Daniel Ellsberg's Lessons for Our Time
By JAMES BOVARD
July 24, 2008
Daniel Ellsberg is the kind of American who should receive a Medal of
Freedom. Except that the Medals of Freedom are distributed by
presidents who routinely give them to "useful idiots" and apologists
for their wars and power grabs. It should be renamed the Medal for
Enabling or Applauding Official Crimes in the Name of Freedom.
Ellsberg knowingly risked spending a life in prison to bring the
truth about the Vietnam War to Americans. He had hoped truth would
set Americans free from the spell of official lies. But the
experience in Iraq indicates that Americans have learned little if
anything from the Vietnam-era deceits.
Flora Lewis, a New York Times columnist, writing three weeks before
9/11, commented in a review of a book on U.S. government lies on the
Vietnam War, "There will probably never be a return to the
discretion, really collusion, with which the media used to treat
presidents, and it is just as well." But within months of her
comment, the media had proven itself as craven as ever.
The following year, Ellsberg's book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam
and the Pentagon Papers came out. I should have read this book
before writing the "Lying and Legitimacy" chapter in Attention
Deficit Democracy. Ellsberg's bitter experiences would have curbed my
youthful idealism. His book hit the streets at a time when Americans
were still inclined to see Bush through a 9/11 holy haze. His lies on
Iraq were not widely recognized until after Baghdad had fallen and
the WMDs failed to materialize.
Ellsberg tells the story of how, as a former Marine lieutenant with a
doctorate from Harvard, he was hired by John McNaughton, the
assistant secretary of defense, and started work in August 1964 on
the day the Gulf of Tonkin crisis ignited. He relates receiving the
"flash" wire dispatches from the USS Maddox.
Within hours after the U.S. destroyer reported being attacked by
North Vietnamese PT boats, the ship's commander had wired Washington
that the reports of an attack on his ship may have been wildly
exaggerated: "Entire action leaves many doubts."
But it didn't matter, because this was just the pretext that Lyndon
Johnson was looking for. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert
McNamara raced to proclaim that the attack was unprovoked. But at a
National Security Council meeting on the evening that the first
report came in, Johnson asked, "Do they want war by attacking our
ships in the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin?" CIA chief John McCone
answered, "No. The North Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our
attack on their off-shore islands. They are responding out of pride
and on the basis of defense considerations."
The fact was that the United States had orchestrated an attack by
South Vietnamese commandos on North Vietnamese territory before the
alleged conflict began. But Johnson lied and commenced bombing, and
Congress rushed to cheer him on.
In Vietnam, as in Iraq, the U.S. government pushed hard to get an
election to sanctify its puppet regime. Ellsberg, who spent two years
in Vietnam after his time in the Pentagon, aided some of the key U.S.
officials in this effort who sought an honest vote. But when U.S.
Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge heard their pitch, he replied, "You've
got a gentleman in the White House right now [Johnson] who has spent
most of his life rigging elections. I've spent most of my life
rigging elections. I spent nine whole months rigging a Republican
convention to choose Ike as a candidate rather than Bob Taft." Lodge
later ordered, "Get it across to the press that they shouldn't apply
higher standards here in Vietnam than they do in the U.S."
But Lodge's comments were downright uplifting compared with a meeting
that Ellsberg attended with former Vice President Richard Nixon, who
was visiting Vietnam on a "fact-finding mission" to help bolster his
presidential aspirations. Former CIA operative Edward Lansdale told
Nixon that he and his colleagues wanted to help "make this the most
honest election that's ever been held in Vietnam." Nixon replied,
"Oh, sure, honest, yes, honest, that's right … so long as you win!"
With the last words he did three things in quick succession: winked,
drove his elbow hard into Lansdale's arm, and slapped his own knee.
It's hard to imagine any U.S. government official even suggesting to
Bush, in his fly-bys at Camp Cupcake in Iraq, that the United States
should make sure that the Iraqi elections were fair and square.
Ellsberg's memoirs vividly explain how top officials are corrupted by
possession of what they consider to be top-secret information.
Ellsberg warned Henry Kissinger shortly after Nixon's 1968 election
victory that having access to classified information is "something
like the potion Circe gave to the wanderers and shipwrecked men who
happened on her island, which turned them into swine."
This is the one message of the book that no longer seems relevant,
since there haven't been any swine in the White House or Pentagon for
a long time.
