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
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Government Advisor

But then a few years later you actually went back to Vietnam?

No, I was assigned. Actually after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which I participated.

It would have been October 1962.

The next year, yes. The fall of '62. I became very concerned about the possibility of nuclear war arising out of a crisis, and about the problematic aspects of decision making in crises, of understanding what was going on and deciding what to do. And I could see how a war could have come inadvertently or without either side really desiring it, out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. So I wanted to learn more about governmental crisis decision making. And I organized a study sponsored by Walt Rostow in the State Department policy planning council, as an interagency study to look at crisis decision making. And I had people helping me, thanks to Walt Rostow, in every department connected with these matters at the deputy secretary level -- Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Deputy Director of Intelligence in the CIA, the Deputy Secretary of State, and in Defense. And looking at records, very secret records with high clearances, beyond "Top Secret" actually, of decision making in things like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Suez Crisis in '56, at which time I'd been a marine in Alexandria harbor and watched British and French bombing during that crisis. I was particularly interested in that one. The U-2 Crisis, and a number of others. Especially, however, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the course of doing that study, in 1964, I was invited by the Assistant Secretary of Defense, John McNaughton, a former Harvard professor, to join him as his special assistant. He was asked by McNamara to spend about 60 - 70 percent of his time as McNamara's man on Vietnam. McNamara, in turn, was sort of running the war for the president. And McNaughton wanted me to spend 90 percent of my time on Vietnam, as he put it, to double his effectiveness, to find ways that he could improve his own effectiveness by seeing what he should read and what issues he should look at, and so forth.

So I was brought back in, somewhat reluctantly, to Vietnam. That was the situation I was invited to take part in. And I wanted to see governmental decision making now from the inside, having studied it as a researcher and a consultant for a number of years before that. And actually the first day that I started involving myself in it, reading the cables, as they say, which means immersing yourself in this huge flood of telegraph messages that come from a particular region. I began reading the cables on Vietnam and almost the first cables I read had to do with an apparent attack on our destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf. It was August 4, 1964. There had been a daylight attack two days earlier, on a Sunday, to which the United States had chosen not to respond other than to fire at the boats which were attacking. Now I was seeing very urgent cables coming in, saying that destroyers were again under attack, this time late at night. And their only knowledge of this was by radar and sonar.

To leap ahead some years: it was clear in later years that there had been no attack. They were fighting radar shadows and sonar shadows in the water, firing at them. And there had been no torpedoes in the water as they supposed.

But at the time, to begin with, they were told very clearly that these boats were under attack. Then, at a certain point on that very first day of my involvement, I read a cable that said, "Hold everything," The commodore of that two-destroyer flotilla recommended no action be taken until they had a chance to look at the water surrounding them the next day in daylight and see if there was wreckage or oil slicks or survivors in the water. Since they thought they had actually destroyed some boats, there should be some sign of it. There was very strong doubt as to how large the attack had been or whether there was an attack at all. It was not really possible to confirm that surely there had been an attack. Nevertheless, the president had already decided, by the time that cable was received, this time to start air operations against North Vietnam, the first air operations against North Vietnam, and actually I would say, the first air operations since Korea.

(I've been, in the last day or two, trying to think of whether there had been anything in between but I think these were really the first combat operations of that sort we'd seen since the Korean War had ended a dozen years earlier. So here we were, launching 64 sorties against North Vietnam. I was up all night. My first day on the job was also my first night on the job. I was up all night in the Pentagon following these raids and their aftermath, which were taking place on the other side of the world, twelve time zones different, so it was daylight over there and night for us.)

And then the next couple of days, the president got Congress to support almost unanimously, only two dissenting votes in the Senate, what he was to regard as the functional equivalent of a declaration of war -- The Tonkin Gulf resolution, which he felt gave him congressional support for a war, although that was not what Congress was led to understand they were voting for. And we were now off on the heavy U.S. combat phase of the Vietnam War, which really went on until 1973, and the war went on until 1975.

At that time did you have doubts about what the president was asking the Congress for, based on what you were seeing?

Ellsberg Far beyond doubts. The president said to Congress and the public that the evidence for the attack on our ships was unequivocal. He was not calling for a response or resolution on the basis of a possible attack or probable attack, but that there was unequivocal evidence of an attack. That was false. I knew that was a lie. Well before the attack got off, many, many doubts had been raised and it was clearly unclear [what was happening]. I think I would have said, and most people would have said "probably" with all this: "probably there was an attack." But that was not what the president told the public. He lied to the public.

