Happy 45th Anniversary, Daniel Ellsberg — or why he belongs in my book

Ellsberg-Daniel-TruthinMedia.com_I spent a lot of time incorporating the story of the founder of  the Freedom of the Press Foundation into my understanding of the movement to end the Vietnam War, including a brief phone interview of the guy himself about his Marine Corps roots. My editor has now just persuaded me that that his story shouldn’t foreground in my way-too-cramped Vietnam chapter. But today, almost exactly 45 years after a Marine Corps vet finally rocked the world, here’s what I wrote about him. Now you know why I tried,  and why my fantastic ex-colleague Judith Ehrlich followed her landmark CO movie with one about Ellsberg.

Daniel Ellsberg’s Story Mirrors Almost Exactly  That of the Vietnam Anti-War Movement

1963 was  four years after a young State Department operative and ex-Marine named Daniel Ellsberg had visited South Vietnam, tasked with examining “problems with non-nuclear, limited warfare.” Young Ellsberg was already starting to work with the Rand Corporation, helping Washington contemplate the region’s role in the chessboard of global military strategy….

In 1964, as a civilian adviser to the Pentagon, Ellsberg was the one who first received the cable from Tonkin in which naval captain John J. Herrick “said he was under attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats and had opened fire on them. He was in international waters, over sixty miles off the coast of Vietnam.”i The resultant political firestorm led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the first step to all-out war.

By all accounts April 17, 1965, was a perfect spring day, described by Daniel Ellsberg in his memoir Secrets as “blue skies over the cherry blossoms and anti-war banners.” Then still working at the Pentagon, Ellsberg retains sharpened memory of that day because it was also the first weekend he spent with his wife-to-be Patricia Marx, who was covering the protests for her Boston radio program. Quietly dubious about the war he was helping prosecute, Ellsberg carried Marx’ tape deck as they marched, silently agreeing with Joan Baez and the Nation’s I.F. Stone. “I would have been glad if all of this had enough influence to get the bombing stopped and put a lid on our involvement,” he writes. But when it was over, he had to call the Pentagon just to check in.

Ellsberg doesn’t mention that Howard Zinn spoke that day, or that the march portion was led by veterans of the Good War. 

As the year ended, a group of intellectuals and military experts was meeting secretly in Bermuda, convened by former national security advisor McGeorge Bundy and asked to develop some alternatives to more massive bombing. Among the group was Dan Ellsberg, who found quiet common cause with and another veteran as opposed to the war as he: Charles G. Bolte, now executive director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Bolte was newly hired, though he’d known since AVC the endowment’s director Joseph E. Johnson from working together at the United Nations. Ellsberg knew all about Bolte’s status as a wounded veteran, that his role at the Bermuda retreat was largely administrative, and that Bolte needed to be more cautious than he. Still, Ellsberg told me, the older man “was definitely against the war.”

Both Ellsberg and Bolte thought the panel should recommend withdrawal. But the majority simply developed a strategy of enging civilians, “without surrender or a wider war.”i They urged McBundy to reach “hearts and minds.”

Ellsberg went back to the Pentagon and kept hammering on his contribution to Rand’s multi-author history of U.S. policy in Indochina. That 7,000-page document, United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967, would later come to be known as the “Pentagon Papers.”

In 1968, the civilian movement partnering the military one had disparate responses to that year’s disorientation. Daniel Ellsberg had returned from 18 months in Vietnam determined to end the war, and was working with Council on Foreign Relations president Charles G. Bolte (of the e World War II-era American Veterans Committee) to try to release the records of the war’s planning.

He was still trying when millions came together a year later for the Vietnam Moratorium:  William Sloane Coffin described the Moratorium as an alternative to the dance of violence playing itself out in Chicago and elsewhere: ““We yearned for a revolution of imagination and compassion. We were convinced nonviolence was more revolutionary than violence.”i Soldiers were far from absent that day: VVAW placed a full-page ad in the New York Times, signed by 1365 current GIs.

In New York on October 15, “a student nurse from Mount Sinai tried to present a handbill to a soldier who was wearing a green beret. He declined it, with a grin, but gave her a peace sign in return. The nurse stopped dead in her tracks. ‘He did it,” she said incredulously. “A Green Beret gave me the peace salute.’”ii

Read aloud at the October 15 march was a letter drafted by Daniel Ellsberg, who was shaken after hearing, at an August anti-draft conference, testimony from William Sloane Coffin protege Randy Kehler. After Koehler asserted how happy he would be to join his fellow draft resisters in prison, Ellsberg “left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room. I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing.”iii Still on the Rand payroll, Ellsberg had gone back to Washington and began to try to persuade his peers in the establishment, at Rand and the Carnegie, to issue a public statement in favor of ending the war.

