Wednesday, 21 June 2023 01:44

Ellsberg, McNamara and JFK: The Pentagon Papers

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Daniel Ellsberg recently passed on. Let us not forget his struggle to get the Pentagon Papers published in the public domain, thus exposing the fraud of the Vietnam War. Let us also not forget the failed attempts by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to stop publication and send Ellsberg to prison.

Daniel Ellsberg passed away on June 16. He had been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in February and died at his home in Kensington, California.

Ellsberg was a distinguished academic, but he will always be remembered first and foremost for his purloining of the Pentagon Papers from Rand Corporation, with help from his friend and colleague Anthony Russo. The Pentagon Papers are a multi-volume, in-depth and invaluable historical study of the Vietnam war: from the very beginning to late 1968. It was commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The initial supervisor was his assistant John McNaughton. (McNamara, In Retrospect, p. 280) About a month into the project, McNaughton passed away. His assistant Morton Halperin and Defense Department official Leslie Gelb took the helm. (ibid)

One must note a couple of preliminary matters about this famous project. First, McNamara sidestepped official channels to keep it secret. He did not use Defense Department historians. McNaughton and Gelb ultimately picked 36 researchers on a more or less ad hoc basis. (ibid) McNamara also instructed that the research not be confined to the Defense Department but also include the State Department, CIA and the White House. But when it all started in 1967, he took the precaution of not telling President Johnson or Secretary of Defense Dean Rusk.

About the motive for the project, McNamara wrote:

By now it was clear to me that our policies and programs in Indochina had evolved in ways we had neither anticipated nor intended, and that the costs—human, political, social and economic—had grown far greater than anyone had imagined. We had failed. Why this failure? Could it have been prevented? What lessons could be drawn from our experiences that would enable others to avoid similar failures. (McNamara, p. 280)

This is a fascinating quote and we will return to examine it later. But it should be noted that McNamara took a hands off approach in this endeavor; he was not personally involved. He let the researchers and Gelb hold sway over what made it into the volumes. It all began on June 17, 1967. The research extended back in time for over 20 years and used a wide variety of materials. Whenever Gelb had trouble attaining a document, he would invoke McNamara’s name. That would solve the problem. (Sanford Ungar, The Papers and the Papers, pp. 20-21)

Daniel Ellsberg was a summa cum laude Harvard graduate. In 1946 he endured a family tragedy when his mother and younger sister were killed when his father fell asleep at the wheel. Daniel survived and recovered. (See, The Guardian, 6/17/23, story by Michael Carlson). In his book, Secrets, Ellsberg describes himself in his youth as part of the Harry Truman Democratic Cold Warrior ethos: liberal on domestic issues but hardnosed and realistic on foreign policy. (Ellsberg, pp. 24-25)

In 1954 he applied and was accepted for officer training school in the Marines. When he got out he went back to Harvard on a fellowship. Ellsberg was trained in economics, but he also wrote about decision theory. Or as he explained it, “The way people make choices when they are uncertain of the consequences of their actions.” (Ellsberg, p. 30) This had an obvious connection to military situations and this is one reason Ellsberg ended up at the Rand Corporation think tank in Santa Monica. Rand did a lot of work for the Defense Department. One of the things he worked on was the whole concept of nuclear deterrence. (He later wrote a book about the topic called The Doomsday Machine.)

Because of this close professional association, Ellsberg was granted permission to do research at the Pentagon. This is how he met John McNaughton. And in 1964, realizing a huge escalation was on the horizon, McNaughton introduced Ellsberg to the subject of Vietnam—to the point that he convinced Ellsberg to work under him on the subject. (Most Dangerous, by Steve Sheinkin, pp. 10,11). On Ellsberg’s first day working for McNaughton the Tonkin Gulf incident erupted. President Lyndon Johnson used what he called this “unprovoked” attack to pass a war resolution that had been composed at least two months before. In fact, prior to the incident, the administration had set up a whole schedule of events for the USA to directly enter the war. (Edwin Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, pp. 26-27).

