On Thursday Evening, February 15, 1973, REASON editor Manuel S. Klausner and Hank Hohenstein travelled to the Ellsberg-Russo Defense Headquarters, to interview Daniel Ellsberg of the now famous Pentagon Papers case, which is still in trial in federal court in Los Angeles as we go to press.
Dr. Ellsberg was indicted June 25, 1971 for his activities in making the Pentagon Papers public. His effort to publicize the Pentagon Papers began in September 1969 with an attempt to have the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hold hearings on the matter. Not meeting with success in the Congress, he turned to the press and in June 1971 the NEW YORK TIMES and other newspapers began to publish excerpts from the papers. In December 1971 a superseding fifteen count indictment was issued which additionally named Anthony J. Russo, a RAND colleague, as codefendant. The major statutes involved in the charges are: espionage, theft of government property, and conspiracy.
Dr. Ellsberg, born in Chicago in 1931, received his degree in economics with highest honors from Harvard College in 1952, followed by a year at Cambridge. He then enlisted in the Marine Corps, served as a rifle company commander and participated in the Mediterranean during the Suez crisis. He graduated number one in his class of 1,100 newly commissioned Second Lieutenants at Basic School, Quantico, Virginia. And, as Hank Hohenstein (also a former Marine) has observed, "'Anyone can graduate with highest honors from Harvard, but it takes a very unique person to be number one among officers of Marines."
After leaving the Marines, Dr. Ellsberg returned to Harvard University to become a member of the Society of Fellows and to receive his Ph.D. in economics in 1962. Also during this time he was a strategic analyst at RAND Corporation and a consultant to the Department of Defense. During this period he participated in numerous studies, and was on the Executive Committee of the National Security Council during the Cuban missile crisis. He went to Vietnam in 1965 for the State Department and served on General Lansdale's senior liaison team. He then was transferred to become a Special Assistant to Deputy Ambassador William Porter. Hepatitis forced his return to the U.S. in 1967 and he returned to RAND.
Dr. Ellsberg then began working on the McNamara study of U.S. decision making in Vietnam. This study is now known as the Pentagon Papers. In late 1968 he coordinated the development of a range of policy "options" on Vietnam for Henry Kissinger. He also prepared National Security Study Memorandum No. 1 in 1969, which was a set of questions sent to all agencies dealing with Vietnam and then helped to summarize the answers to those questions for President Nixon.
"The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine" is an award winning essay by Dr. Ellsberg which was published in 1970 for the M.I.T. Center for International Studies. His book, PAPERS ON THE WARS, was published by Simon and Schuster in July 1972.
It may be of interest to our readers to learn that Daniel Ellsberg entered the Marine Corps approximately eight months after Hank Hohenstein (who assisted Manuel Klausner in interviewing Ellsberg) had enlisted. Though they had never served together, their training was very similar and both became infantry officers and served in infantry battalions. Their paths, though diverse, were entwined with the Department of Defense, since Hank remained very active in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1969. As late as 1968 he was privileged to attend various secret briefings when the credibility gap became too great to tolerate. As Hank states, "One did not have to read the newspaper nor be an especially astute tactician to understand that the military were not only deceiving the American people but even deceiving themselves and that we were fighting a war we had lost militarily. But more importantly, because of our actions in Vietnam, we had lost the 'other war,' the war for the people." Hank (who was featured several weeks ago in TIME as one of the San Diego Ten, a group of conservative and libertarian tax resistors recently on trial in San Diego) adds, "I sadly remember, and I'm certain Dan does also, the often heard comment, 'Hell, Marine, any war is better than no war."
Dan Ellsberg is a bright, articulate, and fascinating individual. Although he is not a libertarian, he does espouse certain positions which are in harmony with the libertarian philosophy. REASON expects this interview to provoke controversy among our readers, and we look forward to hearing your reaction to Ellsberg's views and actions.
REASON: First of all, Dan, is there an untold story about the Pentagon Papers and your disclosure of the Papers?
ELLSBERG: There are various stories that the Justice Department would probably like me to put out at this point, but I think that would tempt them too much to bring a second indictment in Boston. The current indictment deals only with the period during which the Papers were copied and given to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It ends in September 1970. The Boston Grand Jury that has been investigating the distribution side of the Papers that went beyond the Congress, really only began sometime after September 1970. So if I were to talk about that now it simply would encourage them to indict a lot of people that later helped me in the distribution process that ended with the Pentagon Papers getting out to the newspapers. I don't care to talk about that.
REASON: What did you want to accomplish? What was your purpose in embarking upon the activities that led to your dissemination of the Pentagon Papers?
ELLSBERG: The only thing that I could personally hope to achieve by my own efforts was to make these documents available to the American public for them to read and to learn from. I couldn't force them to read the documents—let alone to learn from and act on them—but I could hope to make it possible for them to read them as opposed to the situation where the studies were sitting in my safe at the Rand Corporation. In that situation I was almost the only person in the country authorized to study and derive lessons from them. The theory was that those lessons would be put to use by the Executive Branch. But what the Pentagon Papers told me when I read them was that the Executive Branch was determined not to learn lessons from its experience in Vietnam. While the United States Government had experienced a series of failures that called for a change in our policy, successive administrations had really seen our experience as a succession of adequate successes. Each President had managed to postpone the day when the country, and specifically when he, would have to acknowledge a mistake or defeat. To this day, of course, no President has acknowledged any such mistake or defeat. So Richard Nixon is the fifth president in a row who counts his Vietnam policy a success to this point. The history in the Pentagon Papers told me that if others were to learn a different lesson it would have to be people outside the Executive Branch and they would have to have the physical capability to read the papers. So the papers had to leave my safe.
