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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The Pentagon Papers

We should explain to the audience that in one of your later tours, coming back to Washington and being at Rand, you had access to what became known as the Pentagon Papers. Explain what those documents were.

I was in Vietnam for two years, from 1965 - 1967. I evaluated pacification there for most of that time, which took me to most of the provinces of Vietnam. I was in thirty-eight of the forty-three provinces. I used my former marine training, though I was a civilian, to work with troops part of that time, and I did actually experience combat for some periods, significant combat. So I saw the war up very close, from the point as a matter of fact, in an infantry platoon, infantry company. And I got hepatitis, probably on one of those field expeditions, and came back to the U.S. and left the government and rejoined the Rand Corporation and was immediately assigned to a historical project that McNamara had organized in the Pentagon, which came to have the title "U.S. Decision Making in Vietnam, 1945 - 1968," which is when the study was terminated.

I worked on that study in the Pentagon as a Rand employee but a consultant to the Pentagon and to the study. I was one of about thirty-six people who did that, nearly all of whom had served in Vietnam, most of whom were military officers. I drafted the volume of the study on the Kennedy decision making in 1961. Actually I chose that for a reason related to what I said earlier, to my earlier visit. And I kibitzed a number of the other volumes, and was the only researcher, in or out of the government, who was given access to the entire 47 volumes of the study for the purposes of research. It was 7,000 pages, top secret. Copies of the whole study were given to about a dozen people for their official capacities, people like McNamara, Clifford, William Bundy, Paul Warnke and others, none of whom used it for research. I think they all counted on using it for memoirs or at some later time. Ellsberg But it was just sitting in safes. In my case, I had it in a safe in my office, a top secret safe, for the purpose of working on a study called "Lessons from Vietnam."

I was actually, oddly, the only person being paid by a U.S. government contract, or salary, to look at lessons from Vietnam, strangely enough. The government was not obsessed with improving its performance by learning lessons, except for McNamara's effort to produce this study for later historians. And that was a very interesting "lessons-learned" study. Most of the people who had worked on that had read only one volume of it, the one they worked on. Perhaps they'd looked at a few other sections. No one had read the whole study except for Les Gelb who was in charge of the study and supervised all of the volumes. He was probably the first person to read it all. I was probably the second person, and eventually Gelb's boss in the Pentagon, Morton Halperin, who later went to work for Kissinger, did come around to reading it all. And for some time there were really only the three of us in the country who had read that entire study and were able, in effect, to learn the lessons of the entire sweep of that period, that twenty-three year period from 1945 to 1968.

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