When he last spoke with Reason in 1973, Daniel Ellsberg was on trial for leaking the Pentagon Papers. The Harvard-educated military analyst at the RAND Corporation had long wrestled with many of the moral quandaries of war, but was a consummate Washington insider up until the moment he decided to release a classified Department of Defense study of the Vietnam War, with its damning proof that President Lyndon Johnson had misled Congress and the public about the conflict.
While it looked like Ellsberg might spend the rest of his life behind bars, he was saved—ironically—by Richard Nixon’s paranoid dealings, which included sending goons to break into Ellsberg’s former psychiatrist’s office and allegedly plotting to have him killed.
If the original leaking plan had gone Ellsberg’s way, he suspects he might be in prison still. As he relates in his new book, Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (Bloomsbury), along with the now-familiar thousands of pages on Vietnam, he had unprecedented civilian access to nuclear planning documents in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. He swiped and copied them as well. Unfortunately, Ellsberg gave the nuclear documents to his brother, who buried them for safekeeping until the Pentagon Papers trial was over. A hurricane collapsed the hill where they were hidden, and they were lost to history. Ellsberg has had 45 years to wonder what would have happened if they hadn’t been, and more than 60 years to be unnerved by the recklessness, poor planning, and misinformation rampant in an area of policy with the highest possible stakes.
Reason spoke with Ellsberg by phone in October about his new book, his belief that nobody needs more nuclear weapons than Kim Jong Un has, and why the Cold War’s apocalyptic threats still hang over us.
Reason: Do you still get people calling you a traitor, and do you anticipate getting more of that on Twitter, now that you have a presence there?
Daniel Ellsberg: For decades I used to say that being called “traitor” is something you never get used to. But the truth is, for humans, you get used to anything. After 40 years, it doesn’t get a big rise out of me anymore.
It did very much at first. As a person whose identification was patriotism in a very conventional way—after all, I did go into the Marines, and I volunteered to go to Vietnam—the idea of being called traitor was very, very painful. But even at the beginning, I felt that people who would use that term didn’t understand our country very well, or our Constitution.
In many other countries, you work for a führer, to use the German word: a leader. And the leader is the government. You can’t criticize the administration without being regarded as treasonous. That’s one of the reasons that a revolution was fought over here, a war of independence.
In my case, the loyalty was to the Constitution and to the country rather than to the administration. Every officer in all the armed services and every member of the Congress and every official in the executive branch all take the same oath. The president’s is a little bit different, but everybody else has the same one, and it’s not to a leader, and it’s not to secrecy. It’s to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I had been violating that oath, I would say, when I knew that a president was violating the Constitution and waging war under false pretenses. In the end, I felt that the right thing to do, definitely, was to tell the Congress and the public what was being done in their name. That certainly seemed to me like being a better patriot than I had been.
When you last spoke to Reason more than 40 years ago, you said you were a former Cold War Democrat who was “in transition” and “very influenced by the people who are radical pacifists and anarchists.” I’m curious about how you would describe your politics since then.
I was influenced really by nonviolent activists in the Gandhian tradition and the Martin Luther King tradition. Giving the Pentagon Papers was a radical action. It involved truth telling and risk to myself. I expected to go to prison for life.
I still want to live up to that tradition. But I never became a total pacifist. I don’t agree with those of my friends who are critical of all wars. The truth is, though, that there hasn’t been one since the Second World War that I could really recognize on our part as having been justified or worthwhile. So I remain very much anti-imperial and very skeptical of intervention.
I found it interesting that you use World War II as an example of a justified war. In your recent book, there’s some mention of your dislike of the tactics the Allies used.
Well, look, to say that I thought the war was just and even necessary against Hitler does not mean that I would endorse our tactics. I thought that the firebombing of Germany toward the later stages, and the entire bombing of Japan, which consisted of trying to kill as many Japanese civilians as possible, was a clear-cut war crime from beginning to end. Indeed, if you’re really to take the idea of war crimes seriously, no question, it should have been prosecuted.