I tried first through the Senate and did not really succeed in making it available even to the whole of Congress, let alone to the people. Ultimately it was through the newspapers that the American public first saw large sections of the Pentagon Papers. But it wasn't until the Executive Branch had been induced to bring out its own declassified version through the Government Printing Office and Beacon Press brought out a somewhat fuller version—the so-called Senator Mike Gravel version—that I felt my task had been accomplished.
REASON: Did you also have a purpose in disclosing the Pentagon Papers of trying to show any detriment in the Government's policy of classifying information?
ELLSBERG: Yes. A very important secondary objective—second only to the objective of getting a change in our Vietnam policy—was the hope of changing the tolerance of Executive secrecy that had grown up over the last quarter of a century both in Congress and the courts and in the public at large. It seemed to me that our Vietnam policy reflected an accumulation of Executive power, which in turn had exploited very critically this tolerance of Executive secrecy. In other words, I felt that without the widespread willingness to allow the Executive to keep secret the mass of information about its own operations and intentions, it wouldn't have been possible for the Executive to steal away so much power from the Congress and the public and to free itself from the kinds of checks and balances that were intended in the Constitution. Precisely because Congressmen realized over the years that they lacked the information on which to criticize Executive policy or to suggest changes, they have opted out from an active role in the field of foreign policy. But by the same token, it was the Executive Branch itself which was denying them this information. So that what we saw was one more confirmation of the axiom on which I think our Constitution was originally built, which is, "power corrupts—even Americans." Power encroaches upon the challenges of the opposition, and officials in the Executive Branch, given a chance to paralyze opposition by practicing secrecy and deception, will use that power. l think that the Vietnam war was one cost of that process. The price we paid for allowing a single branch of Government to emerge as dominating almost exclusively the field of foreign policy and defense policy has been a quarter century of the Vietnam war—which means the price has been a couple of million of Vietnamese lives and over fifty thousand American lives, and 135 billion dollars in the last eight years alone.
REASON: Certain constitutional lawyers feel that your acts may well cause greater Federal control and greater attempts at secrecy. Do you think your action may result in allowing the Federal Government to have greater control over information, further restricting First Amendment rights?
ELLSBERG: I don't think so, though I had some fear that that was possible when I set out on this course. As I say, I had two goals—enlightening the people about the Vietnam War in hopes that they would act to end it, and alerting them to the danger of the secrecy system. What you're saying is that in the eyes of some people I could have set back the second goal as I was pursuing the first. In actual fact, I don't think that it's working that way. The instinct of the Executive Branch is of course to keep its secrets and to protect its secrets, but it has always had that instinct, and of course it was to be expected that in the light of my challenge and the challenge of other people who have released information that they would move to prosecute me and to deter other people. But the reaction of Congress has not been to support that Executive program. On the contrary, one of the useful effects of the revelations of the Pentagon Papers has been the series of hearings conducted by Congressman Moorehead's subcommittee on government information. The eight volumes of the Moorehead hearings are serious reading that I recommend greatly. I've read all of them and learned a great deal from them. Not only do they present a great deal of information about the way the classification system really works, but there's a good deal of discussion of possible legislation that would have the effect of cutting back the Executive's ability to keep secrets from Congressmen. I think that that is the direction that Congressional action is likely to take, and I think there will be Congressional action. So I think the net effect in that direction will be a good one—a very good one.
REASON: Do you believe that the classification process tends not to particularly benefit the Government, because foreign powers tend to have knowledge of what we're doing very rapidly, and the only thing it really protects is the people in power from their own people.
ELLSBERG: Well, I'm not saying that there should be no secrets or that there's no information an enemy could use to harm the United States. I am saying that the way the secrecy system operates now, the risks and dangers and costs that it imposes enormously overweigh the benefits of the secrecy; so much so, in fact, that I would be willing to say that a system that is the negation of what we have now—that is, the demolition of the current system of safeguards—would be better than what we have right now. That isn't to say that some secrets could not be justified. It just seems to me that the proper kind of system must be controlled to a large extent outside the Executive Branch; at least it cannot be controlled exclusively by the Executive Branch as it is today. A system that allows some secrets has to be a limited one, because relatively few secrets can be kept from the American people if we are to remain a democracy; and it must have safeguards built in against the abuse of it.
What we have now is an essentially unlimited system with no safeguards whatever against abuse, and we do have almost unlimited abuse. What I mean by safeguards would be criteria to begin with that would constrain the kind of information that can be kept secret, and a system for monitoring the actual practices. The monitoring would have to be done in part outside—or even entirely outside—the Executive Branch. I emphasize that because the essence of a system that is tolerable in a democracy would be a system that does not allow the Executive to be the sole judge of what the public is allowed to know about how officials are doing their job. That means that Congress has to set forth the constraints and criteria—and to set up a body that would do a large part of the monitoring. There should also be appeal to the courts. Essentially, there is none now. The courts have really refused to take up the question of whether classification in a given instance has been proper, and that is an abdication of their responsibility. So it should provide explicitly for appeal to courts, for appeal to Congress, on decisions as to whether a given secret is to be kept. Additionally, there must be more review within the Executive Branch itself—but that alone isn't enough.
You come down to the principle that no one man, even the President, should be allowed to decide without review that certain kinds of information cannot be known to American citizens. The situation we have now is that not only can one man do that, but closer to 100,000 men, as individuals, can decide, each without practical review.