Ellsberg had wanted a letter that would urge an end to “the bloody, hopeless, uncompelled, hence surely immoral prolongation of US involvement in this war.” He reached out to Charles G. Bolte at the Endowment. But when Bolte took Ellsberg’s letter to his boss, the latter’s only response was: “We can’t invite Ellsberg to any more of our meetings. He’s lost his objectivity.”iv Nonetheless, Bolte was a signatory to the letter Ellsberg wrote, published in September in the New York Times before it was read aloud at the Moratorium.

By March 12, 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg sat in a borrowed apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was at peace with becoming a prankster.

Across from him was Neil Sheehan of the New York Times, paging through the binders containing the 7,000 pages of US-Vietnam Relations. Sheehan knew that these were highly classified documents, and had consulted his paper’s lawyers before flying into Boston. He and his wife had even registered at the Treadway Inn in Cambridge under assumed names..i

Ellsberg had by then spent close to a year in confidential briefings with antiwar Democrats from Senator Fulbright on down, showing them these pages and finding none willing to blow the whistle, before finally contacting Sheehan.. He reiterated now: “You know you can’t make copies.” Sheehan agreed, and went back to New York to do just that.

Ellsberg then went home and worried, while Sheehan read and verified the documents, writing and consulting again with counsel. On June 13, the Times would publish the first of nine excerpts of the Papers. While the Times never revealed their source, Ellsberg turned himself in on June 30, and was charged under the Espionage Act. In the stream of mail that followed — most of it calling him a “traitor” — Ellsberg was struck and warmed by the supportive letters from fellow Marines, who “had all along hated the job that the Corps had been given.”

The series, the rest of which was famously delayed until the Supreme Court ruled they could be published, showed at the very least that the Pentagon’s confident narrative of the war had been distorted. The message, wailed President Nixon’s chief of staff, was “You can’t trust the government, an idea that damaged America’s “implicit infallibility of presidents.”ii That ‘infallibility’ was already being questioned by the GI resistance movement, which had long ago given up on the authority of their commander-in-chief.

Persuade those twelve people on the jury that Dan Ellsberg and Tony Russo were right in what they did.”

On January 27, 1973, the long-awaited Paris Peace Accords were announced, within them an agreement on exchanges of prisoners of war. A few months later, the trial of the man who’d exposed that war as a fraud ended unexpectedly, with due to “government misbehavior.”

Ellsberg’s defenders had come up with a strategy that they thought might work – thanks to Arthur Kinoy, Bill Kunstler’s law partner and CCR co-founder. Legal niceties, Kinoy told the defense team, were not the point when talking to a jury, especially one that included at least one decorated Marine. “You need to do just one thing,” Howard Zinn remembers Kinoy telling him and the others. “Persuade those twelve people on the jury that Dan Ellsberg and Tony Russo were right in what they did.i But the jury never even rendered a verdict – the trial was stopped, and all charges dismissed, after it emerged that the Nixon Administration had wiretapped the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in 1971.

On May, 11, 1973, a mistrial was declared; Ellsberg was free to return home, while much of the legal team was expected in Florida for one more trial, that of the Gainesville case. In the latter, the testimony of star witness Arthur Lemmer “left the chief prosecution witness looking like a violence-obsessed, confused, and irrational psychopath”ii . And just as with Ellsberg, as with the Panther 21 trial two years before, all charges were dropped.

iZinn, Moving Train, op. cit., p. 160.

iiNicosia, Home to War, op.cit., p. 208.

iDavid Rudenstine, The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 52.

iiWatergate Tapes, June 14. Via Sheehan.

iWilliam Sloane Coffin, Once to Every Man: A Memoir ( Atheneum, 1977), p. 299.

iiElizabeth Kolbert et al, “Moratorium.” The New Yorker, October 25, 1969, p. 54.

iiiTestimony, PP trial.

ivEllsberg, Secrets, op. cit. p. 283.

iGeorge Herring, “Tet and Prague.” In Carole Fink, Philipp Gassert, Detlef Junker (eds.), 1968, the World Transformed ( Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 36.

iDaniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (Penguin, 2003), p.7.

 

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