“On Tuesday morning, August 4th, 1964,” writes Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, “a courier came in my out office with an urgent cable for my boss. He had been running.”
A former Marine with a PhD from Harvard in Decision Theory, Ellsberg had joined the Pentagon as special assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, who himself was perhaps the closest advisor to Secretary Robert McNamara. Ellsberg, in other words, was the right hand of the right hand, of the man who would become known as the chief architect of the Vietnam War.
Ellsberg’s first day on August 4th, 1964 proved to be a historic one. His boss McNaughton was down the hall with McNamara, so the panting courier handed Ellsberg the note and left. He opened it and found it was from Captain John J. Herrick, the commodore of a two-destroyer flotilla in the Gulf of Tonkin, off North Vietnam in the South China sea. Officially, the United States was not yet engaged in full-fledged military operations in Indochina.
Herrick said he was under attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats, and had opened fire in return. He was 60 miles from the coast, in international waters. The sonar operators on the Destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy, Maddox said, each heard torpedoes in the water. Ten minutes later, the courier returned with a new note. “Am under continuous torpedo attack,” he wrote, about an encounter that was taking place in total darkness.
For some time after, cables came in quick succession, as Ellsberg guessed Herrick was dictating from the bridge in between trying to maneuver his ships. “Torpedoes missed. Another fired at us,” read one. “Four torpedoes in water,” read a second. “Five torpedoes in water… Have successfully avoided at least six torpedoes…” According to Herrick, at least one attacking boat had been sunk. The action went on for two long hours, before suddenly the stream of messages cut short.
“Then, suddenly, an hour later,” Ellberg wrote, “a message arrived that took back, not quite all of it, but enough to put the rest of it in question.” The courier came in running again, handing him a cable with the highest clearance and urgency [emphasis mine]:
Review of action makes any reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken…
It was a little after 2 p.m., Washington time. Ellsberg was dumbfounded by the latest communications. “In my mind, these messages erased the impact of the two-hour-long live drama that we had been following. This new information was a cold bath.”
Herrick later sent another cable: “Details of action present a confusing picture, although certain original ambush bona fide.” Ellsberg was now unsure of how Herrick was so sure, given that he hadn’t seen anything and was acknowledging, among other things, that one sonar man was hearing his own ship’s propeller. “It seemed almost certain there had been no attack,” Ellsberg wrote, certain the proper course was to wait to see what actually happened before acting.
Things didn’t go that way. Senior military officials scrambled to put together an immediate retaliatory airstrike. President Lyndon Johnson was so anxious not only to strike back, but to brief the public about doing it, that he asked the Pentagon’s permission to go on TV with details before the planes even reached Vietnam.
LBJ was on the air by 11:37 p.m. that night, telling the American people that “hostile vessels attacking two U.S. destroyers with torpedoes” constituted “open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America.” McNamara gave subsequent pressers in which he described “unprovoked” attacks of U.S. vessels on “routine patrols” in “international waters.” They described the evidence for Vietnamese aggression as “unequivocal.”
By the end of Ellsberg’s first day, he knew every single one of these claims was a lie. The two destroyers were on a special mission, penetrating deep into North Vietnamese waters and engaging in sabotage raids. In top-secret testimony to congress in the two days after the August 4th incident, McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk told congressional leaders the U.S. had nothing to do with the raids, which were entirely South Vietnamese operations.
Ellsberg soon learned this was a lie, too, that the personnel on the ships had been chosen by the CIA and that the operations were run jointly by the agency and the Navy. “Each of these assertions,” Ellsberg would later write, “was false.” You can still go back and look to see how these lies were reported with complete credulity and never corrected:
Ellsberg became famous years later for shepherding to the public a wealth of secret documents about the ugly history of failure, brutality, and ignorance in the Vietnam War, collectively known as the Pentagon Papers. He is America’s most famous whistleblower, a figure who single-handedly triggered a major constitutional crisis when the government of Richard Nixon tried to block publication of his material.
However, Ellsberg has remained an important figure in American culture and politics precisely because so little has changed since the events of the fifties, sixties, and seventies he described in such vivid detail.
In the Useful Idiots interview below, Ellsberg points out the similarities between Vietnam and our current policies in various countries around the world. He says our leaders are worried about “regime change in Washington,” which they believe would occur if they left other countries’ oil in the ground, or “stopped killing Afghans.”
More than anything, however, Ellsberg is an expert on the role of secrecy in American life. Both in his books and in his interview with Useful Idiots, he describes military and executive branch officials who don’t even figure “truth” as a variable in their calculations, since it’s irrelevant to what they tell the world.
He arrived in Washington believing the commonly held notion that nothing in the capital stays secret for long. Soon he learned that it’s actually quite easy to keep secrets. Ellsberg described a vicious cycle, in which leaders lie pervasively, then learn to have so much contempt for the public that swallows those lies, that they feel justified in lying more.
“My awareness of how easily Congress, the public, and journalists were fooled and misled contributed to a lack of respect for them,” he wrote. “That, in turn, made it easier to accept practices of deception,” and “their resulting ignorance made it all the more obvious that they must leave these problems to us.”
