Recently I’ve been studying the Pentagon Papers and the events surrounding their release. In that regard I read a New York Times op-ed written by Daniel Ellsberg that purports to tell the story of what compelled him to release national secrets to the media. More than any other single event in American history, Ellsberg’s perfidy opened the floodgates of government distrust and the media’s lack of respect for national secrets. He is the progenitor of Wikileaks and especially of Edward Snowden.
Ellsberg’s op-ed is an obvious example of self-serving justification for an act he knew was wrong. In point of fact, he himself decided he was willing to risk a life in prison to expose what he believed were lies being told to the American people. But were they? There were certainly things documented in the Pentagon Papers that could be viewed as lies by an unsophisticated or biased observer. What Ellsberg characterizes as lies are decisions made by Presidents against the advice of some of their advisors. Ellsberg agreed with the dissenting advisors and so believed they were right and the Presidents were wrong.
A generation of presidents, believing that the course they were following was in the best interests of the country, nevertheless chose to conceal from Congress and the public what the real policy was, what alternatives were being pressed on them from within the government, and the pessimistic predictions they were receiving about the prospects of their chosen course.
Here Ellsberg casts those who disagreed with the President in the role of being correct in their (and, of course, his own) opinions and naively suggests that open government means airing every disagreement inside an administration publicly. Good leadership means considering advice from advisors who will often disagree among themselves over a particular course of action. It also means making decisions based on that advice and your own best judgment. It is inevitable that some of those advisors will be upset because their preferred course of action was not taken. It’s equally inevitable that, given the egos involved, some of them will look for opportunities to “prove” that they were right and that the President followed the wrong advice.
That is the reason we consistently see “tell-all” books after advisors whose advice was not taken leave office as well as hagiographies by those with whom a President agreed.
Although Ellsberg himself admits that “a generation of Presidents” believed that the course of action that they chose was “in the best interests of the country”, he nevertheless characterizes them as lying simply because they chose a course with which he disagreed. One can only surmise that if Ellsberg would have agreed with their decisions, he never would have characterized the process of decision-making as lying. Yet despite the fact that five consecutive Presidents followed the same general policy, because Ellsberg disagreed with that policy he felt that it was necessary for him to commit a traitorous act to expose them.
Throughout the campaign of 1964, President Johnson indicated to the voters — contrary to his opponent Barry Goldwater — that no escalation was needed in South Vietnam. He sometimes added, almost inaudibly, ”at this time.”
As the Pentagon Papers later showed, that was contradicted as early as May 1964 by the estimates and recommendations of virtually all of Johnson’s own civilian and military advisers. I believe he worried, not only in 1964 but over the next four years, that if he laid out candidly just how difficult, costly and unpromising the conflict was expected to be, the public would overwhelmingly want escalation on a scale that promised to win the war.
To this end, Congress and the voters might compel him to adopt the course secretly being pressed on him by his own Joint Chiefs of Staff. From 1964 through 1968, the Joint Chiefs continuously urged a litany of secret recommendations, including mining Haiphong; hitting the dikes; bombing near the Chinese border; closing all transportation routes from China; sending ground troops to Laos, Cambodia and the southern part of North Vietnam; possibly full-scale invasion of North Vietnam.
I think that this escalation would not have won the war.
While Ellsberg is certainly entitled to his opinion, his opinion did not justify revealing government secrets to the public. As he points out and history confirms, had Johnson revealed to the public what his advisors were telling him, the public would have demanded escalation in Vietnam. Since Ellsberg “thought” that escalation would not have won the war, one would assume that he would be happy that the President “lied” to the public. The irony of this contradiction seems to escape him completely.
Setting aside Ellsberg’s concerns for a moment, what kind of President would conceal his true desires because he believed they were out of sync with the desires of the American people? We have previously discussed the incompetence of American leadership with regard to the war. Certainly that would have been grounds for going public with what he knew but without revealing state secrets.
Both Kennedy and Johnson handled the war ineptly, not only ignoring the advice of the military experts but moving in a direction that they were repeatedly warned would not achieve the desired result. But this is not lying. It’s incompetence. Johnson in particular behaved despicably toward the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ignored their advice completely and placed his trust in McNamara, a man who had no military knowledge at all. This too is not lying but incompetence.
Remarkably, Ellsberg himself recognized that the ongoing disagreements within administrations were debates, but because of his personal beliefs he characterized them as lies rather than normal disagreement within advisory groups.
I first learned of these debates in 1964 and 1965, when I was special assistant to John McNaughton, the assistant defense secretary. I read all the documents of that period that were later included in the Pentagon Papers, and I heard from McNaughton of his discussions with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Johnson. I strongly regret that at that time, I did not see it as my duty to disclose that information to the Senate.
But then I was in Vietnam for two years from 1965 to 1967. I saw that our ground effort in South Vietnam was hopelessly stalemated, and I did not believe that increased bombing of the north would ever cause our adversaries to give up. Therefore I came to the belief in 1967 that we should negotiate our way out.
Because he spent time in Vietnam, Ellsberg apparently became convinced that his limited view of the conflict was an accurate one and decided that he knew better than five Presidents what the correct course of action was. So, desperate to gain what he viewed as a fair hearing for his beliefs, which he believed were superior to those of five Presidents, he decided to violate his oath and reveal state secrets to the world. For this traitorous act he is celebrated as a hero by many of the misguided fools that believe themselves to be wiser than the men chosen to lead the nation.
So my concern in releasing the Pentagon Papers was not simply, or even primarily, to get out the truth. I thought I would probably go to prison for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t have done that just to set the record straight. I released the papers because I foresaw prolonged war and eventual escalation, including incursions into Laos and Cambodia, the mining of Haiphong and the bombing of Hanoi. I wanted to avert these events, but they all occurred.
Ellsberg’s ego wouldn’t allow him to accept the fact that he was not the President. He felt he knew better than the men who had a much broader knowledge of Vietnam, of secret negotiations, of plans he knew nothing about, of issues with which he was completely unaware. All that mattered was that his views be aired, even if he had to go to prison. Even what he perceived as the truth didn’t matter! This is a man with a massive ego. This is a man for whom no other view than his own is valid. it’s not surprising then that his oath meant nothing to him when weighed against his superior opinions.
The greatest irony of all is that the Pentagon Papers reveal that basic US policy toward Vietnam was consistent across five Presidencies and that all of the claims of the antiwar movement were false.