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'The Sixties: The Years That Shaped a Generation'

Daniel Ellsberg
Thursday, September 29, 2005 1:00 PM

Daniel Ellsberg was online Thursday, Sept. 29, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his life during the 1960s and early 1970s, as well as the PBS film "The Sixties: The Years That Shaped a Generation," which highlights the tumultuous and exhilarating moments of that decade. It airs on PBS on Thursday, Sept. 29, at 9 p.m. ET. (Check local listings.)

Ellsberg joined the Defense Department in 1964 as special assistant to assistant secretary of defense (International Security Affairs) John McNaughton, working on Vietnam. He transferred to the State Department in 1965 to serve two years at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, evaluating pacification on the front lines.

On return to the RAND Corporation in 1967, he worked on the Top Secret McNamara study of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68, which later came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. In 1969, he photocopied the 7,000 page study and gave it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; in 1971 he gave it to the New York Times, The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers. His trial, on twelve felony counts posing a possible sentence of 115 years, was dismissed in 1973 on grounds of governmental misconduct against him, which led to the convictions of several White House aides and figured in the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon. Since the end of the Vietnam War he has been a lecturer, writer and activist on the dangers of the nuclear era and unlawful interventions.

"The Sixties: The Years That Shaped a Generation" features Ellsberg, as well as interviews with other prominent figures of the era, including Barbara Ehrenreich, Jesse Jackson, Tom Hayden, Arlo Guthrie, Henry Kissinger, Norman Mailer, Robert McNamara, Ed Meese III and Bobby Seale. The musical soundtrack for the film features the music of Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Elvis Costello, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Chambers Brothers, the Doors and the Rolling Stones.

The Transcript Follows.

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Daniel Ellsberg: Hello to the readers of Washington Post.com. I look forward to answering your questions....fire away!

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Atlanta, Ga.: Obviously, you're not inside the establishment anymore, but do you see any similarities between what's being done/said about the Iraq war and what occurred during the Vietnam war/era? Thanks for your service.

Daniel Ellsberg: For me it's virtually reliving my own experience of the Vietnam war. The lies that got us into this war are as blatant and consequential as the lies that got us into the Vietnam war. They had different content, but it was just as manipulative. The Blitzkrieg phase of the war had no counterpart in the Vietnam war but the guerrilla war that has followed ever since the president foolishly announced the end of combat has more similarity to Vietnam than difference.

This current war is just as hopeless in terms of winning or achieving any significant U.S. objectives as was Vietnam, and of course the administration has just as strong as incentive as then to conceal this fact from the public and indeed, from itself. The result, then, are recurrent statements of progress or of the opposition being on its legs or taking desperate measures as we heard in Vietnam, and these statements are just as baseless as then.

It's hard to say whether a given individual, like a Walt Rostow, or LBJ himself, or in this case, President Bush, actually has deceived himself when he makes such claims, or is consciously deceiving the public; but in both cases there can be doubt that there are individuals who understand the reality but are simply lying to the public. That was true for Robert McNamara. I think it might be true for Donald Rumsfeld today. Whether Cheney actually believes the nonsense that he says about the war, I really can't judge. But I am sure that it is not what he is being told by intelligence experts within his administration or by most of the military. That would also be true for Bush.

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Arlington, Va.: How do you feel your life experiences during the 1960s contributed to defining that era? Do you feel that way? Thank you.

Daniel Ellsberg: My life experiences in most of the sixties were very different from those of the young people shown in the movie tonight, which by the way, I think is a very good movie. But for one thing, I was of course older than the young people shown there. The slogan at that time was, Don't trust anyone over 30. And looking back, that was a pretty reliable slogan.

I was 30 in 1961. Which was when I first went to Vietnam for the Defense Dept. And which was where I saw already on that trip that it was an un-winnable war. But that didn't keep me from working inside the administration, and even going to Vietnam myself in 1965, knowing that we were very unlikely to have any success. So obviously my experience in the Pentagon and Vietnam was entirely different from that of the college students and anti-war protestors (most of whom were college students) back home.

One point worth making is that most of the people who went to Vietnam, military or civilian, and there were three million of them, did come to realize if they were there long enough that our policy there was not succeeding and was extremely unlikely to succeed, and in that respect, they were not that different in mood from that of the anti-war protestors, as it was assumed.

