A Discussion with the legendary anti-war activist Daniel Ellsberg
By Shahram Vahdany, MWC News
Some events in history seem to repeat themselves as time-modified replicas, if not exact copies. And there are chroniclers of those events – participants at times – who bestow an undisputed clarity in the analysis of many of these conflictive situations. Daniel Ellsberg has been such a person, participant and chronicler, on the Vietnam War; and a continuing participant for four decades in the effort to bring peace.
We could not think of a better candidate than Dr. Ellsberg to provide us with some insight on the present conflict in Iraq; the prospect of a war with Iran; and even some thoughts on US foreign policy – and the possibility of change. Shahram Vahdany
there stands a man of another kind,
who wanted the land to be green,
who wanted love to be worthy of the most beautiful of women;
For this to him
was not so worthless an offer
as to become dust and stone.
What a man! what a man!
who said,"better for the heart
to sink in blood by the seven swords of love;
and better for the lips to utter the most beautiful name.
And a mountain-like hero, thus in love
crossed the bloody battlefield of destiny
with the heels of Achilles..."
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 is there 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.
MWC- You have mentioned the political parties in the US. What is your view of two-party systems, which many consider to be but one party?
DE- I think Gore Vidal has often said we have one party with two right wings, basically the money party with two branches. That’s a fair approximation, but I do think that people who say there is no significant differences at all between the two parties are misguided and that it’s rather dangerously misleading to encourage third-party movements on that basis (so long as our electoral system remains heavily biased in favor of two parties).
Let me to be specific, For Ralph Nader to say that there is no significant difference whatever, in 2000 and 2004, was basically to be an apologist for the Republicans, for the party of George W. Bush. To say they are not worse is almost crazy. It is terribly unrealistic. Even though the party difference in foreign policy is not very great, the difference in domestic policy is significant, and there is of course an enormous difference between Bush and Cheney and practically any of their rivals in either the Democrats or Republicans.
For one thing, they have extraordinary attachment to unilateral actions and to military aggression-- which almost none of the others share-- along with a collection of crackpot, crazy ideas, expectations about what they can achieve with military force and the value of it. They have a cult-like group of beliefs that are similar, if I may say, to fundamentalist sects whether in Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Really, some of the beliefs of neo-cons are not much more realistic then the belief of certain fundamentalist Christian in the coming “rapture”, in which they will be transported up to heaven to escape the tribulations of the unbelievers left behind.
I must say that I blame Ralph Nader for ignoring that point that he really did help George Bush get power in 2000; I hope it does not happen again. There is no way around it: it is my opinion that the Democrats are a lesser evil and that that has a meaning, and ultimately it is important to keep anyone like George W Bush and Dick Cheney out of power.
But it is also true that the Democrats’ policies, especially in foreign affairs, are extremely dangerous like the Republicans, and the basic commitment to American hegemony at the highest level among the Democrats is no different. There is a big difference between many Democratic voters and the values of the rich who are the core and always have been the core of Republican Party leadership. It should also be mentioned that the Republicans do have most of the Christian fundamentalists I have just been described, and who are not rich. So there are differences among the voters in the two parties, but in the higher level of officials, unfortunately, there isn't as much difference as they say and there isn't as much difference as there should be.
MWC- I want to get to the media and their role with respect to war, and perhaps the element of fear which might exist with high-level politicians in the US. Reading the transcript of discussion among Nixon and his aides about you and their anger and frustration I remember Nixon’s comment about you and I quote“We have to get this 'son of a bitch.’ We have to destroy him in the press." One cannot help but to visualize Bush, Cheney, Rove and Gonzales sitting at that table and discussing a present-day Daniel Ellsberg.
