May 26, 2011 – WGVU hosted a program on the downtown campus of GVSU. Serving on the panel with me were Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, Congressman Pete Hoekstra, and Cooley Law School Professor Devin Schindler. The audience was first shown a 30-minute excerpt from the documentary film, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. I then gave the panel’s opening statement, based in part on the following talking points.
1. Bravo to WGVU for hosting this event about the Vietnam War era. Polls today reveal that too many people — especially younger people who have no memory of the War — are not in possession of the most basic facts:
1/3 of Americans do not know who won the war.
1/5 think we fought on the side of the North Vietnamese.
2. The Most Dangerous Man in America (what Kissinger once called Daniel Ellsberg) is a highly sympathetic portrait of the first person prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 for leaking government secrets to a newspaper. The Obama administration, by the way, has been prosecuting five people under the Espionage Act for leaks to the media — more than all previous administrations combined.
3. The documentary raises questions about the constitutional duties of public servants and the moral duties of citizens. In this modern-day morality play, Richard Nixon, as usual, is the villain. On college campuses, there are usually snickers when Richard Nixon’s words and image come up, and to an extent it is understandable — the man was his own worst enemy. Yet the historian in me wants to see an honest airing of the issues. Whatever side one takes regarding the Vietnam War and the unrest in the ‘Sixties, this evening let’s avoid the tendency to demonize and caricature the other side. Let’s be open to expanding our awareness and understanding. History that merely ratifies our prejudices or demonizes our opponents does not take us very far.
4. My first reaction to the documentary is to feel more sympathetic to Daniel Ellsberg than my parents did. They wanted him shot for treason. Dr. Ellsberg: Even if I have serious questions about some of your actions, let me assure you that the only shot from me will be out of a good bottle of scotch that we should share.5. My second reaction to the documentary is to smile at Americans’ innocence. In the ‘Sixties and early ‘Seventies, we still expected our leaders to tell the truth. It’s a lovely quality, however naive. I don’t think it has been the reality or even the expectation in other world powers. During wartime lying is considered de rigueur. Prime Minister David Lloyd George said in the First World War — I paraphrase — We have one set of figures to fool the public, one set of figures to fool the Cabinet, and one set of figures to fool ourselves. During the years leading up to the Second World War, Winston Churchill had it on good authority that Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was deliberately lying to the British people and to the world when he said that the Luftwaffe was not reaching parity with the RAF [Martin Gilbert, Churchill. A Life, pp. 537–38].
6. My third reaction is that I wanted the documentary to show more context.
6 (a). Take Nixon’s popularity. Polls of the American people conducted during the Vietnam War showed substantial support for the Nixon presidency. From mid-1971 to January 1973, Nixon’s overall job approval rating went up — after publication of the Pentagon Papers. According to Gallup polls, by the time of his second inaguration in January 1973 — 19 months after the public learned of the Pentagon Papers — Nixon’s approval rating hit 66 percent: 2/3 of Americans thought the president was doing a good job. (Of course, over the next year and a half his approval rating would plummet precipitously, and by August 9, 1974, he was forced to vacate the presidency.) Now, as Daniel Ellsberg is quick to point out, the Pentagon Papers cover America’s involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967 — before Nixon was in the Oval Office. And yet Ellsberg wanted Nixon’s lies to be exposed by extrapolation and implication if not outright. It didn’t happen by the Election of 1972.
6 (b). What about the Gallup poll question of Nixon’s handling of Vietnam? On the eve of publication of the Pentagon Papers, a little more than 40 percent of respondents approved of Nixon’s handling of Vietnam. 19 months after the New York Times and others began publishing the Pentagon Papers, approval of Nixon’s handling of Vietnam zig-zagged up and peaked in January 1973 at 58 percent. During the 19 months following publication of the Pentagon Papers, disapproval of Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War zig-zagged down from about 45 percent to 33 percent. Correlation is not causation, but here is the biggest surprise of all. Aggregate polling shows that “Young people were more likely to support the war at the beginning, when it was popular, and more likely to support it at the end, when it was not.” Again, the Nixon administration is not in the Pentagon Papers, but any reasonably suspicious citizen would likely assume that he was lying about the war as much as his predecessors did. Ellsberg wanted Nixon to be punished for his lies. It didn’t happen by November 1972.
Central and Eastern Europe went communist after the Second World War, with liberation movements brutally suppressed in Berlin, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.
China went communist in 1949.
Khrushchev bellowed at Western diplomats in 1956: “We will bury you” — an allusion to Marx’s statement at the end of Chapter One of the Communist Manifesto.
John F. Kennedy had warned of a growing missile gap between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the 1960 presidential campaign.
The Berlin Wall went up on August 13, 1961.
Cuba in our hemisphere — off the coast of Florida — became communist in 1959 through violent revolution.
The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 kept tensions high.American children were drilled in the civil defense strategy, Duck and Cover!
Middle-class Americans started building bomb shelters.
Laos was in danger of going communist from the mid 1950s on, and North Vietnam did, leading to a proxy war between the U.S. on one side, and the U.S.S.R. and “Red” China on the other.
If you looked at the spreading red on a world map, the Domino Theory did not seem implausible to many, many Americans.