But through his position in the Pentagon, Ellsberg understood that the congressional hearings to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution had been rigged. Unlike what the administration maintained, the Navy missions along the coast of North Vietnam had been provocations, not routine patrols; they had sometimes violated territorial waters; and the evidence for North Vietnamese attacks on the missions had not been “unequivocal”. (Sheinkin, p. 31; Ellsberg, p. 12) But in spite of his reservations, in 1964 Ellsberg looked at himself both as a keeper of secrets, and a participant in the Cold War. What Ellsberg could not have known at the time was that the Tonkin Gulf casus belli—or dramatic event—had been mentioned as part of the plans for the war resolution against Vietnam and subsequent escalation. (Moise, p. 30).

The Johnson plan for direct American intervention in the war was keyed around his election in November of 1964 and his inauguration in January of 1965. (Moise, p. 245). The first phase of massive Vietnam escalation was called Rolling Thunder, a colossal aerial bombardment of the country. This plan was approved in late February of 1965, within weeks of Johnson’s inauguration. But to protect the air bases for this giant air war, combat troops were necessary. The first ones arrived at DaNang in March of 1965. Rolling Thunder eventually surpassed the bombing tonnage the Allies dropped during World War II. The initial deployment of two battalions of Marines at DaNang morphed into a 540,000 man army by 1968.

But it is important to note that, unlike what David Halberstam insinuated in his (very bad) book The Best and the Brightest, it was not really McNamara’s war. As Frederick Logevall has written, McNamara’s militaristic approach in 1964 and into 1965 owed to his “almost slavish loyalty to his president. Lyndon Johnson made clear he would not countenance defeat in Vietnam….” (Choosing War, p. 127)

As the war escalated even further it began to polarize America to an extent not seen since the Civil War. McNamara’s own son turned against him, going as far as putting up a Hanoi flag in his bedroom. (LA Times, July 17, 2022, article by Jessica Garrison; see also Craig McNamara’s book, Because our Fathers Lied) In November of 1966 McNamara caused a near riot by visiting, of all places, Harvard. He had to be rescued from a mob and escaped through an underground tunnel system. (McNamara, pp.254-56). After dinner at Jackie Kennedy’s Manhattan apartment, she started pounding on his chest telling him he had to stop the slaughter. (McNamara, p. 258)

There can be little doubt that this all took an emotional and psychological toll on Robert McNamara. In Richard Parker’s biography of John Kenneth Galbraith, Galbraith spoke about a meeting he and other colleagues from the Kennedy administration had with McNamara in 1966. McNamara seemed to be in deep distress because he had told Johnson that Rolling Thunder was not working, but the president insisted on continuing the bombing. McNamara’s office secretary later said that, on certain days, he would come to work and just rage against Rolling Thunder’s futility. The rage would subside and he would then stare out the window of his office, start weeping and wipe his tears with the curtains. (Tom Wells, The War Within, p. 198)

In my view, this emotional turmoil was what caused McNamara to commission the Pentagon Papers. But there was something else at work. As we note from McNamara’s quote above, he states that “our policies and programs in Indochina had evolved in ways we had neither anticipated nor intended, and that the costs—human, political, social and economic—had grown far greater than anyone had imagined.” John Newman got to know McNamara before the former Defense Secretary decided to write his book. Newman got permission to listen to McNamara’s exit briefs from the Pentagon. As he states in the film JFK: Destiny Betrayed, in those tapes and transcripts, McNamara stated that he and President Kennedy both agreed that they could train Saigon’s army, give them equipment and send advisors. But they could not fight the war for them. When the training period was over, they would leave. And it did not matter if South Vietnam was winning or losing. (James DiEugenio, JFK Revisited, p. 187). In other words, by 1967, the war had become unimaginable compared to what he and Kennedy had decided upon.

So how did the young Cold Warrior Ellsberg figure in all this originally? He decided to go to Vietnam under special status as more or less an observer for the State Department. (Ellsberg, pp. 109-125) Not only did he see a failing war effort, but he now saw the whole thing as a fraud i.e. what the media and the government were reporting was false. It was a terribly bloody war with tremendous civilian casualties and no effective tactics for victory.

When he returned stateside in 1967 he was asked to work on McNamara’s secret project. And now he learned that in addition to the war being presented falsely in 1967, it had been presented falsely just about from the very start, including the Tonkin Gulf incident. As the escalation continued, the Pentagon Papers revealed that the war’s major goals were not to gain freedom and democracy for South Vietnam. The goals had become to avoid an embarrassing defeat and to keep Chinese influence out of South Vietnam. (Click here) McNamara himself said about the collection, “You know, they could hang people for what’s in there.” (Sheinkin, p. 125). Startled by the scale of the fraud within, Ellsberg decided to copy the papers. He had his friend Anthony Russo and Russo’s girlfriend aid him in that process. He then tried to expose the documents in public, first going to politicians like Senator George McGovern and Congressman Pete McCloskey, who both declined to read them on Capitol Hill.

