Forty years ago, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, documents that revealed the secret history of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Since then, Ellsberg has been a lecturer, writer, and activist on controversial U.S. interventions and the need for patriotic whistleblowing. Ellsberg was a prominent guest at Annual in New Orleans, giving an Auditorium Speaker address and attending a discussion that took place after the screening of a documentary about his experiences, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Former American Libraries Editor Leonard Kniffel and others from ALA interviewed Ellsberg after his speech.
What follows is a transcript of that interview, edited for clarity.
AMERICAN LIBRARIES The first thing I’d like to ask you is to recap for us your central message for the librarians who were in the audience, because there are a great many who couldn’t be here today in New Orleans. So what was your real central message to librarians?
DANIEL ELLSBERG Well, as librarians, they are custodians of history, to a large extent, and of journalism, which is the current history—the first draft of history, as they say. You have a lot of those books [of journalism]. And now, of course, the internet is in libraries, which means the entire output of WikiLeaks so far.
My message to begin with was that the situation today is remarkably similar to the one that the country was facing or the president was facing 40 years ago with the Pentagon Papers, and 42 years ago, and before that: namely, a question of what to do with respect to an unwinnable war that we were heavily involved in.
I’m speaking primarily of Afghanistan now, but also a number of other wars that we really have been involved in, whether the president calls them wars or not, such as Iraq—where I think, by the way, fighting may well expand again within the next year—Pakistan, Yemen, and other places where we really are involved in hostilities with drones and [in] other respects.
And the question is whether to extricate ourselves in one way or another, unilaterally or through negotiation, from one or more of those wars; whether to expand them markedly, as the military is advising in some cases; or whether to do what president after president did in Vietnam and President Obama is choosing right now, and that is essentially to prolong the war, to keep it from ending while he is in office, which might expose him to charges of being weak, unmanly—even foreign, in his case—but an appeaser, and a man who had chosen to lose a war that the military said was winnable.
And however foolish that promise was of winnability and however foolish and unrealistic the charges are of being a loser and a quitter and weak, the president doesn’t want to hear them.
And typically in Vietnam, and I believe now, the assumption, the hypothesis is very similar. Presidents prefer to send men and women now to die and to kill rather to be called names themselves, rather than risk re‑election, rather than risk their place in history.
And that’s a very typical choice, cynical as that may sound, by presidents in the past. I don’t think that President Obama is worse or different from the others. But that’s not a justifiable cause. That’s not a legitimate reason. And it’s practically the only reason that we are still involved with over 100,000 troops and 100,000 mercenaries in Afghanistan right now. It’s not good enough.
It often seems to me when I was listening to you talk that the question that doesn’t get asked in situations like Afghanistan, as it seems to me in Vietnam, is what would a win look like?
Well, actually a win is not that hard to define. It’s just impossible to achieve.
My boss in Vietnam, [Assistant Secretary of Defense] John McNaughton, is in the Pentagon Papers defining in some detail what a win in Vietnam would be like, claiming at that time that was our objective: Namely, all northern troops in South Vietnam would go back to the north and take with them the southerners who had gone north after Geneva in ’54, and then come back. All people under the command of the Communist leadership of the resistance there would go back to North Vietnam. The remaining people, the southern guerrillas, would lay down their arms and do it visibly. Not just bury them, but give up their arms, or amalgamate and accept the discipline of the South Vietnamese troops that we supplied and trained and funded and everything else.
You could define conditions just like that in Afghanistan. The Taliban are pretty indigenous. But if there are any al‑Qaeda people, they all leave. The Taliban join the Afghan army that we’re funding or they give up their arms. All coded communications on the other side must cease. All communications will be in the clear so we can hear them and hear there’s no covert call to continue arms and so forth.
In other words, the authority of the regime in the capital that we support and fund and back, that serves our interests, shall be extended to every corner of the country. And that doesn’t mean there’s no violence anymore, but it does mean that violence is reduced to a point where his mercenary soldiers can be paid with the drug money and the money we supply in order to pursue those few remaining holdouts indefinitely without the need for American troops.
So we have indefinitely a regime in the capital whose authority is extended to the whole country without the need of American troops, just with American firepower.
