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source of historical documents which shed much light on many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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Question: Behind that
assumption is the assumption, effectively, that democracy
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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