REASON: Much of the material that was released in the Pentagon Papers had been released on a gradual basis in certain public statements by certain individuals and certain memoirs. Do you think that the Government came down so hard on you because you made a specific challenge to their authority to classify and release?
ELLSBERG: Not entirely. That was part of it. This is a point that I think is being misunderstood by people who are following the trial. Whether certain kinds of information about Government policies were "available" as information depends on the credibility of the channel, the source by which that information became available to a particular hearer. A great deal of the information—even some of the most important information in the Pentagon Papers was available to someone who was skeptical of the credibility of our highest officials. If you were prepared to discount the assertions being made by our Presidents and their spokesmen and to weigh heavily the contradictory assertions that were coming from the critics of our policy, or skeptics, or foreign sources—then you could pick up and learn and act on most of the most important information in the Pentagon Papers.
If, on the other hand, you put a great deal of weight on what Presidents said, then the Pentagon Papers have a great deal to tell you. Because the Pentagon Papers are documentary evidence that the Presidents were lying. To whom then did these documents convey a great deal of information? To whom are they valuable? Not to foreigners on the whole, or foreign adversaries. Ho Chi Minh did not need a document to know the President misrepresented the very things being said to Ho Chi Minh in negotiations, or the actions the U.S. was taking against North Vietnam. So they had little to learn from the Pentagon Papers. The same is true of domestic critics who were sufficiently skeptical of releases from the White House; but to credulous Congressmen and many American voters who wanted very much to give the benefit of the doubt to the President, then the existence of documentary evidence made a great deal of difference. In particular, it makes the difference to an American between passivity and a willingness to act in opposition to the President. For such an American, he has to be almost sure the President is wrong before he will really change his party or speak out openly, risk his job, or risk his career, let alone go to prison. And I think for a lot of Americans these documents made a significant difference.
REASON: A lot of REASON's readers are by nature skeptical of announcements from government officials—we look for example at President Nixon's statements or "commitments" that he would not impose wage price controls or that he would not devalue the dollar. What do you view as the major lies that the Pentagon Papers have disclosed in terms of American Presidents' announcements about the war and our involvement in Indochina.
ELLSBERG: Well, various categories arise. Some had to do with the impression available to the Presidents themselves as to the situation in Vietnam, the origins of the war and the legalities of the situation. Others had to do with their intentions at a given time—of the plans that they foresaw having to put into effect and the likely scale of the war that lay ahead. On the first count I would say a major deception that runs right through five Administrations is the clear deceit that we were significantly, let alone essentially, concerned with freedom from foreign intervention for the Vietnamese people. I would say that to look at these papers you can only conclude that five Administrations were very clear in their mind that they believed foreign intervention—by ourselves—was both essential and legitimate and was the cornerstone of our policy.
REASON: To characterize our intervention the executive branch would use the word "just"?
ELLSBERG: Well, there is no great difference; if any difference, between what is now known as the Nixon doctrine and the Brezhnev doctrine of the Russian right to intervene in the affairs of Czechoslovakia. In fact, I think that if the Kremlin Papers relating to interventions like Czechoslovakia and Hungary were to be revealed you'd see very little difference in attitude from the Pentagon Papers. Our interests, world order in general, the need to prevent dominoes from falling, damage to our prestige, or if we should be humiliated—all of this as rationale for intervention, would have its counterpart in the Kremlin.
REASON: Wasn't the domino theory discredited even by the CIA? Didn't the Pentagon Papers show us that?
ELLSBERG: Well yes, in the form that the Presidents usually said it, it was discredited. Namely, the notion that the other countries of Southeast Asia would quickly, and almost surely, come under Communist domination. CIA has not really endorsed that idea since the mid '50s. On the other hand, I think our Presidents did believe that a clear-cut failure in Vietnam would have repercussions that our leaders wanted to avoid. For one thing, I think each administration has felt very clearly ever since the so-called fall of China to the Communists in 1949 that the important domino that would fall would be the White House; it would be their own control of power, if they should be in office when Communist successes took place that they had failed to avert.
REASON: Do you think that Communist containment was the overriding objective of these five Administrations?
ELLSBERG: No. I think that there was an overall policy that can be described as anti-communist, or that can as easily be described as counter-revolutionary, in the sense of maintaining our business and governmental access to as much of the resources of the world as possible. And within this overall policy, usually the most convenient rationale for intervening against a regime that might exclude our influence was the claim that that regime was dominated by Communists or was likely to become dominated by Communists, because that was a claim that would find a good deal of support for intervention—support from a lot of Americans who otherwise would feel more relaxed about the change.
REASON: Was there not an attempt to deny the Communists, in this case the Chinese Communists, access to the vital Rice Bowl of South Vietnam?
ELLSBERG: Well, I don't think they felt that would make a great deal of difference. The best experts that were available never really endorsed the idea that Southeast Asia, in any sense, economic or otherwise, had to fall under the total domination either of Vietnam or of China if Vietnam became Communist.
I think that they did to some extent worry about dominoes, even if the dominoes, in other words were not sure to fall. They did worry about effects of a Communist success that would be an American failure. But I don't think that the dominoes they worried most about were in Southeast Asia. I think they worried more about whatever effects might occur in the Middle East, Europe and Latin America, and in Russia and above all in the U.S.A.
REASON: Probably much of the American public believed we had a valid right to interfere in the affairs of North and South Vietnam. We'd like to get into your evolution of thought in this area. In other words, whether you at one time supported a concept of Pax Americana—and what your position was initially, at the time you were in the Marine Corps—and what your position is now?