Ellsberg is adamant that our military and intelligence services don’t learn from even the bloodiest failures. However, when asked in the Useful Idiots if they’d at least learned something in a negative sense — like how to deal with whistleblowers and shut off pictures of war deaths — he concurred, explaining that he himself had been used as propaganda.
“It is now accepted that somebody can be a good whistleblower, and that’s Daniel Ellsberg,” he says, “in contrast with Chelsea Manning and Ed Snowden. The appreciation that I’ve been getting since 2010, I can date very simply to the need to denigrate Chelsea Manning.”
He went on to describe a New Yorker piece written by Malcolm Gladwell that ripped Ed Snowden in comparison to him, Ellsberg, among other things quoting an analyst who wondered if Snowden “may have been the dupe of a foreign-intelligence service.” Ellsberg wrote a letter to the New Yorker calling the contrast ridiculous, and, he tells us, “They never published it.”
Overall, Ellsberg’s takes on nuclear safety, the implications of the use of the Espionage Act in the Julian Assange case, and continued misuse of secrecy and hyper-aggressive foreign policy in places like Afghanistan and Syria, still resonate. The most powerful part of his interview regarded the power of the secret state in modern America.
“They know where we are, they know our names, they know from our iPhones if we're on our way to the grocery store or not,” he said. “We could be East Germany in weeks. In a month.”
The last portion of the Useful Idiots episode:
Excerpt from the interview:
Matt Taibbi: What you saw in Vietnam is similar to what people saw in Iraq, and then Afghanistan. What's the mentality that continues to think that these same kinds of policies will work, and why can't they get out of that mentality?
Ellsberg: You have to ask, who is it who actually bears the cost of these and who doesn't? Any of these wars were not bad for the people making weapons, and it's not only them. It's the banks that finance them and it's the congresspeople who benefit, as I keep saying, from the donations and the jobs and so forth. They did fine…
Are we actually going to get out of Afghanistan? It's scheduled, by Trump of all people, for May. Okay, that's very close. Is that going to happen? Let's see. Certainly not for sure… If we don't get out now, there is no reason why it will look different two years from now, five years from now, 10 years from now. We'll still be killing Afghans and losing very few Americans, because it's all in the air and some special forces going to unarmed villages and whatnot. So very few American casualties, air power, a lot of things. The American public can live with that for a long time. They have lived for 20 years with that. Could be another 20 years.
Katie Halper: Can you talk about the role of the media in America’s aggressive foreign policy?
Ellsberg: With the Gulf of Tonkin, the Times did not say, "Here's what we said at the time." The Times did not go back and say, "Here's who lied to us. Here's how we were lied to. Here's how gullible we were. Here's the pattern of deception." No, that would blame themselves. They didn't need that, so they didn't do it…
In short, I think nations and institutions, we talk about why don't they learn, learning is not what they do, because learning involves seeing prior errors that you haven't met. Errors are an occasion for blame, for losing jobs, for being criticized, and they don't do that.
Matt Taibbi: Well, sometimes they learn in a negative way though, don't they? Do you ever think that the way they dealt with Snowden, and to a lesser extent Julian Assange and some other whistleblowers, was about making sure that there was never going to be a Daniel Ellsberg again who would live on and be a hero in the public consciousness?
Ellsberg: I misspoke when I say they don't do any learning… Definitely, they do learn.
Katie Halper: They don't become more moral, though.
Ellsberg: It's not as though they learn how to meet human values or improve human welfare in the world. That's not what they're into… But in terms of how can we get away with it better, they do learn….
They've learned to wield the Espionage Act, to criminalize whistleblowing much more than before. You said they didn't want any more Ellsbergs. Well, obviously, they did get Chelsea Manning, they did get Snowden. Chelsea was 39 years after the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers did have an effect, as you say, on people's understanding of the war. It didn't end the war, but it did affect people's attitudes. And really, it kept us out of more Vietnams for a couple of decades…
The NSA did not do surveillance on American citizens without a warrant for about 25 years or so after, so that was a change. But then 9/11 comes along, and it’s Constitution be damned. Since then, this is 20 years ago, we've had total surveillance of everybody, totally unconstitutionally.
It's created a situation where we're not a police state, but we could be a police state almost from one day to the next, if they act on all the information they have now about people who give them any trouble or people who protest. They know where we are, they know our names, they know from our iPhones if we're on our way to the grocery store or not. But they haven't acted on that to put people in camps yet. They could do it.
We could be East Germany in weeks, in a month. Huge concentration camps and so forth.
Matt Taibbi: Why aren’t more journalists worried about the use of the Espionage Act in the Julian Assange case?
Ellsberg: Because they have never been tried before. This is a first, so they thought they were immune… I've been saying for 40 years now, 50 years, I've been saying to journalists and judges, the wording of that law applies to you as well as your sources…
It is now accepted that somebody can be a good whistleblower, and that's Daniel Ellsberg, in contrast to Chelsea Manning and Ed Snowden. The appreciation I've been getting since 2010, I can date very simply to the need to denigrate Chelsea Manning… This contrast is used all the time. So I'm appreciated in order to say, "Ah, but there were bad whistleblowers like Snowden or Assange." And a lot of people do that.