I don’t think you can understand the nuclear age and how it came to be if you don’t know the history of World War II. Most people don’t know—they bought the government line that our effort was only to hit military targets in a narrow sense, and that other people were being hit only by accident, in what we now call collateral damage. That was a flat-out lie from ’42 on. They were imitating the Nazi tactics in the blitz. That departed entirely from the notion of “just practice” in war, as opposed to “just cause.” Unfortunately, that precedent worked itself out in the worst possible way. The legitimation [of using nuclear weapons] really came before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which in turn simply reflected what our Air Force had been doing for the previous year.
By the way, are you asking these questions from the point of view of a total pacifist?
I’m OK with self-defense, but I think it’s hard to find a justified war even if you think some conflicts within that war were justified.
The occasional somewhat violent uprising is successful, but it’s very few. That’s why I’m much more committed to the idea of nonviolent resistance efforts of various kinds. But in the case of [justified tactics during] World War II, I would point to the British actions in the Battle of Britain. The dogfights in the air, but also anti-aircraft [attacks] against bombers. I not only see that as justified—or as some pacifists will say, “I don’t condemn that”—I think they were doing the right thing. They did prevent the invasion of Britain. And I don’t think that nonviolent tactics against those bomber planes would have been as effective at all.
I agree. But there are people who slide from that into “and therefore every Allied tactic was justified because they had to win, and they did win, and therefore they had to do all that in order to win.”
Yeah. But that’s based just on an assumption. It doesn’t bear up to real historical analysis of what exactly happened and whether it was necessary or not. Sure, people will say that at the time they thought the bombing of cities was not only effective but necessary. But that turned out to be untrue. There remains no justification, and that was fairly clear as the war was going on. It had to be kept from the public in both Britain and America because the leaders knew that it did not stand up morally.
“In the end, I felt that the right thing to do, definitely, was to tell the Congress and the public what was being done in their name.”
The Russians were fighting under Stalin for a terrible regime, and many of them knew it—but they were fighting against Nazi invaders. A pacifist friend of mine recently said, “Look, they lost 20 million people. What could be worse than that?” A fair question, except that if one was to look into the German plans you’d see that what they had in mind was depopulating Russia to the point of killing by starvation 30–40 million people.
So even under the terrible conditions of the Russian front, they were fighting for their lives, and I think justifiably.
Let’s talk about your new book. Could you sum up the bizarre circumstances by which you lost the other papers?
I decided in 1969 when I started copying the Pentagon Papers that, since I’m doing this, I should really put out information far more significant than the information on Vietnam, and that was the dangers for human existence that we have been building up and which the Russians have been imitating now for some years.
I copied everything in my top-secret safe, much of which dealt with nuclear matters. Not operational details, but the fact that we were contemplating first use and first strike—disarming attacks on the Soviet Union—and this resulted in a very dangerous situation, especially because the Russians were doing the same.
I was influenced by the example of draft resisters like Randy Kehler, who were on their way to prison for nonviolent resistance to the draft. I concluded that if that was the right thing for these young men to do, I could and should do that also, by telling the truth. I saw Randy Kehler just before he was due to go to prison in San Francisco, and I told him what I was doing at that very moment in the way of copying. He thought it wasn’t important to put out the Pentagon Papers, because enough about Vietnam had come out already. What was really new and important was the nuclear material. I said, “Well, I agree with him on the importance, but Vietnam is where the bombs are falling right now, and I want to do what I can to shorten that war by informing people what was being done in their name.” My plan really was to go through my trial—maybe a couple of trials, for distribution as well as copying—and then put out the nuclear papers.
That didn’t happen because I gave them to my brother who, to shorten the story, hid them in a town dump, and a hurricane actually came through and disturbed the trash field that he’d buried them in, including moving the stove that he’d used to mark the location. It’s just impossible to find the box containing the nuclear papers anymore.