Pierce’s administration thought it might be possible to persuade Spain to sell Cuba—$130 million tops was what it had in mind—and if this could not be done, which would probably be the case, perhaps somebody could stir up an uprising in Cuba that would detach the island from Spanish dominion. If that happened, annexation by the United States would take place as a matter of course. They hoped.

This was quite an idea, but it was clear that the times were not propitious. Overseas there was the beginning of the Crimean War, which created troubled waters but probably did not create conditions favorable for a New World republic that wanted to fish in them. At home there was the beginning of something that the Pierce administration was bound to consider of paramount importance—the Kansas-Nebraska fight over slavery, stirring up strongminded men who considered the Cuban program either irrelevant or an abominable crime.

As a makeshift, the administration convened a meeting of three of its most important diplomats—James Buchanan, minister to Great Britain; Pierre So’fblé, minister to Spain; and John Mason, minister to France. These men were to meet, compare notes on the attitudes of the governments to which they were accredited, and see what sort of program could be worked out. The meeting was to be held in Paris, but no secrets could be kept in Paris and it was agreed to have the meeting in Ostend. So ordered, for October 9.

The conferees met, meditated on their own importance, and took the bit in their teeth. Drafting a top-secret memorandum for Washington, they proposed that the United States try to buy Cuba outright and that if this failed (as it certainly would, the proud Spaniards being in no mood to sell) the United States should consider whether it ought not to go ahead and take Cuba by force of arms. This went far beyond anything desired by the American Secretary of State, William L. Marcy, for whom all of these ministers worked, but this was what they wanted and anyway the whole business was completely secret.

Except that these men included, in their persons and on their staffs, some of the leading flannelmouths in American history, and garbled versions of what had been proposed immediately appeared in newspapers in Europe and America. There had been, in other words, a wholesale leak, coming not because anyone had an axe to grind but simply because the men involved just could not keep their flapping mouths shut. The Ostend Manifesto, as it became known, raised a storm on both sides of the Atlantic. By March of 1854 Secretary Marcy (who had planned to let the idea simmer quietly for a time) had to send the report to Congress, which made it public property. That killed it. The administration had lost the fall elections, the rising clamor over slavery in Kansas and Nebraska made the addition of more slave territory in the Caribbean unthinkable, and the Ostend Manifesto quickly died, surviving in the national memory only as an oddity for historians. An act of immeasurable folly had been prevented by a leak.