America’s most famous whistleblower on his willingness to go to jail, the pervasiveness of presidential lying, and why war is prolonged.
Next year will mark forty years since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, an incident that made public the government’s deception in reporting on facts of the Vietnam War and added impetus to the resignation of President Nixon. The new year also may hold an Oscar nomination (it was shortlisted in November) for The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, a documentary on, perhaps, America’s most famous whistleblower, and a symbol of courage and responsibility for today’s anti-war movement. At a time when his country is involved in two controversial wars, his words, past and present, resonate as much now as ever.
As the United States begins the deployment of roughly thirty thousand more troops to the war in Afghanistan this month, Ellsberg’s description of presidential decision-making and how those decisions are presented to the public, especially when wars are being inherited like neuroses, read like prophecy. “What I particularly learned, though, in 1969, and from the Pentagon Papers,” he says in the interview that follows (which will be published in Political Awakenings: Conversations with History by New Press in March), “was that Nixon, the fifth president in a row now, was choosing to prolong the war in vain hopes that he might get a better outcome than he could achieve if he’d just negotiated his way out and accepted, essentially, a defeat. He hoped to do much better than that.”
It’s been an unlikely journey for Ellsberg, seventy-eight, who grew up in Detroit and received a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard before joining the Marine Corp. Eventually he settled in at the RAND Corporation where, as a Vietnam expert, he was asked by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to contribute to a top-secret study of classified documents regarding the conduct of the Vietnam War, what later became known as the Pentagon Papers. Few people have the experience (and gumption) to authoritatively state, regarding United States’ presidents, as he does in the interview below, “They rarely refrain from lying, actually, about these matters. It’s simply more convenient and more politically effective, they feel, for them to present matters to the public in a way that happens not to correspond to reality.”
So when President Obama told the cadets of West Point (and the world) that his decision was based on his being “convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” it’s not surprising that Ellsberg recoiled. The reasons Afghanistan poses a risk to U.S. security—a corrupt and illegitimate government in the eyes of its own people, fraudulent elections, citizens supporting the opposition not because they like them but because they want foreigners (particularly U.S. soldiers) out of their country—he says, “smells to me like Vietnam.”
—Interview by Harry Kreisler in 1998
Harry Kreisler: When did you first become involved with Vietnam?
Daniel Ellsberg: I’ve really never discussed this before in public, but the fact is that I was there in 1961 in connection with a task force, a study group for the Kennedy Defense Department, on limited war research and development. I got a picture of Vietnam at that point that led me to decide to stay away from that problem, bureaucratically, for the rest of my career if I could. I came back and helped write a report for RAND, which incorporated what I had learned in that study group, and the advice was, basically: don’t ask for research money for this, don’t get involved, stay away from it, this is a total loser. Because it was already apparent in 1961, or earlier for that matter, that there was really no promise of Western efforts to subdue the movement for national independence and sovereignty in Vietnam, which was led by communists, who had beaten the French, who had very strong American financial support, materials and so forth. We were facing essentially the same people there, and the likelihood that we would do better than the French had done seemed very small.
During the Kennedy administration in 1961 and 1962, 1963, I really avoided getting into discussions of Vietnam. I didn’t want to be drawn into it. I thought being tarred with that, essentially, would be like being associated with the Bay of Pigs, that perfect failure which had ruined the careers of nearly anybody who had touched it.
Harry Kreisler: But then a few years later you actually went back to Vietnam?
Daniel Ellsberg: No, I was assigned… I was brought back in, somewhat reluctantly, to Vietnam. And I wanted to see governmental decision-making now from the inside, having studied it as a researcher and a consultant for a number of years before that. The first day I started involving myself in it, reading the cables, as they say, which means immersing yourself in this huge flood of telegraph messages that come from a particular region. Almost the first cables I read had to do with an apparent attack on our destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf. It was August 4, 1964. Now I was seeing very urgent cables coming in, saying that destroyers were again under attack, this time late at night. And their only knowledge of this was by radar and sonar.
