Warrior with a Xerox Machine: An Interview with Daniel Ellsberg about The Most Dangerous Man in America
by Dan Lybarger
From 1971 to 1973, Daniel Ellsberg took on the White House and played an important role in helping to end the Vietnam War. The Richard Nixon Administration were so afraid of the former Marine Corps officer that they unsuccessfully prosecuted him for 12 felony counts which might have sent him to prison for 115 years. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, dubbed Ellsberg “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” The president’s subordinates were so eager to stop Ellsberg that they even sent “The Plumbers,” the same criminals behind Watergate, to break into the office of Lawrence Fielding, Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. As with the other crime, they managed to botch it spectacularly.
Daniel Ellsberg in Vietnam Courtesy Daniel and Patricia Ellsberg
What was the frightening weapon that Ellsberg held over Nixon during the days of his presidency? An ordinary copier.
In 1969, Ellsberg secretly copied a top-secret history of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1968. As a military analyst for the RAND Corporation (http://rand.org), Ellsberg was one of only three people who had read the 47-volume, 7000 page document.
This massive collection was known as the Pentagon Papers (www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB48/). Commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in 1967, the study was so secret that even then President Lyndon B. Johnson had no idea it existed.
The data in Ellsberg’s safe at RAND contained no current troop information or data that would have helped the regime in North Vietnam. But the Pentagon Papers contained damning revelations (www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/450326/Pentagon-Papers) that had been kept secret from Americans, including:
• Harry S. Truman had aided the French government in their military campaign to retake their former colony in Indochina. The United States wound up paying for 85 percent of the disastrous French effort.
• Dwight D. Eisenhower scuttled an election in South Vietnam in the hopes of preventing a Communist victory. So much for making the world safe for democracy.
• John F. Kennedy had moved from Eisenhower’s limited involvement into what was dubbed a “broad commitment.”
• Lyndon B. Johnson ordered increased bombing of North Vietnam even though intelligence reports informed him that doing so wouldn’t stop the government in Hanoi from supporting the Viet Cong rebels in the south.
The documents also indicated that the chances for a victory were remote.
Ellsberg was an unlikely person to blow the whistle on the war. He was a staunch anti-Communist and had worked in the Pentagon. He also served as a civilian advisor for the State Department in Vietnam.
After trying to convince anti-war senators William Fulbright and George McGovern to act on the information in the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg went to The New York Times. On June 13, 1971, The Times begin publishing a series of articles that led to a June 30, 1971 Supreme Court ruling, which enabled the Times and dozens of other papers to print the information Ellsberg provided.
Now that his status as a member of Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List” can be seen as a badge of honor (fellow “enemies” included actor Gregory Peck and footballer Joe Namath), Ellsberg can add another title to his list: Oscar nominee.
The new documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (www.mostdangerousman.org) has just received an Academy Award nomination for Best Feature documentary.
While The Most Dangerous Man in America lost the Oscar race to
The Cove, it's still worth catching when the film opens at the Tivoli
on Friday, April 30. It plays more like a John Grisham thriller
than a dry history lesson.
Normally, when I begin an interview, I let my subjects know I’m recording them off the phone. Ellsberg began by joking about what it was like to have Nixon’s men taping him instead of reporters.
Daniel Ellsberg: They gave me on discovery (for my trial) the FBI recordings of my speeches and other things. My FBI file was 27,000 pages. I think the recordings of me were several thousand pages. It was very nice. It was like having an electronic (pioneering biographer James) Boswell (www.jamesboswell.info) going around trying to capture me.
Dan Lybarger: What must be gratifying for you is that this is the second time a documentary featuring you has received an Oscar nomination.
DE: That’s true. You’re the first person to mention that actually. The first one (Hearts and Minds (http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/hearts-and-minds) was a good sign. It actually got the Oscar, so that’s a good sign for this one, maybe. Maybe I’m good luck for documentaries.
DL: There were a couple of things I didn’t know before I saw the film. The one that really jarred me the most was hearing Nixon wanted to nuke Hanoi.
DE: Not necessarily Hanoi, by the way. He doesn’t say that in the film. He was seriously threatening to use nuclear weapons against North Vietnam, but he did not specify targets. As early as 1969, he had a target folder which one of (Henry) Kissinger’s aides actually saw. It was Roger Morris (http://100days.blogs.nytimes.com/author/roger-morris/, who later resigned over Cambodia.
