Daniel Ellsberg was perhaps the first highly placed official (at one time the deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense) to have ever left the inner government and then reveal, with top-secret documents, its closely guarded secret operations. As befits a man who risks his reputation and ruin, to fight a corrupt and unlawful government, he is vain, egocentric and completely convinced of the lightness of his action.
It is a grandiose attitude – one that seems to have especially offended the press. It supposes the power of truth, of the man who speaks it, and the moral example it sets. Ellsberg quotes Madison's statement that, "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance and the people who mean to be their own governors must take care to arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives."
I decided to avoid, as far as possible, discussion of his several years in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers trial and his personal life. The interview was directed toward an exploration and understanding of his intellectual life, his experiences in the secret decision-making processes inside the Defense Department, and conclusions about the motives and methods of the inner government.
His answers were intricately detailed, with many ideas interwoven and cross-referenced into a dissertation of extraordinary complexity, some 500 typewritten pages long. During a week-long siege, it was roughly organized into two sections and the first part was edited, re-edited, and ultimately reduced in half (by myself, David Felton and Bill Sievert). The organization here is not how the interview was originally conducted. For example, the discussion of Henry Kissinger did not actually begin the interview. As we go to press, Part II remains in the wings, unedited and unorganized. We plan to put it into shape and publish it soon.
"We were facing a massive and urgent threat to our remaining democratic institutions, a coup on the eve of its completion. People who carried out this coup are still in power, starting with the president."
There is a natural tendency to be suspicious. To some degree, we have all been affected by the notion that no matter how necessary and important Daniel Ellsberg's act was, to risk a life in prison, vilification as a traitor, and personal slander, there "must have been something else behind it."
But examine his statement: a dark picture of what has been occurring in American government. He acted on one of the basic democratic beliefs, that "a man can make a difference."
What was your relationship with Henry Kissinger?
He had been at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard, and before I went to Rand in 1959, I gave a couple of seminars to his group, discussions about strategy and politics. Over the years I would see him occasionally at a conference or at a Rand symposium. It was not a personal relationship, nor even a close professional relationship, but an intermittent business or analytical association.
I had a very negative attitude toward him because he was pushing the idea of limited nuclear war as a substitute not only for all-out war but also for no nuclear war. He thought that if we forewent the possibility of nuclear weapons the world would be taken over by stronger nations; and that if we limited our options to threats of unrestrained nuclear war, the prospect would be so horrendous that we would be paralyzed and unable to use nuclear weapons at all. He thought the proper strategy was to build and threaten to use, as appropriate, small tactical nuclear weapons the size of the Hiroshima bombs and up to 10 times that size.
Kissinger has no originality whatsoever as an intellect. I read all of his writings, since they were within the field that I was working in, and thought of them as extremely derivative. They were well-written, good expositions of other people's ideas and often contained analytic criticism. He changed his sources from book to book and the quality of the thinking pretty closely reflected the quality of his current sources.
His first book was admired by Nixon who gave it a great boost with a photograph on the front page of The New York Times of him going into a meeting of the National Security Council with it under his arm. This was the limited nuclear war book, strongly influenced by Edward Teller, General Gavin, a few other Air Force exponents of this limited war concept, and a major source was Bernard Brodie, a Rand colleague; another was Bill Kaufman. Later, he wrote a book – one that almost reversed, temporarily, the drift of his thinking on nuclear weapons – which was very strongly influenced by Rand associates of mine, such as Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn and Tom Schelling. Some of his articles on arms control were taken almost verbatim from work by Tom Schelling.
The sources would never be directly acknowledged. And he had a trick of covering himself by including people in his bibliography, but in entirely misleading ways. He'd include references to secondary works by these people, or works from which he had not drawn, but no mention whatever of the works he was paraphrasing. He wanted to be thought of not only as an able intellect – which he is in the sense of an expositor and critic, which alone would have been enough for an academic career – but also as an original person, a creative person. His solution to that problem must have put him under a certain tension over the years.
It's not unlike what must be Nixon's own tension, the shame and guilt of having succeeded by major deceits and never wholly on his own ability or worth.
I have a very strong feeling that Nixon and Kissinger are similar personalities and feel a great affinity and attraction on that basis. Each of them may be the other's best friend, at least during business hours. Kissinger – and surely Nixon, too – has a very strong ideological belief in the efficacy and legitimacy of the threat of violence as a tool of power and as a way of "establishing world order."
I've heard him profess sympathy for revolutionary aims, say of the NLF, combined with a sad judgment on the "tragic" implications of revolutionary efforts – that they are unstabilizing, reckless and lead to world disorder unintended by the revolutionary forces – thus the "necessity" for suppressing them, despite the fact that one can sympathize with some of their motives. I think he really wants to have the tragic function of suppressing violently idealistic movements and sees no limits to the amount of violence that is acceptable for him to use to counter threats to world order.
One can guess – and I'm neither a psychiatrist nor a producer of official psychological profiles – that Nixon and Kissinger are people who have very strong desires not only to threaten, but to inflict violence. Kissinger can't be a rebel, he couldn't conceive of taking part in violence directed against "authority"; but by all evidence he wants very much to be a party to violence. There's no question that he likes to issue threats. I would suspect very strongly that he wants some of his threats to fail, so that they have to be carried out.
This is how they come to associate with persons like G. Gordon Liddy.
Yeah, Liddy again is on the side of counterrevolution, like E. Howard Hunt, outlaws on the side of the police. It's the psychology of a "bad cop": To adapt a remark by Garry Wills, with each of these men it's as if the Sheriff of Nottingham had fantasies not of arresting Robin Hood but of mugging him.
It's not difficult to move from Liddy up to his supervisors like Ehrlichman and fairly describe Ehrlichman as a thug; but would you say it's fair to describe Nixon and Kissinger as thugs?
After Cambodia and Laos, I've always privately thought of Henry Kissinger as a murderer. We're not talking of persons who burglarize this or that office, but of persons who dropped four million tons of bombs on Indochina. Words are hardly adequate to define people who took those choices and took them in the years 1969 to 1972. They were not confronting Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler, nor did they act under whatever misconceptions about Ho Chi Minh may have lingered in the late Fifties or early Sixties. They took those decisions after Lyndon Johnson and Robert MacNamara themselves dropped two million tons, failed, and were thrown out of office; they proceeded to drop four million more tons after 1969, having been elected mostly by people who expected them to end the war...
The story that's not yet been written – perhaps now it will be – is how Nixon came to manage and complete a massive hoax during that four-year period that he was in the process of ending the war without a victory and had every intention of ending it as fast as possible. It was a marvelously contrived deception. In fact, it led me to have a good deal of respect, from a technical point of view, for the manager of that hoax. After reading Joe McGuiness' book The Selling of the President, people tended to sneer at the competence of advertising men in campaign politics, but they did an almost miraculous job selling the prolongation of the War to the American public from 1969 to 1973, and beyond.
And Henry Kissinger?
He was a major part of that selling campaign.
When did you come in contact with Kissinger after Rand?
He came to Vietnam in 1966 as a consultant to Henry Cabot Lodge. I was very impressed that he took my advice – which I gave to nearly every visitor but which few of them took – to avoid official briefings and talking to anyone in the presence of his boss or agency head; instead, seek out people who had been around, who were known to know a lot about Vietnam, talk to them privately and separately, and get from them the names of other people and talk to those other people separately. And to talk to the Vietnamese as much as possible. MacNamara never did any of these things in all the trips he made, but always talked to district advisers in the presence of the general in charge and never seemed to realize how much he was being fooled.
