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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Morality and Risk

You mentioned your awareness of what was happening to the Vietnamese people, you mentioned your awareness of what Nixon was contemplating doing but which you couldn't talk about.

Were you also affected by the demonstrators and the moral positions that they advocated?

Less so by the demonstrators, actually, than by people that I'd met who were paying a much higher price in their lives to make a very strong message than people who were in a demonstration. People who were going to jail rather than go to the draft and Vietnam, and rather than go to Canada or become conscientious objectors or go in the National Guard like Clinton made an effort to do, and so forth, or Quayle or others. They had a number of options to avoid combat in Vietnam, including being a conscientious objector. But they chose, actually, to make the strongest statement that you could that the war was wrong, that it should end, and that they would not cooperate with it in any way, even by accepting CO status. And they accepted prison as a result.

I met one in particular named Randall Keeler in late August of 1969, and when I understood to my amazement that he was on his way to prison shortly, that he was about to be tried for draft resistance and expected to go to prison, where he did go for two years, it had a shattering effect on me to realize that we were in a situation where men as attractive in their intelligence and commitment as Randy Keeler found that the best thing they could do was to accept prison to try to raise a moral issue to their countrymen. And I realized that was the best thing he could do. He was doing the right thing and that defined the situation we were in. What a terrible situation! I felt that we were eating our young. Like cannibals -- or worse than cannibals: we were eating our own children. We were relying on them to pay the price for somehow getting us out of this war, sacrificing them like canon fodder in the war itself. And they should be joined by people who were willing to do what they were doing, and that was do everything that one could, truthfully and nonviolently. These were Gandhians in effect. And I had by this time, it so happens, been reading Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and now I was meeting people who had been living the life that I'd been reading about. And with the constraints, then, of truthfulness and nonviolence, I realized that following their example I was prepared to do anything I could, and that meant giving up a career and meant going to prison.

So I asked myself for the first time, what could I do to help end the war if I were willing to go to prison? Now it wasn't at all clear that putting out the Pentagon Papers, which I thought would send me to prison, would be one of the better things I could do. It was history. It didn't prove what Nixon was about to do; it only suggested that he might do the same as all these other presidents. And I was trying a number of other paths that looked more promising. They were less dangerous, but more importantly they looked more powerful. I was trying to arrange that I could testify before Congress. I was trying to get hearings started. I was participating with others in writing letters from Rand. It's a small measure, but it was an unusual thing for people in the Rand Corporation working with the government to say bluntly that we should get out of Vietnam. It was, in fact, a rather powerful move, as such things went. More promising than putting out the Pentagon Papers, actually. But I was also copying the Pentagon Papers in hopes of strengthening some of these other moves, such as my testimony to Congress, for what it might be worth. I didn't think, actually, that it had much chance of affecting events, but it had some chance. And I was ready to do anything I could, and that was one of the things I could do.

Any other factors that can help us understand? I'm interested here in a kind of inner strength; it's not the easiest choice to make for any individual.

No, good questions really. It so happens I've been thinking about this recently because of something I'm writing. So some thoughts have even come into my head just recently that I wouldn't have pressed as much before. I mentioned reading the Pentagon Papers, which was crucial to my understanding of what needed to be done, and that was [to exert] pressure from outside the executive branch, and I'll get to the point you just raised in just a moment. Another point, though, was that reading the Pentagon Papers burned out of me the desire to work for the president. I saw five presidents in a row, now including Nixon, who had been mistaken in this stubborn, selfish, foolish way year after year after year for what was, at this point now, twenty-four years.

The idea that I'd had since I was a boy, and that most Americans had, was to get the opportunity to work for the president. (We talk about growing up to be president but not many of us, other than Clinton, who is a rare example, had this seriously in his mind.) When I was a marine lieutenant, I already thought of myself as working for the president because the marines tended to think of themselves as a fast reaction force that was at the president's disposal, kind of a presidential guard. I think, more than [the other armed forces], the marines tend to think of themselves at the president's disposal and have that feeling of self-esteem that comes from identifying with the president. And that made it more natural for me, as I say, to go into the executive branch. In the executive branch everybody gets the habit of saying, "We did this, we did that," speaking of the executive branch. It's a strong identification with being a president's man or president's woman. (In those days few women, besides secretaries, were actually in this position or chose it. Now there are quite a few.) So the men who did this did think of themselves as president's men without having to be in the White House.