But Roger Morris saw a target folder for a nuclear target just a mile and a half from the Chinese border at a railhead, where a railroad came into North Vietnam and branched off into many other smaller lines. They were going to use that target as a signal to China. It was to be an airburst, relatively small, what they call a tactical weapon. That is, something on the order of Hiroshima. That counts as a small, tactical weapon these days. In theory, they were expecting very few civilian casualties because it was off in the jungle.
There was also another target selected. This one was the Mu Gia Pass into what they called the “Ho Chi Mihn Trail” for infiltration down into South Vietnam. So, cities would not have been their first targets almost surely, but they could have more than conceivably have developed that.
Very few people are aware of those threats. It didn’t come out, of course, until much later. So during the war, I think, people were not aware. I was told by Mort Halperin (www.soros.org/initiatives/washington/about/bios/halperin), who had worked for Kissinger that Nixon had been making nuclear threats as early as May 1969. And the planning I was telling you about was for November of that year.
Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon Courtesy Air Force Magazine
And later, in the film, you saw (Kissinger and Nixon) on the tape in the Oval Office on April 25, 1972 during the offensive, Nixon (Ellsberg imitates Nixon’s distinctive drawl) is saying, “How many would be killed if we hit the dikes?”
I think Kissinger says, “150,000.” Something like that (The actual number Kissinger cited was 200,000!).
Nixon says, “No, no, no, I’d rather use a nuclear bomb. Have you got that ready?”
Kissinger says, very reasonably, “Oh, I think that would be just too much.”
Nixon, “That’s what you think, Henry? I want you to think big for Christsakes!”
He wasn’t saying Hanoi, necessarily, just nuclear weapons in North Vietnam.
DL: But when you use a nuke, it’s not like you can claim the land after you’ve destroyed the target.
DE: That’s right. Radioactivity. Again, it was an airburst. They figured there wasn’t a lot of residual radioactivity. But you’re right. It’s not exactly new in the film. If you look at the National Security Archives. It’s NSArchive.org of George Washington University in DC. They put out a lot of tapes and documents and whatnot.
And if you look up Nixon, “Duck Hook” (www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB195/inDEx.htm), that was the code name for the escalation in 1969, which included nuclear weapons. They’ve got a big file on that. So it’s been out for a number of years, but I won’t say that one person in a hundred has ever heard of it.
DL: Just to clarify it for the readers, with the information you revealed with the Pentagon Papers, the Soviets and the VC already knew this stuff but we here in America didn’t. Would that be a correct thing to say?
DE: Yes and no. The Soviets and the Chinese and the North Vietnamese and the VC, they’d know the threats we’d been making because they were made to them. And some of them were made through the Russians. So they knew those.
The Americans did not. It was a super-secret here, lest it worry the Americans that we were getting into a nuclear war instead of ending it. That was Nixon’s idea of how to end it successfully. When he promised that he would end (the Vietnam) war, he had in mind winning it with threats like this, and if necessary, carrying out the threats.
It was his fear, by the way, that I would reveal that to the American people that led him to take the criminal actions against me to shut me up, to get information from my doctor’s office to blackmail me, or later to bring people up from Miami to beat me up or kill me.
That’s why I was regarded by them as the “Most Dangerous Man,” not that I wasn’t going to reveal anything to the adversaries who knew this and who also knew that they were winning the war. Anyway, the war was stalemated. They were not losing the war. They would never lose the war.
They knew that, and it was the American people who were being told the opposite, very largely by Johnson, in particular, that we were on the verge of winning. Nixon did not tell the people what he had in mind for winning the war, but that was his secret plan.
So he didn’t want that secret objective, which would sound overambitious to say the least to the American people. He didn’t want that out, and that’s what made me dangerous to him: the fear that I knew that and would put it out.
DL: In both your book Secrets and the film, you describe this insular culture in Washington and RAND. You said that you were the only person at RAND who had even spoken with someone who was opposed to the war.
DE: Of course, RAND was in Santa Monica, not Washington. They had a Washington office. I think that’s probably true that the Cold Warriors and the officials, we were all Cold Warriors in the Pentagon. I guess that’s before your time.
I’ve never really thought about this, about how people who are significantly younger can even imagine what the Cold War was like. Just imagine the feeling that the terrorists of today had the strength and power of the Soviet Empire let’s say beneath them and were not just a band of people without even a base, particularly.
So it’s this idea of constant danger. So the people who were put in the (antiwar movement) were on the whole much younger, including the children of these people (the war’s supporters). Unless they had a high school or college age child, man or woman, who was very opposed to war, these people would probably have never passed paths at all.