To leap ahead some years: it was clear in later years that there had been no attack. They were fighting radar shadows and sonar shadows in the water, firing at them. And there had been no torpedoes in the water as they supposed.
But at the time, to begin with, they were told very clearly that these boats were under attack. Then, at a certain point on that very first day of my involvement, I read a cable that said, “Hold every thing.” The commodore of that two-destroyer flotilla recommended no action be taken until they had a chance to look at the water surrounding them the next day in daylight and see if there was wreckage or oil slicks or survivors in the water. Since they thought they had actually destroyed some boats, there should be some sign of it. There was very strong doubt as to how large the attack had been or whether there was an attack at all. It was not really possible to confirm. Nevertheless, the president had already decided, by the time that cable was received, to start air operations against North Vietnam.
So here we were, launching sixty-four sorties against North Vietnam. I was up all night in the Pentagon following these raids and their aftermath, which were taking place on the other side of the world, twelve time zones different, so it was daylight over there and night for us.
And then over the next couple of days, the president got Congress to support almost unanimously what he was to regard as the functional equivalent of a declaration of war—the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which he felt gave him congressional support for a war, although that was not what Congress was led to understand they were voting for. And we were now off on the heavy U.S. combat phase of the Vietnam War.
Harry Kreisler: At that time did you have doubts about what the president was asking the Congress for, based on what you were seeing?
The public is lied to every day by the president, by his spokespeople, by his officers.
Daniel Ellsberg: Far beyond doubts. The president said to Congress and the public that the evidence for the attack on our ships was unequivocal. That was false. I knew that was a lie. Well before the attack got off, many, many doubts had been raised and it was clearly unclear [what was happening]. I think I would have said, and most people would have said “probably” with all this: “probably there was an attack.” But that was not what the president told the public. He lied to the public.
Second, he said, assuming that there was an attack, it was clearly an unprovoked attack against destroyers on the high seas. That was a lie in the sense that the actual attack that had occurred two days earlier had followed covert, secret, denied attacks by the United States on North Vietnam just the night before. So there was just as much evidence that it had been provoked by us. McNamara, Rusk, Vance, all continued to conceal from the Congress that these U.S. attacks were taking place.
Harry Kreisler: With the environment you were working with in the Pentagon, how did people deal with this incompatibility between what was being said publicly and what you and others knew inside the corridors of power?
Daniel Ellsberg: Well, I had been consulting for the government for about six years at that point, since 1959, [for] Eisenhower, Kennedy, and now Johnson. And I had seen tens of thousands of pages of classified material by this time, and had been in a position to compare it with what was being said to the public. The public is lied to every day by the president, by his spokespeople, by his officers. If you can’t handle the thought that the president lies to the public for all kinds of reasons, you can’t stay at that government at that level, where you’re made aware of it, every week.
I mention that because sometimes people speculate [as to] why I had given the Pentagon Papers to the Times with the expectation that I’d be sent to prison for it. As Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times said, “He couldn’t stand the lying.” Well, that’s basically foolish. I was not going to prison for years simply to set the record straight. If you can’t live with the idea that presidents lie, you can’t work for presidents. The fact is, presidents rarely say the whole truth, essentially never say the whole truth of what they expect and what they’re doing, what they believe and why they’re doing it. They rarely refrain from lying, actually, about these matters. It’s simply more convenient and more politically effective, they feel, for them to present matters to the public in a way that happens not to correspond to reality.
Harry Kreisler: Subsequently you became more involved in the war. You actually went to Vietnam and worked there after this period.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yes, by the summer of 1965, the president had decided on an open-ended escalation of that war. We had been bombing now since February and were heavily involved; we had over 100,000 troops in Vietnam by that time. We were at war. And I, as a former marine in peacetime, 1954-1957—marine platoon leader and company commander—I didn’t like the idea of following the war from Washington. I volunteered to go to Vietnam to do liaison work at the embassy with the Vietnamese. I had a feeling that would give me a better chance to understand the war and perhaps avoid the worst kinds of outcomes.
