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The Salon Interview: Daniel Ellsberg
By David Talbot
February 19, 2004
Feb. 19, 2004 | They fully supported America's decision to go to war in
Vietnam. In fact, they firmly believed that the U.S. should have fought the
war even more aggressively. This would, of course, have cost more American
lives and even more Vietnamese lives. And it risked certain confrontation
with China, even nuclear war. But damn it all, they were for it, if that's
what it took America to win!
This is the position George W. Bush claims he held as a young man during the
Vietnam War. It was also the position held by his top policymakers and
advisors, like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard
Perle. In fact, they still think it, as Bush made clear to Tim Russert on
"Meet the Press." Yes, they ached for a fuller, that's right, bloodier war,
one with no "political" restrictions on our military, as Bush put it. But
here's where it gets complicated: They didn't actually want to shed any of
their own blood.
Bush, as we all know by now, used family pull to get into the safe haven of
the National Guard, where we are absolutely certain he kept at least one
dental appointment, but are somewhat vaguer about the rest of his service
record. As for his vice president, well, he had "other priorities" . . . .
John Kerry has a much better war story to tell the American people than
Bush: He not only served, he was a hero who saved men's lives. So the
president's aggressive political machine, as ever taking the offensive when
it senses its own weakness, is trying to find a way to wound Kerry before
Bush loses any more blood. Here's the new GOP line of attack, as
demonstrated by Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie, New York Times
columnist David Brooks, the National Review, and all the usual TV frothers
(none of whom found a way to serve his country in Vietnam, or today in
Iraq): yes, Kerry was a decorated hero, but he betrayed his fellow soldiers
when he came home by denouncing the war, casting shame on their great
sacrifice. (Newt Gingrich, another draft-dodging hawk, announced last
weekend that Republicans would play the traitor card, by tarring Kerry as a
"Jane Fonda antiwar liberal.") The fact that most veterans returned from
Vietnam as disillusioned with the war as Kerry was -- and that many of these
gray-haired warriors are rallying around his campaign today -- puts a bit of
a crimp in the Republican strategy. But that has not stopped Karl Rove and
company from continuing to bang this drum. . . .
TALBOT: The Republicans are attacking Kerry now for betraying his fellow
Vietnam veterans by condemning the war after he returned?
ELLSBERG: They are? Amazing! I don't even like to hear this. It makes me
gag. Is this something new, I haven't heard about this? This is just
obscene. I hate to hear this. The fact is that Kerry's group, the Vietnam
Veterans Against the War, upheld the honor of this country.
TALBOT: Kerry's GOP critics are saying he's a political waffler because he
questioned the war before he went, but then went to Vietnam anyway. And then
he publicly denounced the war after he returned.
ELLSBERG: As I said, this is making my flesh crawl, to hear George Bush, who
went into the National Guard to stay out of Vietnam, even though he
supposedly supported the war ...
TALBOT: Yes, not only did he support the war, but he thought the U.S. should
have fought it harder ...
ELLSBERG: You mean he wanted those other guys to fight it even harder. He
wanted his fellow airmen, who were not in the National Guard, but in the Air
Force, to put themselves much more at risk in killing people in North
Vietnam, dodging SAMs [surface to air missiles], while he dodged his monthly
duties in Alabama in an outfit that was preparing for war in Europe, should
And of course he's at one with virtually all of the neocons in that respect.
Cheney had "other priorities" during Vietnam and apparently spent the war in
a secure location somewhere, I guess in Arizona. Rumsfeld had indeed flown
in the Air Force in the 1950s, so no lack of courage there, just to fly
those planes takes courage. But I noticed that Rumsfeld, who's exactly my
age, did not manage to use his military training in any way in Vietnam. He
was too old presumably to go there as a flyer. But there were lots of jobs
for him in Vietnam if had wanted, but he chose to sit out the war back here.
I joined the service -- the Marines -- just about the same time he did, in
the 1950s, which were peacetime years. Nonetheless, when I was 34, and he
was 34, I signed up again and went to Vietnam.
TALBOT: What year did you go?
ELLSBERG: In 1965. I was a civilian, but I volunteered to go there with
General Ed Lansdale to evaluate our pacification program. I was in 38 of the
43 provinces. But the point is, I found a way to use my Marine training as
an infantry company commander, and I used that training to observe troops in
action in Vietnam, under fire.
So for these guys, who never served in action when they had a chance, to
criticize Kerry now, it's just appalling. You've got me kind of worked up,
to hear about these guys attacking Kerry now, it's just an obscenity.