They didn’t go to a demonstration. We didn’t have the Internet. Unless you went to a demonstration or made some effort, you wouldn’t know anybody who’d done some civil disobedience or was refusing the draft. And it just happened that I bit-by-bit came into contact with these people.
I don’t think I did know anybody (who was in the anti-war movement). I think that’s true. I probably didn’t know any colleague who in turn had ever met a draft resister. It shouldn’t be as hard to imagine as you think. These are just totally different circles.
DL: Do you think you would have been as bold in releasing the Papers without your wife Patricia’s influence?
DE: From the movie you get an impression that’s misleading because of the way it was abridged, really. The decision to copy the papers was done during a three-year period, which is just mentioned. It wasn’t really shown.
There was a three-year period where we were totally apart, not expecting to get back together again, either. It does go into some detail of how I broke it off in Vietnam. That was ‘66.
From ‘66 to late ‘69, we were totally apart. It was during that period that I had the change of position somewhat from being a President’s man to obeying my oath to the Constitution, being more concerned about the country than the President and about what we were doing to Vietnam.
So we got together after I had got started copying the Pentagon Papers. I didn’t tell her about them for quite a while because I didn’t want to implicate her. But of course, now that I had shifted so much, it all made that much easier for us to get together.
She hadn’t been the one who wanted to part. It was me. Now that I agreed with her totally, there was no friction between us, and she became a total partner in the operation from then on. I have to say I’d be glad to give her full credit if she were the one. But in fact, it didn’t work that way.
DL: I don’t want to get all “Dr. Fielding” on you here, but one thing that made the film more involving was you did mention the childhood auto accident and how it affected your development. Your father was asleep at the wheel, and your mother and sister died in the wreck.
DE: It’s an inference, long after the fact. I didn’t think of it at the time, but looking back I think it did.
DL: It would seem that you wouldn’t normally defer to authority.
DE: Well, yes and no. I think I see what you’re driving at. Keep in mind, I was once a Cold Warrior. I had been a Marine infantry officer, so I was really familiar with the concept of discipline and of chain of command.
If I weren’t capable of being a good, disciplined obedient officer, I wouldn’t have been given the command of a rifle command under me. And, of course, I was under a battalion commander. So, I was in the Pentagon, and I was very familiar with having bosses and being a very good servant of them. And in the end, when I felt that my boss, the President, and this is more than hinted at in the movie, when I felt he was asleep at the wheel, you might say, going off the road, that was not entirely unfamiliar to me.
In other words, it wasn’t that I distrusted or couldn’t obey orders. But I think that looking back, that childhood incident did save me in a couple of ways:
One, that catastrophe was possible. I think that’s more vivid to me than it is to people who haven’t had that kind of experience. People think, “We’ll get through this. We’ll muddle through some how. The worst can’t happen.” I had experienced that the worst can happen very suddenly. And it may not work out all right.
The other was that the person who was responsible for that could be someone that you otherwise trust and admire, like my father, and/or the President. And I really did put a lot of trust in Presidents like other people, not just Americans, people from any country. But I was also aware they can go very wrong. That had been revealed to me very early.
So the possibility that the President was just on a wrong course, I think, was more available to me than to somebody who hasn’t had that kind of traumatic experience in their background. But that’s just a guess. I’m not Dr. Fielding, either. He didn’t bring it up, by the way, looking back on it. In fact, it was another psychoanalyst, not mentioned in the film that was a friend of mine, an associate. I met her much later in life, in the ‘80s, and we talked a lot, and she’s the one who pointed me toward this interpretation.
DL: I’d like to ask you about another movie for a moment: Dr. Strangelove. In Secrets, you describe a couple of potential scenarios in the late 1950s that could have lead to a Dr. Strangelove situation where there weren’t clear-cut plans to prevent a lower-level commander from ordering a nuclear strike.
DE: They had various regulations that were supposed to do that, but what I had discovered was they were very loose and lax. They weren’t observed, so that in fact a low-level could have indeed launched and might well have. It’s something I mean to write a lot about in the coming year.
If you look at my website (www.ellsberg.net), there are various pieces I’ve written over the last year or so and then some op-ed things from Truthdig.com: One on Hiroshima and my father and another on the war planning called “Planning a Hundred Holocausts” this last September.
And I plan to do a lot more writing on that subject. I’m going to be using the Internet to put out things that wouldn’t have been easy to do earlier.
