Pentagon insider-turned-Bay Area activist says
the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are tragic
and inescapable. Why, he asks, have our leaders
failed to learn from the mistakes of 40 years
Ellsberg, 72, is hoarse after speaking for two
hours last December about the similarities between
the Vietnam and Iraq wars to an overflow Berkeley
bookstore crowd. He knows he's drained the air
out of the room with his somber monologue, so
he concludes the evening by tugging scarves out
of his pocket to perform some magic. A lifetime
ago, his magic tricks brought smiles to the faces
of Vietnamese orphans in bombed-out villages he
passed through as a State Department observer
from 1965 to 1967. His audiences these days are
different, but they, too, appreciate the diversion.
When he wonders aloud which trick to perform,
someone wisecracks, "Make Bush disappear." Laughter
ripples through the store and Ellsberg grins.
He wishes it were that easy. His release of the
Pentagon Papers in 1971 may have shortened the
Nixon presidency and the Vietnam War, but making
Bush and the Iraq War disappear would be a challenge
even for Houdini. Ellsberg no longer has access
to the sort of secret documents that made him
a '60s icon and the pre-eminent government whistle-blower
in U.S. history. Now the longtime Bay Area political
activist can only educate the public, one bookstore
talk at a time, on why he thinks the war in Iraq
is Vietnam revisited.
Ellsberg's Berkeley appearance was his 55th nationwide
since publication of his American Book Award-winning
"Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon
Papers." The book tour is entering its 18th month
as audience interest in Ellsberg's Vietnam-Iraq
comparisons remains high, fueled by gloomy news
from the occupation. For the middle-aged crowd,
especially those who are Vietnam veterans, it's
a reopening of old wounds, while for college students
it's a history lesson tying their parents' war
to their own. Says Ellsberg, "Sometimes I feel
I'm waking up to the world I left 40 years ago."
In that world, public support for the Vietnam
War was substantial until Ellsberg released the
Pentagon Papers to the Senate and 19 newspapers.
The 47 volumes of mostly classified documents
revealed a pattern of government errors and lies
about the war considered to be so inflammatory
that the Supreme Court temporarily ordered the
New York Times to stop publishing excerpts. Henry
Kissinger, who had previously sought out Ellsberg
for his expertise on Vietnam, called him "the
most dangerous man in America."
Ellsberg was charged with 12 felony counts under
the Espionage Act, carrying a maximum sentence
of 115 years. The charges against Ellsberg and
Anthony Russo (who helped him photocopy the papers)
were dismissed in the fifth month of the trial,
however, on grounds of governmental misconduct
due to illegal wiretapping and evidence tampering.
He was free to resume criticizing the government,
which he's done assiduously and passionately ever
Duped by Our Leaders?
were lied into both wars in every aspect - the
reasons for going in, the prospects, the length,
the scale and the probable costs in lives and
dollars," he tells the crowd as rain puddles the
sidewalk on Shattuck Avenue. "With Iraq, the big
lie is that it represented the No. 1 security
threat to the U.S. That's not just questionable,
it's absurd. We live in a dangerous world with
al Qaeda terrorism, more than 20,000 poorly guarded
Russian nuclear weapons and the unstable, nuclear-armed
state of Pakistan, where Osama and other al Qaeda
leaders are probably hiding. Saddam was a tyrant,
but he was never linked to 9/11, and the talk
of weapons of mass destruction was at least exaggerated.
He wasn't even a threat to his neighbors."
Ellsberg speaks in a gravelly baritone. A swirl
of white hair frames a slender, kindly face. He
is formal and professorial in dress and speech,
remnants of his straight-arrow days as a Harvard
man (doctorate in economics), U.S. Marine commander,
Rand Corporation think-tank analyst and Pentagon
insider. He has studied war for most of his life,
but came to a visceral understanding of it while
"walking point" (leading foot patrols to draw
fire) with troops in Vietnam. That was when he
realized the Vietnam War was unwinnable, largely
because of what he calls "revolutionary judo"
- a guerrilla tactic used against U.S. troops
by the Viet Cong and now by Iraqis.
judo, you can turn the strength of a stronger
opponent against himself, " he explains. "Revolutionary
judo in Vietnam often took the form of a single
Viet Cong firing a shot at a U.S. chopper from
a village, which prompted us to bomb the village.