Studies like The Haunted Wood, by historian Allen Weinstein and former KGB agent Alexander Vassiliev, detail the extent to which Soviet spies infiltrated the U.S. government during the early Cold War. It was a real problem that made Americans jittery in a nuclear age.
6 (f). I should mention one final context (although there are numerous others): the American tradition of civil disobedience:
- Thoreau famously taught us about civil disobedience more than a hundred years before the Nixon administration. He argued that Americans should not pay taxes when the nation’s policies aided and abetted evil. Citizens should not permit government to overrule or lull their conscience into acquiescence when moral and constitutional principles are at stake. People have a duty not to cooperate with government when it tries to make them an agent of injustice. Thoreau was motivated by his opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War.
- Gandhi and Martin Luther King tutored us in satyagraha — Truth Force — nonviolent resistance to a government that is violating a people’s rights.
- Less heroic is the more orthodox path for somebody working in government. If you develop qualms about a policy, you go through proper channels and try to keep your complaint within the Department by talking to your superiors or to the legal counsel within the Department or perhaps to the Inspector General.
- A person could also opt to resign and throw himself into the political process to influence the outcome of the next election.
- Believing that the imperial presidency is a menace to the republic, someone could opt to take the papers to another branch of government. Ellsberg did approach U.S. senators (e.g., Fulbright, McGovern) who ultimately turned him down because they were politicians who wanted strength in numbers. But Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel took the Papers and read them from the floor of the U.S. Senate. As stipulated in Article I, Section 6, of the U.S. Constitution, he was immune to prosecution for what he said on the Senate floor. Gravel made sure what he read was entered into the Congressional Record. Having already “stolen” the Papers, Ellsberg could have stopped there, but he did not.
- Daniel Ellsberg chose a riskier and more controversial path — one even he suspected was illegal. He took the Pentagon Papers to the Fourth Estate. He shone a light on what he perceived to be evil, with the hope of shaming people into changing. There are respectable precedents for exercising this option going back to the famous trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735, and principled opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. But the problem with using the “fourth branch of government” is: Who elected them? Since when did we entrust national security decisions to journalists and editors? Such an extra-constitutional remedy was tested in Ellsberg’s case. His was the first time the Espionage Act of 1917 was brought to bear against someone who leaked government secrets to the press.
7. Once Daniel Ellsberg secreted a copy of the Pentagon Papers out of the filing cabinets of the Rand Corporation (1969), and gave copies to people in influential positions, several major sectors of American life sprang into action and insured that there would be a public debate:
- The fourth estate used its front pages and editorial pages — beginning with the New York Times on June 13, 1971. (But who elected them? We cannot have an ad hoc foreign policy made outside the executive branch and U.S. Senate. Chaos would ensue. Besides, are the media truly competent to judge U.S. foreign policy. Isn’t this dicey?)
- Members of the U.S. Senate took up the gauntlet — above all, Alaska Senator Mike Gravel — and insured that many of the Papers would be in the Congressional Record.
- Lower courts and then the Supreme Court took up the case.
- The private sector took up the gauntlet when an independent book publisher, Beacon, published parts of the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers.
- Even conservative opponents of Daniel Ellsberg, like William F. Buckley Jr, who thought he gave aid and comfort to the enemy, nevertheless hosted highly visible debates that gave Daniel Ellsberg a platform to make his case. (See the Firing Line debate that took place on July 25, 1972.)
12. This episode inU.S.history 40 years ago moves us to ask a host of questions that are central to our civic republican traditions. I would hope that students who see the film explore these questions.
- Even Ellsberg concedes that there is a need for operational, tactical, and strategic secrets. So to what extent do we permit a closed “society” to operate inside an open government?
- In a nation with a 24/7 foreign policy, what are the limits of the “imperial presidency”? When is official deception justified? What are the limits of transparency in government when it comes to foreign policy and foreign operations?
- What are the limits of a free press under the rule of law?
- What are the limits of our civic republican tradition? If a citizen who has worked on a policy decides that that policy is immoral, when is whistle-blowing defensible? When, by contrast, does whistle-blowing reveal too much in the public square? [At the very least, if people will die as a result.]
- Is it moral courage or opportunism to choose the form of civil disobedience Daniel Ellsberg did? When is it ethical for a consultant to publish confidential papers that do not belong to that consultant?
- Ellsberg seemed headed toward conviction. Was he “saved” when Nixon overreacted and created the Plumbers who would break into his psychiatrist’s office?
- What role did Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers play in the downfall of Richard Nixon?
13. Final thought: Winston Churchill observed that, in the end, war doesn’t determine who is right — only who is left to write about it.
P.S. — Toward the end of our panel discussion, Dr. Ellsberg wondered aloud if documents will be leaked that reveal U.S. frustration with the war in Afghanistan. I replied that those documents were leaked long ago. Our libraries are filled with stories of empire after empire that set its sights on Afghanistan but failed to conquer her people — not the Romans, not the British, not the Soviets. The only conqueror who succeeded in winning the hearts of the Afghan people was Alexander the Great, arguably the most brilliant general who ever lived. But he did not subdue Afghanistan by force of arms. He took Afghanistan by marrying a Bactrian princess, Roxane, the daughter of Oxyartes. Take it from a general who knew what he was doing in Afghanistan. His best strategy ever, as co-panelist Devin Schindler quipped, was to “Make love, not war.”