Kissinger did see the people I suggested. He is a talented and incisive questioner; he takes notes, listens carefully, and learns very well. In a couple of brief visits he did learn an unusual amount. He became appropriately skeptical and pessimistic and compared to Walt Rostow or others in Washington, he had a pretty realistic picture of the unlikelihood of much improvement. So, that was promising.
I was with him in a couple of conferences during 1967, and he was expressing a view far in advance of any mainstream political figure at that point, namely that our only objective in Vietnam should be an assurance of what he called the decent interval before the Communists took over so that we would not be humiliated at home or in our foreign affairs by an abrupt, naked failure.
McCarthy and Robert Kennedy still felt called on to talk about a negotiated solution with, at most, a coalition government. They were not willing to talk about unilateral withdrawal or acceptance of Communist takeover anytime. Kissinger's dovish description was exceeded only by people like Abbie Hoffman or Dave Dellinger, who were calling for immediate withdrawal.
Finally, by the way, Kissinger expressed thoroughly and openly a total contempt for Richard Nixon. He worked for Rockefeller and was willing to say things about Nixon, such as his famous statement at the 1968 Republican convention, "Richard Nixon is not fit to be president." That seemed a little indiscrete for someone in politics.
And a few months later he was appointed foreign policy adviser to the president-elect...
He'd been appointed Special Assistant for National Security Affairs and, in readiness for the first National Security Council meeting, he asked for a study of options on Vietnam. The president of Rand, Harry Rowen, suggested me for the job.
Kissinger accepted me with the first reservation ever expressed during my career as to my discretion. He did not want it known that he had turned to Rand for advice, an outside group, known to be relatively dovish within the defense community. And particularly he did not want it known that I was associated with the study since by that time I was a critic of our involvement. I was surprised to have that question raised; my career had been based on handling secrets and using discretion. He told an official at Rand that he had benefited greatly from our discussions in Vietnam, but was "on the other side of the fence," and "saw things differently."
Did you speak personally before you undertook the study?
No. I worked for several weeks putting together the options paper [National Security Memorandum One] and flew with it to his offices, a set of apartments they were using with Xerox machines and typewriters in the Hotel Pierre, on Christmas Day, 1968. We spent a couple of days going over the memorandum.
I suggested that he put a bunch of questions to the various parts of the bureaucracy and ask for parallel, rather than coordinated, answers so that he could compare the discrepancies and get a sense of what the uncertainties and conflicts were – the contradictions. I worked on these questions for him. I wanted him to see how much argument there was.
Did you find yourself liking him?
He tends to be fairly ingratiating, and has a habit of being quite flattering to a person in the presence of associates. Just after the election he gave several talks at Rand, and at one point said to the group, in my presence, "I learned more from Dan Ellsberg in Vietnam than from any other person." It might have been true, but it was also characteristic of him to say something like that in your presence.
So he is a flatterer...
It's, let's say, a nice habit, which, however, is counteracted by certain other traits.
I believed Kissinger was well clued-in on the realistic, pessimistic prospects in Vietnam and that he would be a good adviser to Nixon. However, there was one ominous signal that I didn't pay too much attention to at the time: He felt that escalation of the war had not been spelled out enough in our discussion of options.
I did take the occasion in my three days there to try to 'inoculate' him against the effects of the secret information he was about to start receiving. I had often thought of having a chance to warn somebody new to government, just about to receive a lot of high clearances, and to pass on one of the lessons I had learned not only by participating in the government, but also by studying a lot of the earlier crisis decision-making. I doubt he would remember the conversation.
"Henry, there's something I would like to tell you, for what it's worth, something good for a person that's entering a job like this to know. You've been a consultant for a long time and you've dealt a great deal with top-secret information. But you are about to receive a whole slew of clearances, maybe 15 or 20 of them higher than top secret.
"I've had these myself, as you know, and I've known people who've acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn't previously know they even existed, and of reading the information that will now become available to you.
"First, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written and talked about these subjects – for having criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents – for years without having known of the existence of all this inside information. In particular, you'll feel foolish for having rubbed shoulders for over a decade with officials and consultants who had access to all this information that you didn't even know they had, and that they kept that secret from you.
"You will feel like a fool, and it will last for about two weeks. Then, after you read all this daily intelligence input – estimates, analyses and so forth, and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information which is much more closely held than mere top-secret data – you will forget there was ever a time when you didn't have it, and you'll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and others don't... and that all those other people are fools.
"Over a longer period of time – not too long, but a matter of two or three years – you will eventually become aware of the limitations of this information: There is a great deal that it doesn't tell you, it is often inaccurate and it can lead you astray just as much as The New York Times can. But that takes quite a while...
"In the meantime, it will become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn't have these clearances, because you'll be thinking to yourself as you listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if in fact he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his recommendations?' And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and you just stop listening. I've seen this with my superiors, my colleagues and myself.
"You will deal with a person who doesn't have those clearances – since you must carefully lie to him about what you know – from the point of view of what do you want him to believe and what impression do you want him to go away with. In effect, how to manipulate him. You'll give up trying to assess what he has to say, and the danger is you'll become something like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience or knowledge they may have of their particular area and which may be much greater than yours."
He thanked me and said it was interesting. It was hard for him to fully appreciate because he didn't yet have these clearances and their effect on you is quite spectacular, learning about operations that the president can call into being at his will that you didn't imagine were permitted to any human being.
I said to Henry that I thought of this secret information as something like the potion Circe gave to the wanderers who happened on her island that turned men into swine.
And your feeling after this talk?
As a staff person or consultant, you always feel you've gotten your reward if a person has listened to what you had to say and seemed to pay attention – that's as much as you hope for, and that it will some day have some effect.
What was the fate of your study?
National Security Memorandum One went through one more draft. At the request of Kissinger, the one option for unilateral withdrawal was deleted, which meant that all the alternatives had the property of keeping us in Vietnam. I was, meanwhile, working on this set of questions and answers on Vietnam from various agencies of the bureaucracy.
The answers which amounted to about 1,000 pages showed the range of disagreement and pessimistic attitudes about the performance of the Vietnamese army, and the possibility of stopping infiltration by mining Haiphong or bombing the North. They came from agencies like the CIA, the intelligence branch of the State Department and the civilians in the Defense Department, who would not normally be called on to give direct opinions on these subjects to the president. By this device of asking for parallel reports, I had ensured that the new president got the most realistic estimates any president had ever gotten on these subjects.
They showed clearly, despite some disagreements, that the Vietnamese army would never be capable of withstanding North Vietnamese assault without U.S. bombing and U.S. ground troops. And Nixon was told very flatly by most of the responses, except for the Air Force of course, that bombing of Laos was having no effect whatever, and that the mining of Haiphong would likewise have no effect. We now know that the same month the questions were finished, March 1969, the secret bombing of Cambodia began.
I left town with this satisfied consultant's feeling of having done all I could to bring realistic information to the attention of the new president and to Henry Kissinger, and with considerable expectation that they would act on this and get us out.
It was the kind of job I would have done for any president, even George Wallace. It seemed that one couldn't go wrong in improving the understanding the president had of Vietnam politics. Later I came to question the usefulness of even this kind of relationship.
When I left the White House, I made a number of recommendations for new studies. One of them had to do with a study of what the word "accommodations" might mean as used by different agencies, and why that would be bad for the United States. Another one was to conduct an urgent and intensive study of the impact of our artillery and bombing operations on the Vietnamese people with an eye to the possibility of greatly reducing these operations or cutting them out entirely. Another was the adequacy of our information on civilian casualties. No one had ever tried to collect it.
Kissinger sent the word back to me through Morton Halperin that these were very useful suggestions but we had asked enough questions for now. And they were all set aside; they never did get around to asking or answering them. There are some things that these officials know they don't want to know.
