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

Page 6 of 8

The Decision to Protest Publicly

You remained for many years part of the government, part of the team, willing to live with the elements of this decision making process. After much frustration with Vietnam, after reading the Pentagon Papers, you reached a different conclusion about what is acceptable and what is moral. Explain how that change in your thinking came about.

I learned in Vietnam nothing very new about the lack of good prospects for success. I went to Vietnam pretty much with that perspective, or certainly I had it in 1964, and I had it 1961. I did learn the faces of the Vietnamese. I learned to be concerned for what happened to Vietnamese people in a way that my colleagues back in Washington probably didn't feel. They had a reality for me. They weren't just numbers and they weren't just abstract ciphers of some kind, as they were for other people. And as I would have to say probably for myself, people in other parts of the world that didn't have that same friendly awareness in my mind. And I wasn't aware of them as friends and associates and so forth. That was a consideration.

What I particularly learned, though, in 1969, and from the Pentagon Papers, was that Nixon, the fifth president in a row now, was choosing to prolong the war in vain hopes that he might get a better outcome than he could achieve if he'd just negotiated his way out and took what he could get and accepted, essentially, a defeat. He hoped to do much better than that. In fact, he hoped to hold on to control of Saigon and the major populated areas indefinitely for the United States, that these would be subject to our will and our policy and not be run by communists. And he hoped to do that, actually, in ways similar to the way Johnson had hoped -- by threatening escalation of the war, threatening bombing of North Vietnam. He was making such threats and then he was prepared to carry them out.

I did not believe the threats would succeed, so I foresaw a larger war. He was fooling the public about what he was doing at this time for the same reason Johnson had in 1964. The public would not, at that time, have supported a continuation of the war, let alone an expansion of the war. But he was successfully fooling the public, who didn't want to believe that any president could be so foolish and so narrow minded in his own interests as to keep that war going after the Tet offensive of 1968. So I saw a replay of 1964 and 1965 coming again. I saw once again a president making secret threats, almost sure to carry them out, and deceiving the public as to what he was doing.

By reading the Pentagon Papers, which I finished doing in the fall of 1969, in September 1969, I now had a historical sweep sufficient to reach a conclusion that I would have been very unlikely to reach without reading them, and that was that there was very little hope of changing his [the president's] mind from inside the executive branch, for example, by giving him good advice or by giving him realistic estimates of what was happening in Vietnam. Because what I saw by reading the earliest days of the Pentagon Papers, going back to 1945 and 1946, was that every president had had such advice, as early as Truman. Truman had seen predictions of an indefinitely prolonged guerrilla war facing him and yet had gone ahead in supporting the French in this effort. And this had happened year after year. It happened year after year for Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson. The fact now that Nixon was embarked on a new course held out very little hope that he would be more responsive just to good advice about getting out than any of his predecessors had been.

That meant that if his decision was going to be changed -- and because I cared about Vietnam and this country, I felt quite urgently that I wanted the United States to stop bombing them and stop killing Vietnamese -- the pressure would have to come from outside the executive branch. It would involve a variety of things, but it probably required better information outside the executive branch, in Congress and in the public, about the past and about the present, than they had. If I had had documents on what Nixon was planning, on what I'd been told he was planning by colleagues who were working for Nixon, I would have put those out at that time to Congress to warn them of what was coming. I probably would not have bothered with the thousands of pages of history that involved the earlier presidents; I would have shown what Nixon was doing. But I didn't have those documents. And at that time, it was very hard to get the public to believe or to act on the possibility that a president was lying to them or deceiving them. That was not in the American consciousness, and it was a very unpopular notion even to put forward.

I once said in a courtroom, in defense of people who were on trial for resisting the draft, that the president had lied. This was in early 1971, before the Pentagon Papers had come out. The judge stopped the proceedings, called the lawyers up to the bench. I could hear what he was saying because I was in the witness box next to him. "If you elicit testimony like that again," he said to the defense lawyer, "I will hold you in contempt. I will not have statements about the president lying in my courtroom." This was in a trial of people who were resisting the war nonviolently. And they weren't allowed, in effect, to have witnesses who said anything like that, that the president was lying. The Pentagon Papers changed that. Seven thousand pages of documents of presidential lying did establish forever, and they were confirmed of course by Watergate a couple of years later, that presidents all lie.

Next page: Morality and Risk

© Copyright 1998, Regents of the University of California