The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

June/July 2002    



Classified top secret, The Pentagon Papers consisted of 47 volumes and some 7,000 pages that detailed American decision-making about Vietnam since the end of World War II. Only 15 copies were produced. Two copies went to the RAND Corporation. Daniel Ellsberg had access to the study at RAND. He and Anthony Russo copied the Papers and leaked them to Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter and former Vietnam War correspondent.

When the Times published the first of a series of lengthy articles on The Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971, an extraordinary court battle erupted that pitted the U.S. government against the press and ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court in less than two weeks.

The press won its confrontation with the government about the secret history of the Vietnam War. The Pentagon Papers played a role in turning the American public further against the war and in feeding the mistrust and siege mentality in the White House that eventually led to Watergate and President Nixon's resignation.

Publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971 was controversial. The secret study, a rich source of historical documents which shed much light on many years of often-hidden government decision-making that enmeshed America in its longest war. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the release of The Pentagon Papers, VVA held a one-day symposium in June 2001 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The symposium included keynote speaker Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the top-secret study to the press; a morning panel of journalists and lawyers on the confrontation between the press and the government; lunch speaker former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel, who put part of The Pentagon Papers in the record of a Senate hearing and arranged for their private publications; an afternoon panel on doing The Pentagon Papers study inside the Department of Defense during 1967-1969; and a final panel of historians and authors on the historical significance of The Pentagon Papers. Among the panelists were three Pulitzer Prize winners. C-Span broadcast the first five hours of the symposium live and has since rebroadcast it at least twice. More information about the symposium and panelists, and links to articles about The Pentagon Papers, can be found on the VVA web page at

Disagreement and controversy about The Pentagon Papers still exist. To share the rich history from the symposium, The VVA Veteran will be publishing a number of articles based on transcripts of presentations made by speakers and panelists at the symposium. In this, the first installment of the symposium in The VVA Veteran, keynote speaker Daniel Ellsberg presents his perspective on the affair.

Jim Doyle: Keep in mind as you listen to the panels today that this was about real people and about the enormous amount of suffering caused by this war and the suffering that still continues. This Pentagon Papers symposium is one of the ways we are trying to heal that wound. It is my pleasure to introduce George C. Duggins, our national president.

George Duggins: On behalf of the 45,000 members of VVA, I welcome you. As veterans, we have an obligation to safeguard our Constitution and protect our freedoms. We have a moral contract with those who served to make sure that the lessons of the war are not forgotten.

For many of us who served in the Vietnam War, the release of the Pentagon Papers validated our most deeply held suspicions. The Papers revealed that the government may have known for a very long time that we were fighting a war that we could not win. That war tore this country apart and inflicted wounds from which we are still recovering. It took great courage to challenge the power of the U.S. government. But some of our panelists today had the courage to stand up for what they believed was right. 

A few blocks from here, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial lists the names of more than 58,000 men and women who died with honor and distinction in our nation's longest and most controversial overseas war. Our commitment to their memories and to the families they left behind is to make certain that their lives were not lost in vain. Those of us who served with them cannot, and will not, retreat from our obligation to make certain that the truth is told. Vietnam Veterans of America's motto is "In Service to America.'' Each day we try to make those words meaningful.

This symposium observes the 30th anniversary of the release of The Pentagon Papers. Sponsoring it is part of our commitment to serve our nation, and it's part of our commitment to make clear the lessons of the past.

Thank you for being with us. To introduce our keynote speaker, here is Marc Leepson, the arts editor of our newspaper, The VVA Veteran.

Marc Leepson: Our keynote speaker, Daniel Ellsberg, was born in Chicago in 1931. He received his B.A. from Harvard College and his M.A. in economics from Harvard in 1954. He then enlisted in the Marine Corps for two years. He volunteered for an extended tour of duty when his battalion was sent to the Middle East during the 1956 Suez conflict. After he left the Marines, Mr. Ellsberg went back to Harvard in the Society of Fellows. Then, in 1959, he went to work as an intelligence analyst for the RAND Corporation, conducting studies on defense policies. He made a one-week trip to Vietnam in 1961 with a study group task force sent by the Pentagon. In 1962 he received his Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard.

In '64 he was asked by Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, a former Harvard professor, to join him as a special assistant. At that time, he was a strong backer of the U.S. effort in Vietnam. He went to Vietnam in 1965 to evaluate the pacification program as senior liaison officer to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. He stayed until 1967, serving as an assistant to the U.S. Ambassador.