I left Washington without any expectation of working again for the administration. Or desire. They sent me a bunch of forms at Rand to fill out for a White House clearance, since I had been working there without a specific White House clearance, but I never filled them out.
I saw Halperin in Washington in June shortly after Nixon's most conciliatory speech on the war, and he told me, "For the first time, I'm satisfied with the Vietnam policy of the United States." Although Nixon had not committed himself to total withdrawal, Halperin was very confident that by the end of the year he would have accepted that idea.
But in June or July, the Russians recognized the Provisional Revolutionary Government, making it clear they would not cooperate with the U.S. in bringing pressure on the North to negotiate a mutual withdrawal. It was then that Kissinger began his secret talks with Hanoi, more or less having given up with the Russians.
The policy that they had come into office with went bankrupt at that point. In Richard Whalen's book, Catch the Falling Flag, Whalen describes conversations in late '67 with Nixon – for whom he was the main speechwriter on Vietnam – where he proposed to Nixon that he threaten the mining of Haiphong. This would supposedly present the Russians with a crisis like the Cuban missile crisis, because of their shipping, and encourage them to bring pressure on Hanoi for a settlement. Nixon bought that strategy, but it failed. Still Nixon and Kissinger didn't believe it; they went ahead with their strategy.
I called Halperin in late June of '69 with a question that was new to me: "What's your estimate of the number of Vietnamese who would rather see peace even under a Communist government than see the war continue?"
"Oh, 90%," he said.
"Do you think your boss thinks that?" I asked.
"I've never discussed that with him precisely, but I would guess that he did."
"Then how can we justify continuing this a day longer, whether to get mutual withdrawal or graceful ending or anything else? I don't discount some usefulness in papering over our defeat and so forth, but how can we justify killing another Vietnamese when our own guess is that nearly all of them want the war over?"
"Well," he said, "that's a good question... let me think about that."
That was the moment I began to see the need to end the war most urgently. From mid '67 on, I had been for ending the war "as soon as possible," but I still had a willingness to see it prolonged by weeks or months in the course of negotiations, in hopes of a somewhat better solution that would leave us with a less controversial ending and perhaps less of a domestic backlash. But by mid-1969 I began to see that domestic politics couldn't excuse it. I finally saw continuation as immoral, not just mistaken.
In September '69 I learned from Halperin that the policy had not gone as he had hoped in June; that Nixon and Kissinger had chosen one of the options we had laid out earlier – not the excluded option for unilateral withdrawal – but the option to win the war. A disastrous choice. But not yet public; they were not yet fully committed.
I went to some people at Rand who had been for unilateral withdrawal all along, and said, "I'm with you now; what shall we do about it?" They proposed a letter to The New York Times, calling for unilateral withdrawal which, by the way, no one in mainstream politics had publicly proposed at that point.
I said what we needed was a study that would lay out the facts more exhaustively than a letter, but they said a study would never get cleared out of the Defense Department. The only way we could get past the clearance process was in a letter.
In the course of our drafting the letter, former New York Senator Charles Goodell proposed a Congressional cutoff of funds by the end of 1970. It was the first proposal of that kind by a politician. We went ahead with our plan because Goodell wasn't recognized as an expert, and our letter would add some authoritative support to his position.
The publication of that letter was as controversial at Rand and in the Defense community probably as my leak of the Pentagon Papers was later. It was a bombshell among our associates – and was very widely quoted in the Moratorium. Meanwhile, without telling anyone at Rand, I started to copy the Pentagon Papers to give them to the Senate.
What was your next contact with Kissinger?
Just after my second marriage in September, 1970, I cut my honeymoon in half to return for an appointment with him. He didn't keep it although I did see him about 10 days later. I thought it was a good chance to lay several things on him.
He was as bad as I'd ever imagined he was. My earlier feelings were based on his attitude toward a fairly hypothetical situation toward nuclear war. But now we were confronting a man who was managing the actual destruction of Cambodia.
I hadn't yet heard a great deal about what his own personal role was in all this. It wasn't completely clear how much of this was Nixon, and how much Kissinger; only that he was implementing a disastrous policy. At that point, I didn't have the sense of revulsion at the thought of meeting him, which I did acquire later.
When a mutual friend who had an appointment with Kissinger proposed bringing me along, I agreed. It was worth encouraging him to read the Pentagon Papers so that he might discover that pursuing escalation had been talked through before in just as conspiratorial terms, and that it hadn't worked. Maybe he could learn from that.
Also, I knew that his policy depended on its outlines being invisible to the American public. So I wanted to warn him, in effect, that the trend of policy was visible, at least to some people, including me, who were telling other people about it.
In other words, I thought of leaking information into the White House about what was actually visible from the outside to try to make them understand that their policy was foreseeable. The more foreseeable it was the less viable it might appear to him.
What is San Clemente like?
We went in through a gateway and a voice came out of nowhere like the voice of God from a loudspeaker on top of the guardhouse, telling us where to park. I may be confusing this with parking lots when I would visit friends in prison, but maybe they just borrowed the technology for the White House. It's my memory that this unseen eye was controlling your movements.
You go into an outer waiting office just like a dentist's waiting room, but with large color photographs of Nixon lining the wall. In fact, the official photographer stopped in the lobby and chatted with us until he dashed out the door as a pink golf cart went by. There was one person aboard driving it like a little electric Disneyland car about seven and a half miles per hour. It was Nixon, scowling, and looking very grim. His shoulders were hunched over and he was piloting this thing like the engineer of a toy train. Right behind him was another pink golf cart being driven by Bebe Rebozo, and behind that, a third pink cart with two Secret Service men. A convoy.
Finally we saw Kissinger for lunch on a little patio. General Haig was at the table. As we all said hello, Kissinger, in his usual fashion, turned to my friend and said, "You know, I have learned more from Dan Ellsberg..." and I thought he was going to repeat his statement about Vietnam, but he seemed to hesitate, and then said, "about bargaining than from any other person."
I was taken aback. I didn't know what he was referring to, although my academic specialty had been "bargaining theory." And suddenly I remembered that 11 years earlier when I had given a series of talks on "The Art of Coercion," I had also given a couple of those lectures to Kissinger's seminar at Harvard. "You have a very good memory," I said. And he replied, "They were good lectures."
When I rethought that incident later, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The lectures I had given had to do with Hitler's blackmail of Austria and Czechoslovakia in the late Thirties, which had allowed him to take over those countries just by threatening their destruction. One of those lectures was "The Theory and Practice of Blackmail." And another was called, "The Political Uses of Madness."
News leaks about the Cambodian invasion, obviously coming from off-the-record backgrounders by Kissinger, had revealed a major motive of the invasion was to convince the Russians and the Chinese that our decision-making was unpredictable, and that since we could do something so apparently unpredictable and crazy as invade Cambodia, they could not count on our reasonableness or prudence in a crisis.
That was Hitler's conscious policy: the threat of unpredictability. I had described it in my lectures as being a possibly effective, but extremely dangerous strategy. It was a commitment to madness. To realize – not that Kissinger had learned this tactic from me, which is very doubtful, but that such a thought truly was in his mind, enough so that he remembered the analogous thesis that I had presented 10 years earlier – this was chilling. It confirmed the nature of his policy and where it might go.
We talked for just a moment before lunch was served. My friend immediately got him into Vietnam, but Kissinger said, "Well, we are not here to talk about Vietnam." He looked at me quite nervously and made it clear he didn't want to talk in front of me. I assumed that it was because he wanted to lie to my friend in ways that wouldn't have been easy in my presence. Kissinger began drumming on the table with his fingertips and then suddenly said, "Tell you what, Dan, why don't you and General Haig have lunch together while we talk on other matters, then we will all get together." So, he actually did, after all, pass me off to Haig, with whom I went off to the other side of the house and had lunch.
