Daniel Ellsberg’s leaks from inside the Pentagon helped to end the Vietnam war. On the eve of another unpopular war, Chalmers Johnson holds out for an Ellsberg in the Bush administration…
–reprinted from The Guardian (UK) February 6, 2003 under FAIR USE principles–
(Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg Viking, 498 pp., $29.95, October 2002, 0 670 03030 9)
The subject of Daniel Ellsberg’s memoir is the decadence of American democracy. The conditions he began fighting in 1969 are much worse today and far more dangerous to many more people. Yet central casting could not have produced a more perfect foil for the American imperial Presidency than Ellsberg.
An infantry lieutenant in the Marine Corps with genuine battle experience in Vietnam, a PhD in economics from Harvard, and a defence intellectual employed by the Rand Corporation of Santa Monica, with the highest security clearances, Ellsberg is as good as the American system can produce in the way of a male citizen working in the foreign policy apparatus.
His odyssey from Pentagon staff officer to the man who spirited 47 volumes of top secret documents out of the Rand Corporation, copied them, and delivered them to the New York Times and a dozen other newspapers is breathtaking.
Ellsberg helped end the Vietnam War, but publication of this memoir now is not just a happy coincidence. The features of American government he documents – the cult of Presidential infallibility, the march of militarism, the executive’s routine lying to the other two branches and to the people, and the cancerous growth of official secrecy – are just as relevant today as they were thirty years ago. The United States, even the world, desperately needs more Ellsbergs.
Sunday, 13 June 1971 is a day I remember very clearly: the day when excerpts from the History of US Decision- Making in Vietnam, 1945-68 (the actual title of the ‘Pentagon Papers’) began to appear in the press. I was serving as a consultant to the CIA’s Office of National Estimates at the time. A collective sigh of relief went through the Agency: the truth was finally coming out.
CIA analysts, who had long known that the United States could not possibly ‘win’ the Vietnam War, would no longer have to pretend that victory was in sight. They had repeatedly warned the Government that things would only go from bad to worse.* But Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were interested above all in the effects the war would have on the elections of 1964, 1968 and 1972 respectively.
The source of the revelations was not a long-haired anti-war radical but one of us: a Marine officer, an insider’s insider, who had acted out of patriotism but fully expected to go to prison – had it not been for the fallout from Watergate and Nixon’s stupidities, he might have been eligible for parole in 2008.
Ellsberg and I were both born in 1931. He made his first visit to Vietnam in 1961; I made my one and only visit in 1962. In my opinion, his is the best, and psychologically the most convincing, account of how a well-educated young American of the 1950s and 1960s could think of himself as a ‘liberal’ and still be a committed Cold Warrior. As he says, ‘whether we had a right – any more than the French before us – to pursue by fire and steel in Indochina the objectives our leaders had chosen was a question that never occurred to me.’
His parents were professionals, of Russian Jewish ancestry but born in the US, and devout Christian Scientists. He went to Harvard on a full fellowship from the Pepsi Cola Company and did a postgraduate year at Cambridge on a Woodrow Wilson scholarship. Conscription was still in effect, and after his educational deferments ran out, Ellsberg had to decide how to fulfil his military service obligation. On his return from Britain, he applied for officer candidate school in the Marine Corps and enrolled in graduate school at Harvard until called. His PhD oral took place on the day he left for the Marine Corps training base at Quantico, Virginia.
Ellsberg is proud of his service as a rifle platoon leader in the Third Battalion, Second Marine Division. I don’t know how far to believe him when he writes: ‘More important for me, the Corps didn’t bomb cities; in the Pacific and Korea, it fought soldiers, not civilians,’ though it’s not a wholly implausible claim.
A persistent theme is his abhorrence of both terror and so-called ‘precision’ bombing, and particularly of nuclear weapons, a subject on which he subsequently became an expert at Rand. Like many people, he doesn’t believe in the effectiveness of air power and takes the view that terror bombing imitates Nazi practices.
He extended his service in the Marine Corps until the Suez Crisis had passed. When President Eisenhower forced the British and French to end ‘their Suez adventure’, he was ‘surprised and proud as an American… When I picked up European magazines and saw photos of what our allies’ bombing planes had done to the city of Port Said at the head of the canal, I felt glad that Americans didn’t have to look at pictures like those as our work.’
Ellsberg returned to Harvard to write his doctoral dissertation – on a typically American subject, game theory – and then accepted a position with the Economics Department of the Rand Corporation. He was put to work on command and control problems in fighting a nuclear war.
Disillusionment set in at once. In the autumn of 1961, shortly after Kennedy had effectively exploited the so- called missile gap for his own electoral purposes, Ellsberg read a highly classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the subject and discovered that it had all been a lie: there was a gap but it was ten to one in favour of the US. This, he said, had ‘a shocking effect on my professional worldview’. There were many more to come.
