Daniel Ellsberg reflects on the role the Pentagon Papers played in ending the war, and says he wishes he'd released them years earlier.
Daniel Ellsberg is arguably the greatest whistle-blower in American history. Nearly 30 years after he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and the Washington Post, Ellsberg has become an important part of the greater story of the Vietnam War. His name now shows up everywhere, from coffee-table books on the American century to journalism school textbooks.
In 1971, Ellsberg, who had worked as an analyst under Secretary Robert McNamara at the Department of Defense, went public with the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page study of America’s 30-year involvement in Indochina that led to the Vietnam War. The report, commissioned by the DOD, revealed government deception, miscalculation and bureaucratic arrogance. Among other things, it revealed that President Lyndon Johnson had been committing infantry to Vietnam while telling the nation that he had no long-range plans for the war. Most damning was the overall impression it gave that the U.S. government did not believe it was possible to win the war.
By giving the documents to Times correspondent Neil Sheehan, Ellsberg risked spending 115 years in the slammer. Indeed, he would later be charged with espionage, theft and conspiracy. The charges were eventually dropped by a federal judge, who wrote that a pattern of “gross government misconduct” — including a break-in at Ellsberg’s former psychiatrist’s office that was linked to the White House — was so appalling that the administration’s retaliatory actions “offend the sense of justice.”
The Nixon Justice Department responded quickly and furiously to the Times’ publication of the classified documents on June 13, 1971, and just after the third installment was published, it secured a restraining order preventing further installments from being printed. The move surprised few, given the critical view the papers took of the war.
By then, however, the Washington Post’s Ben Bagdikian had also obtained the documents — which, as former publisher Katharine Graham recalled in her memoir, were so voluminous they wouldn’t fit inside the suitcase Bagdikian used to fetch them — and contributed to the unstoppable momentum by publishing more excerpts. Within two weeks, the case made its way to the Supreme Court and, in the most important prior-restraint case ever heard, the court ruled that the government had not shown compelling evidence to justify blocking publication.
At 69, Ellsberg is still a feisty activist, only he has shifted his focus in recent years from Vietnam to nuclear nonproliferation. He’s also penning his memoirs, for which Viking Books won a six-figure bidding war.
During a telephone interview last week, Ellsberg reflected on the lessons of Vietnam and the more recent protests in Seattle and Washington. When Ellsberg compares today’s protest movements with the antiwar activism of the 1960s, he is drawing a parallel that few others are qualified to make.
Looking back, what role do you think releasing the Pentagon Papers played in bringing an end to the Vietnam War?
It panicked Richard Nixon into criminal actions to silence me from revealing information about his secret Vietnam policy. Those criminal actions, when they were discovered in 1973, played a major role in his impeachment proceedings, which led to his resignation. I believe he intended to renew the bombing of North Vietnam in ’73 or ’74, so I think [the Pentagon Papers] did play a role in shortening our bombing of Vietnam and shortening the war by a few years.
Had he not reacted that way, the effect would not have been great because — although the release of the papers did have an immediate and very large effect on public attitudes toward the war and their desire to see it end — it did not directly cause Nixon to give up his hopes of winning or postponing a defeat indefinitely.
The actions that he took to keep me from revealing his secret threats of escalation were known to the people who were caught in the Watergate scandal. And these acts were the cancer on the presidency that led to his downfall.
The release of the Pentagon Papers changed your life. It forced you into the public eye and put you at great risk of prosecution. How do you feel about your decision today?
I thought it was right at the time and have never had any reason to question that since. I never thought, by the way, that I had a high chance of ending or shortening the war. I thought it was worth doing anyway — telling the truth — and hoped it might shorten the war. Since, in fact, it seems to have had quite a powerful effect, I’m all the more happy. My only regret is that I didn’t do it a number of years earlier, when they might have had a much more powerful effect in averting the war or ending it. If I had released the papers in ’64 or ’65 when I was in the Pentagon, there might not have been any war. And we might have averted 58,000 American dead and millions of Vietnamese [deaths]. That’s a heavy responsibility, but, unfortunately, I didn’t imagine doing it at that time.