We thought, 'That will teach them a lesson.' But
the villagers who saw relatives killed and wounded
joined the other side. So our superior firepower
was used against us to create support for the
enemy. It's how the Viet Cong, with their handmade
weapons, prevailed against massive U.S. bombing,
and it's also why the Iraqi resistance is not
Vietnam War killed 58,235 Americans and an estimated
1.5 million Vietnamese, and Ellsberg fears Iraq
could be just as catastrophic. Besides "revolutionary
judo," he says that U.S. war planners have forgotten
other lessons of Vietnam, like the need for an
exit strategy and the futility of "pacification."
Pacification means that locals can gradually take
over for occupying troops, but Ellsberg says hired
locals are always seen by fellow citizens as traitorous
collaborators. Pacification attempts have consistently
failed - in Afghanistan by the Russians; in Vietnam
by the French and the Americans; and so far by
British and American forces in Iraq.
perceive ourselves as liberators opposing the
forces of evil," he says, "but the resistance
fighters are not seen as evil by most Iraqis,
nor were they in Vietnam. Iraqis think we want
to occupy the country indefinitely with U.S. troops
and a pro-American government, and as long as
that perception exists, pacification is impossible."
At the heart of his argument is this: "The fundamental
similarity shared by the Vietnam and Iraq wars
is that a U.S. occupying force is facing primarily
nationalist resistance fighters - locals who feel
they are defending their country. These fighters
can hide without being found because they have
the general support of the population. This happened
in our own country when the British were occupiers,
but now we're the redcoats."
All the President's Men How did we get into this
mess? Ellsberg blames the president's men - notably
Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle - for channeling
the outrage over Sept. 11 into an attack on a
Deception was the means, he says, and world oil
dominance the end. "It's a lie that this war is
part of the war on terror, because every day we
occupy Iraq is a good recruiting day for Osama.
The occupation of an Arab country increases al
Qaeda's support and reduces the cooperation from
Muslim countries to stop terrorism, so it actually
increases the likelihood of another 9/11."
most of the world, he adds, the Iraq invasion
was seen as an act of naked aggression, comparable
to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait or even Hitler's
blitzkriegs of Poland and France. "Like Vietnam,
this war was started as a result of distortions
fed to Congress and the public by the executive
branch," Ellsberg says. He witnessed the distortion
game firsthand at the dawn of the Vietnam War.
While working for Assistant Secretary of Defense
John McNaughton in 1964, he received an urgent
cable from the captain of a naval destroyer in
the Tonkin Gulf describing a torpedo attack. Hours
later, however, another cable from Capt. John
Herrick stated that "overeager sonarmen" had probably
misinterpreted the ship's own propeller beat for
new cable didn't slow for a moment the preparations
in Washington and the Pacific for a retaliatory
air strike," Ellsberg wrote in "Secrets." U.S.
bombing commenced the next day, after President
Johnson told the nation he had "unequivocal" evidence
of an attack. Long after the war ended, Herrick
and then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara
acknowledged the ship was almost certainly never
Congress also deserves some blame for both wars,
says Ellsberg. The 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution
passed overwhelmingly three days after the purported
attack, handing war-making powers to Johnson.
The 2002 Congress conceded war powers to Bush
by passing the Iraq Military Authorization bill.
"In both instances, it was unconstitutional and
irresponsible for Congress to write an undated
blank check to the president to start a war. Even
worse, they did it on the basis of brief testimony
in the case of Vietnam and no hearings at all
in the case of Iraq. Although both resolutions
were based on false information from the White
House, that doesn't excuse Congress for abdicating
its constitutional role."
War opponents do seem to have a head start on
their Vietnam-era counterparts. First, he notes:
"Government lying about Vietnam didn't become
widely known for four years, while in Iraq the
lack of weapons of mass destruction became apparent
within weeks." Second, it took five years for
anti- Vietnam War street protests to become as
large as those that preceded the Iraq invasion.