Back in Washington in 1967, Mr. Ellsberg joined the team of Defense Department analysts who worked on The Pentagon Papers. He returned to the RAND Corporation in 1967. In October 1969 he and Anthony Russo, his RAND colleague, copied parts of the study, hoping that its dissemination would speed the end of the war.

In June 1971, 30 years ago, he leaked The Pentagon Papers to Neil Sheehan of The New York Times, precipitating a momentous series of events that we are going to cover in detail today. 

The 12 charges against him, carrying up to 115 years in prison, were dismissed by a federal judge because of government misconduct - misconduct that marked the beginning of the Watergate scandal. Since then, Mr. Ellsberg's main activity has been antinuclear lecturing, writing, and activism, including taking part in dozens of nonviolent civil disobedient protests against the nuclear arms race, the Persian Gulf War, and the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua and elsewhere.

Today, he is working on a memoir that will cover the Vietnam War, The Pentagon Papers, and the Watergate Years.

Daniel Ellsberg: Thank you very much. I want to talk about The Pentagon Papers as leak or unauthorized disclosure. I first heard this phrase, "unauthorized disclosure,'' in connection with the bill that was passed by both houses of Congress last fall that for the first time criminalized unauthorized disclosure. It was, fortunately and unexpectedly, vetoed by President Clinton. I immediately liked the term "unauthorized disclosure,'' because I never really liked the word "leak.'' It's a little pejorative, demeaning, and didn't sound good. My wife has always disliked me being called "leaker.'' She felt it made me sound incontinent. So, I'm an unauthorized disclosurer from now on. 

The question I'd like to address is, "What can we learn from this experience and from experience of the last 30 or 50 years about the role of unauthorized disclosure in this country, in the world, and - above all - in a democratic republic that means to remain so?

When I was on trial, I had occasion very often to quote a statement by James Madison, the author of the First Amendment. I'm sure you all have heard it, but it really deserves repeating. "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and the people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives. Popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but the prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or - perhaps - both."

We've seen lots of farce in Watergate and Irangate. We've seen the plumbers. We've seen tragedies - not a tragedy for America, although it was a tragedy, more like a crime - a tragedy for Vietnam that we imposed on Vietnam from the very beginning of that conflict in our support of the French.

The Vietnam War, of course, was an unwinnable war, as I had come to see by '66 or '67 in Vietnam. That was enough for me and many others to try to work against it from inside. I had read the earliest portions of The Pentagon Papers in September of 1969, by which time I had already been committed for at least two years to getting us out of Vietnam.

When I read the earliest pages, I realized that I was reading not just the record of a tragic mistake, but of a colonial war in which the United States had been a participant from its earliest position. It was a truly tragic decision made by Franklin Roosevelt in the last months of his life - and persisted in by Harry Truman - to support the French in their determination to reconquer their colonial empire in Indochina and elsewhere.

In those days, with the U.N. Charter's recognition of colonial rule as a legitimate form of rule, it would be hard to say that was a crime. But we can judge it morally, politically, and in various ways.

What I learned when I read that in September '69 - very late in the game for me - was that this was a war that we couldn't win. We could not defeat the people fighting for independence from foreign rule. They would not be defeated by anything we could do. They would not give up. They would not give up against us any more than the French.

It was a war that we had no right to win, a war we should not win, a war we should not be in. And that killing in that war, mostly financed by us, was unjustifiable homicide that should be ended as soon as possible - not gracefully, not saving face, as I would have been willing to do to some degree before '67 or '68, but as soon as possible. I had no illusions that would be easy. That was one of the things that drove me.

In other words, having written, having read these Papers - which, for me, were authorized - the disclosure to me was an authorized disclosure. I was a consultant, at that point, for the RAND Corporation, but one trusted to keep its secrets no matter how much I disagreed.

I had been tested on that many, many times. I didn't get those secrets because they just hoped I would keep them secret. Anyone associated with me knew that I was one of those who would keep certain kinds of information about planning, about estimates, and about proposals from unauthorized persons- meaning the American public, Congress, political rivals.

In most cases, the issue didn't even arise whether I would leak them to the Russians or the Vietnamese. In most cases, we were reading about things that the Russians and the Vietnamese had been told directly by our leaders. The threats were no secret to our opponents. Attacks on North Vietnam, attacks on Cambodia, attacks on Laos were no secret to the people under the bombs, but were secret only from the American people and from Congress. In some cases, that secret has an ironic aspect to it.