Most of them did probably go in the assumption that the war was justified, and for my part, I was a cold warrior who did assume we had a right to be fighting communists in Vietnam and that it was ultimately for the good of the Vietnamese people. I should say that was what I believed when I went to Vietnam. In two years there it became clear to me that what we were doing there was against the interests of the people, that it was making a hell of the countryside. And I came back in '67 determined to help end the war. It wasn't until I read the Pentagon Papers myself in 1969 that I recognized that the anti-war protestors had been right all along in recognizing that we never had any right to be there and that it was an unjust war from the beginning. And therefore I concluded from that for us to continue killing Vietnamese in that war was murder, mass murder, and must be stopped immediately, and not when it might become convenient for us to get out.

So at that point my experience and my reading of the Pentagon Papers, the history therein, had brought me to the same state of mind as the most militant of the non-violent activists against the war. And it was from the most committed of those who were on their way to prison for non-violent resistance, mostly non-cooperation with the draft, that I drew the inspiration to accept prison myself by revealing the Pentagon Papers.

Incidentally, I was glad to see that the film, which I saw in advance, does extend the period of the sixties into the early 70s, since both the war and the anti-war movement were highly active into the middle of the next decade. The Pentagon Papers were actually revealed of course not in the sixties, but in '71. And the war continued years after that.

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Baltimore, Md.: Why did you feel Neil Sheehan was the right person to give the Pentagon Papers to? Why didn't you go to Congress with the information?

Daniel Ellsberg: I went first to Congress to Senator Fulbright, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and gave the full 7,000 pages to him starting in November 1969 and throughout 1970. When he chose not to hold hearings on the papers, which he had earlier promised me to do, I then turned to Senator McGovern, Senator Mathias, a Republican from Maryland, Pete McCloskey from California ...

It was only after McGovern, like Fulbright, changed his mind against revealing the papers in Congress, that I turned to Neil Sheehan who I had known briefly in Vietnam, but more importantly had been the vehicle of my first leaks on the war in March, 1968 (I tell all these stories in my book, "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers"). And also, Sheehan had been the Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times in 1968. And he had written a very good long article on war crimes for the New York Times Book Review section, which assured me that he had sound attitudes on the war, and was sufficiently concerned to take the risks of publishing it.

In retrospect, I should have gone to the Times immediately in '69 along with Congress. And that's what I would advise someone to do today, to go with documents to the press as well as Congress. Because I now understand that Congress is unlikely to take any initiative or risk unless they are pressed to do so by a public that has been informed by the media.

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Nashville, Tenn.: You showed unusual courage back in the 70's risking 15 years in jail to get information out to the public on the "true" course of the war. And as you say, in a way you saved thousands of lives. However, the ending of the war was controversial, with some claiming that you and the media lost it for us. As the Iraq adventure shows, the lessons did not get incorporated into the DNA of the public consciousness. If you had it to do over, would you allow it to play out to a clear conclusion?

Daniel Ellsberg: The Vietnam War did conclude the only way that it ever could have concluded and that was with the full departure of American combat operations. The only question was when that would occur. Without the antiwar movement, and a lot of luck in terms of what brought about Watergate, I believe the war would have gone on for several more years at least, in the air, in terms of bombing. Not only by Nixon, had he stayed in office, but likely also by a successor whether Democrat or Republiclican.

The end would have been the same whenever there was an end. American combat operations were never going to cause the other side to quit or to be eliminated. I think exactly the same is true in Iraq. I don't think anything we do or could do in Iraq will prevent some Iraqis to persist in killing American occupiers or the Iraqis they perceive as American collaborators, even at the cost of their own lives. So I think there will never be a clear end to the Iraq war so long as we maintain American bases there.

I believe that it's the intention of this administration to build and maintain American bases in Iraq indefinitely, by which I mean for as long as we have maintained bases in South Korea or Germany or Japan. And that has been over fifty years. But in Iraq the difference is that means that Americans will be dying and killing just as long as we maintain those bases and as long as we keep some American troops in Iraq.

In answer to the first part of the question then, I think that is a terrible prospect and justifies the highest degrees of individual sacrifice and non-violent activism to shorten that period and terminate our war on Iraq.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi, what did you think about the Downing Street Minutes and the mainstream media's ignoring of them?

Daniel Ellsberg: LOL! In substance, the Downing Street memo represents exactly what I have spent three years now trying to encourage Americans to leak about our own governmental decision making. I see this problem with them. I suspect that the people who released them this year probably had access to them about the time they were written, which was exactly three years ago, and they could have released them then. If they had done so, I believe that Britain would not have sent troops to Iraq. Bush probably would have gone ahead even without British support, but the British would have been spared both their combat casualties in Iraq and probably also the London bombings.