We never really aspired in Vietnam to a situation where they didn’t need our air support. We didn’t tell the public that. But that was Nixon’s game and that was Johnson’s game.
So that continues now with drones, but then it was planes entirely, from carriers or bases outside the country.
We could support the mercenaries that supported us, essentially. And they could control the whole country without our presence there. That’s a victory. Even though there might be some remaining violence, no one would argue with that being a victory. It just was far, far, far beyond our capabilities.
Vietnam was called the first war that was televised. Do you think that now that we have the internet, what we’re learning about the war and various [other] wars that we’re involved in has changed the game at all?
Television did have a big impact in Vietnam. Remember that public opinion didn’t have that much impact on the president’s policy. The majority of the public was against the war in Vietnam by 1968, years before the Pentagon Papers came out. That was increased by the Pentagon Papers, but it was already a majority. That didn’t stop the president.
And the fact that you see different figures—between 56% and 71% of Americans now think we should be out of Afghanistan as soon as possible—does not mean we will be out of that war any time soon.
I said that people had that opinion in ’68. The war went on for seven years, and troops remained there for five years. We could be in Afghanistan indefinitely, no matter how many people are against the war.
But it is true that the more you can see it up close on television, the more public opinion will be affected. But remember, without American troops dying, the YouTube material, which now is available and wasn’t available then, from cell phones, doesn’t get on our mainstream media.
My later-to-be-wife told me in ’66 that when she returned from Vietnam, she was seeing more of the war than anybody in Saigon was because she saw it on the television every night. We didn’t see that.
But now with no Americans dying—“no” meaning only a few thousand—you don’t see it on television.
WikiLeaks did put out on the internet that video of the helicopter [firing on and killing civilians on the ground in Iraq]. And I think it got, of course, an enormous number of hits. But I think that my understanding is that [WikiLeaks founder Julian] Assange felt later that he was mistaken not to make a deal initially with a mainstream television network and get it out on mainstream. And that’s why later he worked with the New York Times directly and the Guardian, because he knew he’d get greater coverage that way.
You mentioned, when you were talking yesterday, that you didn’t really think that the draft was such a big factor in the Vietnam War.
It was a big factor. But I’m saying that it wasn’t the whole factor that everybody speaks about now.
It surprised me because I always thought that if there were a draft right now, you’d see a great deal more resistance to the war.
You undoubtedly would, no question you would. But you’d also see much bigger wars. I think that if we had a draft now, we’d have big demonstrations, we’d have a lot more talk about it in Congress and the press, and we’d see several hundred thousand men and women in Afghanistan right now and in Iraq.
You just can’t do that without a draft. No way to do it. And we couldn’t have put 500,000 men into Vietnam—which, remember, they got there in ’68 after years of demonstrations. We were up to 550,000. You couldn’t have done that without a draft. So I’m against the draft.
Yes, it would be more fair. And if you could have a draft where the total number of soldiers remained the same, I’d be for that. It would be fairer. That’s not the way it’s going to work. If you have a draft, it’s still going to be the poor people who are in the front lines. That’s the way that works in every army. And you’re going to have a lot bigger armed services. And so we’ll have more men and women now to “spend.”
By the way, I don’t see how a draft can avoid drafting women at this point. That wasn’t even a question before. But with the current correct attitude, there isn’t any way you could draft men and not women. So you’ll be sending them over there.
There’s where I differ with a lot of my close friends on that—like [former Congressman] Pete McCloskey or earlier Ted Kennedy (he wasn’t a close friend, but an ally)—who were very much for a draft for that reason; but I disagree with them on that.
If I had top secret information that could stop the war in Afghanistan, what would you tell me to do with it now?
I would say, first, I would go to the New York Times, first, in hopes that they would print large amounts of it, large amounts of documents. No other paper really offers to print pages and pages of newsprint on something.
But I wouldn’t wait for months, as I did, without being told that they were actually working at it right away. If I had gone months without knowing that they were working away on it, I would now then have gone to other papers; and if that didn’t work, to WikiLeaks.