Most of the time I was involved in Vietnam, it was quite clear that nothing lay ahead for us but frustration and stalemate and killing and dying. Very little hope of a favorable outcome or even an outcome that could be called acceptable, except for the possibility of postponing a defeat or shift in policy.
I was the only researcher, in or out of the government, who was given access to the entire forty-seven volumes of the study for the purposes of research. It was seven thousand pages, top secret.
Presidents, I found from studying it later in the files, had never really faced much recommendation that held out a clear-cut hope of a successful outcome in Vietnam to them. But on the other hand, they had faced the possibility that they could postpone the kind of embarrassment or defeat that was involved in getting out of Vietnam and letting the Vietnamese determine their own politics—which would have meant, over time, almost surely communist hegemony. And their alternative to that was that they could put it off at increasingly higher costs to the U.S. and to the Vietnamese, in terms of lives and money and involvement. Each president chose to do that, and that’s what Kennedy chose and that’s what Johnson chose while he was in office. And that’s what Nixon chose until he was removed from office.
Harry Kreisler: Coming back to Washington and to RAND, you had access to what became known as the Pentagon Papers. Explain what those documents were.
Daniel Ellsberg: I was in Vietnam for two years, from 1965-1967. I evaluated pacification there for most of that time, which took me to most of the provinces of Vietnam. I was in thirty-eight of the forty-three provinces. I used my former marine training, though I was a civilian, to work with troops part of that time, and I did actually experience significant combat for some periods. So I saw the war up very close, from the point, as a matter of fact, in an infantry company. And I got hepatitis, probably on one of those field expeditions, and came back to the U.S. and left the government and rejoined the RAND Corporation and was immediately assigned to a historical project that McNamara had organized in the Pentagon, which came to have the title “U.S. Decision Making in Vietnam, 1945-1968.”
I was the only researcher, in or out of the government, who was given access to the entire forty-seven volumes of the study for the purposes of research. It was seven thousand pages, top secret. I had it in a top secret safe in my office, for the purpose of working on a study called “Lessons from Vietnam.”
I was actually, oddly, the only person being paid by a U.S. government contract, or salary, to look at lessons from Vietnam, strangely enough. Most of the people who had worked on that had read only one volume of it, the one they worked on. For some time there were really only three of us in the country who had read that entire study and were able, in effect, to learn the lessons of the entire sweep of that period, that twenty-three year period from 1945 to 1968.
Harry Kreisler: What was done in Vietnam was often not the most rational, but rather a reflection of a dynamic that was heavily influenced by politics. But for many years you lived with it.
Daniel Ellsberg: By the way, from the president’s point of view, that is the essence of rationality: staying in office, winning the election. He can always rationalize that in terms of larger interests by saying it’s very important that my party and I bring our wisdom to bear on these decisions, rather than those other guys. For instance: it’s terribly important that Goldwater not succeed. Rather than let Goldwater win, we had to do this and that. Just as, of course, the president’s men said during Watergate, “Of course we did these things to prevent McGovern from being president; that would have been catastrophic.” That was their rationale. So when you say, “It wasn’t rational,” what I’m saying is that the rationality had to do with domestic political power, staying in office, self-esteem, prestige of presidents, which presidents and the presidents’ men very easily confound with the interests of the nation. They find it, in fact, very hard to distinguish between those two.
Harry Kreisler: You remained for many years part of the government, part of the team, willing to live with the elements of this decision-making process. After much frustration with Vietnam, after reading the Pentagon Papers, you reached a different conclusion about what is acceptable and what is moral. Explain how that change in your thinking came about.
Daniel Ellsberg: I learned in Vietnam nothing very new about the lack of good prospects for success. I went to Vietnam pretty much with that perspective already. But I did learn the faces of the Vietnamese. I learned to be concerned for what happened to Vietnamese people in a way that my colleagues back in Washington probably [weren’t]. [The Vietnamese] had a reality for me. They weren’t just numbers and they weren’t just abstract ciphers of some kind, as they were for other people.
