Exposing the Vietnam War Conspiracy
Daniel Ellsberg and his Pentagon Papers
Daniel Ellsberg was a United States military analyst.
While Ellsberg was employed by the RAND Corporation in 1971, he released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Pentagon study of US government decision-making about the Vietnam War, to The New York Times and other newspapers.
He attended Harvard University on a scholarship, graduating with B.S. in economics in 1952 (summa cum laude). He then studied at Cambridge University on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. A year later he returned to Harvard for graduate school. In 1954, he left Harvard for the U.S. Marine Corps. He graduated first in a class in Quantico, Virginia. He served two years as a platoon leader, and was discharged from the Corps as a first lieutenant in 1957. He resumed graduate studies at Harvard, but after two years he interrupted his academic studies again, to work at RAND, where he concentrated on nuclear strategy. He earned a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard in 1962. His dissertation introduced a paradox in decision theory now known as the Ellsberg paradox.
Ellsberg served in the Pentagon from August 1964 under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (and, in fact, was on duty on the evening of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, reporting the incident to McNamara). He then served for two years in Vietnam working for General Edward Lansdale as a civilian in the State Department.
After his tour of duty in Vietnam, Ellsberg resumed working at RAND. In 1967, he contributed to a top-secret study of classified documents regarding the conduct of the Vietnam War that had been commissioned by Defense Secretary McNamara. These documents, completed in 1968, later became known collectively as the Pentagon Papers. Because he held an extremely high-level security clearance, Ellsberg was one of very few individuals who had access to the complete set of documents.
By 1969 Ellsberg began attending anti-war events while still remaining in his position at RAND. He experienced an epiphany attending a War Resisters League conference at Haverford College in August 1969, listening to a speech given by a draft resister named Randy Kehler, who said he was “very excited” that he would soon be able to join his friends in prison. Ellsberg described his reaction:
“…It was the example he was setting with his life. How his words in general showed that he was a stellar American, and that he was going to jail as a very deliberate choice — because he thought it was the right thing to do. There was no question in my mind that my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger. Thousands of young men were dying each year. I left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room. I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing. The only time in my life I’ve reacted to something like that. Randy Kehler never thought his going to prison would end the war. If I hadn’t met Randy Kehler it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy and release the Pentagon Papers.”
These documents “demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance”. They revealed that the government had knowledge from the beginning of the War, that the War would not likely be won, and that continuing would lead to more casualties than was ever admitted publicly. Further, the papers showed a deep cynicism towards the public and a disregard for safety of soldiers and civilians.
Throughout 1970, Ellsberg covertly attempted to persuade a few sympathetic U.S. Senators (among them J. William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and George McGovern, a leading opponent of the war) to release the papers on the Senate floor, because a Senator could not be prosecuted for anything he said on-the-record before the Senate. Ellsberg told U.S. Senators that they should be prepared to go to jail in order to end the Vietnam War.
On June 29, 1971, U.S. Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska entered 4,100 pages of the Papers into the record of his Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds, which he had received from Ellsberg via Ben Bagdikian— then an editor at the Washington Post. These portions of the Papers were subsequently published by Beacon Press.
John Mitchell, Nixon’s Attorney General, almost immediately issued a telegram to the Times ordering that it halt publication. The Times refused, and the government brought suit against it.
Although the Times eventually won the trial before the Supreme Court, an appellate court ordered that the Times temporarily halt further publication. This was the first successful attempt by the federal government to restrain the publication of a major newspaper since the presidency of Abraham Lincoln during the US Civil War. Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to 17 other newspapers in rapid succession. The right of the press to publish the papers was upheld in New York Times Co. v. United States.
As a response to the leaks, the Nixon administration began a campaign against further leaks and against Ellsberg personally. Aides Egil Krogh and David Young under John Ehrlichman’s supervision created the “White House Plumbers”, which would later lead to the Watergate burglaries.
The release of these papers was politically embarrassing to those involved in the Johnson, Kennedy, and Nixon administrations. Nixon’s Oval Office tape from June 14, 1972 shows H. R. Haldeman describing the situation to Nixon:
“Rumsfeld was making this point this morning. To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing. … It shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.”
In admitting to giving the documents to the press, Ellsberg said:
- “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”
He (and his partner Russo) faced charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 and other charges including theft and conspiracy, carrying a total maximum sentence of 115 years. Their trial commenced in 1973, but due to the gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering, and the defense by Leonard Boudin and Charles Nesson, Judge Byrne dismissed all charges against Ellsberg and Russo.
The Pentagon Papers paint a picture of governmental arrogance, miscalculation, lies and deception. Worse, the McNamara-commissioned study confirmed what many Americans were thinking at the time: They had not been told the truth about the war in Vietnam. Study researchers, reviewing top secret memos, learned that government officials had not fully disclosed the extent of U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. Even more troubling, official files proved the US Government knew about (at least) the coup d’etat that resulted in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother. The worst was that the incident that our President used to get us into the Vietnam War, the Gulf of Tonkin, was a false-flag non-event (fake). Admiral Stockdale recalled there was no attack the night of August 4, despite our President and reporters telling us there was. The year after Congress passed the Tonkin Resolution, President Johnson joked with reporters about what really happened: “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
It was the Tonkin Resolution that gave the President powers and public support for any military action against other countries.
Ellsberg is the recipient of the Inaugural Ron Ridenhour Courage Prize, a prize established by The Nation Institute and The Fertel Foundation. In 1978 he accepted the Gandhi Peace Award from Promoting Enduring Peace. On September 28, 2006 he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award.
Ellsberg later claimed that after his trial ended, the Watergate prosecutor informed him of an aborted plot by Liddy and the “plumbers” to have 12 Cuban-Americans who had previously worked for the CIA to “totally incapacitate” Ellsberg as he appeared at a public rally, though it is unclear whether that meant to assassinate Ellsberg or merely to hospitalize him. In his autobiography, G. Gordon Liddy describes an “Ellsberg neutralization proposal” originating from Howard Hunt, which involved drugging Ellsberg with LSD, by dissolving it in his soup, at a fund-raising dinner in Washington in order to “have Ellsberg incoherent by the time he was to speak” and thus “make him appear a near burnt-out drug case” and “discredit him”. The plot involved waiters from the Miami Cuban community. According to Liddy, when the plan was finally approved, “there was no longer enough lead time to get the Cuban waiters up from their Miami hotels and into place in the Washington Hotel where the dinner was to take place” and the plan was “put into abeyance pending another opportunity”
“In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.”
~ Justice Hugo Black