When William Beecher of The New York Times revealed that we were bombing Cambodia, one might say it ceased to be secret. Not so. It was not regarded as a fact, as a happening, as an experience by the American public for many years afterwards until a leak - a real leak - occurred. That was because the evening of Beecher's announcement, the Defense Department simply said, routinely, "That story is wrong. That's not happening.'' And so, it wasn't happening.

In a period when presidents were believed - maybe not to tell everything, maybe to be a little misleading, but not to lie, which was a mistake. Presidents do all those things. They conceal; they cover. All officials do. Congressmen do. It's part of the game.

I had been known for five years - really, ten years - to be reliable in keeping secrets that I strongly disagreed with and the policies that I thought were bad, terrible, even disastrous. Anyone around me knew I could be given such secrets. I didn't have to agree with the policy. I would keep it secret. That's the way I was until '69.

For the first time I perceived that what I was reading about was not just dangerous and costly and tragic - all of which it was - but was something close to murder. And I don't use that word rhetorically. Unjustifiable homicide. Let the lawyers tell me the best way of describing it, but it was killing that should not go on. That affected my sense of what it was worth, personally, to stop it.

But I had a much stronger incentive at that time, which was absolutely crucial. I was given information because I had worked on Vietnam options in the beginning of the year for Henry Kissinger, working for Nixon. In fact, I had drafted a set of alternative options and set of questions that were called National Security Study Memorandum I, and I had gone over the answers for the President. For that reason, I was given a piece of information with my top-secret clearance by someone who had been in the White House.

Mort Halperin told me, because of my background and his knowledge of my reliability, the option Nixon had chosen. It wasn't one of the ones I had put in the set, interestingly. As The Pentagon Papers showed, presidents very commonly end up with a policy that does not really correspond to any one of the alternatives given to them. And that was true in this case.

What Nixon had chosen, I was told, was a policy of secret threats of escalation, just like the ones that Johnson had secretly given Ho Chi Minh in the summer of 1964 during a campaign when he gave absolutely the opposite impression.

Nixon was, again, making secret threats of escalation despite the failure of bombs, 3.2 million tons of bombs by that time, to bring them to their heels. He thought that threats of even greater escalation would cause them not to surrender, not to give in, but to accept what he thought of as a compromise (which they would have seen as defeat): the permanent exclusion of the leaders of the independence movement (communists) from government in Saigon and the permanent renunciation of the reunification of Vietnam. It was certain that they would not accept those terms.

I believed from my study of The Pentagon Papers and my experience that the threats would be carried out. They weren't bluffs. I believed that. I believed that they would not win the war or end the war - again, from experience, including my experience in Vietnam - facing people that gave me a very strong impression they wouldn't quit no matter how many of them were killed.

So, the war would just be longer and bigger. I saw a prolongation under a president who had been elected to end the war. I saw a pattern that had led us into endless war, previously, under previous presidents. This was unique information. It wasn't shared by people in the antiwar movement.

It was just from Mort Halperin. As he said, "I told everybody who would listen.'' He told me, "`You were the one who listened.'' And I believed him. I knew his access. I knew his reliability, where most people would have found that just incredible. Nixon couldn't be doing that. The journalists and historical community have to a large extent found my account incredible because I didn't have documents to prove it.

Larry Berman, a very good historian of the Johnson era, is coming out with a book in August called, No Peace, No Honor, in which he has dazzled me by having found documents that do demonstrate this thesis at last. I had never seen them before.

I was concerned that I didn't have the documents - not as concerned as I should have been. The truth is, looking back after The Pentagon Papers, I have never really been believed or convinced anybody of what I was saying about policy. Most of it was unfamiliar and not something people wanted to believe without documents.

If I'd had those documents at the time - Mort himself didn't have them. He'd been shown documents that he wasn't supposed to see as the deputy to Kissinger. Another deputy showed him documents that had been withheld from Mort himself. Threats were deliberately or directly delivered to the Russians. He didn't have documents. He didn't give me any; he might or might not have shown them to me.

If, in that mood, at that time, he had shown them to me or had access to them, I certainly would have put those out rather than The Pentagon Papers. I would not have spent the time - however important The Pentagon Papers were as history. I was concerned with avoiding escalation and stopping the war. The Pentagon Papers had obvious defects - obvious to me as well as to everyone else - as an instrument for ending the war. It could illuminate the war to other people and maybe increase their disgust with it. But they didn't prove what Nixon was doing.