Haig was very pleasant and relatively forthcoming. I decided that I would try my strategy on him of "leaking in" the Kissinger strategy. We talked about an hour when Kissinger joined us. He said he wanted to talk with me and we should set up a meeting for his next trip out.
You went to San Clemente in the middle of your honeymoon and he evaded you...
The night before I went, a bunch of Rand people came to my house, including some of the people who had written the letter to The New York Times. One of them was an expert on the Vietcong. It was his thesis that the Vietcong, and I'm speaking in particular of the Southerners but also of the North Vietnamese, simply were not susceptible to coercion. He said, "The Hanoi government may be the most popular government in the world," and that the people were unique in that you couldn't get them to criticize their regime. The Vietcong defectors, and even the few North Vietnamese defectors, might criticize their immediate superiors or might be mad that they hadn't gotten a promotion, but none of them, even under probing, would say anything critical about the way the system worked. They regarded their cause as just. Their main reason for leaving was problems in their family or the general hardness of their life; and they felt ashamed for having defected. He said I should tell Kissinger that.
Kissinger himself mentioned at one point in our brief conversation that he had not been able to talk to any real experts on Vietnam – "there were none" – and I gave him this man's name, and urged him to get him down from Rand. But he never called him.
I went to San Clemente again, and again wasn't able to see him. But on one last visit I did see him. I was kept waiting, and when I finally got in he said he could only see me for half an hour. He started out by saying, "I'm very worried about the Middle East situation," which was very much in the news. Kissinger had been leaking a lot of his critical thoughts about [Secretary of State William P.] Rogers' handling of those negotiations, which Kissinger was not then allowed into. "I'm afraid that that situation may blow up."
"Well, Henry," I said, "I want to talk to you about your Indochina policy... I think that may blow up."
I had in mind possibly handing him a sheet of paper with the Nixon strategy written on it. The night before I had worked to reduce it to a single page, which was fairly complex, and I laid it all down: the slow reduction of forces, threats, demonstrative actions like Cambodia, the likelihood of future invasions, the ultimate mining of Haiphong, and the deliberate deception of the public.
As I recited the policy, he looked at me with very narrowed eyes, in a way that assured me I was not on the wrong track, but he made no response. He drummed his fingers on the table and said, "I do not want to discuss our policy; let us turn to another subject."
We went on to a discussion of the Pentagon Papers. I asked if he knew about the MacNamara study on Vietnam and he said he did. [I didn't know then that he had actually been a consultant in the first month of the study.] "Do you have a copy of it in the White House?" He said he did.
"Have you read it?"
"No, should I?"
"Well, I very strongly think that you should. I want to urge you, as a practical matter at least, to read the summaries, which are only a few pages at the start of each volume. Together they add up to 60 pages, which make a very readable story. You really should make the effort."
"But do we really have anything to learn from this study?"
My heart sank. The major lesson of the study was that each person repeated the same patterns in decision-making and pretty much the same policy as his predecessor, without even knowing it. I thought, My God! He's in the same state of mind as all the other makers of decisions in this long process, each of whom thought that history had started with his administration, and had nothing to learn from earlier ones.
I was quite depressed, but I went on to say, "Well, I certainly do think so; it is 20 years of history and there's a great deal to be learned from it."
"But after all," he said, "we make decisions very differently now." And that capped my depression.
"Cambodia didn't seem all that different." And he looked uncomfortable and sort of fidgeted in his chair.
"You must understand, Cambodia was undertaken for very complicated reasons."
"Henry, there hasn't been a rotten decision in this area for 20 years which was not undertaken for very complicated reasons. And they were usually the same complicated reasons." Each of these people thought that, unlike their predecessors, they had very special considerations that called for this particular judgment and escalation – reasons that they were hiding from the public, reasons that their predecessors had hidden from them as members of the public. Each person in that office thought his predecessors had made wrong decisions for stupid ideological and geopolitical reasons, whereas he was making the same decisions for quite different, very clever, domestic political reasons. And so, year after year, the war went on.
As he said goodbye he told me, "Now... this has not been long enough for us to talk. I'm very anxious to see you again. Can you come to Washington?"
"Next week, next Thursday."
Well, that day we were due to be moving from our house to Cambridge, and I said, "Not Thursday because my wife would have to do all the moving by herself."
"But it's very important, I must see you then..."
I never did learn why he put so much urgency on seeing me that week. We talked about it a minute and finally I said, "Well, Henry, it can't make that much of a difference. You know, we've waited a year and a half for this discussion. But I could see you the following week after I move, and I'm at your disposal from that time on." And he said, "We would pay for your travel... you could not be officially a consultant of course..." – Kissinger is very jealous of the use of the word "consultant" – "but we could pay your transportation east." So I said that I would call him as soon as I got east.
I did call him – a date was set to see him and then, just an hour or so before I was due to go to Washington, I got a call from his secretary that it was postponed and she set another date, and that, in turn, was postponed, and then they set a third date. So I said to his secretary, "Look, I don't want to come down when it's obvious he doesn't have time to see me," and she said, "No, he wants to see you." I called half an hour before I left and it was postponed.
They asked me to set another date, and I never called again. The only reason he wanted to see me was so he could say he listened to "everyone – a whole range of opinion – for example, Dan Ellsberg, among others," and I decided I would just let it drop.
Did you see him again?
Yes, one more time. But in between came the Son Tay raid, and the renewal of bombing raids on the North. I had now been back east for a couple of months and had happily plunged myself into reading for the book I was supposed to do at MIT.
The general feeling about was that, having learned the lesson on Cambodia, they would change their policy and really couldn't do that again. I remember a meeting I attended at which Bill Bundy spoke and told us that he'd learned his lesson. And I asked Bundy what would stop him from doing it again, and he said, "The kids wouldn't allow it," which was a common attitude. The kids would save us without the parents having to do anything. And it was kind of a willingness on the part of dove parents to see their children be the cannon fodder on the demonstration barricades, just as the hawk parents were willing to see their sons inducted for Vietnam. I'd been going around campuses quite a bit at that point, and I just wasn't sure if Bundy was right.
So, on the day of the 1970 Yale game, the first football game I'd been to in 15 years or so, a day our letter came out in The New York Times – Bill Bundy was at the same game, representing Yale – I was on my way to the Crimson for a post-game party. And on my way there was a sign spray-painted on one of the buildings... "Hanoi bombed."
Pat [Ellsberg's wife] and I were due to go to Newport but instead I began calling everyone I knew to see what could be organized as a protest. I'd known from Cambodia that it was likely to go all the way, and now the final chapter was on us.
So, I called and called all over the coast, and, of course, got the attitude of "Saturday evening, forget it." It was clear that even rallies were not possible. So at this point, in late November, I went into full-time activity.
One opportunity that came for me to speak was an invitation to testify at a trial of the so-called Minnesota Eight, who had been caught in a draft-board raid in Minneapolis. Noam Chomsky, who had been invited, wasn't able to go, so he recommended me. I immediately flew out with a bunch of the Pentagon Papers in my suitcase, in hopes that I would be able to give a kind of testimony that would make it appropriate to offer these Papers as evidence in a trial. Then the defense could subpoena the Papers from me and get them into the court record. At least, the judge would read them. He might or might not release them to the public, but at least they would be part of the court record and would be seen by an appeals court, and might, somehow, get judicial reaction on the war.