ELLSBERG: My position was that of many other people. There's an unquestioned faith in the goodwill and good intentions of the American Government in contrast to the bad intentions of our major adversary, the Russians. And therefore I shared that other widespread belief that even though we might well make mistakes in a given area, it was better that we make the mistakes for those people in the area than that it come under the domination of our major adversaries. I didn't know much then about the history of imperialism, in its various forms, but I have been reading more of the literature recently, and I see how in the late nineteenth century, in Europe, all the Western countries were scrambling for authority, but the central thinking of each one of them was the thought that if they didn't take over and administer the people and resources of a given area, some other influence would prevail that would be much worse, even for the people of the area. The French thought, "If not us, the Germans," and vice versa for the Germans. We thought in connection with the Philippines, "If not us the Germans, or somebody else." And it's this item of faith that although we're undoubtedly not perfect, we're better than those other guys who will run this place if we don't: whether those other guys are foreigners to the area or feudal or criminal elements in the area itself. If we don't control, the alternative is chaos, anarchy, imperialism, slavery and so forth. So we didn't have to feel that we were angelic, entirely altruistic or perfect, to feel that we were still serving the interests of the people of the area when we proceeded to serve our own interests. This is a pretty unquestioned belief.
REASON: When you say that you've been going back to historians on our imperialist activities, have you been reading any revisionist historians such as Harry Elmer Barnes or Gabriel Kolko?
ELLSBERG: I've read little of Barnes since he's very early, but I've read quite a bit now of the literature that has followed William Appleman Williams' theses in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, including that by Kolko, Lloyd Gardner, Gar Alperowitz, and a very interesting new book by Richard Friedland, The Truman Doctrine And The Origins Of McCarthyism.
And it's worth noting I think that what has made this revision of our understanding of American policy possible is the gradual declassification of World War II records. In fact these books come out year by year as the State Department has gotten around to making records available year by year. They've gone up to about 1949; although Kolko's latest book leaps forward to 1954, really the documentation has been available only to '49 or '50. For the period between World War II and the end after Korean War, between '46 and '54, the Moorehead hearings show that over 300 million pages are still classified, in addition to the 170 million pages from World War II. So the bulk of the declassification still remains to be done. Now the major reason why I felt the Pentagon Papers ought to come out was the feeling that we couldn't afford to wait twenty-five years to learn what there was to be learned from the documentary history of this period. We have to learn these lessons faster.
REASON: I think our readers would be interested in knowing how you characterize yourself politically?
ELLSBERG: Well, earlier I would have called myself a cold war Democrat using the words cold war without any apology, meaning views like Acheson's in foreign policy and Harry Truman's in domestic policy; that is, liberalism in domestic policy and a sort of hard line approach on foreign policy. Of course, I'm very conscious of the role both parties have played in maintaining the cold war, in Vietnam specifically. I'm in a state of transition now and trying to learn. Certainly though by any standards I've moved towards the left. And I happen to have been very influenced by the people who are radical pacifists and anarchists, which is not a simple political philosophy. It is an attitude toward life and culture and politics—I would mention for example people in the War Resisters League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
REASON: How do you feel about government policies such as import quotas or subsidies to corporations?
ELLSBERG: Well, although I've got a Ph.D. in economics—a long time ago at Harvard—l never did study international economics very much and I haven't really practiced as an economist. So I'm not up on such subjects. But the study of the past couple of years has convinced me increasingly that economic motivation did underline a great deal of the policy that I helped to implement—that's the cold war policy—with concern for maintaining trade, investments and sales in undeveloped countries and in Western Europe really as the tacit motive that lay underneath a great deal of our policy. That policy was described to the public as defensive, as addressed to military threats to our allies in Western Europe and other parts of the world; and it appears that this rationale was used fairly consciously as a basis for a very large defense budget which would stabilize the economy and for foreign aid and interventions that would maintain our exports.
REASON: You mentioned that both parties share a great deal of blame in maintaining the war in Vietnam. Do you consider this a function of the parties themselves or of the bureaucratic infrastructure which they may not have any control over?
ELLSBERG: Well, on that point, I have come less and less to emphasize the bureaucratic pressure, to which I did give a lot of importance when I was in the bureaucracy four or five years ago. I think there is currently an academic scholarly trend towards emphasizing the importance of bureaucratic pressures, and I think it's greatly overdone.
Even as of a couple of years ago I was inclined to emphasize much more the domestic political pressures rather than bureaucratic—and this is something that I learned from my own experience and from the Pentagon Papers, which made quite clear that the policy the President chose was often one that he alone espoused within the bureaucratic system. It seemed clear that he was responding to pressures outside the bureaucratic system. Elements like the Air Force or the Joint Chiefs of Staff certainly didn't want to get out of Vietnam, But they proposed policies fairly different from the ones the President actually followed. It's not possible to hold them responsible for the actual choice which the President pursued—so I was led to see the very great responsibility of the President himself, and to conjecture what the pressures were that did influence them. These seemed to be domestic political pressures. Now, in the last couple of years I've studied and learned, I think, more and more about the influence on the parties and the party system and on the President himself, of economic interests, corporate interest—and I would include unions and class interests.
It so happens that I think that traditional leftists or Marxists have simplified the problem in a misleading way, in such a way as to imply that the President simply takes his orders via telephone from Wall Street. Now I don't think it's possible to explain Vietnam that way. In fact, Wall Street has been very skeptical of Vietnam, for at least several years while the war has gone on. At the same time I think these economic interests are important, but I think that they work through the political system, through the major political parties, through the system of nominations and competition between the parties, and that this is an interaction that has yet to be explored enough or to be understood very well.
