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 8 of 8

The Responsibility of the Insider

What then, briefly, is the responsibility of an individual in a democracy on matters of war and peace like we've been discussing?

Well, let's narrow it down to the responsibilities of people with inside information as I had, as tens of thousands of people had, much the same information I had, and the same convictions I had: that we were on a wrong course and that it ought to end. There were also, of course, others who somehow believed in what we were doing, often because they were new to the problem. But people who had been with it for a while found it very hard to believe that we were on a good course. People like McNamara, who understood years before they got out of office that what we were doing was hopeless and was resulting in deaths on both sides that served no useful United States or other human purpose. What could they have done? What should they have done? Did they do all that they could have done?

I can say very briefly in terms of what I've just said about my own decision. I think that what I learned about what I ought to do applies not only to them at the time but to people in the future. First, that we are fortunate in this country, in our Constitution, in having not just an executive in charge of war and peace matters (as it likes to think that it is in charge), but actually a Congress which has the constitutional responsibility both to declare war and to finance, to control the budget, and has many, many methods for actually opposing executive policy on a matter of war and peace. Any of those executive officials, I'll take McNamara as an example, could have or could in the future, in a situation like Iran - Contra for example, think of informing Congress, with or without the approval of the president. They would do this, by the way, with almost no legal risk. There are many ways they could do this with no legal liability. In fact, to the contrary, it often involves simply telling the truth instead of committing perjury, which is what they actually do do. So it involves obeying the law rather than violating the law, and obeying the Constitution. But it's in a way that they hardly think of doing because it involves crossing the man who appointed them. They could then, take McNamara, could have encouraged hearings by Fulbright, could have told him what questions to ask, could have provided witnesses for him. Could have testified himself truthfully instead of falsely under oath, which is what he did do, and could have provided the Pentagon Papers in a timely fashion. Could have given him the documents, told him what documents to ask for. In short, work with Congress to change the situation. That's a very powerful and very practical way, which almost nobody ever dreams of doing. It would certainly keep them from ever being hired by a future Republican or Democratic president. But, as I say, there is life outside the executive branch.

Second, they really could conceive of taking risks with their own career that are comparable to the risks they routinely ask of draftees and volunteers that they are sending to war. They could contemplate, in other words, paying a price in their own lives by telling the truth, by informing the public, by acting conscientiously, in a committed way, outside the executive branch to tell the truth, to inform the public. Again, at great cost to their future careers but a cost that they should be willing to pay. In short, they would find that they had much more power as individuals than they imagine they have if they were willing to pay a price in their own lives.

Dr. Ellsberg, thank you very much for joining us today for this quite fascinating and morally uplifting Conversation with History.

Thank you very much.

And thank YOU very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

© Copyright 1998, Regents of the University of California

To the Conversationspage.

See also: Globetrotter Research Gallery: Decisionmaking in the Vietnam War, and E-Mail Exchange between High School Students and Ellsberg, May 1999.