The night before the trial, the lawyer defending the Minnesota Eight questioned me on my background to establish me as an expert in court. He asked if I had ever worked for this administration. I said I had, but I couldn't talk about that because for two years I had kept my mouth shut at the request of Henry Kissinger, and it would embarrass Rand if it came out. I just couldn't mention it, even though it would add greatly to my authority in court.
The next morning I phoned my wife, and she mentioned that I'd received a call from Don Oberdorfer of The Washington Post. I had an hour to kill, so I decided to call Oberdorfer. Incidentally, the FBI later turned up and questioned the guy I was staying with about this call. Oberdorfer said he was doing a two-year wrap-up on the Nixon policies, including Vietnam, and he had asked Kissinger what the origin of the current policy in Vietnam had been. Kissinger had told him, he said, that, "Ironically, certain people who are now great critics of the administration had been crucial in the development of the policy," in particular a guy named Ellsberg.
"Kissinger mentioned me?" I asked.
"Yes, definitely," he said, "that's where I got it. He also mentioned Halperin and Schelling," who by now also were public critics of the policy. "But he said you had been involved in the study of alternative policies and questions."
I was absolutely amazed by this. I asked, "What did Kissinger say the policy was?" Oberdorfer said, "It's the policy of negotiating in Hanoi while withdrawing the troops from Vietnam." I said, "Look, if that were the policy, I would still be at Rand, and Mort Halperin would still be in the White House. This guy is trying to smear me as being implicated in his rotten policy." I then explained to him what I thought the policy was, including the threat of escalation, the residual force and so forth, and Oberdorfer was very surprised. (After talking to a lot of other people, he concluded that I was right, that he had been misled by Kissinger.)
I went into court a couple hours later, and when I was asked, I said I had just learned that Henry Kissinger had revealed it on the record, and that I did work as a consultant for the Nixon administration. It was the first time I'd ever mentioned that.
As it was, I didn't get to offer my documents as evidence; when I said I had participated in official lies, the judge cut me off and turned very angrily to the lawyer and said, "I told you that I would not allow any testimony on this stand critical of the government." This was in front of the jury. Since they were trying defendants charged with taking actions based on a fairly critical attitude of government policy, this was a rather bizarre constraint on the testimony.
About a month later, I had the chance to go to a conference of MIT students and businessmen who were critical of the war, which was going to lead off with a backgrounder by Henry Kissinger. I'd heard so much, indirectly, of these famous backgrounders, that I wanted to hear for myself how he described his policy. After dinner Kissinger gave his talk, which revealed to me what an enormously effective PR man he is – extremely smooth.
Did he know you were there?
As we went into the meeting, he saw me and came across the room to shake hands. He said, "I must apologize if I embarrassed you at all with Don Oberdorfer."
"Oh, no, Henry, no problem at all."
We then went into the meeting of about 60 people. These were businessmen who were not quite as committed as the Business Executives Move for Peace, but were critical of the war. A lot of them were relatively liberal Republicans. The idea of the conference was to bridge the generation gap between students and businessmen. It had the very interesting name, Runnymede – the place where the barons met to present demands to the king. It would not have attracted me except for the opportunity of hearing Kissinger.
He spoke about the "tragedy" of revolutionary movements having these unfortunate unstabilizing consequences, and the "tragic" need to sit on them forcibly. In the question period, one student asked why the rate of withdrawal was not faster and Henry burst out after a couple of these questions and said, "You're questioning me as if our policy was to stay in Vietnam. But our policy is to get out of Vietnam. We are trending down the war in Vietnam, and I assure you that the war will continue to trend down."
After quite a bit more questioning, which he handled very convincingly and with great poise, I got up. I had decided on a very careful phrasing of one question to ask him. I figured it was the last time I would be speaking to him.
"I have one question, but I want to make a comment first. You have said that the White House is not a place for moral philosophizing, but in fact, the White House does educate the people by everything that it does and everything it says and doesn't say. Specifically, tonight you are expressing values when you tell us that the war is trending down and will continue to trend down, and then mention in that connection U.S. casualties and U.S. troop presence. You failed to mention Indochinese casualties, or refugees, or bombing tonnages, which in fact are trending up. You tell the American people that they need not and ought not care about our impact on the Indochinese people, and encourage them to support decisions that ignore that impact.
"So, I have one question for you: What is your best estimate of the number of Indochinese that we will kill, pursuing your policy in the next 12 months?"
He was completely stunned. It was very startling to the audience because it was the first time he'd shown any break in his poise at all. He almost turned around and paced for a second, then looked at me very penetratingly and said, accusingly, "That is a very cleverly worded question."
I got somewhat angry at that. "I am not trying to be clever at all. That is a very fundamental issue. Can you answer it?"
He thought for a minute, there was silence, and he said, "You are accusing us of a racist policy."
"Race is not the issue here. Let me put it – how many human beings will we kill under our policy, in the next 12 months?"
He paused again, and then burst out, "What are your alternatives?"
"Dr. Kissinger," I said, very firmly, "I know the language of alternatives and options very well, and it has nothing to do with this question. I'm asking you how you estimate the consequences of your policy in the next 12 months, if you have an answer. Do you have an estimate, or not?"
There was another long silence, and the student who was hosting the evening got up and said, "Well it's been a long evening, and I think we've had enough questions now. Perhaps we should let Dr. Kissinger go back to Washington."
The businessmen there were pretty angered by this episode – not so much because they opposed the war, but because they wanted to get on good terms with the people of their children's generation. They wrote quite a heavy anti-bombing resolution, describing it as murderous and criminal – it was amazing for these people to write.
At the very end, when they were voting on this resolution, I suggested that since these people were fairly wealthy men who were big political contributors to both parties, they should make a resolution that they would donate no money to the political campaign of anyone who was not willing to make a public commitment to ending the bombing and the war.
This absolutely tore the meeting to pieces. They were all furious, Republicans and Democrats alike, because, as they read it, I was challenging them to put themselves on the line in front of these students and friends of their children. I was surprised; it hadn't occurred to me that they wouldn't be willing to make such a commitment.
The next morning we were having a session in which I described the Nixon policy to a small working group that included Osborne Elliott, the editor of Newsweek. And I talked about the likelihood that the next move, at best, would be the invasion of Laos, and at worst, the invasion of North Vietnam. And Elliott was extremely skeptical of what I said. He said they had no indication of any such threat of escalation.
After a break, Elliott came back and said, "Ellsberg, apparently there is something in what you were saying. I have talked to my New York office, who just heard from our Saigon office that a total embargo has been put on news from South Vietnam." It turned out that at the moment Henry Kissinger was telling us that "the war is trending down," the pre-invasion bombardment of Laos had begun.
Anyway, that, of course, was the last time I was ever inclined to see Kissinger.
What role do you think that Kissinger played in your prosecution?
There was a frequent story at that time that Kissinger had been the pusher of the prosecution, because he was worried about the China negotiations. I could never take that seriously at all. For one thing, the China trip was announced only a month after the Papers started coming up. Besides, the secrecy of those negotiations was, as far as we can tell, entirely our desire, not the Chinese desire. But that didn't rule out that he might have been the pusher for some other reason.
Did Kissinger ask for the psychiatric profile on you?
CIA Director Richard Helms has testified it was Kissinger's request that a psychiatric profile be done on me. That came to Helms directly from David Young, who was Kissinger's assistant and who remained formally on his staff even though he was working with the Plumbers. If Kissinger did ask for the psychiatric profile, it means that he read it, and that would confirm what I felt sure of anyway: I'm sure the president read it. [Bernard Melloy, the CIA psychiatrist who supervised the psychological profile of Ellsberg, has also testified it was his understanding, from Young, that the request came from Kissinger and Ehrlichman. Kissinger has flatly denied any role.]
