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What I Had to Do 


I am in the process of writing a memoir, reliving 
the 12 years, from 1964 through 1975, when the 
Vietnam War was my life. In the years since the 
war ended, my obsession with it has subsided, but 
its impact on my thinking and activity has not. Every 
political activity I’ve engaged in over the past quarter- 
century, the way I read each day’s news, every thought 
I’ve expressed in lectures and writings, has been influ¬ 
enced by my experience of Vietnam and my reflections 
on it, by my twin struggles to understand it and, for 
most of those 12 years, to end it. 

Nevertheless, 1 find myself somewhat uneasy about 
the theme of this magazine’s symposium. Too many 
Americans for too long focused only on their “inner” 
Vietnam while being oblivious to the “outer” Vietnam 
10,000 miles away, with its own people, 
geography, history, and culture. 

I was one of those. I worked in the 
Pentagon in 1964 and 1965 and 
watched as top decision-makers secretly and deceitfully 
maneuvered the country into a full-scale war with no 
prospect of success. Whether we had a right to pursue 
by fire and sword in Indochina—any more than the 
French before us—the objectives our leaders had chosen, 
was a question that never occurred to me. But in the 
course of two years of service in that “outer” Vietnam, 
its people became real to me—as real as the U.S. troops I 
walked with under fire—in a way that made prolonging 
our war in their country intolerable. 

If I may rephrase the question proposed by Modern 
Maturity, Vietnam shaped my inner America, my 
sense of what we had become, and what I had to do, 
with the help of others, to steer us toward our declared 


ideals. That experience changed my outer life as well. 
Before and during the war, I wanted to serve my coun¬ 
try by serving my President, and I did that for 15 years 
under four of them. But Vietnam taught me a better 
way, for me, to serve my country. 

In 1968 I met American men and women as brave and 
patriotic as any I had known in Vietnam or the govern¬ 
ment. Many of them were draft resisters. Although 
some were inspired by Gandhi, they were also following 
an American tradition that stretched from the Boston 
Tea Party to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Thoreau’s 
nonviolent civil disobedience against the Mexican 
War to the Underground Railway, from women’s suf¬ 
frage to lunch-counter sit-ins. I had read Gandhi and 
King, but the day I met a young man named Randy 
Kehler at an antiwar conference in Au¬ 
gust 1969 was like meeting Rosa Parks on 
her way to the Montgomery jail. 

When Randy spoke about nonviolence 
and his hopes for a better future, I listened with almost 
a parent’s pride. I thought, “He’s as good as we have.” 
Toward the end of his talk, he said he would soon join 
his friends David Harris and Bob Eaton, who were in 
prison for draft resistance. There had been no fore¬ 
warning of Randy’s announcement, so it took me sev¬ 
eral moments to grasp what he had said. Then it was as 
if an ax split my head, and my heart broke open. I 
thought: We are eating our young. In Vietnam and at 
home, we are using them up. Is this what my country has 
come to? Is this the best thing for our best young peo¬ 
ple to do with their lives—go to prison? I found my way 
to a deserted men’s room, sunk to the floor, and sobbed 
for more than an hour. (continued on page 50) 


By Daniel Ellsberg 














A WIDOW S TALE 

(continued from page 41) 

compelled to speak. I often think 
about what former President Dwight 
D. Eisenhower said: “People want 
peace so much that one of these days 
government had better get out of 
their way and let them have it.” 

When I was in Vietnam, I heard 
terrible stories from the victims of 
the war on all sides. Americans today 
have never seen warfare on our own 
land. What would it be like to live 
with bombs dropping day and night, 
napalm burning our children on 
their way to school, Agent Orange 
destroying our forests, poisoning 
our food and water? 

In the process of talking to widows 
and veterans on both sides, of hear¬ 
ing their stories of suffering, my 
anger began to melt. As I traveled 
through Vietnam with my friend 
and translator, we kept asking one 
another, “Who suffers more, the 
victim or the perpetrator?” In the 
early '90s the Balkans fell back into 
century-old blood feuds. In 1995 I 
went to Cambodia to interview 
widows of the American bombings 
and Khmer Rouge atrocities. I came 
across a group of Buddhist monks 
and other Cambodians who were 
leading walks of forgiveness through 
Khmer Rouge territory in the hope 
that the killing would not continue 
into the next generation. I thought 
that if the Cambodian people can 
forgive the Khmer Rouge for the 
genocide of as much as a quarter of 
their population, I have nothing to 
be angry about. I realized that by 
holding on to my rage, I was contin¬ 
uing the war. It still lived inside me. 
With this realization, my anger fi¬ 
nally melted into compassion. ^ 


Barbara Sonnebom’s documentary, Regret 
to Inform, was nominated for an Acade¬ 
my Award in 1998. She recently formed 
the Widows of War Living Memorial, 
where women can tell their stories and 
work for peace. For more information, call 
877-END-WARS [363-9277] or visit her 
Web site at www.regrettoinform.org. 