So I wouldn’t go first to WikiLeaks. Or if I did, I would do it on the understanding that they do it the way they did now, which is a pretty good model—that they coordinate with not just one paper, but several papers, creating that competition, so that no one paper feels they can bottle it up by sitting on it the way the New York Times did.
Here’s a question that just came to me as you asked your question. What if the people who gave the information to the Times in 2004 about the warrantless wiretaps by the National Security Agency, which the Times sat on for a year—[Executive Editor] Bill Keller should have been fired ultimately when it came out that he had suppressed that news for a year at the request of the White House. News that should have been out, absolutely should have been out, he finally put it out because of competition from his own reporter James Risen, who was about to put it out in a book. And rather than be scooped by Risen, he finally got it out in the Times and got a Pulitzer Prize for it.
Fine, let him have his Pulitzer Prize, in jail. Jail isn’t the right thing. Firing is what I mean. If he could have been impeached, he should have been impeached for that. His Pulitzer Prize, which he could enjoy with [former New York Times reporter] Judith Miller somewhere, his former protege.
But supposing, then, that the people who had done that had simultaneously given it to WikiLeaks or to another paper so that Keller knew he couldn’t sit on it for a year, that’s the way to get it out. And that’s the way WikiLeaks got it out. Because each paper—the Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais, and the Times and Le Monde—all knew that if they didn’t put it out the others would, using that competition very effectively. That’s what I would tell you to do.
And I would say that the people right now who are talking to Bob Woodward about his next book now—I suppose that includes [former White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel again and [U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl] Eikenberry, who is leaving Kabul and so forth—rather than wait a year or two for that to come out, it would be better if they gave the documents supporting that information to WikiLeaks right now.
And as a matter of fact, I would call on Woodward to give WikiLeaks all the documents he was given for that book. I’m not asking him to put them up, because he would get prosecuted. Even he would get prosecuted by Obama. And it wouldn’t serve any great purpose. Give them to WikiLeaks anonymously. Let us read them. So he isn’t the only one who gets to read these top secret documents.
If I were Henry Kissinger sitting across from you right now, what would you tell me?
Oh, God. Actually, there’s a couple people, including [former Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara and Kissinger, now only Kissinger is alive to tell the tale about some of the decision-making, so, really, my interest would be in trying to get him, at last, in the closing years of his life, like mine, to come clean about what he was up to in certain cases that we really don’t know about.
When did he decide that the U.S. could, after all, get along with the unilateral withdrawal of troops from Vietnam? The public was led to believe that Nixon and Kissinger intended from the beginning what finally happened: Saigon becoming Ho Chi Minh City after a decent interval. I know that’s not true. They had no such intention. They were forced into that position. The question is: When and why did he finally decide that they would have to put up with and try to do with air power alone—that was his intention—without troops?
I’d be very interested in that—to see if he possibly would even tell me. Nothing he would tell me would be the last word, but it could be very interesting.
BRAD MARTIN, Cognotes You spoke near the end, I believe, about lessons learned and not learning lessons, or actually remembering the past and still doing the wrong thing? What lessons do you think would be learned by someone like Johnson, or even Obama, or anybody in that position, from the release of the Pentagon Papers? What might they have learned?
The last time I saw Kissinger—I saw him in the fall of ’70—it was to urge him to read the Pentagon Papers. And if he couldn’t read them all, which takes too long—he couldn’t even read a large part of it—I said read the summaries. Because those add up to about 40 single-spaced pages. That’s readable. You learn a lot from reading the summary—four or five pages—to each of the volumes.
I asked him if he had a copy. He did, in the White House. So I said, you ought to read it. And have your staff person put it in order, go over it, and summarize for you some messages from it.
He says, “Do you really think we have anything to learn from this?” I said, “Well, yes, I do.” He says, “But after all, we make decisions very differently now.” I said, “Well, Cambodia didn’t look all that different.” He was pretty nervous; he said, “Cambodia was done for very complicated reasons.” Meaning things like they were punishing Congress for having rejected [Supreme Court nominees Clement] Haynsworth and [G. Harrold] Carswell, and I could name other domestic political reasons that were going on.
