Shahram Vahdany – Knowing the possible repercussions, Dr. Ellsberg, why did you decide to write “The Pentagon Papers”?
Daniel Ellsberg- Well, I must say I have written a book answering that question, called “Secrets, A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers”. I don’t know whether you’ve had a chance to look at that or not, but for your readers, I’ll try to summarize that very briefly. I did believe that, under Nixon, the Vietnam War was likely not only to go on but also to get larger, as it actually did, in the air. That was quite contrary to the expectations with which many people had voted for Nixon, in the year before.
I knew from inside sources that he was not planning to get out soon, or really ever, in terms of his air support, his air power against the Vietnamese resistance in Vietnam, which he intended to continue indefinitely. And having been in Vietnam I knew the impact of that air power on the people of Vietnam as being very terrible. I just didn’t want to be party to the continuation of that massacre from the air.
I hoped that the Pentagon Papers might help the American people come to realize how terribly they’d been lied into this war and into continuing the war. It might make them aware that a fifth president in a row, Richard Nixon, was lying to them again in the same fashion as his predecessors. Actually, I wouldn’t say that the Pentagon Papers did make people realize that very much. They were and are prone to believe the declarations of an incumbent president even when they know his predecessors had been lying. And I have to say we now can see Americans eating up lies by this administration about Iran, strikingly, just a few years after discovering that they’d been lied into a war in Iraq.
So that hope of mine was somewhat disappointed. But I had not had high hopes it would have an effect, I just thought it might help. I had been inspired by the example of young Americans who were going to prison instead of participating in the war: draft resisters, who of course individually did not ever imagine that their acts would have very much effect. Nevertheless, they were using their lives as effectively as they knew how, even at great cost to themselves. And that inspired me to do the same, to do what I could do, even if the cost of probable prison that I faced was very serious.
MWC- Why there is no Daniel Ellsberg in the Bush administration?
DE- Well, I have been disappointed by that, and by that I take it that you mean, why no one has came forward in a timely way with documents showing the current lies and the risks of the policy that has been followed? For several years I’ve been urging people inside to do that. I don’t know whether any of them actually heard what I have been saying, but I’ve done what I could in op-eds and in public statements to urge them to do it. I haven’t been saying that they should do what I did, but rather, as I put it: “Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until the new war is started in Iran, don’t wait till the bombs are falling and thousands more die, before you go to the Congress and the press–at the same time–with documents that can convince people of the truth.”
And although there have been number of useful leaks about policies and about past conduct, more then before, I would say, unfortunately there has not been what I have been specifically urging people to do. That is to release documents and to identify themselves, so they can be cross-examined and they can testify in Congress–now that we have a Democratic majority–in hearings.
I have to say frankly I am very disappointed that there have not been hearings like that under the Democrats, but there could be. And insiders have not come out with documents that really show incontrovertibly the truth of what they are saying. So I continue to urge people not merely to speak anonymously to Seymour Hersh and others, who have presented leaks very helpfully, but to go beyond that and put up documents and identify themselves.
We have not seen that and if you are asking why not, well we did not see it under the first Bush or Clinton or Reagan or really anyone, I am sorry to say, since the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971. That example has not been followed. Presumably Nixon’s action in charging me with twelve felony counts and a possible sentence of 115 years scared people off from doing the same thing. That seems natural; it’s what my prosecution was meant to do. But what I can’t fully explain–I have to say to your readers that I don’t have an explanation-is why actually no one at all has done that. It does not seem right to me, even though the potential personal costs are very great.
As it happened, I did not have to pay them because for complex reasons and lot of luck my case was dismissed for governmental misconduct just before it went to the jury. In fact, instead various officials of Nixon’s White House went to jail for their attempt to “neutralize” me, and Nixon himself had to resign. Nevertheless, the personal risks of what I’m asking others to do are great. Yet, what is it at stake here is the lives of hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, earlier in Vietnam, now in Iraq and pending in Iran. It seems to me in light of that that some people ought to be willing to pay a high personal price, and I don’t understand why we have not seen anyone do it.
MWC – Let’s talk about the war in general and US’ approach to war. In your view, is war a necessity to preserve the American political system and hegemony?
DE- The political system– as more and more I have come to understand it, in my old age–I see this political system as very far from the way I was taught in grade school and high-school and college, maybe all the more different from what I was taught in college: a lot of indoctrination goes on.
E.P. Thompson, the British historian, once suggested that rather than saying that the USA and the USSR “have” military-industrial complexes, it was less misleading to say that they “are” such complexes. And certainly, for the US the institutionalization of preparation for war has been with us since the beginning of the Second World War. The idea of “preparedness” for war goes back much further even than that. The actual conversion of this country into a machine for preparing for war, for making and selling arms and for threatening them as a base for policy has very deep roots.
Beyond that, during the whole cold war we had an essentially imperial policy for controlling what we called, laughingly- or rather, not laughingly, but it should have been laughingly–“the free world,” which included autocracies like Taiwan, South Korea, South Vietnam, dictatorships in Central and Latin America, and the Saudis and Kuwaitis, absolute monarchies to this day. To call them “free” was, quite simply, propaganda. In any case, to “protect” that far-flung sphere, we always relied on nuclear first-use threats, really to maintain our dominance in areas that went right up to the borders of Soviet Union and China.
Now, the ambition of our leaders since the demise of the Soviet empire has gotten even larger, and the ambition is to have a global hegemony based on military power. They prefer that rather than an international rule of law or reliance solely on trade, by which we would inevitably be a great power but still a nation among nations, a great power among others. That prospect has not appealed at all, not only to the neo-cons of the Bush administration but I would say to the Democrats. I don’t think leaders of either party have accepted the idea that we should relinquish global hegemony, or specifically, essential control over the oil of the Middle East.
And of course since the fall of the Shah in Iran, the ayatollahs and Saddam did deprive us of essential control of oil in Iraq and Iran. These people thought that had to be remedied, and I am afraid that has remained very much the ambition of both parties. So coming back to your original question: our economy and our political system, our political economy as it has come to exist in the last sixty years, would have to change a lot in ideology and practice, to allow us to be a more peaceful nation and one that is less reliant on arms production and the military forces.