There is certainly a dramatic circumstantial case to be made that Kissinger was aware of the burglary prior to its taking place.
Given that he asked for that profile, read it and was dissatisfied with it. The burglary was a direct response to his dissatisfaction. There's every reason to think that Young reported everything to his former and future boss; that's the way the system works.
Would you say it's fair to see Kissinger and Ehrlichman as relatively equivalent figures in the administration?
You mean Ehrlichman, Haldeman and Kissinger.
Haldeman's sort of a staff man, in the middle, but Ehrlichman and Kissinger...
I think Haldeman wasn't just staff. I see more policy. Haldeman on domestic politics, which is the heart, the central problem, is certainly a key person.
As key as Kissinger in foreign affairs?
Would it be fair to say the way they all operate is the same? How about Kissinger's phone taps?
Look, Kissinger lied when it came out about those taps. His first reaction was to say he had had nothing to do with it. Then it came out that he had been the one who specified who was to be tapped. Likewise, the story that Kissinger was concerned with leaks is absurd when you look at the people, especially the newsmen, who he had tapped. These were people to whom stories were leaked almost entirely by Kissinger: Marvin Kalb, Henry Brandon, Joe Kraft.
What are we to make of that? Part of his thinking was given by a White House aide who said Kissinger wanted to see whether, behind his back, these journalists and his own White House assistants were loyal to him. And he wanted to find out if these people had other sources that were contradicting what he was saying.
Nobody has made this inference: Imagine the ability Kissinger acquired to manipulate those individuals with whom he was working and talking to daily or weekly, when he secretly knew all they were saying to their other sources and associates. In other words, Kissinger knew by these wiretap logs whether he was getting through to those guys, what to emphasize, how to change his pitch, how to counter a position credibly, and very persuasively, in a way the newsmen would never recognize was based on secret knowledge. And it was precisely the people who were most friendly to him that he had a great desire to be able to control.
In fact, the leaks from the FBI indicated that he had asked directly for those taps and that they had insisted on presidential authority for such taps. That was when he turned to the president and got him involved.
So Kissinger may have been the man who instigated the Plumber program, far more than Ehrlichman.
Definitely, yes. Ehrlichman was not involved in initiating those tasks. And the monitoring of them was first done by Haig and Kissinger for the president, with copies to Haldeman, then later directly for Haldeman. And Young, the head Plumber, came right from Kissinger's personal staff.
Kissinger got into domestic policy more than has yet come out, and he may well have been involved in far more tapping. At a certain point, they became worried about Hoover's knowledge of these wiretaps and shifted them away from the FBI. They say the FBI stopped its wiretaps in February of '71, but they never have explained why. I suspect that they shifted wiretapping to a different agency – the Army Signal Corps, the White House communications center, local police or some other agency.
I'm virtually sure that they were directly wiretapping me either by that point, or after June, when the Papers came out. There have been stories in The Washington Post that I was personally wiretapped from May on, and I don't see how it could be otherwise.
Nevertheless, they always did deny it, and that's one of the things that remains to come out. I also suspect that they tapped a lot of other people they wouldn't want to admit to – probably every Senator who potentially was running for the presidency, and the Senate's anti-war leadership. And that is something like 15 percent of the senators.
How has Kissinger managed to escape the curse of Watergate?
He puts out to everybody that he wasn't involved, and nothing much has come out directly. He runs the best public relations operation in this administration and possibly in any administration.
How does that make you feel?
It confirms a lot of what I know about media people: A lot of them aspire to be part of the executive branch, rather than a fourth, independent branch of government. Kissinger offers them that role, very seductively. He does it, in particular, with publishers and editors, and the influence trickles down to managing editors and writers.
So, he's been pretty immune. And, the man who, with his boss, has dropped more bombs than any human being in history, bugging and lying as necessary, is perceived as a peacemaker, as a lovable wit, a charming fellow, as anything but the murderous creep that he obviously is.
How would you evaluate Kissinger's role in this administration in foreign policy?
My impression is that he deserves no serious credit – nothing but very modest thanks – for the best of the policy events he's been associated with; and he deserves the deepest condemnation for much of his work.
To start with the best: I base this on conversations with people who were in the administration, on columnists' leaks, and backgrounders. It seems probable that the credit for the change in our China relations, which is certainly a very good event, goes to the Chinese – particularly to Chou En Lai – and to the pressure put on them by their conflict with the Russians. They made the policy choice to change their relationship with the U.S. as a counterbalance to Russia.
Secondly, credit goes to Richard Nixon. There's a lot of indications that Nixon conceived the possibility of a change in our relations with China long before he was associated with Kissinger and before he became president. As early as 1967 or 1968, he spoke about it and hinted at it in his Foreign Affairs article. So my suspicion is that on the U.S. side, it was primarily Richard Nixon, and that Kissinger just went along.
Did Kissinger bring anything to it?
I would think essentially nothing. What is there to it, once both sides have made the decision? There was nothing involved that called for any particular amount of negotiations. Essentially the agreement was for a change in atmosphere to have a willingness to talk to each other. The content was far less important. As far as we are aware, there was no deal that came out of it respecting Vietnam. The only real complexity would have been managing the impact of our changed relationships with Taiwan and Japan, and that was handled miserably.
What about his actions in relation to Russia?
His major achievement was to delay the SALT [Strategic Arms Limitations] agreement by about three years. He could have had, in 1969, the basic achievement in terms of an agreement that had been hammered out internally in the U.S. government in 1968. The impression was that he was unwilling to go with that agreement in 1969 because it was a Johnson agreement, and had to be reworked. The crucial effect of the delay was to encourage the Russians to proceed with the development of MIRV [Multiple Independent Re-Entry Vehicles], which is very bad for humanity, indeed. It could possibly have been averted if we had been willing to make an agreement in 1969. I wouldn't put all the blame on this administration, for Johnson did not focus on MIRV either. But still, the crucial time was 1969, when we insisted on going ahead with our own testing. Kissinger never had any particular appetite for Arms Limitation agreements of any kind. He was not an enthusiast for them, nor had he any confidence in them. So, I think his effect there is terrible, absolutely terrible.
On Vietnam, Kissinger's effect has been not only disastrous but criminal in every respect. The judgments involved were stupid, blind, arrogant, criminal and murderous, and the murderous implications of the policy were all realized. We're talking about men who loosed four million tons of bombs on Indochina.
In the Vietnam talks you had some role for a skillful negotiator and I would assume that, in terms of talent and ability, Kissinger is a capable negotiator; but how much leeway was there? The basic objectives, the constraints set by both the president and himself, precluded any real deal for the first three years; so his talent counted for nothing during that period.
In the end, when they were willing to settle on both sides, it's very doubtful that his skill counted for anything to speak of. As we can see, all the fancy flourishes in the negotiations seemed to have been totally facade. As a "diplomat," it was only in the administration's domestic diplomacy with newspaper publishers and columnists and with congressmen that Kissinger's conman talents were indispensable and totally successful in mobilizing support, buying time, dissembling the true nature of the policy: "selling" an endless, escalating war.
What were your feelings when the bombing of Hanoi was announced, after the "peace is at hand" statement and the election?
Despair. Horror. I found that I had reserves of naivete left in me after all the years in Vietnam: I really concluded after Kissinger's announcement on October 26th that it was close to impossible they could toy with the beliefs of a nation to the extent of announcing just before an election that peace was at hand without being ready to back it up.
When the bombing came at Christmas, it took me completely by surprise. In retrospect, I think the bombing had an extremely cynical purpose which was largely achieved: to make it appear that Nixon's four-year strategy of reliance on bombing and threat of bombing had, in fact, been effective in bringing about the settlement.