WHAT I HAD TO DO 

(continued from page 43) 

When I emerged, I realized that my 
range of options—my power as a citi¬ 
zen—had suddenly expanded. I was 
now ready, like the others, to go to 
prison if it would help end the war. A 
month later I copied the 7,000-page 
top-secret history of U.S. decision¬ 
making in Vietnam from 1945 
through 1968 (which was later dubbed 
the Pentagon Papers) from my safe at 
the Rand Corporation and began read¬ 
ing it. I learned that President Tru¬ 
man, followed by President Eisenhow¬ 
er, had fully financed the French 
colonial war from 1945 through 1954. 

I also learned that President Nixon 
was as determined as Lyndon Johnson 
had been to avoid U.S. failure in Viet¬ 
nam, and he had a secret plan to 
achieve this: by threatening to enlarge 
the war dramatically if North Vietnam 
did not withdraw its troops from the 
South (as we withdrew ours). I be¬ 
lieved that the threats would fail, so I 
gave the document to the Senate For¬ 
eign Relations Committee. Almost 
two years later, defying four court in¬ 
junctions granted at the President's re¬ 
quest, I gave the document to The New 
York Times , The Washington Post , and 
15 other newspapers. 

I was indicted on 12 federal charges 
and faced 115 years in prison. Two 
years later, a federal judge dismissed all 
charges against me and my co-defen¬ 
dant, Tony Russo (a former Rand co¬ 
worker), after discovering that “gross 
governmental misconduct” had been 
directed against me by President 
Nixon, which led to his impeachment 
and resignation, and more important, 
helped shorten the war. 

I feel grateful every day to the draft 
resisters who showed me another way 
to be a good American, to be free to fol¬ 
low Thoreau's advice to “cast your 
whole vote: not a strip of paper merely, 
but your whole influence.” Since the 
war ended I have campaigned against 
nuclear weapons and subsequent un¬ 
lawful U.S. interventions. My efforts 
included lecturing, lobbying, demon¬ 
strating, and approximately 60 arrests 


for nonviolent civil disobedience, all 
of which the war taught me were nec¬ 
essary and powerful actions in order to 
make democracy work. 

The recent movie The Insider, about 
Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco industry 
whistle-blower, is a reminder that or¬ 
ganized activities that are kept secret 
from Congress and the public be¬ 
cause of their recklessness, illegality, 
and danger to life are not limited to 
matters of state or of war. Merrell 
Williams, a paralegal at the law firm 
representing cigarette manufacturer 
Brown & Williamson, copied thou¬ 
sands of pages of documents that 
have been called the Pentagon Papers 
of the tobacco industry. Wigand's 
and Williams's ordeals demonstrate 
once again that a readiness to expose 
the truth at whatever cost can save 
lives and turn the course of history. 

When I look back at my actions to 
end the war, I wish I had done in 1964 
or 1965 what I did do five years later: 
go to Congress, tell the truth, with docu¬ 
ments. From my first day in the Penta¬ 
gon—August 4,1964—I witnessed lies 
about U.S. provocations and imagi¬ 
nary torpedos in the Tonkin Gulf. I be¬ 
came a participant in secret plans to 
escalate the war as soon as President 
Johnson won in a landslide by promis¬ 
ing voters just the opposite. If I (or 
others) had done then what I did later, 
the war could have been averted. 

That's a heavy thought to bear, and 
I'm still carrying it. It's easy to say 
that it simply didn't occur to me at 
the time. Like so many others, I put 
personal loyalty to the President 
above all else—above loyalty to the 
Constitution and above obligation to 
the law, to truth, to Americans, and to 
humankind. I was wrong. 

That's one reason why I'm writing 
my memoir, to convey that lesson to 
future officials as well as the more 
positive one I learned later: Telling 
the truth can have a power more than 
worthy of the risk. *** 


Daniel Ellsberg is a former Defense and 
State Department official. Since the 
Vietnam War he has been a writer, lec¬ 
turer, and activist. 


50 MODERN MATURITY MAY-JUNE 2000