I said, “Henry, every rotten decision in Vietnam in 30 years has been made for very complicated reasons.” And they’re usually the same reasons, the same kind of reasons—an election, this or that. It’s always domestic politics. And I said something about the people who resigned from his staff over Cambodia: Tom Schelling, who is in the movie, my old thesis adviser, who was a close friend of Kissinger’s, Ernie May, and others who worked on the Pentagon Papers. He said, “What? They didn’t have clearances.” I said, “I had the clearances.” “Oh, you, of course, I know,” so forth.
I’m just remembering this conversation. I told him what I thought his policy was. And I thought it’s really very much like [former Under-Secretary of State] Walt Rostow’s policy. “Walt Rostow’s a fool.” “Well, that may be, but McGeorge Bundy [National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson] is no fool.” He says, “No.” NMcGeorge Bundy, who had been his dean. “McGeorge Bundy was no fool. But he had no sense of policy.”
But the last conversation I had with Kissinger was some months later at a conference at MIT, where I asked a question that could very well be asked of Obama right now or of his national security adviser. It was a conference called Runnymede, the name Runnymede being where the barons had confronted King John I. [There were also] MIT students and their parents who felt they were confronting the king, the monarch, confronting him about Vietnam.
And I knew I had time for only one question. So I asked him, I said, “What is your best estimate of the number of Indo-Chinese under your plans who will die in the next 12 months?” And he said, “You are accusing us of racism.” I said, “No, no, no. Forget the word Indo-Chinese. How many people will die if your plans are carried out as planned? What’s your best estimate? I know we have estimates for the number of rubber tires they’ll bring down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, how many bombers, replacement bombers, how many troops. How many people will be killed?”
He said, “That is a very cleverly worded question. What is your alternative?” I said, “Dr. Kissinger, I know very well”—because I worked for him for once—“I know very well the language of alternatives, options.” I wrote the options paper, the first one he submitted. I said, “I know the language of options. I’m not asking for that. I’m asking you for your estimate, if you have one, of the consequences of your chosen course of action.” He just paced back and forth. And finally the student who was running things said “Well, he’s answered enough questions for tonight. And he has to get back to Washington.”
And so he did, by the way, because earlier on somebody had asked him something or other and he had burst out and said “You’re asking as if we were widening the war. We’re not widening the war. We are winding down the war.” So he goes back to Washington. I won’t go through the whole story, but I’ll tell you that what turns out is, he goes back to supervise the pre-invasion bombing of Laos, which extended the war. The next day, while he was talking. But I was pretty sure that he simply did not have an answer to the number that had been killed.
MARTIN I don’t know the timing of it, but there’s also the moment on the tapes where Nixon is actually asking him a similar question, asking Kissinger, if we bomb here . . . .
I know that. “How many have you killed?”
MARTIN “How many killed if we did this and this?”
“How many did we kill in Laos? How many can we kill in Laos?” “Oh, 15,000, 20,000.” Nixon says, “No, no. No, I think now we should hit the dikes. Hit the dikes. How many would that drown?” “Oh, about 200,000.”
“No, no, no, I’d rather use a nuclear bomb. Got that, Henry?”
“Oh, I think that would be just too much.”
“Too much, Henry? Nuclear bomb? Does that bother you? I just want you to think big, for Christ’s sake.” That’s the passage.
MARTIN That’s almost word for word.
And that’s the way it sounds.
What I’m saying now is that it would be a very good question to ask of Obama right now, next press conference—or of [Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta now, [former Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates before he left—what’s your best estimate of the number of Afghans who will die under our plans in the next year? What’s a range? What’s the range going to be? And what was it last year? And how accurate was did that turn out to be? Et cetera.
Now in the case of Kissinger, I had been almost sure they didn’t have an estimate. And the reason was that I had proposed doing a study of that a year-and-a-half earlier under Kissinger. And I knew that they had not done it. Kissinger said we have asked them enough questions now, we don’t have to ask that.
So I called up Winston Lord, his then-deputy, just before I asked the question at MIT. I said “Winston, do you remember that study I proposed a year-and-a-half ago? Did you ever do a study of how many we were likely to kill?” He said no, never done. So I sort of knew the answer, that Kissinger didn’t have an answer to this question.