At this time, Ellsberg was not particularly interested in Vietnam. He had made a short trip to Saigon in 1961 and concluded (as I did) that the slogan ‘Sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem’ was a recipe for failure. In July 1964, however, he was asked by John McNaughton, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, to join him in the Pentagon as his special assistant. The Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, had given McNaughton responsibility for co- ordinating strategy towards Vietnam, and he wanted Ellsberg to take charge of the day-to-day details. Ellsberg, then 33 years old, was appointed at the exalted civil service grade of GS-18, equivalent in terms of status and salary to a position between major- general and lieutenant-general.
It would soon go to his head, as it does with everyone who is granted unrestricted access to secrets beyond top secret. He remembers telling Henry Kissinger in a briefing after Kissinger had become Nixon’s National Security Adviser:
“After you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget that there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t… and that all those other people are fools… You’ll be thinking… ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues… and with myself.”
His first full day at the Pentagon was 4 August 1964, the day the destroyer USS Maddox sent flash dispatches to Washington from the Gulf of Tonkin saying that it was ‘under continuous torpedo attack’. President Johnson went on television to tell the nation that the ship was on a ‘routine patrol in international waters’, that the attack was ‘unprovoked’, and that the US was the victim of a ‘deliberate pattern of naked aggression’. Johnson ordered the carrier USS Ticonderoga to launch air strikes against North Vietnam. On 7 August, by a vote of 416 to 0 in the House of Representatives and 88 to 2 in the Senate, Congress approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, setting the United States on a path to full-scale war against North Vietnam.
And yet, Ellsberg writes, ‘I was learning from cables, reports and discussions in the Pentagon the background that gave the lie to virtually everything told both to the public and more elaborately to Congress in secret session.’ The Vietnamese attack, if it had actually occurred at all, was assuredly provoked. The Maddox had been on a secret mission well inside Vietnamese territorial waters. The highest ranking officials of the US Government had approved the mission in advance. The director of Central Intelligence, John McCone, told the President that the North Vietnamese were ‘reacting defensively’. Nonetheless, Johnson personally lied to Senator William Fulbright, the highly respected chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in order to get him to sponsor the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in Congress.
Ellsberg took all this calmly. He accepted Johnson’s campaign slogan for the 1964 Presidential election – ‘We seek no wider war’ – even though he knew the President was moving in precisely the opposite direction. He believed that these deceptions were necessary ploys to defeat the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, who wanted to use nuclear weapons against Vietnam and China.
In mid-1965, the legendary Major-General Edward Lansdale – ‘legendary’ for having thoroughly militarised the Philippine Government in the name of ‘counterinsurgency’ – was asked to return to Vietnam as special assistant to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. After hearing Lansdale talk in Washington, Ellsberg asked to join his team. He transferred from the Department of Defense to the Department of State at the same civil service grade, and set off for Saigon, still very much with the outlook of a Cold Warrior and a Marine infantry officer. Lansdale assigned him the job of visiting every province of South Vietnam and reporting on the ‘pacification’ efforts.
To do this, Ellsberg associated himself with another legendary figure, John Paul Vann, then working as an adviser to the US Agency for International Development. With Vann at the wheel of a jeep, they drove all over South Vietnam. Vann taught the neophyte Ellsberg many tricks of the trade: always drive fast because that makes it much harder for guerrillas to detonate a mine under your car, and always travel in the morning, after the previous night’s mines have been blown but before they have all been replaced.
During these inspection tours, Ellsberg went on patrol with American units and often found himself in combat. Even though he was technically a civilian, he could not go along as a simple observer. He got a Swedish K submachine-gun from the CIA and revived his skills as an infantryman. He was surprised to discover that, with a little experience, you can usually tell from the sound when a bullet is coming directly at you. From walking around up to his neck in flooded marshes he caught hepatitis. In mid-summer 1967, after he had recovered somewhat, he left Vietnam and returned to Rand.
This tour of duty was very important to Ellsberg’s political development. There was no pacification, since our South Vietnamese allies simply had no stomach for fighting their fellow Vietnamese. He discovered that the conflict was not a civil war, as so many academics around the world believed. One side, the South, was entirely equipped and paid for by a foreign power. As he writes, ‘we were not fighting on the wrong side; we were the wrong side.’
Back in the US, Ellsberg was particularly incensed by the daily drumbeat of official statements from the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State and the high command in Vietnam, all of them insisting that the US was making great ‘progress’ in winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people.