My assertion was that Nixon was doing what essentially Truman and Eisenhower in the '50s - but in particular Kennedy and Johnson - had done. He was still doing it. All The Pentagon Papers could do for that message - which was my message that I put out to congressmen in person and in letters to the editor - all The Pentagon Papers could do, which was something, was to say, "Well, it's happened before.'' You may think it is hard to believe that a man would be so reckless and so mad as to expand the war, having been told what the costs would be and how hopeless it was.

But four presidents before did it. So, maybe you should entertain that possibility. You might find it hard to believe that a president who has been elected one way would simply lie. Remember that Nixon wasn't clearly lying at this time. He did expect to end the war. But he expected to do it by threats that would work and, if necessary, by escalation. I thought that his sincere belief was extremely misguided and does not do his reputation as a statesman - or Henry Kissinger's - any credit. It was foolish, reckless, and uninformed. The main thing was not to expose that about him, but to end the war.

I thought The Pentagon Papers, in particular, might encourage Republican Richard Nixon as a new president to uncommit himself from what Mort had said he was privately doing. He hadn't yet announced it in September.

My real hope in my initial copying of The Pentagon Papers - for which Tony Russo was absolutely crucial in finding a Xerox machine, helping me getting this started, fast - was to release this record of Democratic recklessness and duplicity. And to encourage Nixon to reconsider and think, as some advisers like Laird and Rogers were urging him to do, what they said he should do, not what he in his heart felt and Kissinger felt, and blame the war on the Democrats and say, "It is a lost cause. It was a noble cause, but it was a lost cause. They screwed it up. I have no choice but to cut the losses and get out.''

That's what I had hoped it might do. I think that was a reasonable hope. I didn't have any assurance. But it was unreasonable in terms of Nixon's actual commitment. I now realize that, if I had put that out in '69 as I had planned to do and tried to do through Fulbright, it would have had no effect on Nixon and the war.

Even in '71, the main reaction in the White House was elation that this information was out. It made the Democrats look bad. The tapes show that very clearly. They are all gloating how this would put the Democrats at each other's throats. This showed that Nixon hadn't started the war, etc., etc., and of course, it didn't prove that Nixon was continuing the policy. That reaction didn't surprise me at all.

What I didn't realize in '69 was how committed Nixon was, having been Vice President during a major, crucial stage (including Dien Bien Phu) of our earlier involvement. He didn't think he had inherited that war. He thought it was his war and Eisenhower's war. And it was a good war and should be won. And he thought he knew a way to do it. But it was a way that the public, by '69, would not endorse. He knew that. So, it must be kept secret from them.

Therefore, even as late as '71, the plan had not totally been carried out. A hemorrhage of secrets, even about the past, carried the possible risk that it would continue. There would be more secrets about Nixon, documents about Nixon, which, unfortunately, I didn't have. He knew I had some, like National Security Study Memorandum I.

Like all government officials leaving office, I had with me the stuff I had worked on. Let's say 90 percent of government officials are holding documents they are forbidden to hold by the rules and the promises they've made.

For their memoirs or to go against Republican rivals, I mean, I'm sorry, professional rivals and so forth. Not all rivals are Republican. They are not all from a different party. They are not breaking the law. We have no official secrets act, unlike virtually every other country. None had ever been passed by Congress until last November, and that was vetoed.

I was very struck to see the editorials that came out very properly and quickly.

Our trial, our prosecution for copying and possessing unauthorized copies, as I say, what every official does, actually, but had never been tried before, and then there was the Boston Grand Jury working on the distribution, the leak part of it. That would have been the first prosecution for a revelation, the first ever.

What was not appreciated was that this was as unprecedented a prosecution as were the unprecedented injunctions before the Supreme Court. The two had no precedent and both for the same reason. The First Amendment reflected James Madison's view that there must not be an official secrets act if we want to keep this a republic.

Unauthorized disclosures occur within this system every minute of every hour. It's against the rules. It happens constantly. It is part of the way the system works. Unauthorized disclosures to the press and Congress happen every day or every other day. They are not truly unauthorized. They are really just; they are against the rules. They are not authorized by the head of an agency. They are classified information. It reflects merely the necessarily decentralized nature of the secrecy process and the management of information within the government.