So I think that to understand Vietnam, and I don't think I do understand it adequately yet, I've a strong feeling that it's necessary for us to come to understand how economic interests structure political competition within the country: determine the kinds of candidates that are able to be nominated and to get campaign funding and media attention, and influence the workings of Congress and the general workings of the political system. I don't think one can afford to ignore either the economic interests, nor to abstract from the political system through which these interests affect policy. I've sketched out a framework there that I think no one to my knowledge has adequately explored yet.
REASON: What do you feel would be a desirable American foreign policy today?
ELLSBERG: I would like to see very much less United States intervention of all kinds—not only military, but economic and covert. Less interference in the affairs of other nations, both the underdeveloped nations of the world and for that matter the developed countries,—our Western European allies and others.
I think that the attitude that intervention and control was necessary to our well-being really reflected special interests in this country far more than our general welfare. And of course it did involve us in disastrous interventions from which a great many people suffered in America and many, many more suffered outside of America. On the one hand I would like to see us stop believing that we have the right to police foreign areas or to send Americans abroad to die and kill in the kinds of causes in which we've done so for the last twenty-five years. But I would also like to see much less U.S. money and resources go to support conservative, or reactionary, police state regimes abroad. What aid we should give—and I think we should give aid to the rest of the world—should be almost entirely channeled through international multilateral organizations, which would save us from the belief that we had a right to interfere in those countries that were recipients.
In other words I think there should be a transfer of resources from this country to other parts of the world, but not at the cost of a great deal of American intervention in those countries. I think they would be better off without any aid whatsoever than if it came in the form that enabled us to believe that it was our business to run their governments.
REASON: Don't you feel a forced transfer of resources abroad is entirely amiss—for the federal government to tax American citizens and dispense their funds abroad—as against private investment abroad.
ELLSBERG: I really do think that our influence on most other countries in the world—and this is still heresy from anyone who has considered himself a liberal or a moderate—that our influence has been on the whole negative, and that we've deluded ourselves in believing we've had a beneficent effect with the aid we've given and the intervention we've given. That is to say, I'm not terrified at the thought of major cutbacks in foreign aid of the kind that Congress seemed about to require a year or so ago. Of course if we cut out every kind of economic aid and left ourselves simply with direct aid to military dictatorships; that would not be a move for the better.
REASON: What if you went all the way and eliminated all types of aid, including aid to military dictatorships?
ELLSBERG: You see, I think that would be better than what we're doing right now. But I don't say that's the best possible situation. I think a better situation would be for us to get in a position where we could, without hypocrisy, really support the U.N. Charter that we signed twenty-five years ago, and the principles of human rights which are so mocked by most of the regimes to which we ally ourselves or support: regimes which are actually dependent on us, where human freedoms are no more respected than they are in the least progressive of the Communist regimes.
So, many of the things that are happening violate fundamental human rights—proscriptions against torture; to take one sharp example. Our own practice in the past twenty years really prevents us from being the kind of world influence that I would like us to be. Not only have our governments told us that we must ally ourselves with and support, uncritically, rightwing regimes that practice torture, but the Vietnam experience has put us in the large-scale business of torture directly, both in the literal sense of widespread practice of torture under our eyes by our Vietnamese allies and by our own troops; and in a metaphorical, more terrible form of torturing the population of North Vietnam by deliberate use of population bombing to try to coerce Hanoi into accepting our terms of settlement. And while we pursue such a course over a matter of years on the largest scale possible, we can hardly be in a position to criticize regimes like Greece or Brazil in their practice of torture of political prisoners, The very imprisonment of political prisoners is another matter of violation of human rights on which we're not able to speak with any moral authority. Of course the possibility of such pressure having an effect is indicated by the sensitivity of the Greek regime to their being denounced and ostracized by other European countries. But what is much worse than the fact that we're not able to denounce them, is we actually support these regimes. South Vietnam itself is a very strong example.
REASON: When you talk about your desire to live up to the United Nations Charter and to try to implement the protection of human rights, do you see any correlation between the growth of bigger and bigger government and at the same time the demise of individual freedom?
ELLSBERG: Yes. Certainly. Obviously. And the effect in our case of Executive dominance has been to reduce the differences between being a citizen of the United States and a citizen of much less free societies. Even Communist societies. Now there still is a big difference, but the difference is less. And that's not the direction I would like to see us move. The difference is less because we're becoming less free in many respects. Now that doesn't mean that there's no freedom left here—we still do have one of the freest presses in the world, but it's the clear intent of the Nixon Administration to change that situation significantly, which is the direction of the changes that have taken place in the Philippines recently and in many countries such as France, Greece and Korea in the last few years alone.
REASON: Are you trying to draw a corollary then between your case and the Nixon administration's attack on the press?
ELLSBERG: Well, there are a number of recent cases which are part of the conscious campaign of the Nixon Administration to reduce the force of the First Amendment, to greatly reduce the freedom of speech and of the press of America. Because of my study of the Pentagon Papers and my need to prepare for my trial, I have become increasingly conscious of how valuable the First Amendment is. I think that here I find myself disagreeing with a lot of people on the left who are relatively tolerant of revolutionary regimes that have kept a tight control of the press and of freedom of speech, thought, and political opposition. There are young Americans who are tolerant of the idea that these are bourgeois liberties that simply support basically unjust, elitist regimes, and that at least during a transition period to a more just regime one can be quite relaxed about giving up such liberties. So they're relatively relaxed even when a regime like Nixon's acts against such freedoms, because they don't see them as fundamental.
