The Salon Interview: Daniel Ellsberg

Like John Kerry, he returned from the Vietnam War to become one of its most famous opponents. Now the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers blasts the Bush camp's "obscene" attack on Kerry's patriotism.

By David Talbot
February 20, 2004 7:15AM (UTC)
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They fully supported America's decision to go to war in Vietnam. In fact, they firmly believed that the U.S. should have fought the war even more aggressively. This would, of course, have cost more American lives and even more Vietnamese lives. And it risked certain confrontation with China, even nuclear war. But damn it all, they were for it, if that's what it took America to win!

This is the position George W. Bush claims he held as a young man during the Vietnam War. It was also the position held by his top policymakers and advisors, like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. In fact, they still think it, as Bush made clear to Tim Russert on "Meet the Press." Yes, they ached for a fuller, that's right, bloodier war, one with no "political" restrictions on our military, as Bush put it. But here's where it gets complicated: They didn't actually want to shed any of their own blood.


Bush, as we all know by now, used family pull to get into the safe haven of the National Guard, where we are absolutely certain he kept at least one dental appointment, but are somewhat vaguer about the rest of his service record. As for his vice president, well, he had "other priorities."

Vietnam, never fully gone, is back again this presidential year and, as the country finds itself in another bloody swamp -- or sand pit -- our baby-boom generation leaders are being forced once again to account for what they did back in the 1960s and '70s.

John Kerry has a much better war story to tell the American people than Bush: He not only served, he was a hero who saved men's lives. So the president's aggressive political machine, as ever taking the offensive when it senses its own weakness, is trying to find a way to wound Kerry before Bush loses any more blood. Here's the new GOP line of attack, as demonstrated by Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie, New York Times columnist David Brooks, the National Review, and all the usual TV frothers (none of whom found a way to serve his country in Vietnam, or today in Iraq): yes, Kerry was a decorated hero, but he betrayed his fellow soldiers when he came home by denouncing the war, casting shame on their great sacrifice. (Newt Gingrich, another draft-dodging hawk, announced last weekend that Republicans would play the traitor card, by tarring Kerry as a "Jane Fonda antiwar liberal.") The fact that most veterans returned from Vietnam as disillusioned with the war as Kerry was -- and that many of these gray-haired warriors are rallying around his campaign today -- puts a bit of a crimp in the Republican strategy. But that has not stopped Karl Rove and company from continuing to bang this drum.


To many members of the Vietnam generation -- including antiwar activists such as myself -- John Kerry was a hero twice over. He not only fought valiantly during the war, he again put himself on the line when he came home, by trying to awaken America to what he had learned about the war, and once again trying to save lives.

Kerry's postwar bravery calls to mind another American hero from that era, Daniel Ellsberg, the military advisor who returned from Vietnam equally heartsick about what was being done in his country's name. Like Kerry, Ellsberg did not sink into bitterness or complacency after he returned. He changed history by copying the Pentagon Papers, the government's secret history of the war, and releasing them to the press. If the nation's leaders would not tell the American people the dark truths about the war that they confided among themselves, Ellsberg would, though he risked prison and ruin.

Three decades later, the ghosts of Vietnam have also been revisiting the 72-year-old Ellsberg, who lives in Kensington, Calif., not far from the University of California at Berkeley campus, with his wife, Patricia. As Bush's National Guard controversy erupted in the press, "The Fog of War," Errol Morris' powerful, Academy Award-nominated documentary on the hard-won lessons of history, literally brought the war home for Ellsberg. Morris brought his film, along with its subject, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara -- the man who had commissioned the Pentagon Papers -- to Berkeley's Zellerbach Auditorium earlier this month. Ellsberg was in the audience, as McNamara alternately thrilled the graying crowd of peace veterans with his impassioned denunciations of the folly of war and then frustrated them with his refusal -- once again -- to publicly condemn a sitting president and his tragic military adventure.


I spoke with Ellsberg about the return of Vietnam to presidential politics and Robert McNamara's reemergence on the national stage.

The Republicans are attacking Kerry now for betraying his fellow Vietnam veterans by condemning the war after he returned


They are? Amazing! I don't even like to hear this. It makes me gag. Is this something new, I haven't heard about this? This is just obscene. I hate to hear this. The fact is that Kerry's group, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, upheld the honor of this country.

Kerry's GOP critics are saying he's a political waffler because he questioned the war before he went, but then went to Vietnam anyway. And then he publicly denounced the war after he returned.

As I said, this is making my flesh crawl, to hear George Bush, who went into the National Guard to stay out of Vietnam, even though he supposedly supported the war ...


Yes, not only did he support the war, but he thought the U.S. should have fought it harder ...

You mean he wanted those other guys to fight it even harder. He wanted his fellow airmen, who were not in the National Guard, but in the Air Force, to put themselves much more at risk in killing people in North Vietnam, dodging SAMs [surface to air missiles], while he dodged his monthly duties in Alabama in an outfit that was preparing for war in Europe, should that arise.