So, in other words, public affairs officers, officials of every kind - even low-level people - are trusted in their jobs that they will never jeopardize their jobs by making disclosures that their bosses will not like made. In fact, that was really, I understand, why the law was vetoed. It was pointed out by Strobe Talbot to Clinton at the last minute that this would make criminals out of our public affairs officers almost every day. They are - it's not a joke - selectively putting out classified information. There is no leeway in the rules for that. But it is necessary. And of course, they do it. It is necessary to fool the public, to focus their attention on this rather than that, to support this position rather than that one, to affect the budget. So, we've got to revise this rule a little bit.

I'm talking about disclosures that are really unauthorized, would not be approved by the President or the head of an agency if they were submitted for their permission. Those are the disclosures that most need disclosing.

Remember, the reason the President doesn't want it out - I'm postulating - has nothing to do with keeping it from the enemy over there, the Vietnamese, Soviets, or whoever. We may, indeed, be talking about things that we have directly delivered to the Soviets or the Vietnamese in the way of threats. They must not go to the public. They would not be authorized. Any system of submitting them for authorization misses their very nature.

To mention another founder of the Republic, Tom Paine. In his first book, Common Sense, he said, maybe a little extremely, "Nations should have no secrets. For the secrets of courts are ever their defects.'' Now, it is defects, it's crimes, failures, errors, recklessness, breaking of treaties, defects like that, where lives are at stake, that are exactly what must be in the hands of Congress, the public, the voters, and - perhaps - the courts, if we are to be protected from reckless and illegal actions that the President has decided are good for the national interest and his interest.

Unauthorized disclosures are the heart blood of democracy and of a democratic republic. It is not the case that we need new laws criminalizing these for the first time. I would say we need many more such unauthorized disclosures like The Pentagon Papers and like the documents I would have put out if I had them. Looking back, I should have put them out, and I would have put them out. The public needed those a lot more than The Pentagon Papers.

I can look back to my own experience. When we come to the 1964-65 part of The Pentagon Papers, we are looking at documents, all of which were in my safe, in my authorized possession, in the Pentagon, when I was Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense in 1964-65. 

I knew that every aspect that was being relayed about the Tonkin Gulf incidents was a conscious lie. Partly to protect intelligence operations, which were not only illegal but terribly imprudent and should never have been done, which were as foolish and improper, let us say, and illegal as the Bay of Pigs, which should have been disclosed before it happened, from every point of view. 

I also knew - I had written drafts myself - of speeches for McNamara telling the true number of troops that were being sent to Vietnam in '65, in addition to the 75,000 we already had. The true number, which I had in my draft, was 100,000. I listened to the President give, instead, the figure 50,000. He was lying - directly lying - to the public.

I had safes full of documents of such insane, wrong, criminal, and deceptive - deceptive is the least of it. They were deceptive because they were so foolish and would never have gotten support from an electorate that had just voted Johnson in by the largest landslide in history to avoid the escalation that they feared under Goldwater. So, we had a hoax of an election. The difference between the two candidates was presented as night and day, Goldwater and Johnson.

In fact, known to a thousand people inside, they were very similar. The public was about to get the bombing of Vietnam, whichever one they voted for. I did not put any of that information out. I don't need to point fingers at McNamara or whoever else who may have thought about the policy even more wisely than I did. People like George Ball were clearly against it at that point. Clark Clifford later was more clearly against it than I was at that point, knew more about it. I don't need to point fingers at them for not putting it out.

I was a beginner here; I was no part of a policy maker, never even became one in that year. I was like a clerk. I was like a secretary. But I knew what I was reading, and I knew where it would head. I could have given that information to [Sen. Wayne] Morse as he pointed out to me. As Morse said, "If you had given that information to me in '64 the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of committee. And if it got out, it would never have passed.''

But the Tonkin Gulf Resolution is just a resolution. He could have gotten it under other circumstances. He could have done without it. But later I didn't blame myself too much when Morse told me that, years later. By September, I had a safe full of stuff like that about where we were going, the likelihood of bombing, the fact that it not only was a terribly reckless policy, but we had a candidate who was totally lying about it. In fact, even Goldwater knew of these plans and forbore to mention them. He ran proposing a plan that he knew was in the works anyway. So, that's how democracy was working, given our secrecy system, again and again.