What I particularly learned, though, in 1969, and from the Pentagon Papers, was that Nixon, the fifth president in a row now, was choosing to prolong the war in vain hopes that he might get a better outcome than he could achieve if he’d just negotiated his way out and accepted, essentially, a defeat. He hoped to do much better than that. In fact, he hoped to hold on to control of Saigon and the major populated areas indefinitely for the United States—that these would be subject to our will and our policy and not be run by communists. And he hoped to do that, actually, in ways similar to the way Johnson had hoped—by threatening escalation of the war. He was making such threats, and he was prepared to carry them out.
I did not believe the threats would succeed, so I foresaw a larger war. The public would not, at that time, have supported a continuation of the war, let alone an expansion of the war. But he was successfully fooling the public, who didn’t want to believe that any president could be so foolish and so narrow-minded in his own interests as to keep that war going after the Tet Offensive of 1968. So I saw once again a president making secret threats, almost sure to carry them out, and deceiving the public as to what he was doing.
By reading the Pentagon Papers, which I finished doing in the fall of 1969, I now had a historical sweep sufficient to reach a conclusion that I would have been very unlikely to reach without reading them—that there was very little hope of changing [the president’s] mind from inside the executive branch—for example, by giving him good advice or by giving him realistic estimates of what was happening in Vietnam. Because what I saw by reading the earliest days of the Pentagon Papers was that every president had had such advice, as early as Truman. The fact now that Nixon was embarked on a new course held out very little hope that he would be more responsive to good advice about getting out than any of his predecessors had been.
That meant that if his decision was going to be changed—and because I cared about Vietnam and this country, I felt quite urgently that I wanted the United States to stop bombing and killing Vietnamese—the pressure would have to come from outside the executive branch. It required better information outside the executive branch, in Congress and in the public, about the past and about the present, than they had. If I had had documents on what Nixon was planning, I would have put those out to Congress to warn them of what was coming. I probably would not have bothered with the thousands of pages of history that involved the earlier presidents; I would have shown what Nixon was doing. But I didn’t have those documents. And at that time, it was very hard to get the public to believe or to act on the possibility that a president was lying to them or deceiving them. That was not in the American consciousness, and it was a very unpopular notion even to put forward.
So I asked myself for the first time, what could I do to help end the war if I were willing to go to prison?
I once said in a courtroom, in defense of people who were on trial for resisting the draft, that the president had lied. This was in early 1971, before the Pentagon Papers had come out. The judge stopped the proceedings, called the lawyers up to the bench. “If you elicit testimony like that again,” he said to the defense lawyer. “I will hold you in contempt. I will not have statements about the president lying in my courtroom.” This was in a trial of people who were resisting the war nonviolently. And they weren’t allowed to have witnesses who said that the president was lying. The Pentagon Papers changed that. Seven thousand pages of documents of presidential lying did establish forever—and they were confirmed of course by Watergate a couple of years later—that presidents all lie.
Harry Kreisler: Were you also affected in your decision by the demonstrators and the moral positions that they advocated?
Daniel Ellsberg: Less so by the demonstrators, actually, than by people that I’d met who were paying a much higher price in their lives to make a very strong message. People who would go to jail rather than go to the draft and Vietnam, or go to Canada, or become conscientious objectors, or go in the National Guard. They had a number of options to avoid combat in Vietnam, including being a conscientious objector. But they chose, actually, to make the strongest statement that you could that the war was wrong, that it should end, and that they would not cooperate with it in any way, even by accepting CO status. And they accepted prison as a result.
I met one in particular named Randall Keeler in late August of 1969, and when I understood to my amazement that he was about to be tried for draft resistance and expected to go to prison, where he did go for two years, it had a shattering effect on me to realize that we were in a situation where men as attractive in their intelligence and commitment as Randy Keeler found that the best thing they could do was to accept prison, to try to raise a moral issue to their countrymen. And I realized that was the best thing he could do. He was doing the right thing, and that defined the situation we were in. What a terrible situation! I felt that we were eating our young. Worse than cannibals: we were eating our own children. We were relying on them to pay the price for somehow getting us out of this war, sacrificing them like cannon fodder in the war itself. And they should be joined by people who were willing to do every thing that one could, truthfully and nonviolently. These were Gandhians, in effect. And I had by this time, it so happens, been reading Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and now I was meeting people who had been living the life that I’d been reading about. And with the constraints, then, of truthfulness and nonviolence, I realized that, following their example, I was prepared to do anything I could, and that meant giving up a career and meant going to prison.