Then came the Tet Offensive of 29 January 1968 – simultaneous Vietcong attacks in almost every province of South Vietnam as well as in Saigon itself. The scale of the offensive strongly suggested that American leaders were either incompetent or lying. On 10 March, the New York Times published a leak from inside the Pentagon to the effect that General William Westmoreland, the commanding officer in Vietnam, was asking for 206,000 more troops. Neil Sheehan and Hedrick Smith reported this leak, which was accurate and had a devastating effect on Congress and the American people.
It did not come from Ellsberg, but ‘as I observed the effect of this leak,’ he recalls, ‘it was as if clouds had suddenly opened. I realised something crucial: that the President’s ability to escalate, his entire strategy throughout the war, had depended on secrecy and lying and thus on his ability to deter unauthorised disclosures – truth-telling – by officials.’ It dawned on Ellsberg that, in the wake of Tet and the leak, President Johnson could not get away with his deceptions any longer.
Ellsberg was recalled from Rand to Washington to join a high-level working group evaluating the full range of options on Vietnam for the incoming Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford. In the capital he learned that McNamara had ordered John McNaughton to organise the writing of an internal historical study of US involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to the present based on top secret documents. McNaughton assigned the project to his deputy, Morton Halperin, who in turn delegated leadership of the work to his deputy, Leslie Gelb. At the time neither Halperin nor Gelb had ever been to Vietnam.
They, in turn, hired Ellsberg to write one of the projected 47 volumes, and he chose to work on JFK and the year 1961. One of the first things he did was to obtain from the CIA all the National Intelligence Estimates for Indochina from 1950 to 1960. ‘What was evident in each one of the years of major decision was that the President’s choice was not founded upon optimistic reporting or on assurances of the success of his chosen course.’ Ellsberg thus began to ask himself a forbidden question: why did every one of the Presidents from Truman to Johnson ‘mislead the public and Congress about what he was doing in Indochina?’ He had discovered part of the answer: it was not because the President’s subordinates deceived him.
The Pentagon Papers do not take the story beyond 31 March 1968, the day Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. The entire nation took his decision to mean that, whoever won the election, the new President would end the war through a negotiated withdrawal such as the one that had already been agreed in Laos. No one imagined that in the years to come the United States would drop enough bombs on Vietnam to equal just under three times World War Two’s total tonnage.
Ellsberg returned to Rand, but his research on the history of American policy in Vietnam had intrigued him. He therefore arranged to have a complete set of the Pentagon Papers transferred out of channels to his top secret safe at the Rand Corporation in California, where he could continue to study them in detail.
The trigger that set in motion the biggest leak of classified documents in American history, a constitutional crisis over the First Amendment’s protection of press freedom and Nixon’s resignation, was an article by Ted Sell on the front page of the Los Angeles Times of 30 September 1969 entitled ‘Murder Charges against Green Berets Dropped by Army’.
>From it Ellsberg learned that the Secretary of the Army, Stanley Resor, had ordered the military commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, to suspend the courts martial of Colonel Robert Rheault, commander of all Special Forces in Vietnam, and five other intelligence officers. They had been charged with killing a Vietnamese who had worked for them for the previous six years and then dropping his body in a weighted bag into the South China Sea. Their defence was that they thought he was a double agent. Interestingly enough, though this is not mentioned by Ellsberg, the author of the original screenplay of Apocalypse Now, John Milius, has said that the character of Kurtz, the maniacal American officer played by Marlon Brando, was inspired by Rheault.
Ellsberg was enraged by all the lies Resor proffered in his defence and by the comments of various Congressmen on how bad it would be for morale should American troops face criminal charges ‘just for killing one Vietnamese civilian in cold blood’. In his 1994 diary H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, confirmed that it had been Nixon and Kissinger who gave the orders to stop the prosecution – which was exactly what Ellsberg had suspected. ‘It occurred to me,’ he writes, ‘that what I had in my safe at Rand was seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four Presidents and their Administrations over 23 years, to conceal plans and actions of mass murder. I decided I would stop concealing that myself.’
On 1 October 1969, aided by his Rand colleague Anthony Russo and using a primitive Xerox machine in the office of Russo’s friend Lynda Sinay, the owner of a small advertising agency, Ellsberg began his monumental task. Working through the night, he and his friends would copy 47 volumes of the Pentagon Papers, cutting off the top and bottom markings on each page that read Top Secret so that they could later make more copies in commercial copy-shops.
Once finished, he gave a full set of the Papers to Senator Fulbright and tried to interest Senators Gaylord Nelson and George McGovern in publicising them or printing them in the Congressional Record. But Congressional courage, then as now, was in short supply. No Senator, not even Fulbright, accepted his offer.
On 2 March 1971, Ellsberg called Neil Sheehan of the New York Times. Sheehan was interested but never gave Ellsberg any assurances that the Times would publish the Pentagon Papers either in whole or in part. He also insisted that Ellsberg give him a full set of the Papers to show his editors. Ellsberg realised that if he did that he would cease to have any control over what the Times did with them or with him – it was after all possible that he would be turned over to the FBI before he could get the Papers out.
