The 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 ago?.
Daniel 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 since.
Duped by Our Leaders?
"We 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.
"In 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 going away."
The 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.
"We 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 Muslim country.
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."
In 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 torpedo hits.
"Herrick's 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 hit.
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."
Iraq 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 in 1973.
"A 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 Iraq's problems."
Patriot or Traitor?
Ellsberg's 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 the war.
Ellsberg 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 the aggressor."
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.
"I 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," he says.
It 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 war policy.
Three 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 Iraq.
"I 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."
This 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 admitted.
-- 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.
"We 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."
He 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 charges."
If 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.
"Ours 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."