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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Politics in Presidential Decision Making

As one reads your book, which came out in the 1970s, Daniel Ellsberg: Papers on the War, the theoretical piece that emerged after reading the Pentagon Papers and working on them, one is impressed with an awareness on your part of the larger political context of the decision making. Was that something new for you?

You mean in Vietnam?


No, it was very obvious on August 4, that first day, that it was very heavily political, affecting the decision very much, because we were very aware that the reason the president was in such a rush to show decisive action against North Vietnam at that moment, and didn't want really to wait as recommended by Captain Harrick, to wait for the next day, was first of all that it would look somewhat less decisive to wait a while. But you could afford to wait twenty-four hours and investigate. Actually that wasn't the real issue. The real issue was that it might turn out that there wasn't good evidence. There might have been an attack but that you didn't have good evidence of it, and that would make it hard to carry out the attack. Now he wanted to carry out that attack. So it was advantageous to do it quickly, before you had negative evidence as to whether there had been an attack at all, on those early cables.

Now, why was he in such a rush and so determined to carry out the attack? That had everything to do with the fact that he was in a political presidential campaign, facing a Republican who was a reserve air force major general, Barry Goldwater, who was calling for bombing of Vietnam and a much more aggressive stance in the Vietnam War. Now actually, Johnson on the one hand could easily have said, "Well, I agree with that policy, let's talk about things we don't agree with." Actually he did pretty much agree with it. But he wasn't telling the public that. Again, the campaign was determining the fact that he was giving the public a totally misleading impression of his willingness to expand the war in Vietnam. He was telling them what the public wanted to hear, the majority, that we were not planning to expand the war. "We seek no wider war," he said. That was, however, a lie. It wasn't that he actually was happy about the need for a wider war, but his advisors had all along concluded that if we were not to lose in Vietnam, and he was certainly determined not to lose, the war would have to get wider. And he accepted that prospect, but not until after the public had voted.

In short, the entire campaign was based on a lie, but that was for political reasons. He could have gotten elected anyway against Goldwater if he'd been totally frank in every respect. But he wouldn't have won the landslide that he did win, and he won that precisely by giving the false impression that there was an enormous difference between his Vietnam policy and Goldwater's when in fact there was not an enormous difference. There were rather marginal differences between them. So I was aware on that first day then, that the decision making, the lying, the secrecy, the concealment, and what we were doing, the actual air strikes, were all determined by presidential domestic politics at that moment.

The desire, by the way, to hit Vietnam was a more strategic question. That had to do with avoiding defeat in Vietnam. But the importance of doing it on August 4 and not waiting until August 6, when you might not be able to do it at all because you Ellsberg had no evidence of attack, that all had to do with domestic politics.

Now your question was, was that all news for me and was I shocked by this? And the answer is no. Perhaps much earlier it would have been shocking and news to me, as would the lying. But by this time I had been studying crisis decision making and I was aware that in every single crisis, the very fact that it was a crisis had everything to do with domestic politics. That was even true, very much so, of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

My main work had been on nuclear planning and nuclear command and control, from 1958 on. And I actually drafted, for Kennedy, the Department of Defense guidance, the civilian guidance, to the war plans for general nuclear war. I did that in 1961. It was the basis for general war planning for many years thereafter. And I was a specialist on presidential command of nuclear weapons. That brought me into the Cuban Missile Crisis. But quickly in the crisis, I not only noticed right away that there was no particular new or desperate security problem for the United States involved in having ten or twenty or thirty missiles on Cuba, because there really was no major difference between having them on Cuba and having them in Russia. There was a psychological difference and a political difference, very much so. But, as McNamara pointed out to the president in the first meeting on this issue, there made no essential military difference. There were marginal differences about flight time and warning, but they didn't add up to any very desperate change in the situation.