REASON: Ludwig von Mises, one of the great free market economists, observed that freedom of the press is really meaningless if the government would own all the printing presses and he made this observation in the context of emphasizing the importance of private property. I gather by your previous answer that you are not in agreement with some of the individuals in the New Left, for example, who are very much against private property. Where do you stand on the importance of private property in a free society.
ELLSBERG: Well, the word "left" covers so many different things right now; certainly there are a lot of attitudes that I don't share. When I say that I've questioned a great deal of the beliefs that I once held or all the beliefs I once held, when I'm in a state of questioning and searching for more realistic and more humane politics, as I look about, I find, for instance that many people who see themselves as on the left are relatively uncritical and careless of the powers of the state. They're very sensitive to the power of large private interests, corporate power, economic power. And I don't think, by the way, that they necessarily exaggerate this power or the threat that it imposes, but many of them are led in the direction of countering that power with the bureaucratic state power, not so much in New Deal terms as on the model of the newer revolutionary regimes.
On the other hand I think that a lot of conservative citizens in the country are properly sensitive to the threat of state power and to the need for such freedom—for freedom of the press, free speech and so forth—but at the same time are insensitive to the need for controls on private power and corporate power.
REASON: Of course many of the American conservatives who use rhetoric in defense of individual freedom and in defense of freedom of the press were among the most strong opponents, at the outset, of publishing the Pentagon Papers. Don't you feel that despite their rhetoric that many American conservatives really pursue a policy of opposing individual rights in advocating growth of big government?
ELLSBERG: Well yes. Obviously it would be mistaken to see Bill Buckley as a conservative in a libertarian sense of the word "conservative". In fact as I listen to him I see him only as a monarchist and a Tory. He seems almost totally uncritical of state power if it is wielded by the major economic interests for economic intervention all over the world. Whereas on the other hand I find a great deal to learn from the early criticisms by Robert Taft of our interventions both in Korea and in sending troops to Europe, and I think he expressed the dangers there very well.
REASON: The American conservative movement has shifted ideologically as far as foreign affairs since Robert Taft and there are many right wingers today that would consider Taft to be very mistaken even though he was regarded at the time as one of the great conservatives.
ELLSBERG: But those are right wingers with whom now I would disagree. I was reading just the other day a comment on the Bricker amendment, which was regarded as the very definition of reactionary isolationism in the 50's and was opposed by Eisenhower and Dulles, as much as by Democrats. I think that many people like me would regard something like the Bricker amendment as very sound today. This would have limited the power of the Executive to make Executive agreements in foreign affairs.
REASON: Given your role at Rand, what type role do you see for a Rand, a think-tank corporation, in the formulation of future foreign policy?
ELLSBERG: It seems clear that major problems of this country have to do with protecting our citizenry and our form of self government from our own Executive branch, That can only be done, not by advice and consultation machinery within that Executive branch but by confronting the Executive branch with citizens' power organized in other forms outside the Executive branch: through Congress, through citizens' associations of various kinds, through unions, through a diffusion of power and responsibility relating to foreign policy outside the Executive Branch.
I can't really get interested any more in improving the flow of advice and information within the Executive branch itself—on the contrary, I'm not at all sympathetic to the notion that talent and intellect and energy of people interested in foreign affairs should continue to be channeled toward service to the Executive branch. I'd much rather see the ability of Congress to analyze these matters built up and of private associations of various kinds—I mentioned the unions for example. The unions have had quite a bit of involvement in foreign affairs over the last quarter of a century, but on the basis of various economic and ideological deals it's been pretty slavishly put at the service of Administration cold war policy. That didn't have to be the case. They are quite capable of research that isn't simply supportive of government policy. The same is true of the universities, who have been seduced by government funds, research funds and grants of various kinds over the years, away from a really independent academic role of criticism, except for a handful of revisionist scholars. I think that a great deal of thought and analysis is needed on matters of foreign and domestic policy and I would like to see that going on not within the Executive branch or under contract to the Executive branch, but independent of the Executive branch—both in sponsorship and in audience.
REASON: Don't you see limitations in looking to Congress, given some of the key people there such as John Stennis and—
ELLSBERG: Oh, obviously, unless Congress reforms its way of operating, or is reformed, by pressure from without and from young people within—it offers very little. The same interests that control the Executive have come to control Congress. And Congress has deliberately paralyzed itself. So, you need new kinds of people in Congress and you need a new way of operating Congress. Now that may seem very naive even to imagine, but I think it's more naive to think of tethering the Executive by unorganized citizen pressure just in the form of letter writing or of simply voting in the Presidential elections. What you need to do is to criticize foreign and military policy through a lot of institutions in this society on every level that have over the last twenty-five years removed themselves from the field of foreign policy and left it entirely to the Executive.
That means not only Congress, but it means going down to the local political machines that make city councils and state councils, some of whom have expressed themselves on the Vietnam war. Often when they've done so they've been ridiculed, as if it were absurd for, say, the Cambridge City Council to vote on a subject like the draft or the Vietnam war. But in fact the ridicule is absurd. This is the level at which the participation is being paid for and where the sons are coming from who die and kill in those wars. Of course they should be informed and involved in the decision.
REASON: Well, can't private citizens be involved by means of private universities, by means of private scholars—
ELLSBERG: Yes, Yes.
REASON: —by means of private think tanks. Why is it that you feel the improvements in foreign policy should come about through politicalization of the process going down to the City Council level?