And of course he's at one with virtually all of the neocons in that respect. Cheney had "other priorities" during Vietnam and apparently spent the war in a secure location somewhere, I guess in Arizona. Rumsfeld had indeed flown in the Air Force in the 1950s, so no lack of courage there, just to fly those planes takes courage. But I noticed that Rumsfeld, who's exactly my age, did not manage to use his military training in any way in Vietnam. He was too old presumably to go there as a flyer. But there were lots of jobs for him in Vietnam if had wanted, but he chose to sit out the war back here.


I joined the service -- the Marines -- just about the same time he did, in the 1950s, which were peacetime years. Nonetheless, when I was 34, and he was 34, I signed up again and went to Vietnam.

What year did you go?

In 1965. I was a civilian, but I volunteered to go there with General Ed Lansdale to evaluate our pacification program. I was in 38 of the 43 provinces. But the point is, I found a way to use my Marine training as an infantry company commander, and I used that training to observe troops in action in Vietnam, under fire.

So for these guys, who never served in action when they had a chance, to criticize Kerry now, it's just appalling. You've got me kind of worked up, to hear about these guys attacking Kerry now, it's just an obscenity.


Now I must say I admire Kerry's comment that he has never criticized, and will not criticize, anyone's relation to that war, which was a wrongful war and a mistaken war. Kerry says whatever you did as a young man then -- whether you went to Canada to avoid the draft, or joined the National Guard, or went to Vietnam as he did, or was a conscientious objector, or went to prison -- whatever you did, he will never criticize anyone's decision. And I think that is a very creditable position.

The Republicans are trying to turn Jane Fonda into Kerry's Willie Horton -- there's even a faked photo of the two of them together being circulated on the Internet. The suggestion here is that, like Fonda, Kerry was a traitor after the war.

That's why this has gotten me so agitated, to hear that word "traitor" or "betrayal" used by these people -- who frankly I do not respect. Like Kerry, I won't condemn someone like Bush for going into the National Guard. But for someone like that to condemn someone like Kerry, who behaved so much better in every respect, is just revolting. It's just disgusting, and it shows a very bad character, I would say.

I'm sure Kerry felt he was doing his duty as an American, whatever his doubts about the war were before he went. By the way, the fact that he had doubts about the war before he went shows he had his feet on the ground. So did I, and so did a lot of people in the Pentagon. So here's Kerry going off to war to do his duty, so some other guy doesn't have to take his place. And then here are these guys, Bush and those around him, who did not expose themselves to danger during Vietnam, though in principle they agreed with the war.


Kerry goes to war and sees it for himself, unlike Bush. And he learned what I did and virtually everyone who went to Vietnam would learn -- 3 million Americans went there -- that what we were doing, and what we were likely to do, had no prospect of success. And that people were killing and dying for no good enough reason. That's the minimum we learned, and that's enough to want it to stop right away. So we all came back disillusioned with the war. And I came back to a Pentagon that was filled with people who were disillusioned with the war.

So then the question is, "What to do about it?" And what Kerry and his fellow antiwar veterans did should be admired by all Americans -- they did not merely subside into disillusion and apathy, they did what they could to wake up their fellow Americans to what we had learned in Vietnam. And I respect that.

The vets came back and did what they could, at risk to their own status in society, at the risk of condemnation, which they certainly did get. They obviously spoke out with unusual authority, as people who had demonstrated their patriotism -- not only in a conventional way, by going into the military, but like Kerry, with exemplary behavior as soldiers. And then he and the others came back and showed courage again as citizens, facing the condemnation of the Nixon administration and their allies. And for someone like Kerry who had obviously lived his life as a patriot, thinking of himself as patriotic, it's especially painful to be called unpatriotic and traitorous.

Does it surprise you that this issue still has such resonance for people today?


Well, I am surprised that this White House, staffed by draft dodgers or at least war dodgers, is making this into such an issue. This goes beyond chutzpah, it's frankly obscene.

It reminds me of John Wayne. I was one of many young men in America recruited into the Marines by John Wayne. I saw him in "The Sands of Iwo Jima." And later, when I was a Marine and I was on liberty from the 6th Fleet in Rome, I saw him in a restaurant and sent a bottle of wine to his table with my compliments and telling him what a marvelous hero he was to all Marines. And I went over and shook hands with him.

Later I learned that he had escaped military duty in World War II. He let it be known that he had a trick knee, which didn't prevent him from working in cowboy movies and whatnot -- he said he had a football knee or something. That was not true. John Wayne stayed out of the war that Jimmy Stewart and other movie stars flew combat missions in and fought in. He stayed out of it by letting Republic Studios make the plea that he was essential to the war effort as an actor.

So OK, that's all right, I suppose. It's our problem if we regard John Wayne as a hero because of his movies. But then, in Vietnam, he had the audacity to call people who resisted the war, and risked jail, "yellow-bellies" and "commie scum" and "traitors" -- phrases like that. And that -- that -- was unforgivable, I thought.

It's an inexact analogy, but these attacks on Kerry today bring to mind John Wayne and his hypocrisy.