DE- Well, very specifically they did have such a discussion, we now know, about Joseph Wilson, former ambassador who exposed their lies and about his trip to Niger. They had that discussion and it led them to similar kinds of illegal activities as against me, which led to Nixon’s resignation. In this case it did not lead to the down-fall of Cheney and Rove directly, although they were undoubtedly involved, but it did lead to conviction of Cheney's chief of staff Scooter Libby: who I feel very certain will eventually be fully pardoned by the President. So there are great similarities, both in Democrats and Republicans, in their lying and in their reaction to exposure of their lies.
Politicians in your country or any country that we can refer to, as in ours, lie all the time. That does not mean everything they say is a lie, it means that whatever they say might be a lie and it can never be taken at face value without other evidence. And since their policies rely on these lies, some policies more then others, they are very concerned when anyone from inside, somebody who is an authority [position] like Joe Wilson, or like me with documents, tells truths they are trying to conceal. They are very concerned that their policy might be undermined. Or in some cases, they might be incriminated.
So they have reason to be concerned, it isn't just a little idiosyncrasy. I will say about our system that it offers more possibilities than most for people to tell the truth from inside and I think we should take more advantage of that before we lose it.
MWC- Dr. Gideon Polya, MWC's political editor, has recently published a book, “Body Count," for which he has done extensive work and research in access to death mortalities over the past 50 years, including the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to him, more than a million have been killed only in Iraq in the past five years. However, it seems that almost all US high-level politicians, whether Republicans or Democrats, or even media who are anti-war, their main focus is US military casualties, and there is hardly any mention of Iraqi civilian deaths, if at all.
DE- No, you are right about that and it is very sad. Let me address why perhaps that happens. First of all, when you talk about the anti-war movement, it is sizable in numbers in America actually but a very small proportion of the American population, even smaller than in Vietnam and it was a minority then. But it is relatively very small now, and unfortunately I cannot entirely explain that except that there was youthful opposition then that isn't there now. It’s only partly due to the lack of [a] draft, it's due I think to other factors. So the number now is much smaller. Now among the activists whom you mentioned there is no lack of awareness or concern at all about Iraqi causalities. I know the activists that I go to jail with and I work with all the time--and I was in a rally just yesterday--are very anguished about it and concerned. I do believe, by the way, that the facts of Iraqi civilian casualties probably should be publicized more as part of their antiwar issues more than they are.
But the reason that does not get more prominence is a very sad one, and I think it is sad not only about America but, I have to say, about our species. That reason is that the public at large--both in Vietnam and now--does not seem to feel a great deal of concern about deaths of foreigners, even if their country is strongly implicated in those deaths. If they feel any concern at all, it is certainly not anywhere near their concern for the deaths of their own people.
I must say I am not aware of any countries in history or now for which that is not true. I have not seen it in my reading of history: a great concern about the death of so-called enemies or even of innocent people. Of course, in the past century war has come to result more and more in the death mainly of civilians. That was the result of our terror bombing of Germany and Japan, or German operations in Russia, or the Japanese effort to conquer China. In World War II most casualties were civilians, and since then the proportion has been even higher.
How much concern have we seen in Japan about those Chinese deaths? I can tell you that in America that there has been essentially no concern in last sixty years about the effect on civilians of our strategic bombing in Germany and Japan, or—I am sorry and ashamed to say—our slaughter of civilians more recently in Vietnam or Iraq.
Now should I consider somehow that this is peculiarly American, or that it is the product of capitalism? There is no question that we have inflicted a lot of innocent deaths in the last sixty years. So is it peculiarly an American depravity? I am prepared to call it depravity, because it does not live up at all to my sense what we humans should do or should be like. And that's true of my colleagues in the antiwar movement, we are shocked by it. But in terms of the way humans behave throughout history—not only Americans and not only capitalists--I am forced to conclude that this relative unconcern for “strangers, outsiders, enemies” outside our own tribe or nation is a human characteristic: one which is of utmost importance for us to try to recognize and transcend.