I believe, without being grandiose here, not that I could have ended the war. I believe the documents in my possession could have averted that war had I revealed them. That is what I should have done. That is what I wish I had done. Of course, I didn't think of it. I don't have to tax myself with moral guilt, because, like all my colleagues, it just didn't occur to me to do such a thing. But I know it would have occurred to me a few years later.

And I would hope it would occur to other people after the Tonkin Gulf, The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and Irangate, and the other examples they've had. In short, are there more Pentagon  Papers, do they exist, and are they needed? And should they be put out at risk? The risk is inescapable, with or without a law. I have no doubt whatever that at this moment there are people in this government in the Republican administration, Executive Branch, who believe that the course of this administration toward abandoning the ABM Treaty is catastrophic and that every reassurance given to us by the officials in this government is contradicted by official documents.

I would put to them that they should consider sharing those documents with Congress at whatever cost to themselves because a world is at stake. Our policy under Clinton and now pursued under Bush in Colombia is as foolish, as counterproductive, as crazy as Vietnam. I am sure there are people in the administration who know that and have documents that would support it. I call on them to do what I should have done in '64 and did not do. Go to Congress, tell the truth with documents. It can save a lot of lives.

Audience Question: Is it your assumption that there was a particular point in post-World War II history at which American presidents successively concluded that it was no longer possible to trust the American people on foreign policy issues? That is, they became convinced that there either wasn't time or the public wasn't sufficiently educated that you could generate popular backing in support of a war before you actually went into it. And do you find a particular point in time at which that conclusion was reached?

Ellsberg: That's a fascinating question. I'd love to discuss it. I'd be interested to know just what led you to that question because it is a profound question. I have thought about the subject, and I can answer it without a lot of thought. 

I would say it was not during the war. It was some time prior to our entry into World War II. President Roosevelt, whom I revered, gave us a precedent in a number of ways that other presidents have followed very consciously at a very, very great cost. It is described by the attitude you described.

Obviously, President Roosevelt came to accept the views of a number of people I won't identify who believed it was essential for us to be in the European War, and were aware that the American public was strongly against our active participation in the war - although not against our giving some degree of support to our English allies.

Congressional opposition was not to giving financial aid to the British but to direct combat participation in the war. And it almost won. Roosevelt was facing a situation where he felt strongly that the country was wrong on this. And he somehow had to lead them on.

Bill Buckley, the one time I was on his program - I was on trial; I had just come from the courtroom. He says, "You talk a lot about lying, presidential lying, if there is such a thing.'' He says, "What about FDR's saying that we had peaceful missions in the Atlantic with destroyers, which, in fact, were carrying on antisubmarine operations against the Germans? What would you call that?'' I said, "I'd call it a lie. What would you call it?''

He was very taken aback. He wasn't prepared for that answer. He said, "I don't know that I would call it a lie.'' I was very young at the time. So I said to him, "Sometimes when we are young we know more than we know later about the difference between lying and truth.''

I know that example is consciously in the minds and often explicitly referred to by assistant secretaries of State and Defense and higher, when they are justifying, in their own minds, the necessity to lie to the public. They say, after all, "We wouldn't have defeated Hitler. We wouldn't have gotten into the war without a lot of deception.''

Question: Behind that assumption is the assumption, effectively, that democracy doesn't work.

Ellsberg: It's not necessarily a generalization. Remember that it is just in specific situations. You see, "The public is wrong here, in this case, so I have to go around them.'' Certainly, that is what each of these presidents thought about Vietnam. They couldn't handle the truth. "I'm doing what is necessary, but they wouldn't support that.''

It's a specific case. But of course you are right. Again, it shows the wisdom behind your question. Of course there is a bureaucratic mentality and an elitist mentality. But it is not just parties. It doesn't seem to be limited to the Eastern establishment or the Western establishment.  It is very much a bureaucratic party, which is very antidemocratic. The Congress, to start with, is parochial, self-interested, politically minded, and unlike us who would think of the national interest, they think of their little constituency.

So, we have to protect the country from Congress, and ultimately, from the public, from the right wing, from the left wing. Now, they don't worry about the left wing very much. They think it's ineffective and not very large. But the right wing will make us do things.