Now I must say I admire Kerry's comment that he has never criticized, and
will not criticize, anyone's relation to that war, which was a wrongful war
and a mistaken war. Kerry says whatever you did as a young man then --
whether you went to Canada to avoid the draft, or joined the National Guard,
or went to Vietnam as he did, or was a conscientious objector, or went to
prison -- whatever you did, he will never criticize anyone's decision. And I
think that is a very creditable position.
TALBOT: The Republicans are trying to turn Jane Fonda into Kerry's Willie
Horton -- there's even a faked photo of the two of them together being
circulated on the Internet. The suggestion here is that, like Fonda, Kerry
was a traitor after the war.
ELLSBERG: That's why this has gotten me so agitated, to hear that word
"traitor" or "betrayal" used by these people -- who frankly I do not
respect. Like Kerry, I won't condemn someone like Bush for going into the
National Guard. But for someone like that to condemn someone like Kerry, who
behaved so much better in every respect, is just revolting. It's just
disgusting, and it shows a very bad character, I would say.
I'm sure Kerry felt he was doing his duty as an American, whatever his
doubts about the war were before he went. By the way, the fact that he had
doubts about the war before he went shows he had his feet on the ground. So
did I, and so did a lot of people in the Pentagon. So here's Kerry going off
to war to do his duty, so some other guy doesn't have to take his place. And
then here are these guys, Bush and those around him, who did not expose
themselves to danger during Vietnam, though in principle they agreed with
Kerry goes to war and sees it for himself, unlike Bush. And he learned what
I did and virtually everyone who went to Vietnam would learn -- 3 million
Americans went there -- that what we were doing, and what we were likely to
do, had no prospect of success. And that people were killing and dying for
no good enough reason. That's the minimum we learned, and that's enough to
want it to stop right away. So we all came back disillusioned with the war.
And I came back to a Pentagon that was filled with people who were
disillusioned with the war.
So then the question is, "What to do about it?" And what Kerry and his
fellow antiwar veterans did should be admired by all Americans -- they did
not merely subside into disillusion and apathy, they did what they could to
wake up their fellow Americans to what we had learned in Vietnam. And I
The vets came back and did what they could, at risk to their own status in
society, at the risk of condemnation, which they certainly did get. They
obviously spoke out with unusual authority, as people who had demonstrated
their patriotism -- not only in a conventional way, by going into the
military, but like Kerry, with exemplary behavior as soldiers. And then he
and the others came back and showed courage again as citizens, facing the
condemnation of the Nixon administration and their allies. And for someone
like Kerry who had obviously lived his life as a patriot, thinking of
himself as patriotic, it's especially painful to be called unpatriotic and
TALBOT: Does it surprise you that this issue still has such resonance for
ELLSBERG: Well, I am surprised that this White House, staffed by draft
dodgers or at least war dodgers, is making this into such an issue. This
goes beyond chutzpah, it's frankly obscene.
It reminds me of John Wayne. I was one of many young men in America
recruited into the Marines by John Wayne. I saw him in "The Sands of Iwo
Jima." And later, when I was a Marine and I was on liberty from the 6th
Fleet in Rome, I saw him in a restaurant and sent a bottle of wine to his
table with my compliments and telling him what a marvelous hero he was to
all Marines. And I went over and shook hands with him.
Later I learned that he had escaped military duty in World War II. He let it
be known that he had a trick knee, which didn't prevent him from working in
cowboy movies and whatnot -- he said he had a football knee or something.
That was not true. John Wayne stayed out of the war that Jimmy Stewart and
other movie stars flew combat missions in and fought in. He stayed out of it
by letting Republic Studios make the plea that he was essential to the war
effort as an actor.
So OK, that's all right, I suppose. It's our problem if we regard John Wayne
as a hero because of his movies. But then, in Vietnam, he had the audacity
to call people who resisted the war, and risked jail, "yellow-bellies" and
"commie scum" and "traitors" -- phrases like that. And that -- that -- was
unforgivable, I thought.
It's an inexact analogy, but these attacks on Kerry today bring to mind John
Wayne and his hypocrisy.
I mean, to call this guy, Kerry, a traitor, of all people! Here is a guy who
actually goes over there and serves to the hilt -- and his men testify to
his heroism and how he saved their lives in a number of cases. And he goes
over and he is a war hero. And then he comes home and acts on what he has
learned, to tell the truth about what he has learned, to try to save other
lives. He did more to save lives at home than he ever had a chance to do
when he was in arms in Vietnam.
Compare someone like Kerry to these high government officials from the
Vietnam era, these secret doves like McNamara and Clark Clifford and Hubert
Humphrey. Not one of them shared their real views, or their warnings, with
the American public or Congress. None of them jeopardized their relationship
with the president, none of them jeopardized their careers, their security
clearances, their ability to come back in future administrations. None of
them broke with the policy that they themselves thought was disastrous. None
of them took steps to save any lives.