Second, he said, assuming that there was an attack, it was clearly an unprovoked attack against destroyers on the high seas. That was a lie in the sense that the actual attack that had occurred two days earlier had followed covert, secret, denied attacks by the United States on North Vietnam just the night before, covert operations. And there had been similar attacks the night before the 4th, the night of the 3rd. So if there had been an attack, again there was just as much evidence as on the 2nd that it had been provoked by attacks on North Vietnam. McNamara, Rusk, Vance, all continued to conceal from the Congress that these U.S. attacks were taking place. As a matter of fact, McNamara in his book just a couple of years ago, still almost thirty years later, was describing those attacks as South Vietnamese attacks on North Vietnam. That's untrue, it's a lie. They were CIA attacks, entirely organized by the U.S. The South Vietnamese had essentially nothing to do with them.

Now, the men you were working with, the environment you were working with in the Pentagon, how do people deal with this incompatibility between what is being said publicly and what you and others know inside the corridors of power?

Well, I had been consulting for the government, this is now 1964, for about six years at that point, since 1959, [for] Eisenhower, Kennedy, and now Johnson. And I had seen a lot of classified material by this time, I mean tens of thousands of pages, and had been in a position to compare it with what was being said to the public. The public is lied to every day by the president, by his spokespeople, by his officers. If you can't handle the thought that the president lies to the public for all kinds of reasons, you couldn't stay at that government at that level, where you're made aware of it, a week.

I mention that because sometimes later people try speculating or saying why they thought I had given the Pentagon Papers to the Times with the expectation that I'd be sent to prison for it. As Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times said, "He couldn't stand the lying." Well, that's basically foolish. I was not going to prison for years simply to set the record straight. If you can't live with the idea that presidents lie, you can't work for presidents. And that issue is being raised today: we've been talking about it in the Monica Lewinsky case; but I'm talking now about affairs of state, not private matters but matters of life and death, war and peace. The fact is, presidents rarely say the whole truth, essentially never say the whole truth of what they expect and what they're doing and what they believe, why they're doing it. And rarely refrain from lying, actually, about these matters. It's simply more convenient and more politically effective, they feel, for them to present matters to the public in a way that happens not to correspond to reality.

So you focused on one particular set of events when you first came into the government. Subsequently you became more involved in the war. You actually went to the Vietnam and worked there after this period.

Yes, starting with this day of August 4, I spent about eleven months working on the escalation of the war in Vietnam in the Pentagon. Then, by the summer of 1965, the president had decided on an open-ended escalation of that war. We had been bombing now since February and were heavily involved, we had over 100,000 troops in Vietnam by that time. We were at war. And I, as a former marine in peacetime, 1954 - 1957 -- marine platoon leader and company commander, I didn't like the idea of following the war from Washington. Also, I wanted to understand it better than I felt could be done from Washington. I volunteered to go to Vietnam with a former CIA man named General Edward Lansdale, a retired Air Force general, to do liaison work at the embassy with the Vietnamese. I had a feeling that would give me a better chance to understand the war and perhaps avoid the worst kinds of outcomes.

I come back to something else -- I may have had, around the time I went in 1965, hopes that by pursuing the war differently or better, along General Lansdale's lines, we might come out with some relatively good outcome. If not a victory, something rather successful. Most of the time I was involved in Vietnam the year before that, and after a few months in Vietnam, it was quite clear that nothing lay ahead for us but frustration and stalemate and killing and dying. Very little hope of favorable or even an outcome that could be called acceptable, except for the possibility of postponing an open, clear-cut defeat or shift in policy.

Presidents, I found from studying it later in the files, had never really faced much recommendation that held out a clear-cut hope of a successful outcome in Vietnam to them. But on the other hand, they had faced the possibility that they could extend, they could postpone, that kind of embarrassment or that kind of defeat that was involved in getting out of Vietnam and letting the Vietnamese determine their own politics, which would have meant, clearly, over time, almost surely communist hegemony, communist domination in Vietnam by Vietnamese communists. And their alternative to that was that they could put it off at increasingly higher costs to the U.S. and to the Vietnamese, in terms of lives and money and involvement. But at that increasingly greater cost, they could keep the war going. Each president chose to do that, and that's what Kennedy chose and that's what Johnson chose while he was in office. And that's what Nixon chose until he was removed from office.

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