I'll give you a rationale that I think is very important for which Johnson has never been given enough credit. It does not justify what he did. I'm sure that he and McNamara, in what they were doing in the way of bombing, felt that they were protecting the country from the proposals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who would, if they exposed their own views by resigning and speaking out, might well say they should have done--given their convictions - except that they were military men under the UCMJ. If they did that - if they exposed themselves to democracy -  they had reason to fear the public would back those catastrophic proposals. I agree with Johnson and McNamara. The proposals of the Joint Chiefs were crazy. They would not have won. They would have risked war with China, which may be what some of them wanted. And that would have been nuclear war.

Johnson and the others said, "We have to deceive. We have to follow a course which will give the Joint Chiefs enough of what they want so they won't resign and press for their proposal because it might be supported by the public who will say, 'We don't know whether it will work or not; let's do it; let's win, let's get this over'.'' The public, as has been pointed out, thought until very late in the game: win or get out.

Even after Tet, the mood was not "get out;'' it was, "win or get out.'' Some of the people who believed that it could be won attacked the Joint Chiefs for not exposing their views. I must say, I'm happy to see that civilian control was observed, constitutionally, here. I'm glad they didn't do that on constitutional grounds and policy grounds, because I thought their policy was terrible.

But Johnson then thought - and to some degree, Nixon - "I have to lie, I need to lie. Partly because the public is so uninformed and might back policies that were terrible if they knew they had the Joint Chiefs' backing. If they knew that, they might back them. So, I have to conceal that.'' But they followed a middle course of an endlessly escalating war that wasn't as bad as the Joint Chiefs proposed.

They did not consider getting out. Not because the proposal was not made; the proposal was made. Not only by George Ball, but by William Bundy, Assistant Secretary of Defense; Clark Clifford; and Hubert Humphrey. The Vice President gave that advice to the President in '64, '65. I knew none of that when I read The Pentagon Papers because their dovish views were so secret that I never saw them as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense.

If it was important to keep me from seeing it. It was doubly important to allow the Congress to see it, or the President, and so forth. And of course, it is conceivable that I would have leaked them, reliable as I was. That might have done it then, and that would have been to the good. I wish that had happened. Or, I might not. In which case, I would still be feeling guilty.

Question: Thinking about the totality of the United States and who we were in 1963, '64, '65, do you believe you would have been believed if you had put the truth to light with The New York Times or The Washington Post? Would they have believed you at all?

Ellsberg: I've been lecturing for a long time, and that's the second question I've never heard before and it's a very good one. I would have to say - I can say very simply - without documents, no. The documents in that period were for a war we weren't yet committed to. We said it wasn't a war; we were advising; we were consulting.

We had not had a large number of U.S. troops at risk or killed. That didn't happen until the fall of '65. I think one could say that after the fall of '65 it was hard to get out, though still not impossible. We had a long way to go. It was going to get a lot worse. But it was a lot harder than it was before, let's say, April of '64, '65.

Question: Would you have been believed?

Ellsberg: The documents would have spoken for themselves. I was never believed. But I can say, in my own opinion, I deserved to be believed, but I don't blame people for not knowing that or not knowing how truthful I was or how well placed I had been.

But the fact is, then or later, I've never been believed without documents. When Goldwater was asked why he didn't reveal what he knew in '64, he said, "Who would have believed me?'' McNamara says exactly the same: "If I had resigned and told all this stuff, it would have been a one-day story.''

Even they wouldn't have been believed without documents, but that's the hidden premise. They, like myself and lots of other people, had the ability to say,  "Here are the documents. I'll tell you all I know about them. You judge for yourself.''

What could McNamara have done? He says, "one-day story.'' He knew the war was hopeless in late '65, if not earlier. He knew that, especially when there was no response to our bids for so-called negotiations - that is, Vietnamese surrender - in December of '65.

I didn't know this at the time. He told Harriman, "The best we can hope for is defeat with honor.'' Defeat with honor. He told that to James Galbraith. Whether he told the President at that time, I don't know. He did in '67.

But he had an alternative. He had the option of going before Fulbright in his hearings of February '66, which he declined to do when asked. He wouldn't go; he could have gone. He could have said, "Ask me for these documents, I'll give them to you. No violation of laws here. I'll declassify them. Or, you can have them classified. Ask me these questions. I'll testify. I'll tell you what you want to know.''

He could have ended the war. But did he consider that? No - no more than I did six months later.

There is a very interesting question of whether The New York Times would have published the documents in '63, '64. I can't answer that. Or, whether The Washington Post could. Would they have published them in '70, in '69? Possibly not. Newsmen have told me that. Afterwards? I think, in many cases, not.