So I asked myself for the first time, what could I do to help end the war if I were willing to go to prison? I was trying to arrange that I could testify before Congress. I was trying to get hearings started. I was participating with others in writing letters from RAND. But I was also copying the Pentagon Papers in hopes of strengthening some of these other moves, such as my testimony to Congress, for what it might be worth. I didn’t think, actually, that it had much chance of affecting events, but it had some chance. And I was ready to do anything I could, and that was one of the things I could do.
Harry Kreisler: Any other factors that can help us understand the kind of inner strength it took? It was not the easiest choice to make for any individual.
Daniel Ellsberg: Reading the Pentagon Papers burned out of me the desire to work for the president. I saw five presidents in a row who had been mistaken in this stubborn, selfish, foolish way for what was, at this point now, twenty-four years.
The idea that I’d had since I was a boy, and that most Americans had, was to get the opportunity to work for the president. (We talk about growing up to be president but not many of us, other than Clinton, who is a rare example, had this seriously in his mind.) When I was a marine lieutenant, I already thought of myself as working for the president. I think, more than [the other armed forces], the marines tend to think of themselves as a fast reaction force at the president’s disposal, kind of a presidential guard, and have that feeling of self-esteem that comes from identifying with the president. And in the executive branch everybody gets the habit of saying, “We did this, we did that”; it’s a strong identification with being a president’s man or president’s woman.
The aura of the president, the idea of identifying with him and working for him and being a president’s man, a kind of feudal, chivalric relationship—that suddenly lost its aura. I no longer wanted to be a president’s man.
And here I was in ’69, I was the first RAND researcher who did work directly for the president’s assistant for national security. I did staff work for Kissinger on Vietnam in the very beginning of the administration. And that was very prestigious and very exciting. Many, many people inside and out of the executive branch think that the opportunity to work in the executive branch is the highest calling that an American can have. You’re working for the national security in the most powerful, effective way that you could possibly have. Nothing that you could do, write articles, write books, work for a congressman, be a congressman, none of that could compare with possibly informing and influencing the president. And that was true whether or not you had voted for that president or worked for his party. There was only one president at a time and the chance, whatever party he was, the chance to have some useful influence in informing him or shaping his policy seemed the most important thing you could do.
Reading the Pentagon Papers and reflecting on Vietnam revealed to me, first of all, that presidents could go terribly wrong despite the best advice they could get, and that, therefore, the best way of helping the country was not necessarily helping the president do what he wanted to do, because the best way might be keeping him from doing what he wanted to do. And that had to be done outside the executive branch, by Congress, by courts, by voters, by the public. So that, actually, you could do more for the country outside the executive branch.
And second, the aura of the president, the idea of identifying with him and working for him and being a president’s man, a kind of feudal, chivalric relationship—that suddenly lost its aura. I no longer wanted to be a president’s man. The idea of life outside the executive branch looked just as good or better than working for a president. And I don’t think I’ve ever had a colleague who has ever reached that point in their lives. They can’t imagine life outside the executive branch as being better. When their party gets out of office or if they’re fired or if they move out for higher money or whatever, they nevertheless spend their lives waiting for the phone call, to be called back and give advice. No matter how painful the break was with the earlier president, they’re ready to go back there. It’s their highest calling, actually. Self-esteem, prestige, excitement, importance, and a sense of serving the country. That somehow was burned out of me by reading this seven-thousand-page record. And that made it possible for me to imagine doing something that would forever prevent me from working for any president again. No executive branch official would ever or could ever hire me again after I had done this. Most of my colleagues would not have been able to conceive of doing something that would keep future presidents from relying on them or trusting them or calling them in again. So that was crucial.