Ellsberg heard nothing from Sheehan for several weeks. In the meantime, as Ellsberg later discovered, Sheehan had gone in secret to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Ellsberg and his wife were living. Knowing the Ellsbergs were out of town and using a key Ellsberg had lent him (Ellsberg never explains why), Sheehan gained access to the apartment of Ellsberg’s wife’s younger brother, to whom Ellsberg had entrusted a set of Papers for safe-keeping. Sheehan removed the Papers and he and his wife photocopied them before returning them to the apartment.
Without saying anything to Ellsberg, the Times worked at a feverish pace to get the Papers ready for publication. On 12 June, a friend at the Times, assuming that Ellsberg already knew about it, called to say that the Papers were coming out the following day. Ellsberg was panic-stricken, thinking he might be arrested at any time. He hastily removed a set of the Papers from his own apartment and lodged them with Howard Zinn, a prominent anti-war activist. Ellsberg and his wife went into hiding and for 13 days managed to evade the FBI. Although he was pleased that the New York Times was publishing the Papers, Ellsberg found it easy to control his enthusiasm for the paper’s integrity in its dealings with him.
For the first time in American history, an Administration successfully obtained an injunction against a newspaper to stop a story it did not like. The New York Times ceased publication of the Pentagon Papers. On 30 June, the Supreme Court by a vote of six to three voided the injunction on constitutional grounds and publication resumed. In the meantime, in order to ensure that as many copies of the Papers as possible became available to the public, Ellsberg spent his last few days of freedom sending them to 18 other newspapers, including the Washington Post, all of which began publishing them.
On 28 June Ellsberg surrendered to Federal authorities in Boston. He was charged with a variety of felonies, although after carefully researching the matter, his attorney told him that he had probably not violated any existing law. As it happened, his fate wasn’t decided by a jury, but instead became enmeshed with the debacle at the White House and the scandal surrounding the Republican Party’s burglary of the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office building.
Nixon was never enthusiastic about using legal means to try to stop the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, or about getting Ellsberg convicted in a Federal court. He was, however, scared to death that Ellsberg had or was receiving more secret documents not just about previous Administrations but about his own. ‘Daniel Ellsberg is the most dangerous man in America. He must be stopped at all costs,’ Kissinger had said in the presence of the President.
In fact, Ellsberg did not have any materials touching on the Nixon Administration, but the President and Kissinger didn’t know that. Nixon therefore ordered Charles Colson, an official on his staff, to come up with a plan to ‘neutralise’ Ellsberg. Colson in turn enlisted the services of a former CIA officer called Howard Hunt, who had been the mastermind behind the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.
Hunt had several creative ideas. One was to send his agents to break into the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr Lewis Fielding, in Beverly Hills. They were hoping to find material they could use to blackmail Ellsberg into silence and perhaps also to embarrass Dr Fielding into testifying against his patient. However, the burglary of Dr Fielding’s office on 3 September proved to be, in Hunt’s words, a ‘dry hole’.
Some months later, on 3 May 1972, on the orders of Colson, the White House arranged to fly some Cuban- American veterans of the Bay of Pigs to Washington from Miami. They were told that Ellsberg (now released on bail) would be attending an anti-war rally on the steps of the Capitol and were instructed to assault him – to ‘break his legs’. The thugs did not go through with the plan when they realised that the crowd was too big to allow them to escape.
Meanwhile, the White House had invited Judge Matthew Byrne, the presiding magistrate at Ellsberg’s trial, to Nixon’s home in San Clemente, California. There Byrne met the President and his aide John Ehrlichman, who offered him the position of director of the FBI. It was an unspoken bribe to put Ellsberg away. But by then the Watergate investigation was gathering steam, and on 27 April 1973 the Watergate prosecutor sent Judge Byrne a letter telling him about the Fielding break-in.
On 30 April the judge received an FBI report of an interview with Ehrlichman, in which he admitted that the White House had ordered the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. That evening Ehrlichman and Haldeman resigned from the President’s staff. Simultaneously, Richard Helms, the director of the CIA, revealed that on the President’s orders the CIA had prepared a profile of Ellsberg, which by law it was forbidden to do where an American citizen was concerned. By now it was beginning to dawn on Judge Byrne that if this went much further, he rather than Ellsberg might end up in a Federal penitentiary. On 11 May, he accepted a motion for the dismissal of all charges against Ellsberg.
The story of the Pentagon Papers raises at least three questions of considerable contemporary relevance. The first derives from Ellsberg’s interest in the matter of Presidential lying. Was the problem then, as it is again today, that all American Presidents prefer to lie rather than to tell the public what it has a right to know?