Likewise, remember that those minutes deal with an account of meetings held in Washington. And there are almost certainly corresponding American written accounts of those same meetings. If the American participants and those who had access to the American minutes of those meetings had released them at the time -- the earliest discussions start in January of 2002, and then go to July, which is still six months before the war had started.

If someone had released those to Congress AND I emphasize, to the public through the press at the same time, it would have been very, much harder, if not impossible, for Bush to have launched the war in March of 2003. He certainly would not have gotten the majority in favor of the war in Congress in October or November, 2002, and he would have not have been able to lie as he did that he had not yet made a decision to go to war as of September and October of 2002. There would have been much more world pressure, and even in America to wait until the inspectors had completed their work. And of course, we now know that their early findings of an absence of WMD's would only have been confirmed with each further week and month they spent in Iraq.

So, any individual who had released these corresponding minutes would have had a good chance of preventing the deaths of 2,000 Americans and perhaps over 100,000 Iraqis. Even a chance of doing that I would say would justify an individual's giving up her or his clearance and career in the government, and even, if necessary, going to prison.

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Katy, Tex.: Do you think the 60's generation was influenced by its parent's generation if only in rebellion, and thus the children of the 60's gen'ers are influencing their offspring?

Daniel Ellsberg: As I say in '61 I was 30. So I can't speak very well for the relation of the young people of that era to their parents. My own children were very young at that point. I do know that, to the contrary, a number of the leaders of the antiwar movement had quite radical parents, in fact, I think that was the norm. So I believe that they were actually in harmony with their parents' values. I doubt if that was true of most of the people in the movement, but it was true of the leadership.

Remember this was happening all over the world as this movie makes clear in an unusual way. In France, Germany, Mexico, Japan, which I think is not mentioned. So it can't be explained pro or con as a relationship between particularly American generations.

I do think there was some reaction in the 80s, late 70s and 80s, of young people regrettably, away from activism because the young brothers and sisters of the older activists felt that their older brothers and sisters had given up a lot and had not achieved very much. But I think that effect has worn off over the years.

Certainly neither the anti-nuclear movement of the 80s, nor the current anti-war movement, seem to be on the campuses. It's much less of a youth movement. And I'm told that there does seem to be a very different mood on the campuses from what existed 40 years old. I don't know why that would be, I don't know enough about it. I'm sorry to see it. I would be happy if this film encouraged people to go back to that mood because I think it was an essential part to ending the war. And probably youth activism is essential to avoid coming catastrophes.

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Southern Maryland: Many social conservatives, especially the religious ones, describe the '60s as America's "Great Wrong Turn." Why do you think drives that view? Why do you think these conservatives seem to have a romanticized view of the '50s and earlier decades?

Daniel Ellsberg: The perception that there are two Americas culturally I think is not just a stereotype. Of course, in earlier years, that is to say in the sixties and 70s, the conservative Christians were not political and to the extent that they were political at all, they were voting democratic in the south. So politically that was a different element. Presumably their views were much the same then. But we who did not share their political and social views were not conscious of their existence at all. We also were not aware how many of such people there were.

I have to conclude that there were probably just as many then who were horrified by what was happening as there are now. But we weren't conscious of it. I say "we," but as I said earlier, I myself was part of the government establishment and not so much a part of the cultural changes. But I did come to identify with the counterculture later in life, that is to say in my late 30s and 40s.

The notion of morality of this large part of our society, perhaps 40 percent if not larger, does seem to focus very strongly on sexual behavior and gender relations in which they favor patriarchy. And homophobia. And in political terms, obedience to authority. But at the same time to be very insensitive to moral issues raised by American aggression, and by indiscriminate American firepower. And official abuse of secrecy and abrogation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

So, I take it such people see the sexual freedom and the women's rights and gay rights -- and of course pro-choice -- movement as simply immoral and to be oblivious to the moral concerns that the anti-war movement and the environmental movement are committed to. I'm saying here that the movements of which I've been part are seen by their participants as extremely moral issues and, although many of them are religious, they do not see morality as based exclusively on religious teachings.

My own view then, unequivocally, is that the movements seen by the right wing as a Wrong Turn, in favor of racial and gender equality, were very much a turn to the health of our society and were in their way marvelous and inspirational to the rest of the world, and I would be glad if they inspired people today. But this is a genuine difference in values between a very large minority of Americans on the right, and a very large minority of Americans that don't agree with them.