ELLSBERG: No, I didn't mean at all to deprecate private action. On the contrary, when you said think tanks I thought you meant essentially research organizations working with the Executive because that's what that's meant in the past. That's all it's been. But if you think of private institutions and private associations then that's fine. That's all the better.
REASON: Isn't it absurd for people running for City Council to be concerned about foreign affairs when most of them are inept to deal with municipal problems in and of themselves?
ELLSBERG: Well, you see our involvement in Vietnam was not routine. And for them to have a position on that is not the same as routinely involving themselves in the preoccupation with foreign affairs. On the contrary, I think that many institutions in society should have seen that the war was going to go on for a long time if normal habits of division of labor persisted. In particular, division of labor gave all the responsibility to our leaders in the White House, and the military. So it was really up to them to use whatever power they had to throw their weight against that war. That's not the same as saying that City Councils have to spend a larger portion of time dealing with foreign policy, but they should be capable of knowing what it is that is crippling their own local programs and demoralizing their own local citizens. And if it's a war, they should take a position on that war.
REASON: On the other hand isn't one of the lessons that you're trying to bring home with your activities in disclosing the contents of the Pentagon Papers the fact that governments tend to be self protective and to deceive the citizen? Why should we expect any better of government at the local level than we should at a federal level?
ELLSBERG: Of any given agency, you shouldn't expect any better. The point here is not that our bureaucracy is worse than let's say the bureaucracy in Russia—the point is that you shouldn't expect it to be that much different. Large powerful bureaus are much the same in any army and in any state of war. What's different in our country, or was different, was the theory that the way you kept the corruption of power from being fatal was to confront a powerful executive hierarchy with legitimate power held by other imperfect men in other branches of government, and in the public at large and in the free press. So it's not that any one agency is going to be free from sin and corruption or ignorance but the kind of information and discussion that will result from the jostling about of powerful bodies with somewhat different constituencies and power houses, will result in more public enlightenment than you're going to get any other way. And more public involvement and probably a more pacific policy; because the people who designed our government believed not that every American was a pacifist at heart, but that the people who provided the men and the resources for wars were least likely to favor war or prolong war and that the more democratic a policy the more pacific it would be. One can find counter examples to that but I think that over the long run experience shows that they were wise.
REASON: What you're exactly saying is that people don't make wars, it's states that make wars?
ELLSBERG: Well, the states can certainly manipulate the people more easily than we would like, but I still think that the very lying that each of these administrations has done for the last twenty-five years is a tribute to their own belief that the people would not support this war if they understood truly what was being done.
REASON: If you look at the practicalities of your view that state and local governments should speak out—here you've been on trial now for many weeks in Los Angeles—it seems to me paradoxical that you would call out for greater municipal or state speaking on a foreign policy when Sam Yorty as Mayor of Los Angeles or Ronald Reagan as Governor of California both have been very strong advocates of the hawkish policy in Vietnam.
ELLSBERG: That's true. Well, first, you know I didn't pick this place for my trial. I am saying, though, quite frankly that although I know that Yorty has been often ridiculed for having a foreign policy, I don't think that's foolish myself, especially in a case like Vietnam, and I think that he should be judged by the content of his foreign policy to some extent. If that's what the people of Los Angeles want, all right. And if it isn't, they should remove him.
REASON: Where do you stand on the question of conscription? Do you think conscription is a proper and desirable policy?
ELLSBERG: No. It's involuntary servitude and should be held unconstitutional.
REASON: How would you effect the repatriation of those who fled the country to evade the draft?
ELLSBERG: I think the greater number of them—not to speak for every single individual—deserve our respect and I would hope that we can bring them back so we can learn from them and from their example. Learn why there were not more. How they and their wives recognized the moral issue that conscription does present in a war like Vietnam. How they came to see it as clearly as many of them did and to act against it as decisively as many of them did. You know, the truth is a great many Americans, including my own grandparents, came to this country precisely because they faced this issue in their homelands. And they made decisions that were just like those who went to Sweden and Canada in this case.
My own grandfather came here because he didn't want to spend seven years of his life in the Czar's army. That's true of a great many Russians and Germans. This is nothing new in the world's history—it's just too bad that the land of freedom to which they came has become one that takes it for granted that citizens owe a large part of their lives to the state.
REASON: What about the question of amnesty to those Americans who evaded the draft. Do you think that amnesty should be granted across the board? Would you impose any conditions on amnesty such as service in a national Peace Corps?
ELLSBERG: No. First of all, there's a great hypocrisy about this by both Administration and Congress, when we ignore the fact that if you use the word "draft evasion" you're talking about millions of upper middle class Americans who didn't come close to being drafted because they were able to go to college or have subsidized marriages at a very early age or were able to get various kinds of medical waivers from kindly doctors. And this includes virtually all of the children of Congress or of high level administrators—almost without exception. So these are people who don't really come up against the issue of amnesty in a legal sense because the country never made any legal demand on them to go abroad. The poorer ones who couldn't afford those approaches and who had to face the issue that this war has been wrong and unconstitutional from the start—the courts, far from allowing such people to test that proposal in the courts in an orderly way, have refused to take up the issue. And thus the courts closed off the chance for an orderly legal challenge, leaving no choice but the dilemma of evasion—leaving the country, for violating laws whose constitutionality had not been tested in the immediate situation—or of taking part in a clearly wrong war, risking their lives in an effort that they should never have been asked to join and risking the possible necessity of killing innocent people. So I'm really sympathetic to the people who chose not to take part. And frankly I say that not only from the perspective of somebody who volunteered for the Marine Corps, but as somebody who volunteered to go to Vietnam and came back only when I had hepatitis. I look back on that experience not as someone who thereby has more moral authority, patriotic authority than these others, but as somebody who persisted in illusions about what was the right thing to do and what the nature of the war was and what the proper demands on the country were, longer than these others. In some cases they had fewer illusions to lose because they hadn't been trained into it by twenty years of government propaganda with respect to war, so again it's not that they were necessarily innately more clear-sighted. The fact is that I think they saw in a very realistic way and I think they reacted appropriately. Again, Vietnam is not a routine situation. To refuse to serve in the Vietnam War, I think, could be justified from a very wide variety of positions.