DL: I remember how copy machines were back in the 1970s. I remember the paper was slick and sometimes the type was runny. Was it difficult to handle the sheets as you were copying them?
DE: You’re maybe thinking of something that’s in the very early stage where they used special papers of various kinds. By the time I was doing this, we were using regular paper the way they do now. But the machine was very slow.
There was no collating and no zip, zip, zip kind of thing. It was a very slow page-by-page thing with a green light as in the movie. I didn’t know what that light was doing to my eyes. I was doing it so many times. And I did it without the cover because the cover took just too much time. So I tried to do it without the cover, and it really made me wonder whether I was possibly doing some real damage to my eyes. But apparently not.
DL: You’ve done one thing, that I haven’t seen too many people do. You’ve emerged from a Stephen Colbert interview (www.rawstory.com/news/2006/ViDEo_Vietnamera_leaker_tells_Colbert_he_0922.html) with your dignity intact.
DE: (laughs). He was nice to me. That’s a matter of his decision, not mine.
DL: Even though much of the interview was in jest, you said you wished you had come forward with what you had known earlier. In your book, you said that as early as ’61, you had talked to some colonels when you were visiting Vietnam, and they had told you even then the situation was dicey.
DE: What they made clear was that without U.S. troops, it was hopeless. And they were not in favor of putting U.S. troops in. I did think it was a pretty hopeless situation, one that we should not get involved in.
But once the President (Johnson) in ’65 started the bombings, then as a Cold Warrior I thought as unpromising as it is, we can’t afford to have a total defeat here for our prestige and our influence in the world. We’ve got to make something out of this.
So for a matter of months in ’65, I would say that I did hope that now that he’s decided to go ahead, I hope we could make this less than a total fiasco, not another Bay of Pigs. Or course, it was a Bay of Pigs, on a scale of a thousand.
So for some months, I went to Vietnam in that spirit, hoping that I could contribute to some degree of success there. At the end of that year, and definitely by spring of the next year, ‘66, it was clear to me that that wasn’t going to happen. Nothing good was going to come of this. But in the end I stayed there another year.
DL: I know you’ve been following the Oscars because I’ve read your interview in the New York Times today. I was wanting to know if you’ve seen one of the nominated films called In the Loop, which is now on DVD.
DE: Oh, I loved that, and that’s terrific. That’s very realistic about the Washington scene and the British scene. It’s a satire supposedly, but really it could be just out of the Pentagon Papers themselves.
It may seem horrifyingly funny. Of course it’s not funny in real life there are people who are just as crass and shallow and unthinkingly ruthless and cynical. Those people do dominate policy in most imperial capitals like London, or even more Washington. That’s how empires are run. (Laughs). It probably goes back to the Romans.
I once said to my wife, a year before we were married. She said, “Why is it so important to put these out since (U.S. Sen. William) Fulbright doesn’t seem to feel it’s necessary to do it and other senators? If they don’t think it’s worth the risk, why do you think that it is?”
And I said, “First, they haven’t read them. I’m the only one who’s read them. Normally, I would trust their judgment, but I can’t really rely on their judgment now. I have to go on my judgment because they don’t really know what’s in these papers even though I’d given them to them in some cases.” But they hadn’t read them.
I said, “Second, this is the inner decision making of an empire. I’m sure that if you went back to the Sumerians or the Romans or the Greeks or the Egyptians or whoever, it would be very much like this. But it really hasn’t come out.
The closest to it were when we captured the decision-making documents of the Nazi regime in East Germany because we invaded. And that was the basis of the Nuremburg Trials. Everybody could say, “Well, that’s the Nazis. That doesn’t teach us anything. Those Germans they’re very weird. It doesn’t apply to us.”
So I said, “The point is even if nothing comes of this now, these documents will give us a sense on which an empire is run, meaning: the shallow, narrow-minded political interests that are involved, the fear of losing face, the fear of losing office to rivals who would say they were tougher than you. That sort of thing.” The total unconcern for the innocent people to be killed in the process here and not much concern for one’s own soldiers either. “They volunteered or they didn’t volunteer. Who cares? They’re expendable.” That’s the kind of thinking you find in those documents. You come back to In the Loop.
In the Loop is a documentary. Period. That’s it. They should be a rival for the category for Documentary. If that’s the case, I’d gladly defer to it. If it were one of the five, I’d say, “For sure, that should win.”
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Editor’s Note: Note: A longer version of this conversation can be found at Open Salon, http://open.salon.com/blog/lybarger/2010/02/10/the_most_dangerous_man_in_america_speaks.