And finally, we come to the point that one of the things I was doing was, I thought, certain to put me in prison. How could I do that?
Actually, I’d been in the marine corps, I’d been in Vietnam, I’d been in combat. Three million men who went to Vietnam as soldiers exposed themselves to losing their legs, their bodies, their lives to a mine or to a sniper, or to a mortar round. And they were not regarded as heroes or crazy just because they accepted that role. Nobody did a psychiatric profile on them, as was done on me, to ask why did they do that? They were doing it for the president or for the country. The president, however, was deciding very badly what was good for the country. But you did what the president said, what he wanted you to do. And to do that is sensible even if it involves your death, even if it involves your killing people, in what is in fact a bad cause. A bad cause by any other standard but the fact that the president has endorsed it. And this was a bad cause.
So dying, killing in a bad cause, all of that is regarded as very reasonable. And I had done it. I had been over there. Even when I didn’t believe in the cause I served the president. And the point was that what Randy Keeler revealed to me was that there were other ways of being conscientious than serving the president. There are other kinds of courage. And I had to ask myself, well, if I was willing to be blown up in Vietnam or captured, as friends of mine were, when I accepted the cause or supported it, should I not be willing to go to prison or risk my freedom? And when I faced that question, it was quickly answered.
When you ask me how could I be willing to face that, I was the kind of guy who had been willing to go to Vietnam. That didn’t make me unique. It put me not with everybody in the country but with a lot of people. The connection, however, that not many of them had occasion to make was between doing that sort of thing and making the same kind of commitment against the president’s will and policy, against what he wanted to do, against what he was demanding. And to put yourself in the position of a dissenter, or of, let’s say, a congressman who opposed the war.
So, one shift was from the executive branch to helping the Congress and working in the public. A major shift of identity is very, very difficult for an executive official to make. Another one, of course, was a willingness actually to go to prison for what I was doing. And that was because I made the connection with what I myself had done in Vietnam or in the marines. But I wouldn’t have done that without the example of thousands of Americans. Actually, Esquire magazine called me just last month. They’re doing an issue on heroes and they asked me if I would say if I had a hero that I wanted to name. And I mentioned Randy Keeler as a person who had changed my life by his example.
Harry Kreisler: What then, briefly, is the responsibility of an individual in a democracy on matters of war and peace like we’ve been discussing?
Daniel Ellsberg: I can say very briefly in terms of what I’ve just said about my own decision. I think that what I learned about what I ought to do applies not only to them at the time but to people in the future. First, that we are fortunate in this country, in our Constitution, in having not just an executive in charge of war and peace matters (as it likes to think that it is in charge), but actually a Congress which has the constitutional responsibility both to declare war and to finance, to control the budget, and has many, many methods for actually opposing executive policy on a matter of war and peace. Any of those executive officials could think of informing Congress, with or without the approval of the president. There are many ways they could do this with no legal liability. In fact, to the contrary, it often involves simply telling the truth instead of committing perjury, which is what they actually do do. So it involves obeying the law rather than violating the law, and obeying the Constitution. In short, work with Congress to change the situation. But it’s in a way that they hardly think of doing because it involves crossing the man who appointed them. But, as I say, there is life outside the executive branch.
Second, they really could conceive of taking risks with their own career that are comparable to the risks they routinely ask of draftees and volunteers that they are sending to war. They could contemplate, in other words, paying a price in their own lives by telling the truth, by informing the public, by acting conscientiously, in a committed way, outside the executive branch to tell the truth, to inform the public. Again, at great cost to their future careers but a cost that they should be willing to pay. In short, they would find that they had much more power as individuals than they imagine they have if they were willing to pay a price in their own lives.
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Copyright © 2010 by Harry Kreisler. This excerpt originally appeared in Political Awakenings: Conversations with History by Harry Kreisler, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.
Portrait of Daniel Ellsberg by Robert Shetterly from the book Americans Who Tell the Truth.