Third, the anti-war candidacy of Howard Dean that
made him the early Democratic frontrunner is reminiscent
of the Gene McCarthy and George McGovern presidential
runs in 1968 and 1972. Richard Nixon won those
two elections, however, and the troops didn't
come home until Congress finally cut off funds
major factor that kept us in Vietnam and that's
keeping us in Iraq," says Ellsberg, "is the unwillingness
by those in power to admit they made a mistake.
This would be admitting that lives were wasted
and it would look like they're accepting defeat.
That thinking was enough to keep Vietnam going
year after year. In Iraq, we would be giving up
if we withdraw troops . . . but we should give
up. It's not for President Bush or any other American
to determine the internal policies of Iraq, and
prolonging the occupation does nothing to solve
release of the Pentagon Papers was like kicking
over a beehive. His trial made headlines for months,
highlighted by the revelation that the so- called
"plumbers" (assigned to plug government leaks)
broke into his psychiatrist's office in an attempt
to discredit him. They bungled that assignment
as badly as their more famous caper, the Watergate
burglary, and Ellsberg had the last laugh when
they ended up behind bars instead of him. The
trial's disclosures also figured in Nixon's resignation,
and as an indirect result, hastened the end of
now encourages those with access to similar documents
concerning Iraq to turn them over to Congress
and the press. "They can omit the portions that
in any way involve national security," he says.
"I have no doubt there are numerous people who
have access to such documents," he says. "[Leaking
them] may cost them their careers or even jail
time, but it could save many lives."
His role as an unapologetic whistle-blower has
caused some to call him a traitor and others a
patriot, but he rejects both labels. Nor is he
a strict pacifist, although he opposes military
aggression. "As a boy during World War II, I believed
we were on the right side because we were fighting
aggression and I felt the same way about Korea
when I joined the Marines. But now I am in the
horrifying position of seeing my country being
He has been a political activist since Vietnam.
He still feels guilt for not exposing government
duplicity in 1964, when he first knew of it, instead
of waiting several years. This guilt and haunting
memories of Vietnam bloodshed drives his current
anti-war work, which takes the form of writing,
lecturing and nonviolent protest. He has been
arrested for civil disobedience 70 times in protests
against nuclear weapons, Central American interventions,
the Gulf War and the Iraq War, including once
last winter with his 26-year-old son, Michael,
at an Iraq protest in front of U.N. Headquarters.
felt that Bush was leading America off a cliff
with this war," says Michael of his first arrest.
"The message my father is trying to get out is
important, so I do what I can to help. I'm proud
of what he's done in his life. " Michael edits
his father's books and manages his Web site (Ellsberg.net).
His father is devoting this year to finishing
his most ambitious book yet, on nuclear war planning,
an area of expertise going back to his Pentagon
days. "I will address current dangers in light
of the past, which was more dangerous than even
people in the anti-nuclear movement realized,"
will be grim, but not lonely, work. He shares
a home with a sweeping view of the bay in Kensington,
near Berkeley, with his wife of 33 years, Patricia.
She insisted that their first date in 1965 was
an anti-war demonstration at the Washington Monument,
where he worried the whole time that his face
would be spotted on the evening news by Pentagon
colleagues. The ultimate odd couple, a war planner
and an anti-war public radio host, argued through
a five-year courtship until his opinions finally
yielded to hers. The year they married in 1970,
he spoke against the Vietnam War at a college
teach- in, a complete turnaround from when he
was sent to teach-ins by the Pentagon to defend
weeks after his recent bookstore appearance, he
is at home, drinking tea from a heavy mug in the
living room. Ceiling-high bookcases line the walls.
Patricia has left for a hike with friends, while
Michael, a Brown University graduate who has returned
to the family home for the year, gives a salsa
dancing lesson in the next room. On the table
beside Ellsberg's mug is a copy of the New York
Times, which reports three more U.S. deaths in
suspect that troop morale is dropping quickly,"
he says, noticing the headline. "The military
didn't want this war, it's the civilians in the
White House, the Pentagon and the oil companies.