Why then was there such a crisis? And the answer was, above all, domestic politics. Because the Republicans were calling for an invasion of Cuba, not because of missiles but because of Soviet military and because Castro was a communist and was getting a great deal of military aid from the Soviets, the Republicans were pressing strongly for air strikes or for an invasion or a blockade of Cuba. That had led Kennedy to take quite a strong position at one point, that if there were missiles there, he would take strong action. He said that on the assumption that the Russians would not be so reckless and provocative as to put missiles there. But having made the statement, he now had a stake in not appearing to back down from that statement. Moreover, the Republicans in Congress continued to press him, to press him in Congress and even went so far, Senator Keating (he was at that time I believe Representative Keating), was claiming from his sources that there actually were missiles in Cuba, which the administration was denying. He may have gotten that from McCone, a Republican head of the CIA.

In my study, actually, of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I talked to the man who showed the photographs to Kennedy when they finally had photographs that there were missiles in Cuba. And he mentioned that Bobby Kennedy had been outside the office before he was going to show them later to McGeorge Bundy or somebody else. So he showed them to Bobby Kennedy first. I said, "What did Bobby say?" He said, "Bobby said, 'Oh shit!'" It was an "Oh shit!" situation. And he said he then proceeded, as to the president, to describe it entirely in domestic political terms. And Kennedy's first reaction was said to have been, "This will make Keating president." Which it didn't of course. But I think it did make Keating senator if I'm not mistaken; it was crucial in his campaigning for senator. Their [the Kennedys'] first reaction was, "We're in trouble domestically." Whereas McNamara and others' first reaction was that we could, with reluctance and anguish, afford to live with those missiles in Cuba, just as the Russians had to live with American comparable missiles in Turkey, right on their land border -- we could do the same if we had to -- it was very clear to the president that, no we can't. And the reason we couldn't was domestic political reasons. It would be too costly for him to appear weak and appeasement minded and accepting of such a Russian move.

The very provocativeness of it was that the Russians were saying, we have the same status that you have. If you can put missile on our borders, we can do the same to you. We're not doing more or differently, we're doing the same. And what they were saying was, we are now big boys. We are your equal. We're not number two anymore. We have the same status. That was indeed a provocative and blatant thing to do, not in military terms, but in diplomatic and political terms. And for Kennedy to have accepted that bid [by the Russians] to be our equals at the nuclear table, in the nuclear club, would have been a humiliating setback for him which, I realized, had led him to take steps which brought us to the brink of all-out nuclear war. He was prepared to take a risk. I don't believe he would have had any mind of taking a certainty of nuclear war for that reason. But he was definitely prepared to set in motion a process that risked all-out nuclear war, hundreds of millions of deaths, to avert that short-term domestic political embarrassment. That I knew, as I say, by the time I came to Vietnam. So it was no surprise to see the same kinds of decisions being made in Vietnam.

So early in the evolution of your thinking about Vietnam, and about decision making and nuclear weapons, you realized that politics was present.

And that it was very unlikely that we would have any success in Vietnam. There were moments when I had more hopes.

What was done in both cases was often not the most rational, but rather a reflection of a dynamic that was heavily influenced by politics. But for many years you lived with it.

By the way, from the president's point of view, that is the essence of rationality: staying in office, winning the election. He can always rationalize that in terms of larger interests by saying it's very important that my party and I bring our wisdom to bear on these decisions, rather than those other guys. It's terribly important that Goldwater not succeed. Of course there was really little likelihood that Goldwater would win. But you could say, rather than let Goldwater win, we had to do this and that. Just as, of course, the president's men, Mitchell and Haldeman and Ehrlichman, said during Watergate, "Of course we did these things to prevent McGovern from being president, that would have been catastrophic." Again, McGovern was quite unlikely to win. Again, in both cases what you were looking at was a landslide, not a close election. But still that was their rationale. So when you say, "It wasn't rational," what I'm saying is that the rationality had to do with domestic political power, domestic staying in office, self esteem, prestige of presidents, which presidents and the presidents' men very easily confound with the interests of the nation. They find it, in fact, very hard to distinguish between those two.

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