Interestingly, now they’ve learned a lesson. Now they’ve said openly, “We don’t count bodies.” That’s Vietnam. “We don’t do that.” Well, that turns out to be false, as usual. WikiLeaks showed they were counting civilian dead. And it added up to 60,000. Now, that’s undoubtedly a huge underestimate, but it’s 20,000 more than Bush had said. And, interestingly, the 60,000 they counted—looking at the Times and the coordinates and everything else—the Iraq Body Count [independent database of civilians killed in Iraq] realized that included 15,000 that the IBC had not included in their estimate of 100,000 dead that’s based largely on newspaper reports.
So here’s an extra 20,000, which I would regard as noteworthy from WikiLeaks, some significance. But the question is: The American people do not demand and Congress does not demand, unfortunately—I can’t blame it all on the president—they don’t demand to know how many people we are killing in this collateral damage.
And the truth is that when they take credit for killing a terrorist here and a terrorist there—the Taliban—what they don’t tell is how many people they killed in a hunt for that particular terrorist. The same calculation. In some cases, to get this guy, it took 78 other people who had to die here, he wasn’t here then, we hit the wrong place, here was a whole collection of people we didn’t know were there, and so forth. And it adds up. Time over time. And finally we got him. Well, you killed 78 people or 17 people other than the one you were after. And their families joined the resistance.
AMERICAN LIBRARIES Have you made an effort to advise or reach out to President Obama?
Oh, because I do hear about people who do have access to him, like Kissinger and the others. My impression is that he’s a very busy man, of course, obviously, he’s got a very difficult job, a very complicated job. And when he talks to outsiders who don’t have current clearances and don’t have—I won’t specify it further, but who aren’t in the loop at that point—his only interest, like that of any president, is what he wants to hear from you, what he wants you to think he thinks or listens to or whatever. I haven’t heard of any useful interchange whatever.
A number of people that I do know, friends of mine, went to see him about transparency recently, and to get into the door they did something that was actually really bad, really shameful. These were open-government groups of various kinds, I won’t even name them here, but mostly friends of mine. And they were induced, to get in the door, to offer him an award for transparency.
The American Library Association could probably get in with him by giving him an award for increasing the number of National Security Letters that they’ve been presented with. And the ACLU could give him an award for closing Guantanamo. Then you get a conversation. But it doesn’t really affect policy a great deal.
They made a mistake on that one. And so here they give a transparency award to the guy who was transparently the most secretive administration we have yet had. And that’s some heavy competition. He is actually using the state secrets privilege more promiscuously than even George W. Bush. He has run almost twice as many prosecutions for leaks as all previous presidents put together. And they’re boasting about it.
I’ve been announcing that for the last year or so, and people are astonished, saying “What? Really? Yes?”
It’s a small number. Five versus three for all previous presidents put together. But his new Department of Justice person, [Lisa] Monaco, who is getting hearings now to get confirmed and will be in charge of these prosecutions, she’s boasting about it. She says “we’re doing twice as many as previous presidents, look how tough we are and how determined we are when stuff leaks.” And this is the man they gave the transparency award.
I don’t really have any confidence that what he would hear from me would serve a purpose. I don’t have the clout. I don’t have a large campaign contribution, and I don’t have votes in Congress.
What do you make of our preoccupation with sex scandals? Is this some sort of distraction?
Human. Most of us are men in this room. Maybe even women download the stuff. But the gender bias isn’t downloading Anthony Weiner’s material. I don’t know if we’re interested in that or not.
Do you think it really distracts us? While we were so absorbed in the Clinton scandals, all sorts of things were just . . . .
Well, on the one hand, who wouldn’t rather hear about some sex scandal than something like this horrible stuff about what we’re actually doing in the world? The number of people we might kill. Or whether climate change is going to kill us all. So you can’t blame people for wanting to be distracted, I would say.
But on the other hand, you can blame people for just totally neglecting every other responsibility they have to inform the public or to discuss with each other or act as citizens.
Humans are capable of rising above this. The point being, though, that we’re so easily distracted, that nothing else is available, really. That’s not excusable.