In contrast to that, these veterans like Kerry used their authority -- not
the authority of high government clearances or Cabinet rank -- but the
authority of having been shot at and suffered wounds in many cases for what
they had been led to believe was in the interest of their country. These
people came back and said, "We were misled, we were mistaken in what we
did." They did not defend what they did in Vietnam, and as they told the
public, much of what they did in Vietnam was very ugly. They saw crimes and
they committed crimes -- war crimes. And these veterans, people like Kerry,
came back and spoke the truth and did what they could to end the war. Which
McNamara did not do -- and which none of these high government officials
Now McNamara is in a somewhat different category. Because I believe that at
least he, unlike the others, was in a position to keep the country from
greatly expanding the war -- which I believe would've cost even more loss of
life and still no victory. The right wing says, "He kept us from winning." I
don't think they know what they're talking about. So it may be that he did
in fact save a lot of lives, even as he was pursuing a policy that cost a
lot of lives. I'll be specific here. In his last year in office, 1967, I
believe McNamara did act very creditably as an insider, to keep us from
expanding the war into a possible war with China, by going into North
Vietnam much more heavily.
But when he left office, the war had seven more years to go. He left in
1968, the war continued until 1975. And there were five more years of
American ground combat left. Most of the bombs fell after he left, most of
the Americans and Vietnamese died after he left. And he was totally silent.
And he has no good excuse for that. He did not save any lives after he left
office by telling us the truths about the war that he could have.
The question after any scarring episode in history like Vietnam is, "What
did you do in the war, daddy?" That must be applied here. If you did not
come to believe that the war was false, a moral catastrophe, then it was not
a credit to your wisdom or character or maturity. But if you did realize it,
like most Americans, the next test is, "Then what did you do upon realizing
And I will say that certainly the most creditable role for a citizen at that
point is to do everything possible to stop it. And the highest standard was
set by the people who went to prison for nonviolent draft resistance. And
the other highest standard was set by the vets, who came home and put
themselves on the line by speaking out and marching against the war. Vets
like John Kerry set a standard for the whole country.
I think this is Kerry's strongest qualification to be a leader of this
TALBOT: In January, McNamara spoke out against the war in Iraq for the first
time, telling the Toronto Globe and Mail the war is "morally wrong,
politically wrong, economically wrong." But when he was pressed to repeat
his criticisms on stage in Berkeley this month, he refused, suggesting that
it was improper for a former high government official to publicly attack
U.S. policy and that it could cost lives in Iraq. You were in the audience
that night -- what was your reaction?
ELLSBERG: Well, clearly we differ. I could not disagree more. To say that
someone who had inside knowledge and government experience should not share
that with the public, at a time when we're facing prolongation of a wrongful
war, is just plain wrong.
I'll say this, McNamara is consistent. He refused to act from his inside
knowledge and authority and experience to end the Vietnam War, and he's now
refusing for the same reason to end the Iraq war. And he's consistent -- he
was wrong then and he's wrong now.
I don't know what he actually learned from Vietnam -- I genuinely don't
know, he might have learned something. He did clearly learn from the Cuban
missile crisis, he did learn the risks of nuclear war can arise even with
relatively rational men in power. That's an incredibly important message
he's trying to convey, and I give him credit for that.
But McNamara has not learned that he could be far more effective as an
outside critic of U.S. policy. After he got out of government, he could have
been far more effective than he was inside, by speaking out and saving
lives. And he could save lives right now, in Iraq. He said in Berkeley that
he did not want to risk American lives in Iraq by speaking out about the
war. But it's difficult to figure out how he would be endangering lives by
It's not difficult to know exactly what the cost of his silence was during
the Vietnam War. His failure to speak out -- and mine -- during those early
years, 1964, '65, '66 and in his later years, did not just endanger troops,
it cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese. And it's
amazing that he hasn't learned that.
His admonition to the Berkeley audience to apply the lessons of Vietnam and
be active and so forth is fine, as words. But it's pretty hollow because
he's setting an example by refusing to inform that public in a way where
they could be effective in their resistance.
I do respect a lot of parts of his career, actually, more than most people.
But that is not a behavior pattern of his that I do respect.
TALBOT: Do you think, as you watch the war unfold in Iraq, that Bush learned
any important lessons from Vietnam?
ELLSBERG: Have we learned the lessons? That's the real question. I think the
lesson that the American people should take from Vietnam is that people in
Bush's position, in government leadership, lie all the time. And deceive
themselves that what is good for them and their administration is good for
the country. That's the corruption of power, and the question is what are we
going to do about it?