In October, there had been no escalation for some time. In fact, the rate of bombing had dropped, and there was no indication that a settlement represented anything but a lowering of aims on both sides – which is what it did represent. It was very widely understood that the mining of Haiphong had accomplished literally nothing, nor had four years of bombing. So Nixon finally prepared to accept a settlement in which the North Vietnamese did not withdraw their troops, which had been his essential demand ever since 1969. But he felt uneasy at signing a settlement that quite obviously came from having lowered his demands.
So you think they bombed Hanoi and killed all those people to make a failed policy look like a success – and not even facing an election?
By design. With the assumption that Nixon would later sign a settlement – essentially the same that had been available before the bombing – that he could then attribute to the bombing and count on a public presumption that not only had this bombing helped, but all earlier bombing had helped as well. Unfortunately, I think his tactical judgment was right; it did teach a "lesson" that's both mistaken and evil.
The Hanoi bombing was one of the worst acts in the history of civilization. And I don't say that rhetorically. I wouldn't bother to argue whether it was precisely worse than one or another act of mass murder in our history. It's not a matter of body counts or scale. In terms of the exact political and cultural context, above all in terms of a war that had been essentially settled in October, by a country whose public not only accepted such a settlement but had just given the man who had announced that settlement the largest election landslide in our history – that B-52 bombing in highly populated areas was one of the coldest, most murderous acts that any ruler has ever undertaken.
I couldn't help remembering this when I watched Nixon in front of the POWs, in the midst of their entertainment, proposing a toast to the brave fliers of the B-52s. He encouraged these men, who thought they owed him their freedom when they really owed him their imprisonment, to stand up in front of television cameras, in the eyes of the nation, and toast the agents who had carried out his orders for possibly the worst thing that this country has ever done.
When did Nixon conceive this act?
Just after he first took office. What hasn't come out yet in any of the Watergate discussions is the connection between what he was doing domestically and what he was doing in Indochina. I think they're very intimately related.
I believe that Nixon's aim was to go into the election of 1972 having achieved a victory in Indochina – not the kind of settlement he did achieve, but something much more ambitious. I believe he had a plan for doing this, some parts of which he had on his mind as early as 1967 and '68. Perhaps he had the whole plan. He began to put this into effect from the moment he took office, even as he carried out the parts of the plan to confuse and deceive the American public as to what he was up to.
How did you learn this?
From half a dozen people, but the major source was Mort Halperin, whom I've known for a number of years. Mort had followed me as a special assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton at the Pentagon. Later he'd gone on to work for Henry Kissinger. When I worked for him just after he'd been named by Nixon, and I knew the kind of information that Mort had available to him. I was able to judge it pretty well. Mort told me Nixon did have a plan, that he had in effect chosen one or a combination of the long-range options we had drafted for Kissinger and him just after he was elected.
The plan Nixon announced, on November 3rd, 1969, was "Vietnamization." He described it as having two parts: negotiation for a just settlement with the North Vietnamese, and withdrawal of our troops to be replaced by Vietnamese forces. He implied that we would totally withdraw our troops within a very short time. Most media editors and owners were led to believe, by Kissinger, that we would be out of Vietnam within 12 months, even though the president had talked about assuring that South Vietnam had a chance to survive and so forth.
Mort and several others, in particular John Vann who had very close contacts with the Department of the Army, first told me one part was being deceptively presented: Total withdrawal was not in mind, but a very slow reduction of troops, as slow as Nixon could get away with, politically, down to a large residual force that would stay indefinitely.
So what was the real Vietnamization policy?
In fact, Nixon people didn't expect ARVN to improve all that much; they did not intend to withdraw all American forces. And of course they weren't seriously negotiating.
But there were about five or six other dimensions to the program which were concealed from the American public. At various times, one or another part became overt, but even then, the remaining pattern was to be concealed. This pattern included the bombing of Cambodia, heavy bombing of Laos, ground operations into Cambodia and Laos, renewal of the bombing of the North – which, you remember, had been discontinued in late October '68 – the mining of Haiphong harbor, and the total unrestricted bombing of North Vietnam.
On several of these, the commitment was first to a threat, and then a commitment to carrying them out if the threat failed. But since these threats, realistically, were almost certain to fail, one could predict very well that they would be carried out.
So what I'm asserting is that all of the things that we have seen, including the bombing of Hanoi in December of last year, were all explicit in private plannings going back as early as 1969.
In May of 1969 – and this I was told by Halperin in September – on the same day Nixon delivered his most conciliatory speech on Vietnam, looking toward a settlement [a speech largely drafted by Halperin], Kissinger had Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador, come to the White House. He showed him the speech and emphasized the passage which said, in effect, that "no one has anything to gain by waiting." And Kissinger made clear to Dobrynin that meant Nixon was prepared to escalate if the Russians did not bring about a settlement acceptable to Nixon.
To make that threat credible, there already had been some escalation, including bombing Cambodia. Halperin referred me to a nearly unnoticed piece by William Beecher in The New York Times in May of '69 that reported the secret B-52 bombing of Cambodia. (We now know that story was at least the catalyst for Kissinger's bugging of 17 newsmen and officials.) Later we learned there had been a ground operation into Laos in the spring of '69. The Veterans Against the War brought this out, including Marines who had participated. There were also probes by Special Forces troops into Laos and Cambodia. And, I was told, just before the Republican convention, frogmen had been sent into the harbor of Haiphong in early 1969 to check it for mining and were given instructions to leave evidence that they had been there.
So, before the threat was given directly to Dobrynin in May, we had escalated in all three French Indochina countries outside of South Vietnam and with all three services.
It fit with a statement Kissinger had made to me at the Hotel Pierre in December of '68. I had argued with him that the threat of escalation was close to worthless since the North Vietnamese had withstood years of bombardment. He complained that "without the threat of escalation, how could one seek to negotiate." I thought his point of view was casual at that point. Last month, four years and four million tons of bombs later, he was still pleading with Congressmen not to cut off his bombing of Cambodia because that would leave him naked of bargaining power.
By September, 1969, I knew we were going to remain in South Vietnam much longer, and on a much larger scale, than people realized, and that it would mean continued bombing in South Vietnam and the prospect of escalation. That month Halperin predicted to me, "The President will not go into the 1972 election without having mined Haiphong." I took this to mean that Nixon did not want to face charges from his rightwing critics – like Reagan or Wallace – that he failed to use a tactic the military considered for long to be a winning tactic; whatever deal he might reach with the North Vietnamese, he would want to say he had tried it.
When I worked for Nixon early in January 1969, it was on the assumption that almost anybody coming into office would take advantage of his new slate to write off the Vietnam War. Looking back now, it's clear what he had in mind was winning it: The other side was to be blackmailed into accepting an indefinite stay of American troops or of the Thieu regime by the threat of far greater violence than had ever, even by Johnson, been visited upon them. That was going to bring about, he thought, a victory-type settlement – at least a mutual withdrawal of the troops. That's of course what he did not get in '72, never has, and never will.
Has there been, even now, a change in the basic United States commitment to the Thieu regime?
No. On the contrary, I think Nixon definitely has in mind maintaining it – not a commitment to Thieu himself, but a commitment to maintaining a U.S. regime in Saigon. It would be somewhat unstabilizing to our policy to have another switch in Vietnamese leadership, but the basic policy could easily survive with different leadership. The idea that General Thieu is indispensable is not true.
Why do you think you failed to judge that situation correctly in late 1968? You were expecting a new president to approach the situation fresh, yet knowing well what Kissinger's theory of world power was, knowing the type of man Nixon was...
