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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Michael Wong’s Gethsemane

Just a scrap, as I relentlessly pare at this book for the New Press. Above, you see the relentless Jeff Paterson, founder of Courage to Resist, being interviewed alongside my predecessor at CCCO — Mike Wong, who interrupted his otherwise-successful career as a social worker to help fight the poverty draft.

Below, my version of the moment Michael Wong began to realize he was a conscientious objector — just as millions of others were learning some very bad news. The name “Haeberle” below in the name of that of the photographer who turned Seymour Hersh’s story into an internationally known expose. Mike’s story has already been included in far-better books than mine, including one edited by Maxine Hong Kingston.  Still, it’s dramatic enough that it might make for a movie scene:

 

At Fort Sam, where the Army had trained medic corpsmen since World War II, a young trainee named Michael Wong was stunned on the chow line when he noticed “a small commotion.” In front of Wong, the medic-trainees all were clustered around the newspaper rack, and commenced whispering about what they saw: Haeberle’s full-color photographs, reprinted in Pacific Stars and Stripes.
I was stunned, confused. “Who’s killing women and children? The Viet Cong?”
“No, we are.” When we got to the front we saw this newspaper rack with pictures of My Lai on the front pages. I can’t describe what that did to us.

I’m being encouraged to share these parings here (and not just at Facebook), so stay tuned for more; but I wanted to give due here to one of those who turned that moment into a movement.

48 years ago today, a match was struck that helped burn down the Vietnam War.

At least one can make that argument: certainly the war crimes of March 16, 1968 in the village of Son My/My Lai spurred more investigation and controversy than the almost-daily similar incidents more recently covered by Nick Turse in his magisterial Kill Anything That Moves It certainly shook the world of the ‘family’ of vets included in my Vietnam chapter.Their voices, as with the massacre’s impact on our culture,  so strong that my editor just asked me: “Is My Lai the fulcrum of that chapter?”

book-pinkvilleBut for today’s anniversary I wanted to call attention to a different book: The Witness from Pinkville, published today – written by someone who was only 11 when his family was  slaughtered. There are only 1,000 copies of the book in English, and only available at the memorial site established for the events; the author, Pham Thi Cong, is head of the Son My  vestige site. (Image above is from VietnamNet, which bills itself as the first English-language online newspaper in Vietnam.)

Time to contact my VVAW friends, and/or see if there’s any other way to get the book. The fact that he’s only 5 years older than me is heartbreaking.

Cong said the 248-page book recalled the events in the village (now in Tinh Khe Commune) nearly half a century ago….[He] said the massacre was the worst tragedy that he witnessed at the age of 11, when his mother and six brothers were killed by American soldiers in their house. He was seriously injured but was eventually saved by his father.

American soldiers killed 504 unarmed civilians in the massacre.

“I lost my father in 1970 and became homeless and an orphan,” Cong said.

some musings on moral injury

stfrancisI’ve been talking to the new startup The War Horse about working together. And now I’ve been authorized to come up with a refreshing reporting strategy to explore “moral injury,” a concept that in 2011 seemed so fresh even as it was very very old.

Very old, of course, just as Jonathan Shay points to Homer and Virgil  and Logan Isaac to the Bible’s martial saints – highlighting war’s damage to one sense of self as a moral being. It could even be conceived as one of humanity’s core dilemmas. (Above:  squire Francis of Assisi returning from Perugia.)

But it has taken this generation, armed with 21st-century tools and the  voice of boomer/GenX parents, to demand that when such conflicts are burned into their bodies, it needs to be examined and treatments explored. And the VA, to their credit, has started asking smart questions, including what brings this on?  In 2011, a group of Palo Alto researchers asked veterans, in an effort to trace some of the damage:

 Emerging themes included betrayal (e.g., leadership failures, betrayal by peers, failure to live up to one’s own moral standards, betrayal by trusted civilians), disproportionate violence (e.g., mistreatment of
enemy combatants and acts of revenge), incidents involving civilians (e.g., destruction of civilian property and assault), and within-rank violence (e.g., military sexual trauma, friendly fire, and fragging). The authors suggest that an important next step would be to directly interview Veterans about their experiences to help expand this list.

That last sentence has sent a score of other researchers, journos like me and assorted therapists scuttling toward that ground, with predictable pushback from the PTSD skeptics. (Sally Satel, never to be ignored, even twists the concept into another partisan tool, accusing the rest of us of inflicting “moral injury to the nation.”

There are nonetheless solid thought leaders on the issue, from those Palo Alto researchers including Shira Maguen; theologians from Brite Divinity School and Logan Isaac; pioneers like Tyler Boudreau, who’s declared himself done with this discussion but whose work on it still cuts close to the bone, and the recent work of Michael Yandrell.

