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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Background

Let's go back a minute, because we should say that your training was in economics at Harvard. And as you mentioned, you were working on decision making. But I'm hearing you say in all of this that you were a real empiricist, that is, sort of gathering the facts about what we were doing and what was working.

I don't know if I'd describe myself that way. Yes and no. I was a real researcher, a real analyst, as well as having been involved in the policy process directly. My work in economics was in economic theory, and my interest was in what's called decision theory. Decision making under uncertainty. I wrote my honor's thesis on that, and later my Ph.D. thesis. So I was interested both in the theory of how people do or should make decisions faced with uncertainty, and empirical data on how that worked. And then, when I came to the Rand Corporation, I was interested in applying that body of concepts and that kind of interest to actual political decision making. And I wanted to use the political decision making to inform the theory as well. But I got increasingly involved in the policy. So, aspects of bargaining theory, so-called game theory, adversarial relationships in conflict under uncertainty, was my particular interest. And of course, the question of how the president, say, would make a decision as to whether or not to launch nuclear missiles, faced with ambiguous data from radar early warning systems. Very much the same kind of problem as the president faced when we had ambiguous radar and sonar data about an attack on our warships, and he wanted to react very quickly. In form, the problem was very similar and it was the kind of thing that I was particularly interested in.

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