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Daniel Ellsberg: Charles Kaiser mentions what a marvelous time it was to be alive. I'm sure that was true for many of the young people who were involved, and looking back, I have to say that for me, both in Vietnam and then when I was working against the war, it was not on the whole a happy time. Perhaps because I was less hopeful at any given moment that the war was about to end, than many of the younger people imagined. And it was 1968, for example, just a horrible year, with the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and a horrible election campaign ending with Nixon's election. So here a year of ferment around the world, which may have been very exciting and hopeful for many of the younger participants was an almost unbearable year for me and many others to experience. Quite apart then from whether it was fun, the people in these uprisings were in fact trying to take the country in the right direction. As Abbie Hoffman put it once, "We were young, we were foolish, we were arrogant, but we were right."

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Washington, D.C.: I can only guess how detrimental your release of the Pentagon Papers was to your life, professional and otherwise. What exactly did you do in the years afterwards to make a living?

Daniel Ellsberg: I expected to go to prison for the rest of my life and, of course, I didn't experience that. So, the notion that some people say that I was a martyr was not the case. I didn't experience the martyrdom that Nixon had in mind for me.

And because of the fact that Nixon was discovered to have committed crimes against me, that actually helped bring him to the point of impeachment, his own actions gave me a notoriety that permitted me to make a living as a lecturer even though my earlier career was now beyond reach. In other words, I couldn't work for the government, which I had done up to that point, and indeed, to my surprise, I found that I was effectively barred from good academic appointments. So if I hadn't been able to lecture I would have probably found it hard to make a living. But as it was, I was able to support myself lecturing. And that gave me the freedom for a life of political activism at the same time.

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Daniel Ellsberg: I notice that I didn't answer of what I thought of the mainstream media ignoring the Downing Street minutes ... I think it's deplorable, and in line with their ignoring earlier major leaks in England, which on the whole have been more significant than we've had from any American officials. I'll just mention the revelation by Katharine Gun of the bugging of the U.N. Security Council by the U.S., and later the leaking of the opinions by Attorney General Goldsmith in Britain of the reasons for considering the war illegal.

All of these got very strong play in the U.K., like the Downing Street minutes, and virtually no play in the U.S. press. And I can't entirely explain how there could be this enormous blackout by the U.S. press of the questions of the origins of the war. Except that it seems part of a general pattern of subservience to the administration line that goes back to 9/11 in 2001 and ever since. The media seems cowardly and passive and subservient in a way that I can't fully explain. And the same is true of the Democrats in Congress. But it is certainly a deplorable situation.

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Daniel Ellsberg: Specifically, the line taken on the Downing Street minutes when complaints from readers finally forced the mainstream papers to take some account of them, the line was that they hadn't done it earlier because it wasn't real news. That's absolutely absurd. The point was that these were official inside confirmation in documentary form of lying by an administration, in this case a British administration, that had only been hinted at before by undocumented, anonymous leaks.

What I've learned is that it makes an enormous difference in both the attention to a leak and the political effect of it, if it is in the form of documents and unequivocal evidence. The British press and public have reacted very appropriately to such documents, but the Americans have essentially ignored them, at least when it comes to British documents.

What I've been saying for three years now, is that I believe there is very strong opportunity for individuals in the government who know that the public is being lied into supporting hopeless interventions and dangerous escalations, to avert that by telling the truth in the form of documents given to the press and to Congress at the risk of their own clearances, careers and perhaps their own freedom. I'm saying that these personal costs can be well worthwhile in order to save many lives.

I think that applies right now to plans that have been leaked to some extent to attack Iran by air attack in the event of another 9/11. And possibly to use nuclear weapons in that attack against underground nuclear storage sites, and also to plan in the event of another 9/11 to issue a much more repressive new Patriot Act, possibly detain large numbers of people in this country, mainly Middle Easterns, and I suspect start a draft at that point, which would permit Bush to send hundreds of thousands more men eventually to Iraq and perhaps into Iran.

I believe that the revelation of these dangerous plans would offer the hope of averting them, and would at least allow a significant public debate on the issues. I am urging of the unknown people in the government who have the opportunity to tell the truth in a timely way: Don't do what I did. Don't wait until the bombs are falling, don't wait until years into the war and until thousands of more have died before you tell the truth to the public and to Congress with documents. You may pay a high personal price but you may save many, many thousands of lives and in this case preserve American democracy.

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