We need somehow to gain a greater concern for people outside of our own language group, our own nation, our own religion, our own country, than humans have generally demonstrated over the years. That is urgent above all in the nuclear era. People who would not like to see humans bring about the extinction of our own species and many others have to be committed to changing that human unconcern about people outside their own nation or ethnic group and readiness to slaughter them.
MWC- In regard to this matter, do you feel that the media should have some ethical or moral standards to meet?
DE- Well, obviously people get their education very heavily from media. Not only from media, there is of course schooling and what they learn from their parents and peers. They also learn a great deal about who they should be concerned about, or not, from their leaders as reported in the media. Once in a while, people get warnings from their leaders that they should be concerned about, let’s say, the victims of Saddam Hussein, or victims in some other places when they want to mobilize sentiment for changing the situation. But when they don't want to take action, they don’t arouse this concern and it does not happen.
And the media are not living up to the idea of the free press; they in very large scale act as the secretaries or loud speakers for the government officials. They simply pass on the lies or misleading statements of the authorities without any question. They don't question the very selective compassion that is shown by the leadership. I think this is true for most countries. But the point is that our press aspires to be better than that. Once in a while it shows that, but generally speaking, it does not. It acts like propaganda arms of much more totalitarian governments.
MWC- Why is it that politicians appear to be closely aligned as to American foreign policy and you never hear those two key words: hegemony and imperialism?
DE- Now what you do not find among leading politicians or you rarely find among them, is an actual anti-imperialism, somebody who is really prepared to oppose American hegemony and empire. I think there are a few politicians like that running for the presidency, specifically Representative Dennis Kucinich, former Senator Mike Gravel and Representative Ron Paul (a Libertarian Republican). These candidates are actually anti-imperialist in their outlook, but they are very isolated, and little-known among the public. They’re dismissed by the media, both because of their views and partly, no doubt, because they're seen as incapable of getting the kind of funding that would make them serious candidates, and that's true.
I think if the American public were ever to be given the alternative by a major candidate of non-imperial policy, we really might have a very sizeable number of people who would endorse that. By sizable I don't necessarily mean the majority, but a very large number, maybe 30 to 40 percent of the people, would go for that, conceivably even higher.
But they are not going to be offered that choice by our political process because the people who largely finance these campaigns, corporations and the rich, are benefiting from the imperial policy and they are not at all interested in pushing the views of someone like Gravel, Paul or Kucinich, who have an alternative point of view. (Just lately, the only Republican candidate to be clearly against the Iraq War, Ron Paul, has been getting a respectable amount of money from the internet, like Howard Dean in 2004, but not enough to make him a major competitor.)
MWC- Dr. Ellsberg, I personally believe attacking Iran, at this moment, is complete madness, what do you feel are the possibilities of attacking Iran by the Bush administration?
DE- I would say considerably more likely than not in my opinion.
MWC- That is a scary thought!
ED- Yes it is, I have been spending two years focusing above all on that contingency or that likelihood, first because it is crazy and the consequences will be horrible for Iran, the Middle East in general, for the world and for the US specifically. And second, because it hasn't happened yet. So I concentrate on averting something that has not happened.
What we are doing in Iraq is horrible and it is creating hell on earth for the people of Iraq, but unfortunately in that war that is ongoing I don’t see a lot of chance of getting us out of there, I am sorry to say. So personally, unlike lots of my colleagues, I have been focusing to try to avert war with Iran. But I don't have any confidence that what I and many others are doing has any effect at all.
A fair number of people have been pointing to that danger: in particular reflecting the reporting of Seymour Hersh for the last couple of years in the New Yorker. But it is not clear what effects they had. One can say the attack has not occurred, and that is a hopeful sign. But I don’t take as much hope as one might from that, because I do think the president remains determined to carry out that attack while he is still president.
One reason that it hasn't happened may be because he felt he had more time and he did not have to rush, and he did not feel compelled to do it right away. But I think, from what I learn from Hersh and others, that he is quite determined to do it. And I am not at all confident that the people in the administration who do perceive this as a monstrous folly, as madness, and who might influence him-- I think we could include Secretary of State Rice or Secretary of Defense Gates, and many high-level military commanders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff—will actually do all they could to stop him, or will succeed in discouraging him.
