Daniel Ellsberg, Unwinnable Wars, and the Pentagon Papers

June 27, 2011

While it took 40 years for the Pentagon Papers to be declassified, as they were on June 13, Daniel Ellsberg suggested the timing might be perfect. “There’s never been a time, really, that the lessons that might be drawn from those papers are so timely.”

Ellsberg, who leaked the documents in 1971 showing the secret history of the conflict in Vietnam, addressed conference-goers as part of the Auditorium Speaker Series on Sunday. He observed similarities between the Vietnam War and today’s war in Afghanistan: The Taliban and the Viet Cong were both unpopular regimes, he said, and only gained legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens as a force resisting foreign occupiers.

“The choice in Vietnam was never to win or get out,” Ellsberg said. “The president always faced another possibility of postponement,” in order to save face, because no one could ever prove definitively that another season of fighting wouldn’t improve conditions, even though it never turned out to be.

He asserted that today’s military is extending the war in Afghanistan with similar vague promises of improvements that don’t come true.

“Right now, we have a president who is just like the others,” Ellsberg said. “Not different, not worse, but faced with a confrontation that can’t be won . . . he did what Johnson did, and my guess is for the same reasons: ‘This is not a good year for me to lose Afghanistan.’”

Political considerations are strong and even valid, Ellsberg said. For a president who wants to win re-election, “You can’t hand your opponents the opportunity to say this war was winnable” by withdrawing without victory. But even though the desire to win re-election is natural and valid, Ellsberg said that it shouldn’t be the only motivating factor.

But the risks of whistleblowing and going against public opinion are not readily accepted in today’s society. “We take it for granted that Americans will risk their lives for the president,” through military service, Ellsberg observed, but it’s not yet a given that Americans will risk careers and marriages and personal relationships to reveal information that powerful individuals want suppressed.

The job of libraries and librarians, he said, is to let people know what history has been, and to let them know information beyond just what the president wants them to know.

See also Leonard Kniffel’s report on his meeting with Ellsberg the day before his Auditorium Speaker Series speech.