From Vietnam to Iraq: Daniel Ellsberg interviewed

Daniel Ellsberg Isabel Hilton
7 December 2005

In 1971, the United States was embroiled in an unwinnable war in Vietnam that was to cost 58,000 American lives and 300,000 wounded. Vietnam lost an estimated 1 million soldiers and 4 million civilians.

Daniel Ellsberg, a former marine and analyst with the Rand Corporation, was recruited in 1964 to serve in the Pentagon under the then secretary of defence, Robert McNamara. In 1965 he volunteered to go to Vietnam, where he spent two years at the US embassy in Saigon. In 1971, he made headlines around the world when he leaked the Pentagon Papers – the department of defence’s top-secret, twelve-volume, 7,000-page history of United States involvement in Vietnam.

Daniel Ellsberg is a lecturer, writer and activist on the dangers of the nuclear era and unlawful interventions. He is the author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (Penguin, 2003).

When working as an analyst at the Pentagon and the state department in the mid-1960s he gained access to the official, secret history of the United States’s involvement in Vietnam. The contrast between the classified record and public claims by political and military officials about the US’s prospects of victory in the war led him to leak what became known as the “Pentagon Papers” to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and seventeen other newspapers in 1971.

Daniel Ellsberg’s website is here .

The papers were published in a series of articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post, despite President Nixon’s attempt to suppress them. With their publication, the American people could learn, for the first time, the truth about the origins and the conduct of the war.

Daniel Ellsberg knew that the war in Vietnam had begun, and was continuing, in a thick fog of official deception. He also knew that the war could not be won at the then level of US engagement and those who died, therefore, were sacrificed to no military, strategic or moral purpose.

For leaking the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg risked life imprisonment, but his actions helped to bring the end of the war closer and to bring the Nixon presidency to a premature end. As Americans begin to debate how to get out of the war in Iraq, Daniel Ellsberg talks in this extended interview with openDemocracy about lies and war, about why no president wants to be the man to “lose,” the personal cost of whistleblowing and why potential whistleblowers today who are contemplating the next catastrophe should not wait until it is too late.

An interview with Daniel Ellsberg

Part one

By the mid-1960s it was widely understood at official level in the Pentagon and the state department that Vietnam, as Ellsberg put it, “was not the place where we could plant our flag” – yet the war continued until 1975. openDemocracy asks Daniel Ellsberg: why, if the experts knew that the policy was failing, did successive United States presidents not know it?

Hear Daniel Ellsberg explain what winning the war would have taken, and why no president is willing to be the one who loses a war – even when he knows he can’t win.

Listen to part 1 (13.22mins)
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Part two

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers – the Pentagon’s secret, twelve-volume history of United States involvement in Vietnam. Why did he do it?

Hear Daniel Ellsberg explain how understanding military reality in Vietnam and the risk of nuclear war pushed him into desperate action.

“I was clear that it would involve going to prison for the rest of my life but I was ready to do that for a small chance of ending the war. By 1971 I was ready to do it for a miniscule chance.”

“What I learned was that men in power will kill any number of people or allow any number of Americans to be killed to avoid an otherwise certain short-term loss. They’ll do anything. Including, as I’d seen it happen in the Cuban missile crisis, take the world to the absolute brink of an all-out nuclear war. And they will get obeyed, by people who think it’s crazy.”

Hear Daniel Ellsberg explain how many would have died if the US general war plan had been executed.

“They were very ordinary men, but what they were planning was 100 holocausts. I had to think of that for the next forty years.”

Listen to part 2 (20.23 mins)
High bandwidth: 128kbps / Low bandwidth: 64kbps

Part three

Why are there so few whistleblowers?

Hear Daniel Ellsberg explain the cost of whistleblowing – ostracism, broken marriages, a lost career. And hear his advice to today’s whistleblowers: don’t wait!

“If we are to avoid the most catastrophes ahead…people will have to leak. If we’d had the Downing Street memo in time, there would be no British involvement in Iraq..”

Listen to part 3 (12.04mins)
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Part four

Knowing how the system works, what does Daniel Ellsberg think it would take to get out of Iraq?

Hear Dan Ellsberg discuss Iraq, Iran and what it will take to avoid the next war.

“I think we give up New Jersey faster than we give up Iraq. The oil has run out in New Jersey and it’s a very corrupt place. We can live without it. But Iraq, no.”

Listen to part 4 (13.46mins)
High bandwidth: 128kbps / Low bandwidth: 64kbps
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