And we’ve had good discussions since, including this week at Stars and Stripes, Shay himself and others on NPR,  and Army Surgeon General Elspeth Ritchie, who I interviewed in 2006 for my masters’ thesis “Saving Sgt. Aguilar” and who usefully explored moral injury for TIME Magazine.

So what’s left for the War Horse to do? I’m looking at that list of “possible causes” listed earlier, and wondering if I might be able to reach out to combat-trauma survivors and see what speaks to them. I want to leave the spiritual aspects to the theologians, but hope there’s some moral/political language left un-despoiled by Internet tropes.

I’ll keep thinking. Anyone reading this who might have thoughts about what’s next, in the context of post-9/11 wars? Any feedback would be hugely appreciated.

 

 

 

 

Pi Day news: some rational writing to go w/the irrational number

AintMarchincoverbyAlexOK, that title’s a reach. But here goes:

 

96-year-old outtake: fort leavenworth goes on strike

Even when you’re mistakenly thinking you’re taking advice from William  Faulkner. it’s not so easy to kill your darlings. I learned about the riot at Fort Leavenworth early in my natterings at the Swarthmore Peace Collection, and it’s taken a long time to declare the riot less relevant to Ain’t Marching’s story than I thought.  Most of what’s below has been now excised from the text, but you might be as compelled as I was. Drawn on a magazine story by Winthrop Lane, buddy of Emma Goldman, for its dialogue:

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Leavenworth_View_of_Building_caThe steam hissed through the pipes, but not enough to warm the prisoners at Fort Leavenworth.

Temperatures that normally averaged just at freezing, for January in Kansas, hovered nearer the ten-degree mark. Which meant that the steam pipes kept banging and whistling, trying to keep up, and none of it cooled the blood of the 3,560 men packed together like tightened gears.

Two months after the Armistice, the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth was full to bursting. Workers on the 75-year-old sandstone fortress, on 12 acres surrounded by a 40-foot concrete wall, had built more barracks a mere two years ago, in 1917, so that it could hold 1,500 men — soldiers convicted of theft, murder, deserting the Great War. But the War itself had brought all sorts of new offenders to the prison, many of them dumped by other military installations who’d found they couldn’t handle them. In late January, if the Barracks were a person, it would have been obese, with a high fever and a case of nervous exhaustion.

Certainly Colonel Sedgwick Rice, the prison’s commandant, was trying to prevent such a state that month, when the prisoners went on strike.

The rebellion had begun with a melee after a card game between black and white soldiers, who weren’t used to being in such close quarters. Rice could deal with that. But then they’d started to refuse to work. The real problem, Rice thought, was those troublemaking conscientious objectors, who claimed to “oppose war” and simply refused to do anything. He knew some of them were from the peace churches, but others were more political, probably communist agitators. Like that Evan Thomas guy, brother of a buddy of President Wilson’s: The brawl over the card game had started after Thomas and 112 other objectors were released with $400 in each man’s pocket. Now all work had stopped: no one was cooking, or cleaning the toilets, or painting the new training grounds across the way. Now, everyone was claiming to be “on strike.”

On the morning of January 29, five days after the melee over cards, Sedgwick made his way down to the boiler room, where the strike organizers were doing their work. A large man with a relaxed bearing, he spoke matter of factly to the skinny “objectors” and tired workmen, who looked at him with a mix of rage and fear. “Who here thinks he has a grievance?” A slender young man with cheeks flushed by cold stood. Something about him, about the way he held his cigarette, told Col. Rice that the guy was a Red.

  1. Austin Simons stood carefully, for the colonel’s inspection. A poet and sometime journalist, he knew better than to be surprised when the older man asked: “Are you with the I.W.W. [International Workers of the World]?”

Simons could barely make himself heard over the steam pipes. “No, sir,” he said carefully. He knew a lot was at stake here – right now, his ability to bargain on behalf of the other soldiers. “I never belonged to that organization.”

Rice also asked if Simons was a “constitutional objector – one who objects to all forms of government and order.”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“Well, most Socialists do,” said Rice.

Others in the group approached with complaints ranging from their individual sentences to the “rotten” meat served the prisoners. “The war is over,” cried W. Oral James, a small-bodied man shivering in his thick raincoat. “The government has already released 113 of our fellows. Has it had time to investigate the justice of other claims?”

After three agonizing days, as Rice negotiated face-to-face with the prisoners and sent telegrams to Washington, the various “strike committees” assembled on February 1. Holding a telegram from the capital in his hand, Rice tried not to look as cold as he felt. He read aloud a statement from Secretary of State Dean Baker, which promised that each of their cases would be reviewed. “I fully appreciate that the cessation of hostilities and the return of conditions approximating those of peace,” Rice intoned on Baker’s behalf, “render it just and proper that clemency should now be exercised.”