I had a similar-type question, which is—and again it’s a little lessons learned–related—why is it so hard for people to learn or understand the connections of history—for example, our involvement with the mujahideen and that whole thing?
Here’s something I would have liked to have brought out for the American Library Association if I had had time—a piece of history that I’ll bet most people in the audience did not know. And I only knew recently. And I found one of the most shocking and unsettling revelations ever in my life. And I read it on the internet as a quote from Le Monde Diplomatique, I think it was. No, another French journal [Le Nouvel Observateur]. And earlier, then, I found I had on my shelf Gates’s memoir—his earlier memoir, before he recently became secretary of defense—both saying the same thing.
[Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski said in this French journal in 1998—you can easily find it, Brzezinski on Afghanistan, on the web, 1998—that in 1979, middle of ’79, six months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he had urged President Carter to fund, through Pakistan, extreme jihadists to oppose the Marxist pro‑Soviet regime in Kabul in order to provoke Soviets into invading Afghanistan.
And then six months later—this is in the same interview—Brzezinski says on Christmas Eve, when the Soviets finally did it (and the main provocation was, by the way, Soviet fear that we would overthrow that regime in favor of a regime that would let us do covert operations into Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, the other Soviet states that later became independent, that had a lot of oil) that the Soviets feared that we would use Muslim extremists, like al‑Qaeda types that were still fighting, to unsettle their own regions; and so to stop that, they would go into Afghanistan.
Now why did we want them in Afghanistan? On Christmas Eve, when they invaded, Brzezinski wrote a memo to Carter saying, “Now we have the chance to give them their Vietnam.” And so we did. 10 years later, they’d lost 13,000 men and got out.
And we had given the Afghans, by supplying [them] this entire time with money, finance, creating al‑Qaeda, foreign jihadists from all over the world we were helping fund indirectly—most of them didn’t even know the money was coming from the CIA—through Pakistan, through Saudi Arabia, into Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and bleed the Soviets, we gave the Afghans their Vietnam.
They had been at peace before that. There was a lot of controversy. The regime in Kabul was very controversial. There was another Communist party, more Maoist, that was fighting the Moscow‑oriented Communist party. And there were others. There were all the people who were there. There was controversy. There was no war.
From ’79 there was a war that we had fueled for the next 10 years and then beyond that. I won’t give the rest of the history. A million people died. A million died from various causes during that war, Afghans.
Now, I, at 80, remember—let me just ask you, frankly, and don’t say it just because I know it—are you aware of what I just told you? Did you know that history?
I was more aware of the Reagan administration expanding it.
No, this is Carter.
But I didn’t realize it was Carter. No, not Carter, no.
Okay. Let me just ask: Go look at Gates’s memoir, I forget the name of it [From the Shadows]. Look up Afghanistan in the index. Look up Brzezinski on the internet, Brzezinski, Afghanistan, 1998. I think you’ll find it quoted very exactly.
And the French interviewer says, “Well, do you have any regrets now?” That was in 1998. There had already been the al‑Qaeda attacks on some of our people before 9/11. He said, “No. You’re asking me to regret? That was one of the best things we ever did. In the eyes of history, which is more important? The end of the Soviet empire or some stirred-up Muslims?” That’s three years before 9/11 and everything else, right? Brzezinski, very smart guy, not one of his smartest or best moves or assessments here altogether.
Here’s what that said to me. I remember very well when the Soviets went into Afghanistan Christmas Eve. I saw that as aggression. I was told it was aggression. But Carter, remember, said at the time . . . . Do you remember that? Can you remember? Nobody here remembers?
Which are you talking about?
Come on. You’re not that young.
But I remember . . . .
Carter canceled our participation in the [Moscow] Olympics because the Soviets had done this. And he said “I have learned more about the Soviet Union.”
Carter, you know, is in many ways one of our better presidents, looking back on it, which is better than he looked at the time; but at this point he says, “I learned more about the Soviets in the last month than in years before to see their real face.” Like the time they shot down KAL 007, that’s what Reagan said: “Now I see who they really are.”