The Pentagon Papers
In 1967, the Pentagon ordered top experts to analyze where the war
had gone wrong. The resulting study contained 47 volumes of material
exposing the intellectual and political follies that had, by that
time, already left tens of thousands of Americans dead. After the
study was finished, it was distributed to the key players and federal
agencies. However, the massive study was completely ignored. At the
time the New York Times began publishing excerpts in 1971, "the White
House and the State Department were unable even to locate the 47
volumes." New York Times editor Tom Wicker commented at the time that
"the people who read these documents in the Times were the first to
Ellsberg helped write a portion of the papers dealing with the
Kennedy administration. He was struck by the incorrigibility of U.S.
policy. No matter how many Ivy League grads and whiz kids were at the
helm, "There was a general failure to study history or to analyze or
even to record operational experience, especially mistakes. Above
all, effective pressures for optimistically false reporting at every
level, for describing "progress" rather than problems or failure,
concealed the very need for change in approach or for learning."
The same failures permeate the U.S. military's experience in Iraq.
The Pentagon and White House have concocted one bogus standard after
another to sanctify whatever recent policy change they announced.
Ellsberg was a gung-ho liberal Cold Warrior until the late 1960s. As
he read the confidential documents that formed the basis of the
Pentagon Papers, he realized that he had greatly underestimated the
amount of perennial presidential deceit in America. He grasped that
the concentration of power within the executive branch since World
War II had focused nearly all responsibility for policy "failure"
upon one man, the president. At the same time, it gave him enormous
capability to avert or postpone or conceal such personal failure by
means of force or fraud. Confronted by resolute external resistance,
as in Vietnam, that power could not fail to corrupt the human who held it.
Ellsberg became active with anti-war demonstrators and has great
anecdotes of idiot cops at D.C. protests. The motto of the 1971 May
Day anti-war protests was "If they won't stop the war, we'll stop the
government." This is an ideal that should not be forgotten by those
in our time who have wearied of surge and postsurge nonsense.
Publishing the Papers
I was surprised to learn how hard Ellsberg had to struggle to find
anyone with the gumption to go public with the 7,000 pages. Sen.
George McGovern at first was interested but ducked out on putting the
Papers in the Congressional Record, as did Sen. William Fulbright. On
the other hand, Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska had no fear and pulled out
all the stops to get the information out.
The New York Times's publication of the Pentagon Papers was the big
breakthrough. Nixon's Justice Department raced to get an injunction
blocking publication, and later did the same when the Washington Post
began publishing material Ellsberg sent it. Ellsberg responded by
sending chunks of his report to newspapers around the country. The
Nixon administration's rage and machinations were the best PR the
Pentagon Papers could have received.
Nixon henchman H.R. Haldeman said to Nixon on the day the Papers
first hit the New York Times that the result would be that "the
ordinary guy" comes to believe that "you can't trust the government;
you can't believe what they say; and you can't rely on their
judgement. And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has
been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this."
Unfortunately, Haldeman's fear was not borne out. Ellsberg was
disappointed at the response to the Pentagon Papers: "There remained
enormous resistance in the minds of voters and commentators to
believing that these generalizations applied to an incumbent
president." This has been a perennial pitfall for American democracy:
assuming that the most recently elected politician is an entirely
different species from all the rascals who preceded him. It was
especially ironic that so many Americans were so slow to recognize
At the start of his trial for leaking the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg
declared, "This has been for me an act of hope and of trust. Hope
that the truth will free us of this war. Trust that informed
Americans will direct their public servants to stop lying and to stop
the killing and dying by Americans in Indochina."
This was the type of idealism that spurred Henry Kissinger to label
Ellsberg "the most dangerous man in America."
In the new century, Ellsberg has continued speaking out, condemning
official lies, and appealing to Americans to recognize that wars are
far bloodier and more costly than leaders claim. In July 2006, he
warned that if the United States attacks Iran, "I have no doubt that
there will be, the day after or within days an equivalent of a
Reichstag fire decree that will involve massive detentions in this
country." He has publicly urged other Pentagon and administration
insiders to take the risk to leak key documents in order to serve
truth instead of the current regime.
Unfortunately, even when government officials risk their freedom and
careers to leak information, the media sometimes refuse to publish it
or they bury it until after an election as the New York Times did
with its information on Bush's illegal warrantless wiretapping of
Americans' phone calls.
Who knows how many other leaks have never seen the light of day
because of a media that kowtowed to President Bush and Vice President
Cheney as if they were gods?
James Bovard serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom
Foundation and is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush
Betrayal, Terrorism and Tyranny, and other books.