When you look back on the war, what do you think our involvement accomplished? Was it worth the catastrophic losses?
[Chuckles] That’s a strange question to ask me, in a way. It accomplished the deaths of several million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans, which were, of course, sheer wasted lives. It was also an enormous assault on the American Constitution. It was a war pursued by a succession of presidents without any informed authorization by Congress. It was a subversion of our democratic control of foreign policy.
The movement against the war that it evoked did achieve an important reaffirmation of the role of Congress and the need for an informed public and the value of our impeachment clause in the Constitution. In the end, many people came to appreciate more than before the importance of democracy and foreign policy and public activism. We in the public have a crucial role to play and do have some power to affect events, although the war was ended by Congress and the public only very belatedly, at an enormous human cost.
To what degree has our experience in Vietnam reshaped American foreign policy?
It produced what presidents call, regretfully, the “Vietnam syndrome,” which still exists. It’s a skepticism, a proper, realistic skepticism by the public that their leaders can be trusted to tell the truth or to make wise decisions — and an unwillingness to send their sons (and now daughters) to die for reasons undefined by their leaders, or in the absence of good reason, or on the basis of shallow lies by their leaders. It has made it harder for presidents to use our armed forces as a presidential guard that they can use to whatever end they want. This isn’t entirely a good effect, as it’s forced them to rely on bombing — as in Kosovo — where the public gives them a good deal more leeway, rather than using ground troops in situations that they cannot explain to the public as essential to our security.
How has the experience of the Vietnam War transformed American culture and identity?
Again, the behavior, I think, of thousands and thousands of young Americans who gave everything they had nonviolently to oppose a wrongful war was a precedent that was very valuable to us. It came after the civil rights movement and a long tradition of American nonviolent direct action going back to Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr., but also the growth of the union movement and women’s suffrage. But it was very much reaffirmed by this antiwar activity, which changed my life.
I wouldn’t have thought of doing what I did — which threatened me with 115 years in prison — without the immediate face-to-face example of young Americans, some of the 5,000 who were choosing prison [instead of military service] to send the starkest message they could. That example lives in the very idealistic and conscientious actions we saw taken in Seattle and recently in Washington. I risked arrest [earlier this month] with a lot of young men and women who looked very, very familiar to me from 25 years ago. Their inspiration was, in part, those same people 25 years ago.
Are the political convictions of the current generation of protesters as deep as those of students during the Vietnam War?
I’m impressed to say yes, at least on the surface. It’s hard to imagine or understand how they could care as much about institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, which are nominally international but basically controlled by the U.S. and its Western European allies. It’s hard to imagine that the deprivations of the poor in the rest of the world could concern people here as much as Vietnam, even in the absence of a direct impact on Americans. You know, there aren’t Americans dying as a result of these actions, as they were in Vietnam. And yet, these people were comparably committed and concerned.
The point of view of the people in the streets opposing the IMF has a lot going for it. It’s not just that these are nondemocratic organizations. They’re also wrong. They’re stupid, counterproductive and disastrous in their policies. What do you do if you conclude that these people are following humanly disastrous policies? These people are acting with their bodies to catch people’s attention, and they’ve done so with astonishing success. They made people aware that these institutions exist, and most people had probably never heard of them before Seattle. It took getting people in the streets and getting people arrested to make people aware of that.
We learned from Vietnam how stupid, ignorant, unrealistic as well as murderous and disastrous policies can be that are pursued by our government and elite institutions. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes, and young people are capable of seeing through.
Any other lessons?
If you’re willing to pay the price in your own personal life of inconvenience, maybe jail and your reputation, you can have an effect. Because many policies can’t survive public scrutiny — it was true of Nixon and Johnson’s Vietnam policy and it will prove true with some of these economic policies.
If someone like myself — or Jeffrey Wigand or Merrell Williams, who put out tobacco company documents — is willing to pay the personal price that will result, they can have a lot of effect using this formula: Tell the Congress and the press the truth, with documents. The documents are necessary because otherwise people will never believe you.
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