Finally, reporter Neil Sheehan got a copy to the New York Times. After a debate at the highest levels of the newspaper, they decided to start publishing the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971. They were stopped by Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell who went to court for a Temporary Restraining Order. Ellsberg then passed them to the Washington Post and other papers. In all, Nixon and Mitchell sued four papers, in addition to the Times and Post, there was the St. Louis Post Dispatch and Boston Globe. The attempt at prior restraint by the White House failed, as the Supreme Court backed the newspapers right to publish. The issue was rendered moot when, almost simultaneously with the court decision, Senator Mike Gravel read the classified papers on the floor of the senate and then moved to enter the whole collection into the record.

But Nixon, Mitchell and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger decided they would still punish Ellsberg and Russo. They first tried to stop publication of the Gravel version of the papers—which was longer and more detailed than the Times set. This was being done by a small house in Massachusetts called Beacon Press. But since Gravel had been covered by the congressional debate privilege in speaking from the floor, this did not work. They then moved against Ellsberg and Russo in California, where the copying originally took place. The two men stood trial in 1973 on counts of espionage and theft—Ellsberg was charged 11 times, Russo 3 times—and that would have placed them in prison for a combined 150 years. Ultimately, the trial was stopped and the charges thrown out due to federal interference: illegal electronic surveillance on Ellsberg, the burglary of his psychiatrist’s office, and Nixon’s attempt to influence the judge by offering him the directorship of the FBI. (Ellsberg, pp, 444-49)

But before the trial was suspended, Kennedy’s White House assistant Arthur Schlesinger was allowed to testify that if President Kennedy had lived, the war would not have been escalated. (Washington Post, 3/14/73, story by Sanford Ungar). In the Gravel Edition of the collection, there is an over 40 page chapter entitled “Phased Withdrawal of US Forces 1962-64”. (Volume 2, Chapter 3) Curiously, that section does not exist in the New York Times version of the documents. Whether the version Sheehan took from Ellsberg did not include it or the Times chose not to publish it is not known. But that section is important since it was the first time the subject had been approached in a formal, sustained way by a government source.

Partly because of that section, and the entire four volume series, Peter Scott formulated one of the earliest essays—it may be the earliest—positing that if Kennedy had lived, the evidence indicated he would not have escalated in Vietnam. And that this policy was reversed under President Johnson. Or as Scott wrote:

McNamara had predicted that the…United States military task in Vietnam would be completed by the end of 1965, and that as a first step 1,000 United States troops…would be withdrawn by the end of 1963. It seems likely, furthermore, that the sudden reversal of subsequent plans to withdraw the 1,000 troops was only the outward symbol of a much more far-reaching policy change, of a new or renewed commitment ultimately leading America from an “advisory” to an unambiguously direct combat role. (Government by Gunplay, edited by Sid Blumenthal and Harvey Yazijian,p. 153)

This essay, which was in the Gravel edition, was later adapted by Scott when it appeared in at least three other venues, including in Ramparts magazine. But according to Aaron Good, its inclusion was mightily resisted at first by the editors of the Gravel edition, namely Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. In an interview with this writer, Aaron said that they didn’t want to include it since it would look like a president could make a difference. But Chomsky eventually relented on freedom of speech grounds.

“It would look like a president can make a difference” and therefore not include it? Thanks to Ellsberg we had the actual section in the Pentagon Papers, and other traces of Kennedy’s reversed policy which Scott excavated. In 1968, Ellsberg developed a friendship with Bobby Kennedy, who wanted him to be his advisor on Vietnam when and if he was elected president. (Ellsberg, pp. 193-97) Bobby told him that John Kennedy never intended to send in combat troops and would have tried for a neutralist solution.

Among several aspects in a distinguished career, this is one of the things Ellsberg should be remembered for: Risking a long jail sentence to get out the whole truth about Vietnam. That they resisted this truth so mightily is one more albatross around the reputations of Nixon and Kissinger.

Last modified on Wednesday, 21 June 2023 02:18
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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