I mean, to call this guy, Kerry, a traitor, of all people! Here is a guy who actually goes over there and serves to the hilt -- and his men testify to his heroism and how he saved their lives in a number of cases. And he goes over and he is a war hero. And then he comes home and acts on what he has learned, to tell the truth about what he has learned, to try to save other lives. He did more to save lives at home than he ever had a chance to do when he was in arms in Vietnam.

Compare someone like Kerry to these high government officials from the Vietnam era, these secret doves like McNamara and Clark Clifford and Hubert Humphrey. Not one of them shared their real views, or their warnings, with the American public or Congress. None of them jeopardized their relationship with the president, none of them jeopardized their careers, their security clearances, their ability to come back in future administrations. None of them broke with the policy that they themselves thought was disastrous. None of them took steps to save any lives.

In contrast to that, these veterans like Kerry used their authority -- not the authority of high government clearances or Cabinet rank -- but the authority of having been shot at and suffered wounds in many cases for what they had been led to believe was in the interest of their country. These people came back and said, "We were misled, we were mistaken in what we did." They did not defend what they did in Vietnam, and as they told the public, much of what they did in Vietnam was very ugly. They saw crimes and they committed crimes -- war crimes. And these veterans, people like Kerry, came back and spoke the truth and did what they could to end the war. Which McNamara did not do -- and which none of these high government officials did.

Now McNamara is in a somewhat different category. Because I believe that at least he, unlike the others, was in a position to keep the country from greatly expanding the war -- which I believe would've cost even more loss of life and still no victory. The right wing says, "He kept us from winning." I don't think they know what they're talking about. So it may be that he did in fact save a lot of lives, even as he was pursuing a policy that cost a lot of lives. I'll be specific here. In his last year in office, 1967, I believe McNamara did act very creditably as an insider, to keep us from expanding the war into a possible war with China, by going into North Vietnam much more heavily.

But when he left office, the war had seven more years to go. He left in 1968, the war continued until 1975. And there were five more years of American ground combat left. Most of the bombs fell after he left, most of the Americans and Vietnamese died after he left. And he was totally silent. And he has no good excuse for that. He did not save any lives after he left office by telling us the truths about the war that he could have.

The question after any scarring episode in history like Vietnam is, "What did you do in the war, daddy?" That must be applied here. If you did not come to believe that the war was false, a moral catastrophe, then it was not a credit to your wisdom or character or maturity. But if you did realize it, like most Americans, the next test is, "Then what did you do upon realizing that?"

And I will say that certainly the most creditable role for a citizen at that point is to do everything possible to stop it. And the highest standard was set by the people who went to prison for nonviolent draft resistance. And the other highest standard was set by the vets, who came home and put themselves on the line by speaking out and marching against the war. Vets like John Kerry set a standard for the whole country.

I think this is Kerry's strongest qualification to be a leader of this country.

In January, McNamara spoke out against the war in Iraq for the first time, telling the Toronto Globe and Mail the war is "morally wrong, politically wrong, economically wrong." But when he was pressed to repeat his criticisms on stage in Berkeley this month, he refused, suggesting that it was improper for a former high government official to publicly attack U.S. policy and that it could cost lives in Iraq. You were in the audience that night -- what was your reaction?

Well, clearly we differ. I could not disagree more. To say that someone who had inside knowledge and government experience should not share that with the public, at a time when we're facing prolongation of a wrongful war, is just plain wrong.

I'll say this, McNamara is consistent. He refused to act from his inside knowledge and authority and experience to end the Vietnam War, and he's now refusing for the same reason to end the Iraq war. And he's consistent -- he was wrong then and he's wrong now.

I don't know what he actually learned from Vietnam -- I genuinely don't know, he might have learned something. He did clearly learn from the Cuban missile crisis, he did learn the risks of nuclear war can arise even with relatively rational men in power. That's an incredibly important message he's trying to convey, and I give him credit for that.

But McNamara has not learned that he could be far more effective as an outside critic of U.S. policy. After he got out of government, he could have been far more effective than he was inside, by speaking out and saving lives. And he could save lives right now, in Iraq. He said in Berkeley that he did not want to risk American lives in Iraq by speaking out about the war. But it's difficult to figure out how he would be endangering lives by doing that.

It's not difficult to know exactly what the cost of his silence was during the Vietnam War. His failure to speak out -- and mine -- during those early years, 1964, '65, '66 and in his later years, did not just endanger troops, it cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese. And it's amazing that he hasn't learned that.

His admonition to the Berkeley audience to apply the lessons of Vietnam and be active and so forth is fine, as words. But it's pretty hollow because he's setting an example by refusing to inform that public in a way where they could be effective in their resistance.

I do respect a lot of parts of his career, actually, more than most people. But that is not a behavior pattern of his that I do respect.

Do you think, as you watch the war unfold in Iraq, that Bush learned any important lessons from Vietnam?

Have we learned the lessons? That's the real question. I think the lesson that the American people should take from Vietnam is that people in Bush's position, in government leadership, lie all the time. And deceive themselves that what is good for them and their administration is good for the country. That's the corruption of power, and the question is what are we going to do about it?

David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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