Like the troops in Vietnam, these troops will
begin to hate the occupation duty because they
aren't safe anywhere and see no purpose in being
there. I am guessing that we will soon see widespread
drug abuse, with cheap heroin flooding into Iraq
from Afghanistan, so we'll have drug-addicted
soldiers coming home like we did during Vietnam.
What's amazing to me about this war is the amount
of public support that still remains."
support puzzles him, he says, largely because
government misbehavior regarding Iraq has been
well established, and not only by journalists
and liberals. Among the examples he raises:
-- CIA director George Tenet indicated before
the war that there was no Saddam-al Qaeda link,
which President Bush and Colin Powell have since
Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson revealed the alleged
Niger-Iraq enriched uranium sale to be a hoax.
-- The CIA's former chief weapons inspector, David
Kay, resigned last month and said there is almost
no evidence in Iraq of WMD, which contradicts
White House pre-invasion claims of WMD stockpiles.
British government translator Katherine Gun is
on trial for releasing a classified document showing
U.S. and British complicity in bugging the phones
of U.N. Security Council members in an attempt
to influence their votes on Iraq.
A U.S. Army War College report published last
month called the Iraq War "unnecessary" and a
"war-of-choice distraction" from the war on terrorism.
Meanwhile, the war drags on. March 20 is the one-year
anniversary of the invasion, and major protests
are planned in San Francisco and worldwide. The
anniversary would have passed unnoticed if the
war had ended within weeks or months, as expected.
Instead, Coalition Forces commander Ricardo Sanchez
now says U.S. troops may be in Iraq for two or
more additional years.
stayed in Vietnam for nine years," notes Ellsberg,
"even though it was clear to many people in the
first year that it was unwinnable. This is also
the case in Iraq, and as we're seeing, the capture
of Saddam made no difference because he wasn't
coordinating the resistance fighters. But we'll
probably be there as long as Americans are willing
to accept the casualties."
sees a dark road ahead. "Unless our leaders learn
from Vietnam, this will likely be a long, bloody,
escalating stalemate, with casualties on both
sides going steadily higher until we leave. Historians
will regard this war as a disastrous error."
Ellsberg urges Americans to support politicians
who favor immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq;
oppose Bush and members of Congress who don't;
demand Congressional hearings to investigate improprieties
during the White House push for war; and participate
in all forms of protest against the war. He believes
the huge Vietnam War protests saved hundreds of
thousands of lives. "The war would have gone on
even longer and nuclear weapons would have probably
been used against China. Likewise, opposition
to the Iraq invasion probably delayed it and slowed
plans for other wars in the Middle East."
Protest while you can, he adds, because it may
not be as easy in the future. "I will be happily
surprised if there isn't a major terrorist attack
in the U. S. in the next four years, and if Bush
is in office, I think this country will shift
to something very close to fascism. Ashcroft and
Cheney will use an attack as an excuse to implement
police controls far beyond any we've seen. That's
why we need to demand a return to the Constitution
and Bill of Rights now, before it's too late.
Guantanamo is a concentration camp by every historic
standard, but in the future there may be scores
of them, and not only for Middle Easterners. Someone
like myself, for simply exercising free speech
like I am now, may be put in these camps without
all this sounds alarmist, it's not because Ellsberg
is some wild-eyed anarchist. His analysis of foreign
policy is more rational than radical, and mirrors
the thinking of many respected political scientists.
But he fears what kind of world he will leave
to his three children and five grandchildren.
is a dangerous time with two relatively new threats,
both of them exacerbated by the Iraq invasion
and this administration's policies. One is the
threat of future terrorism by Osama and al Qaeda.
The other is the threat to our freedoms and our
constitutional republic. These," he says, worry
creasing his face, "are dangers that were never
faced before in my lifetime."
freelance writer Bob Cooper's last piece for the
Magazine was on snowshoe racer Peter Fain. Copyright
2004 SF Chronicle
Posted: March 4, 2004