There is an interesting analogy here, unfortunately, to the situation under Nixon when both Secretary of Defense Laird and Secretary of State Rogers advised Nixon to get out of Vietnam very quickly in 1969 and after, but Nixon paid no attention to them whatsoever. In fact, he just cut them out of the policy process. And the same thing was true with so-called Iran-Contra scandal: again, Secretary of State Schultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger thought what Reagan was doing--selling arms to Iran and breaking various US laws about funding terrorist contras in Nicaragua--was not only crazy but also illegal. They too were simply cut out of the process and they were no longer consulted.
So in this case I think the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with the Secretaries, are quite opposed to attacking Iran, but that means that they would resign if Bush ordered it? No, I really don't think so; and I’m not sure it would stop him even if they did, and he replaced them, unless they went very public with their opposition. Will they go public? I would hope they will, for example in testimony to Congress, but I don’t count on it. Will they refuse to carry out his orders? No, I don't think so. Therefore I don’t think Bush necessarily will be constrained by their opposition. If I thought otherwise, I would not think there is a high chance of the attack, because it is after all, as you said, both immoral and insane.
MWC- My last question, Doctor Ellsberg. Is there a hopeful solution here? Please feel free to give me an idealistic, wishful response.
DE- An idealistic and wishful solution? I think that is about all we can aspire to. The state of the world and the state of the United States of America is such that I don't think there is any very likely way of getting out of this. But that isn't to say that events are absolutely determined, because they really never are. No one that I know of foresaw the peaceful ending of the cold war, or the coming down of the Berlin wall, and no one that I know of foresaw the peaceful evolution to change to majority rule in South Africa without major violence. So those were, in effect, political miracles that were unforeseeable. They showed us the uncertainty of the future to anyone. And it's not only uncertainty about how bad it can get but there is uncertainty about what may change for the better.
What we will need is a surprising, currently unforeseeable change in the orientation of our public, I would say, the values and the awareness of our public, which must then impress these changed aspirations and priorities on Congress and on the administration. I am talking about America here but that is true elsewhere too.
I wish, by the way that we could count on Europeans, and world publics and leaders elsewhere, all over the world, India, China, Russia, Western Europe, anywhere, to keep us from attacking Iran. I don't see it happening. I don’t see them using their influence, whatever influence they have, to prevent this, any more than I see Democrats or Republicans in Congress, or major parts of our own public doing this.
So this passivity and very selective or misplaced concern—I am speaking of course not only of Iran and Iraq but, for example, of nuclear threats and global climate change and radical inequalities--has to change if humans are to survive, or more narrowly if civilization is to survive. I think it is possible that we will find a way to survive honorably in that sense; and to keep from extinguishing most other species along with us, i.e. to avoid all-out nuclear war.
I think it is not a large chance. I think the odds are against us, actually. But there is still every reason to try and to do our best. To try to tell the truth and to incorporate values of concern for other humans and other living beings and somehow to transcend the human proclivity to violence and revenge, to secrecy and unquestioning obedience to authority that characterizes so much of human experience.
So I do think that it is possible, for instance, for people to learn to question authorities and be willing to tell the truth that their authorities do not want those told. I know that in my own life, I changed in that way, so I know it is possible to change. And, let’s say, to awaken the human potential for compassion and concern about other humans on a global basis.
At any rate, we have to try, that is the way to live: to act as if we can change the future for the better. To accept that horrible contingencies are inescapable, I think is wrong, we don't know the future and it is not the right way to live.
Shahram Vahdany- Thank you, Dr. Ellsberg, for both your thoughts and your time.
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. I.U. has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is I.U endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)
The Nazis, Fascists and Communists were political parties before they became enemies of liberty and mass murderers.