Ellsberg says Bush is ‘lying us’ into war with Iraq
Pentagon Papers activist tells campus audience of parallels he sees between congressional resolutions authorizing military action against North Vietnam in ’64 and Iraq in ’02

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs


Daniel Ellsberg, whose distribution of the Pentagon Papers did much to sway U.S. public opinion against the Vietnam War, asked people with first-hand knowledge of Bush administration deceptions on Iraq to “tell public officials the truth — with documents,” as he did.
Noah Berger photo

30 October 2002 | Daniel Ellsberg is the first to admit that his current book tour comes at an “uncanny” time in American history — just as a resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to use force against Iraq has passed in Congress. Uncanny, he says, because current events evoke a time, 38 years ago, when another administration, granted similar authority to act against North Vietnam, committed the nation to more than a decade of futile, divisive warfare.

Ellsberg’s new book “Secrets — A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers” (Viking), describes the events in the 1960s and early ’70s that led to his public release of 7,000 pages of top-secret documents tracing the history of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam. He spoke at Zellerbach Hall on Oct. 23 to share his insights into the United States’ role in Vietnam and the parallels that he sees emerging in U.S. foreign policy toward Iraq.

He called the recent resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq “dangerous” and “troubling.” The Bush administration’s policy toward Iraq, he said, is every bit as deceptive as the Johnson and Nixon administrations’ policies were in Vietnam, with rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction masking the government’s thirst for oil.

“There are reasons for secrecy, of course, and it took me many years to realize the deception that had been going on in Vietnam,” he says. That reality did not become apparent until the mid-1960s, when he came to understand that no president had ever expected to win in Vietnam.

Ellsberg, one of the best-known “whistleblowers” in U.S. history, is someone who perhaps did more than any other individual to change the course of a war, said David Kirp, a professor of public policy in the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy at Berkeley. His access to top-secret documents gave Ellsberg “a window on secrecy,” from which vantage point he saw documents that “no congressman, no senator, had seen before.” The policy analyst had access to confidential documents, cables, and reports of secret maneuvers, including the “flash” messages that were wired to the Pentagon on Aug. 4, 1964, from the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of North Vietnam, reporting news of an alleged torpedo attack on U.S. gunboats by North Vietnamese ships.

In later years, Ellsberg said, he came to realize that no attack had, in fact, occurred, and that the flashes had been strategically planned and released at just the right time to justify President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of actions against North Vietnam. And in fact, just a few days after the alleged attack in the Tonkin Gulf, the president got Congress to support, almost unanimously (with just two dissenting votes in the Senate), what became known as the Tonkin Gulf resolution, referred to at the time by State Department official Nicholas Katzenbach as the “functional equivalent of a declaration of war.” At least one constitutional scholar used identical words to describe the Oct. 11 congressional vote authorizing the use of force against Iraq.

Pro-war sentiment vs.journalists’ backbone
In the years after his own trial and dismissal in 1973 on charges of espionage, theft, and conspiracy in the Pentagon Papers case, Ellsberg became a vocal anti-nuclear activist, lecturing, writing, and participating in grassroots efforts to end the nuclear-arms race. But it is his distribution of the Pentagon Papers to the U.S. media for which he is best remembered today — an act, he says, about which his only regret is that he did not release them in 1964 or 1965.

Some on a panel of scholars sharing the stage with Ellsberg, however, wondered how receptive the public or the press would have been toward revelations of government deception at that time. “No major paper would have published [the Pentagon Papers] before 1967,” said Barton Bernstein, a history professor at Stanford University, because the American people still backed the war. But by 1971 pro-war sentiment had waned, he said, and “the press could contemplate publishing those papers.”

Ellsberg urged audience members to write their elected representatives if they believe the current administration is bracing for war. “If you know anybody in the government, if you know that the president is now lying us into a recklessly dangerous and unnecessary or wrongful war in Iraq, then I urge you to do what I wish I had done in 1964-65, which is to take this to your public officials and tell the truth — with documents,” he said.

Chapter one of Ellsberg’s new book is available online at His Zellerbach talk was sponsored collaboratively by The Independent Institute, the World Affairs Council of Northern California, and the Goldman School of Public Policy at Berkeley.


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