And Carter brings back [military draft] registration, cancels the Olympics. He starts the rapid deployment force. We’ve got to protect the Persian Gulf from the Soviets, and the Indian Ocean.
I took that all for granted, and I couldn’t even understand why the CIA was doing this all as a covert operation. He’s resisting an invasion. Why don’t we do it openly? The American people would support this. I would have supported it. Why did it have to be a CIA operation?
So of course we’re totally reaping the fruits of that operation today, you know, totally. That was Pakistan. That was accepting the Pakistan nuclear program in order to funnel the money through Pakistan. It was backing the Haqqani group that we’re talking about fighting today, right now. That’s who we were backing. The Pakistanis were backing the Haqqani group and so forth. So those were blowback consequences.
But the image of what our policy was, who our allies were, who was going to discover that what the Soviets had done is what we had predicted they would do if we did the illegal things we were doing. They weren’t entirely illegal. [They were] helping, covert operations.
But we wanted that invasion. We wanted it. And we provoked it. Of course, they say nothing about what it meant for the Afghan people. Carter doesn’t. Brzezinski doesn’t. Gates doesn’t.
That meant as of this year, or last year, that we have been involved in fueling war in Afghanistan not for 10 years as we read every goddamn day, but for 30 years. And by the way, it does go back earlier because Eisenhower was involved and so forth. We weren’t fueling a war, though.
We’ve been fueling a war for nearly all of 30 years as we did in Vietnam. There would have been no war in Vietnam had we not fueled it, one side of it, with money and everything else. There would have been controversy. There would have been killings. But there would not have been a war.
And in Afghanistan, there was a small period where the Taliban were in charge where we probably weren’t the major cause of what was happening. It was a matter of a few years. But for most of 30 years we’ve been doing that. And that’s what I was saying today: I read that not only was the policy totally different from what I thought, but that it was a wicked policy. That it was a cruel, ruthless policy.
And when Brzezinski said “But it brought down the Soviet empire!” Well, that’s a good thing on the whole, that development, better for some people than for others but not a bad thing. But on the backs of a million Afghan dead? No. We didn’t have any right to do that. And it was wrong. And it’s wrong right now.
And I’m saying that when President Obama, who I voted for, and if I was in Florida or Pennsylvania or Ohio when it was a close election, I would certainly vote for him again without any question. Would I rather have McCain? Or a McCain equivalent, who now wants to go even higher? No.
But in the case of Johnson, he did have a smaller war than Goldwater would have had. He wasn’t entirely the same as Goldwater. The Vietnam War could have been worse, much worse, if we had done what the military asked us to do. We would have been at war with China. And we would have used nuclear weapons.
The antiwar movement did have an effect. And the effect was not to shorten the war very much, but the effect was to keep a lid on the war. And some people will say “Well, that kept us from winning it.” Maybe they’re right. I think they have their head up their ass. I think they’re wrong. And I’m glad we didn’t find out.
But, anyway, I’ll take responsibility for that. I did what I could to keep that war from being larger. If I’m wrong, then I’m guilty of that; that’s my responsibility. But I think the antiwar movement did accomplish that, and that was a good thing.
Right now, we still have it ahead of us to prevent not an invasion, but an air attack by Israel on Iran. We can’t prevent Israel, but [we can prevent] the U.S. from backing an air attack on Iran by Israel. If Israel is crazy enough to do that, the chance that we will stop President Obama from backing that crazy idea is as small as it could possibly be. But it’s not quite zero. Yes, we do have a monarch. And he’s close to being an absolute monarch. But he isn’t quite an absolute monarch yet. And there never were absolute monarchs; they lost their heads in the end. But we still have enough to give us some responsibility here.
It would be a disaster if we attack Iran. And we can try to build obstacles to that right now with some possibility of success.
The escalation or the continuation in Afghanistan is inexcusable, even though practically any president who would get to be nominated would be doing the same. It would be all wrong. And it’s happening right now. It’s unjustified homicide. And unjustified homicide is murder. It isn’t first-degree murder necessarily, but there are degrees of murder. And it is reckless endangerment. It’s manslaughter. Its woman-slaughter and infant-slaughter.
