The Nation: Ellsberg: The Battle Over the Right to Know

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At one level, the Bundys, McNamaras, McNaughtons, Yarmolinskys, Hilsmans and Rostows enjoyed the sophisticated cocktail parties and the company of Kennedys. They aimed witty dinnertime barbs at 30-year officers who would never understand the intricacies of counterguerrilla warfare. The more junior Ellsbergs were jockeying to break into that inner circle, while enjoying the kick of being so close. Yet those paper theories of outwitting Hanoi and outfoxing guerrillas did not work. Nor did sustained bombing or half a million U.S. troops. When some of the frustrated technocrats visited Viet Nam to see what had gone wrong, they discovered that those body counts meant people were dying, the game was bloody, there was much misery and no glory. U.S. intervention in Viet Nam had once seemed necessary and reasonable, the sort of thing a just power must some times do in an imperfect world. But now they began to wonder whether the price, for anyone or any side, was worth it. Was the U.S. really accomplishing anything? Above all, after Tet in 1968 and America's growing sense of failure, they began to discuss a mushy and unfamiliar concept among war planners: morality. Such was Daniel Ellsberg's private evolution.

A Reasoned Conversion

In a broader sense, Ellsberg's turnabout from confident hawk to disillusioned dove parallels the Viet Nam sentiments of millions of Americans. That sure feeling of the early '60s that a quick application of U.S. manpower and machines would speedily hurl back the insurgent Communists and assure survival of an independent South Viet Nam faded years ago. The stalemate and suffering, My Lai and drugs, now make it all seem disastrous to many. If all the plans had worked, of course, there would have been no Pentagon paper revelations, no Ellsberg on TV, little talk about the immorality of the war. The current U.S. agony is real but retrospective, a legacy of failure, of the cumulative agony of America's longest war.

Ellsberg is too complex a man to fit neatly any mold, even that of the insulated academic, so shocked at his first sight of a combat-torn body that he denounces war. Ellsberg's conversion was much more gradual—although, as with nearly everything he has done, once he had a change of mind he threw all of his spirit and intelligence into it, moving from one extreme to another. When he first saw combat in Viet Nam as a civilian pacification specialist, in fact, Ellsberg seemed to enjoy the experience. A reporter recalls hearing loud shouts as a U.S. infantry company operated near Rach Thien in 1966. "There was Ellsberg, dressed in fatigues and jungle boots, telling the infantrymen to get off their goddamned asses, to get on the offensive and stay on the offensive. He carried a submachine gun and was practically taking over the company."

Last May, Ellsberg appeared at a Washington antiwar rally. He berated a group of demonstrators for their lack of zeal and promptly took charge. "I tried to get arrested," he explained later, "but I guess I didn't look young enough." Boston police had no such qualms. One officer clubbed Ellsberg at a Mayday protest at Government Center. Bellicose or pacific, Ellsberg sought the center of the action.

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