So there was a configuration of events in '71. And with the Post, I think, a factor on both papers was a fear they would be scooped by the other. It got the information out.

So, there is a problem of being believed, especially when the news is unwelcome news. The President can still, to an amazing degree but less than before, control the mind and say, ``This isn't happening. This is what's happening.''

But The Pentagon Papers had that effect, and Watergate. So many other things have had that effect. The President can't just create reality, and that's very, very healthy.

Question: I'm wondering if you've given any thought to the lies, or at least the unanswered questions that we've had from our recent national leaders that are coming out of the Vietnam era. Whether you are talking about Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or Bob Kerry, it seems like they have not been straightforward with the American public about their own background in the military, or, avoiding the military, relating to their own personal lives.

Daniel Ellsberg: I can say two things. There has been a great change in journalistic standards - I don't believe for the better in this respect - on the diminution of their tolerance of the privacy of individuals, the sexual habits, the marital habits, the drugs, anything like that. I'm not saying this need be entirely irrelevant.

But I think for many reasons this has not been a helpful development on the whole. The relative priorities that are shown by the press and the public are quite deplorable. Should we be totally concerned and totally informed by what Clinton did with his cigars, and not what he did with his Cruise missiles?

All government officials lie, and nothing they say is to be believed. And that doesn't mean disbelieve or believe the opposite of everything they say. Sometimes, for their own purposes, they tell the truth or something like the truth.

But it does mean: Don't take anything an official says as the last word. Check it, counter it, probe, investigate. That's what a republic needs. And I have not seen the evidence that sexual behavior is so closely correlated with political behavior as to deserve enormous focus from a political point of view. But many, many other things do deserve a lot more, and I would like to draw attention to one amazing thing that I think has never gotten enough attention about the press.

It refers to The Pentagon Papers almost uniquely. The Pentagon Papers is not just the revelation of a leak. It was large, but that happens all the time, even for the Post or the Times. The Pentagon Papers episode was a circumstance in which one newspaper after another, in the face of injunctions, declined requests from the Attorney General and the President to refrain from publishing or to stop publishing.

Not one paper did that until they were enjoined. Other papers did it in full understanding that they could be or would be enjoined and they went ahead. They were then defying an Attorney General's judgment that they were violating the law, which is not something a newspaper with conglomerates and TV franchises does lightly. They were told by the President, ``I am the Commander-in-Chief. I am the President. In my judgment, this publication and continued publication immediately jeopardizes the national security of the United States.''

We had a configuration in history where every newspaper offered these Papers decided to trust their own judgment of what they were reading against the President's.

I believed there was a sort of official secrets act. So all of us were doing something that we thought might be constitutional, in a deep sense, or hoped it was. But it was probably contrary to some law.

I was wrong. Their lawyers told them this would be legal. One law firm of The New York Times dropped them as a client on the grounds that it was not only illegal and politically wrong but treason, and they wouldn't be associated with it. The Times got new lawyers and went ahead.

Their courage, I think, has never been given sufficient appreciation. Remember, it wasn't just a political judgment against the war as it was for me and Tony and many other people. New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal was not against the war. I don't know about Washington Post publisher Kay Graham, but I'm not aware that she was a fanatic antiwar person at that point. They went ahead, for professional reasons, reasons of conscience. Abe Rosenthal was absolutely prepared to resign if they did not use the documents. He went into the meeting with Punch Sulzberger (his publisher), who supported the war, ready to resign if they wouldn't publish documents.

As I've been saying all along, not one government official in the course of that war - including hundreds of thousands who believed this war was catastrophic, disastrous, usually not criminal or immoral, but disastrous, costly - not one resigned, let alone resigned with documents.

So, the contrast here between these two particular arms of government is very striking. It applies to Congress as well. I approached a number of senators. They backed off. Every one of them said yes, first. Two of them said yes, first, and then had second thoughts: George McGovern and Mac Mathias.

Sen. Mike Gravel, before the Supreme Court decision, took a step that he knew might be judged as illegal, could cost him his job, and did cost him his status in the senatorial club. He read those secret documents into the record.

A second time, later, he tried to read National Security Study Memorandum I in 1972 into the record. It was blocked. Rep. Ron Dellums put it into the House record. So, it can be done. But 17 newspapers - that was a standard of civil disobedience. They wouldn't have liked that term for it. Civil disobedience by the newspapers that was nonviolent and truthful, Gandhian. That was of enormous importance.


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