REASON: Doesn't in fact the ability of the state to draft tend to prolong most combat situations?
ELLSBERG: Yes. The draft clearly made it possible for the Executive branch to get into a very large ground combat involvement without calling up reserves or without going to Congress for a new mobilization of resources, and that the absence of the draft would make it much more difficult for future administrations to involve us in future conflicts.
REASON: Do you have any view on the question of reparations to Vietnam?
ELLSBERG: Obviously, I think by any standard of justice we owe a tremendous amount to the rebuilding of South Vietnam and North Vietnam: keeping in mind, by the way, that an enormous majority of our bombs were dropped on South Vietnam—our supposed ally—rather than on North Vietnam. Nevertheless, I think they would be very foolish to accept that money at the price of a large American infrastructure of AID technicians who were going to decide—in a supposedly nonpolitical way—how the money was to be spent and who was to spend it.
REASON: When you say we owe reparations, what about somebody who opposed the war and was a consistent opponent of the American intervention in Vietnam—do you think he should be required to give of his money to help rebuild either North or South Vietnam?
ELLSBERG: I don't know too many people who haven't paid taxes to support the war, so. I don't know too many, then, who have a very strong moral position on which to say they are not willing to devote any part of their tax money to rebuilding.
REASON: Do you think it would be at all proper to look to those in positions of responsibility, in terms of guiding national policies in the war, to be personally culpable, so that they should have to pay reparations from their own personal fortunes—say Nixon, or MacNamara—that they should have to pay personally for the damage and devastation in Vietnam.
ELLSBERG: It's a very interesting suggestion. For instance, perhaps, a few years of personal service of the kind that they've often talked about, devoted to putting one stone on top of another in some of the villages in Vietnam, would be quite rehabilitating for them. Nevertheless, I wouldn't say that that should be involuntary. I would think if it were to do them or their society much good it should reflect their own new awareness, which I think is yet to blossom in their hearts, that they have misspent a good part of their lives and that something like this would be a better use of some of their remaining years than what they're now doing.
REASON: There are a number of American conservatives that deplore your conduct and Anthony Russo's conduct in disclosing the contents of the Pentagon Papers to the American public. They feel this is an unpatriotic act that really was in defiance of American policy and you should be punished therefor—but at the same time there are many American conservatives who have applauded disclosures of confidential information and leaks in other situations such as the Otepka case. It was felt that the disclosure was one that would aid in the battle to cleanse the State Department of Communists. Could you comment on that?
ELLSBERG: Well, that's two special viewpoints I think, that don't exhaust the points of view on this situation. To see our act as unpatriotic or against American policy is, I think, to identify the government with the Executive branch—indeed with the President—and to take not just the position, "my country right or wrong," but, "my President right or wrong." And that's really a position that wipes out the distinctions between American democracy and monarchic or autocratic forms of government. To see our act as a clearly disobedient or disloyal one is still to equate loyalty with obedience to a single boss. And that wasn't the founding theory of our American government. It's certainly possible to see our act as mistaken or misguided somehow, but that judgment has to be made in the light of the rather complex obligations that any American should recognize toward the Constitution, towards several branches of government, towards his countryman, toward humane feelings. I think that it is hard to apply that more complicated test and conclude that we did the wrong thing.
REASON: I'd also like to ask just briefly about finances, Dan—could you address that subject for our readers?
ELLSBERG: Well, yes. The defense is not being financed by the state, but I guarantee you all of the prosecution is. The government has spent two to three million dollars already on the case and that comes from taxpayers of course. We have some taxpayers also contributing to our side of the case. The defense has cost over $600,000 already and may well come to over three-quarters of a million dollars before it is through. The defense relies entirely on private contributions and we'll be happy to get any, addressed to The Pentagon Papers Defense Fund, 125 West Fourth Street, Los Angeles.
REASON: Let me ask you a concluding question, Dan, that fits into the context of one of your answers a couple of moments ago—in talking about the obligations of American citizens and the complex questions of viewing the propriety of your conduct. Your attorney, Leonard Boudin, stated in his opening argument, at the commencement of trial, that it was not only the right of an American citizen and a former government official to give the information to Congress that you disclosed, but that it was your duty.
ELLSBERG: Yes. That I felt intuitively at the time. The more I've learned about the Constitution and the ideas that underlay it, the more I've realized that my intuition was valid. The whole classification system as it exists and as it is practiced now, the system that has inevitably led to the suppressing of a billion pages of information is an unconstitutional system. I think a limited system that would be constitutionally valid could be devised, but that remains to be done. And the current system is a clear violation of the principles of checks and balances in the government and a violation of the First Amendment. Moreover, I think our constitutional principles are very sound on this point.
Secrecy on this scale is incompatible with democratic government, and I think not only incompatible, but subversive of it. A republican, democratic form of government cannot survive with the practice of Executive secrecy that we have experienced in the last quarter of a century. We must roll back that practice of secrecy if we are to undo a betrayal of the American Revolution.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Why I Did It!".