Daniel Ellsberg Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Reflections on the Vietnam War: Presidential Decisions and Public Dissent; Conversation with Daniel Ellsberg; 7/29/98 by Harry Kreisler

Page 1 of 8

Vietnam: First Look

Dan, welcome to Berkeley.

Glad to be here.

When did you first become involved with Vietnam?

I've really never discussed this before in public, but the fact is that I was there in 1961 in connection with a task force, a study group for the Kennedy Defense Department, on limited war research and development. And our group, which included a Berkeley physicist who had been involved in the Manhattan Project, Alvarez, and the inventor of the transistor, Shockley, and a number of others -- technical people on the whole except for me, who was representing the social sciences. We went to a number of bases around the world talking to people about what their requirements might be for spending research and development money, budget money, on things for limited war, for conventional war, since most money had gone for nuclear war research up until that point. Kennedy was prepared to spend money on conventional war, both in Europe and elsewhere. We went to Vietnam in that connection.

I spent just a week there, but I spent that week very actively reading, night and day really, many, many hours, reading reports and talking to the advisory group there. And of course at that time, which was about August of 1961, there was still only the small number of advisors that were admitted under the Geneva Accords of 1954. I think it was on the order of sixty or so, a very small number; or hundreds at the most. I got a picture of Vietnam at that point that led me to decide to stay away from that problem, bureaucratically, for the rest of my career if I could. I came back and helped write a report for Rand, which incorporated what I had learned in that study group, and the advice was, basically, don't ask for research money for this, don't get involved, stay away from it, this is a total loser. Because it was already apparent in 1961, or earlier for that matter, that there was really no promise of Western efforts to subdue the movement for national independence and sovereignty in Vietnam, which was led by communists, but communists who had beaten the French, who had very strong American financial support, materials and so forth. We were facing essentially the same people there, and the likelihood that we would do better than the French had done seemed very small. And I actually acted on that [intuition not to work on Vietnam] to the extent that when I was doing a lot of consulting in the Pentagon, [I did it] largely on nuclear matters.

This would be during the Kennedy administration.

During the Kennedy Administration in 1961 and 1962, 1963; I really avoided knowing anything about Vietnam, getting into discussions of Vietnam. I didn't want to be drawn into it. I thought being tarred with that, essentially, would be like being associated with the Bay of Pigs, that perfect failure which had ruined the careers of nearly anybody who had touched it.

Next page: Government Advisor

© Copyright 1998, Regents of the University of California