It’s not recorded, even by journalist Winthrop Lane, who followed the strike carefully, whether the prisoners cheered at the words. Or whether they laughed bitterly, since the author of the statement was the chief architect of “the present war” – without which none of them would have been crowded within these walls to begin with.

Long after the Armistice was signed in November 1918, open rebellions continued to startle military authorities, including the conglomeration of deserters, CO’s and malcontents that stuffed the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks . While the uprising at Leavenworth was covered by major newspapers, especially the Chicago Tribune, the most detailed account was Winthrop Lane’s “The Strike at Fort Leavenworth,” published in the February 1919 issue of the left-leaning Survey Magazine.

Lane, who had visited Emma Goldman in prison and written famous investigations of Harlem poverty and the coal mining industry, had been hired by the National Civil Liberties Bureau to investigate Kansas jails. His perspective is thus explicit, but he was still trusted by Colonel Rice to witness their negotiations. Lane observed quickly that the prison population was singular: “In private life the soldier had been a clerk, a mechanic, a day laborer, a politician, a business man…He may have quitted his post for five minutes, he may have been absent without leave for a week, he may have intentionally deserted.”

They stood at attention or saluted when these officers passed. An unquestioning obedience was expected of them that is not expected of men in civil prison. Yet they organized themselves in the approved labor union way and presented their demands just as if they had the full power of collective bargaining.

H.A. Simons, one of the “elected representatives,” was a poet whose main obsession before the war had been whether his poems would be published in the Little Review. His educated manner helped Simons negotiate with Colonel Rice and others, but he still had to deny first that he had ever been a member of “the I.W.W.” . Pentagon sources, quoted in contemporary accounts, consistently blame the the International Workers of the World for the disturbances at Leavenworth, right up until they started blaming “the Bolsheviks.” The I.W.W., founded in 1905 and nearing the crest of its power with scores of affiliates, had long refused to endorse Wilson’s war.

Objectors were hardly immune to the time’s fervor. After the war, Simons would join his friend Wallace Stevens in writing for The Masses and for The Liberator, “the premier journal of American radicalism,” while Evan Thomas’ brother would be hailed in 1918 as “Comrade Thomas” by the “Queens Socialist Party,” having joined the Party in 1918 and just as his brother was released from prison.

Russia’s infant revolution was also exciting to some at Leavenworth, curious about “class war.” And thus began, perhaps, the nervous, complex love-hate romance between rebellious G.I.’s and the sectarian left that has lasted for nearly a century. Lane tells of the strikers’ “last soviet” with Simons, who said that one worker could be moved “but together, we are immovable.”.

The January strike was only the first in a series. The last ended in July 1919, after most of the conscientious objectors had been released and the remaining prisoners were demanding a full-fledged amnesty. Appropriate to the period, they’d nicknamed their barracks Lenine, Anarchia, and Internationale, according to contemporary newspaper accounts.

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If you’ve read this far, you may be struck by the fact that dissenting soldiers have been a tempting target for sectarian-left organizers for as long as both have existed. I still wonder how  this will end up in the book. Any suggestions?

News mix: a house of cards

AintMarchincoverbyAlexAs ever, my not-quite-daily roundup of items that caught my attention, and still might yours.

  • In Winona, MN, a veteran artist enacts war’s suffering by lying on a bed of nails.
  • 160 retired Israeli defense officials speak out against PM Netanyahu’s address today to the US Congress. The group reminds me a little of the Vietnam-era ‘Brass Lambs‘: ” ” Commanders for Israel’s Security, an organization of 200 retired and reserve senior officers from the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad secret service, the Shin Bet domestic security agency and the national police force […], was created last year to push Netanyahu forward on a regional peace agreement aimed at ending the conflict with the Palestinians.”
  • In The Nation, George Black revisits Quang Tri province 50 years after the USAF tried to bomb it, and Vietnam, back to the Stone Age.
  • Transgender vets raise a concrete issue for SecDef Carter: “If Carter is serious about revisiting the ban on transgender troops, he also needs to turn his attention to another issue: how the Defense Department responds to transgender veterans who need to update official military records to reflect their new [true] gender.”

 

As for this post’s title; Last night, in our slow binge of House of Cards season 3, an unexpected death reminded me simultaneously of the veteran suicide crisis and of Evan Thomas, who in 1918 refused special treatment to protest the treatment of COs in prison. I’m guessing that plot point was suggested by Pussy Riot.