And here I was in '69, I was the first Rand researcher who did work directly for the president's assistant for national security. I did staff work for Kissinger on Vietnam in the very beginning of the administration. No Rand person had done that before. And that was very prestigious and very exciting. Many, many people inside and out of the executive branch think that the opportunity to work in the executive branch is the highest calling that an American can have. You're working on national security matters above all. You're working for the national security in the most powerful, effective way that you could possibly have. Nothing that you could do, write articles, write books, work for a congressman, be a congressman, none of that could compare with possibly informing and influencing the president. And that was true whether or not you had voted for that president or worked for his party. There was only one president at a time and the chance, whatever party he was, the chance to have some useful influence in informing him or shaping his policy seemed the most important thing you could do.

Reading the Pentagon Papers and reflecting on Vietnam revealed to me, first of all, that presidents could go terribly wrong despite the best advice they could get, and that therefore the best way of helping the country was not necessarily helping the president do what he wanted to do, because the best way might be keeping him from doing what he wanted to do. And that had to be done outside the executive branch, by Congress, by courts, by voters, by the public. So that actually, you could do more for the country outside the executive branch.

And second, the aura of the president, the idea of identifying with him and working for him and being a presidents' man, a kind of feudal relationship, chivalric relationship, knights of the round table working for that king -- that suddenly lost its aura. I no longer wanted to be a president's man. The idea of life outside the executive, I think, suddenly had a possibility for me, or alternatively, it looked just as good or better than working for a president. And I don't think I've ever had a colleague who has ever reached that point in their lives. They can't imagine life outside the executive branch as being better. When their party gets out of office or if they're fired or if they move out for higher money or whatever, they nevertheless spend their lives waiting for the phone call, to be called back and give advice. No matter how painful the break was with the earlier president, they're ready to go back there. It's their highest calling, actually. Self esteem, prestige, excitement, importance, and a sense of serving the country. That somehow was burned out of me by reading this 7,000-page record. And that made it possible for me to imagine doing something that I think very few of my colleagues have ever been able to imagine. And that was, doing something that would forever prevent me from working for any president again. No executive branch official would ever or could ever hire me again after I had done this. Now that would apply to quite a range of activities, all of which are ruled out for most officials or former officials. They just cannot conceive of doing that. They can conceive of leaving a particular president. They can't conceive of doing something that would keep future presidents from relying on them or trusting them or calling them in again. So that was crucial.

And finally, we come to the point that one of the things I was doing -- by the way, pretty much everything I was doing in terms of working with Congress was compromising my ability ever to work for a president again. That was going too far. But one thing I was doing was likely to put me in prison; in fact, I thought, certain to put me in prison. How could I do that?

Actually, I'd been in the marine corps, I'd been in Vietnam, I'd been in combat. Three million men who went to Vietnam as soldiers exposed themselves to losing their legs, their bodies, their lives to a mine or to a sniper, or to a mortar round. And they were not regarded as heroes just because they accepted that role, or crazy. Nobody did a psychiatric profile on them, as was done on me, to ask why did they do that? They were doing it for the president or for the country. The president, however, was who decided what was good for the country. He was deciding very badly. And not just he, but five of them, were deciding very badly here and that wasn't even too hard to see. But you did what the president said, what he wanted you to do. And to do that is sensible, as you say rational, even if it involves your death, even if it involves your killing people, in what is in fact a bad cause. A bad cause by any other standard but the fact that the president has endorsed it. And this was a bad cause.

So dying, killing in a bad cause, all of that is regarded as very reasonable. And I had done it. I had been over there. Even when I didn't believe in the cause I served the president. I was learning from the inside about the government. I had various reasons, which didn't seem, in retrospect, good enough to justify what I was doing. But that's what I was doing. And the point was that what Randy Keeler revealed to me was that there were other ways of being conscientious than serving the president. There are other kinds of courage. And I had to ask myself, well, if I was willing to be blown up in Vietnam or captured, as friends of mine were, when I accepted the cause or supported it, should I not be willing to go to prison or risk my freedom? And when I faced that question, it was quickly answered.

When you ask me how could I be willing to face that, I was the kind of guy who had been willing to go to Vietnam. That didn't make me unique. It put me not with everybody in the country but with a lot of people. Oliver Stone had volunteered to go to Vietnam remember, as did lots of other people. The connection, however, that not many of them had occasion to make was between doing that sort of thing and making the same kind of commitment against the president's will and policy, against what he wanted to do, against what he was demanding. And to put yourself in the position of a dissenter, or of, let's say, a congressman who opposed the war.

So, one shift was from the executive branch to helping the Congress and working in the public. A major shift of identity very, very difficult for an executive official to make. Another one, of course, was a willingness actually to go to prison for what I was doing. And that was because I made the connection with what I myself had done in Vietnam or in the marines. But I wouldn't have done that without the example of thousands of Americans. Actually, Esquire magazine called me just last month. They're doing an issue on heroes and they asked me if I would say if I had a hero that I wanted to name. And I mentioned Randy Keeler as a person who had changed my life by his example.

Next page: The Responsibility of the Insider

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