When people used to say to LBJ, “How many kids did you kill today?” that was regarded as inexcusable, meaning wrong. But a perfectly fair question. He was killing kids every day and he didn’t have a right to do any of that.
I’m told it’s time to wrap up. But I would like to ask you just one last question if I could. And that is, when you look back on the Pentagon Papers and you look back on your life and your activism, can you tell me why you didn’t say, as so many of us do: Let somebody else do it?
That’s a very good question, which I’ve never been asked in 40 years. Congratulations. Good question. Well, I’d certainly said that a lot—not so consciously, but in effect I had. My first leak was really in 1968.
And what caused that was seeing the example of a very, very efficacious, consequential leak by somebody else who leaked that the president had asked for 206,000 more men on top of the 550,000 that he had. And that was in March of 1968. And Congress rebelled at that news.
My book [Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers] tells what I did then. I did a number of things as a consequence of that. But I wouldn’t have done it without saying, “My God, that was the right thing to do.” That was a really very consequential thing. So I had the example.
And the second thing is, then I thought I would lose my job, my career, and probably be found out. And I wasn’t, just kind of by a bureaucratic glitch that fell through there. They were going to prosecute me, but it got aborted, and I continued to have access—another mistake. So a year and a half went by.
But meanwhile, then, I had read Martin Luther King Jr. and I had read Barbara Deming, Revolution and Equilibrium. I had read Gandhi and Thoreau, and Thoreau’s line “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”
But the key thing was that I met people right before I copied the Pentagon Papers in late August of 1969 who were on their way to prison. I saw that here are people just like me—one of them, Randy Kehler, had gone to Harvard just like me, a young man then, and he was going to prison because that was the best thing he could do to protest war.
I think I may have been the only person I knew who had met a draft resister who had gone to prison. Just a different world. They didn’t interact [with us] at all.
I wonder if Obama—well, I’m sure that Obama has never sat in a room with a draft resister [or] with somebody who refused to go back to Iraq and was in prison for it, like Camilo Mejia, or Ehren Watada, who refused to go to Iraq and was then court-marshaled for it. Or I could say Jeff Patterson in the Gulf War. Matthew Hoh didn’t go to jail, but he resigned from the Foreign Service as the highest Foreign Service officer in one of the provinces in Afghanistan for all the reasons I’ve given. He had been a Marine, a company commander, earlier, in Iraq. Like me, he agreed having a Marine company is the best command, the best job you can have, perhaps in the world, almost—best job I ever had. And he loved that job.
Then he became a civilian [joining the State Department and assigned to Afghanistan] and resigned that, saying it was hopeless, it was counterproductive—what we were doing was corrupt, this and that, everything I would have said.
Matthew Hoh. He came back, ready to testify. He was offered a job by [U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl] Eikenberry, who agreed with him. Offered why? To keep his mouth shut? No. Because he’s such a good, terrific officer and person. As was Watada.
Then he comes back here and is debriefed by [special adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan] Richard Holbrooke, who offers him a job in the White House. For that, he accepted. How can you refuse? And then he realized: Wait a minute, this is going to shut me up, I can’t say anything here. He resigned that after a week.
He offered to testify before Congress. He was not asked. Right now is not too late for President Obama to pull in Matthew Hoh and sit down with him, and whoever else he wants in the room, and Hoh won’t pull any punches. He’ll learn a hell of a lot, but actually he’s hearing pretty much the same from [Vice President Joe] Biden and from [National Security Assistant Tom] Donilon and everyone else. So I’m not sure it will make that much difference.
But has he actually met someone who has given up a career for this reason? Who would say to him what Hoh could say? Or what I could say—but it sounds self‑serving, but let’s say what Hoh could say—is “Mr. President, winning the next election is important for all the things you want to do: for your legislative program, for keeping out these crazy people who want the job, crazy people in Congress. It’s not some unimportant thing. But it is not the last word. It’s not a sufficient reason to kill people at a large rate. You should reconsider whether what seems self‑evident—that the only thing that matters is holding this job so you can do good things in the future at the cost of any number of lives—is not actually a justification. It’s not an adequate reason.
See also the video of this interview.