Oh well, nearly everybody made that mistake. It was perfectly plausible. Frankly, once I had changed my perception late in 1969, I was never able to convince anybody. Everyone was shocked by Cambodia, but they quickly accepted the notion that he had made one mistake, and he wouldn't repeat it. They wanted to believe he was getting out.
You see, with all the power the president has to contradict and retaliate against a critic, to disprove him you need a document. And great resources of the system are mobilized against the leak of documents.
People who wrote memoirs – and who hoped to be employed by some future president – would tell all the substance of the information, but they would be careful not to disclose that they were directly quoting from a document. It's not necessarily because they were partisans of a particular president, but there are certain things an insider doesn't disclose about a president, even one from whom he has resigned. Not only can the president still retaliate, but if you plan to stay in the market for future executive service, you have to show discipline in your discretion; you have to make it quite clear that no matter what the provocation, there are some things you won't tell about a boss – above all, you won't hit him with documents.
It's fundamentally like the situation in Orwell's 1984, where no one strictly believed what the regime said. They were not surprised when word changed from day to day, because there were lots of contrary rumors and hearsay. But one thing the Party was extremely careful about was not to allow any incriminating documents – anything that would show the current line was not what it had always been – to survive. Whenever they changed the line, they destroyed or changed all documents.
Orwell was pretty close. We found out in 1972 General Lavelle had a couple of hundred officers and men at work in the evening, after a hard day of bombing, writing false reports of their missions. And we've just found out that as early as '69 the records of bombings in Cambodia and Laos were also being systematically falsified.
It must have been a peculiar arrogance of the Nixon administration to so politely document everything they did at home.
That's true, but remember the documents coming out now were written within the White House and were never meant to be seen by more than three or four people.
We find the fewest memos by Haldeman, who had good access to the president. But people who can't just wander into the president's office have to attract his attention with eye-catching written material expressed in extremely tough and cynical terms, to establish "here's a guy who will stop at nothing" – or to put it another way – "a very useful person with a very colorful imagination" – a great "idea man," i.e., a person who allows himself to think of subjects which, for other people, are taboo. They are all competing in this way. It's only this strange set of circumstances that has allowed us to look at their memos.
But the Pentagon Papers... well, that brings me back to why I thought they were relevant in 1969. What I lacked then was documentary evidence of what I had just been told by Halperin, Vann and three or four others who are still with the government and who I don't want to identify. But I did have something unusual. I had the Pentagon Papers. Unfortunately they ended in March of 1968. But the promise they held was that the pattern of 1964-65 was close to what was now a prospect; and if I could show that at least once in the past an administration had acted in a conspiratorial fashion, people should at least consider the possibility that it was happening again.
Moreover, since it was a story about a Democratic administration – several of them, really, including Truman's – releasing these documents would make it tempting for Nixon to throw the responsibility for the war on Democrats, where it mainly belonged, and bring it to a quick halt. It was the only way I could imagine he would ever write it off. I felt very urgently about getting the Papers out before he committed himself publicly. I thought he was evenly balanced at the time.
I had given all the Papers to Fulbright, but his initial reaction, that they would be very good material for hearings, changed after November 3rd, when everybody accepted the notion that Nixon had a new policy of getting out. He now felt that the Democrats' policy was very interesting, historically, but had no relevance to what Nixon was doing.
Then in May of '70, when the Cambodian invasion took place, Halperin resigned as consultant to Kissinger, and three members of Kissinger's staff left in the dispute. They were the first officials ever to leave the government in protest over the Vietnam War, and the only ones since. Unfortunately, none of them was willing to really speak out, except for Halperin, later.
For a brief period after May, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff was quite enthusiastic about setting up Pearl Harbor-type hearings on the war, using the Pentagon Papers, but then the mood went away within a month or two. As soon as the troops left Cambodia, everybody said Nixon wouldn't do that again. I, Mort Halperin and a few other people knew that he was going to do more, but there was no way to convince the others.
You asked how I could have thought Nixon would change the policy? But really, everybody thought that, for what seemed perfectly natural reasons. I think the harder question to answer is, why didn't they change the policy? How could they have possibly dreamed of winning the Vietnam War as of 1969?
I think the best answer is that both Nixon and Kissinger have a deep and fundamental belief, an almost mystical faith, in the effectiveness of threatening and causing pain or death. They believe it legitimate to inflict almost any amount of pain and death necessary to enforce their threats.
Throughout all these years, few people had an overall grasp of what was going on in Vietnam. In fact, nobody seemed to have an overall grasp, an adequate comprehension, of the forces that were keeping us involved. How could that occur?
Limitations within the intellectual framework under which each faction approached the problem. The "radicals" had a broader perspective and were led into less error than practically any other group. But they had very little comprehension of the way things actually operated within the bureaucracy. And they paid relatively little attention to the question of power factions and struggles within interest groups or between interest groups. Then too, they paid much less attention to racist considerations or the psychological connections.
The Women's Liberation movement, for example, coming from a different direction, is quite able to see the very strong appeal to male chauvinism that's central to imperialist dogma. Certainly Nixon, whose personality, whose adult life, has coincided with war and Cold War, has from start to finish appealed to the fear of weakness, of avoiding a feminine surrender to aggressive Communism. The politics of masculinity. His charge is always of being soft on Communism, being seduced by Communism. And notions that are a little more abstract – irresolution, and indecision. That was the attack on both Stevenson and McGovern.
I think Nixon is now shifting the ideology considerably to a much more general and explicit imperialist appeal of being Number One in the world, since now we're competing with these Communist giants – and with West Europe and Japan – on more or less equal terms. So it's a non-ideological approach in terms of the Cold War, but very ideological in the older, Rudyard Kipling sense of imperial responsibilities for maintaining world order and our own supremacy.
You have written that war is good for the health of the executive branch, especially secret wars, major crisis and limited wars with large potential. Do you think the war in Vietnam was sustained deliberately for the health of the executive branch?
We came out of World War II with an enormously enlarged executive branch. It followed a great enlargement during the New Deal, an enlargement which had been falling into some disrepute at the end of the Thirties since it had not, after all, solved the economic problem. But the mystique of the executive solution was restored by the Second World War.
The range of what it was legitimate for the president to do, on his own initiative and secretly, was enormously broadened, almost limitless, by the end of the Second World War. We allowed the president to prepare the atomic weapon secretly and to drop it on his own initiative. There wasn't much by that point that an American president wasn't allowed.
What do you think the effect of World War II was on its middle-level managers, the social managers and the executive and economic managers?
They grew up in a state that was run entirely by the president, with great popular acceptance and with every appearance that it had to be that way in fighting Hitler, and maybe in counteracting the Depression; a state in which Congress was almost totally discredited as isolationist. Moreover, right after the war, Congress looked peculiarly reactionary and parochial, Southern and farm-oriented. So they had no respect for Congress, and no respect for the courts, which had not yet taken the positive initiative in civil rights and civil liberties. You had a press which had been very subservient during the war, and a labor movement, the most radical elements of which were devoted to a no-strike policy.
All these institutions seemed devoid of initiative, glamour, respectability, power or legitimacy. The executive branch was the only game in town, and one of enormous power and fascination.
Do you think the way in which the war was conducted affected the social and ethical fiber of the men who ran it?
The process of attracting upwards people whose values and abilities were suited to large-scale managerial operations rewarded those with an orientation toward power and extreme organizational loyalty. So we developed an enormous managerial executive government, with growing affinities toward the managerial governments in Russia and elsewhere.
Have you heard of the Dupreal Theorem that the United States becomes like the USSR as it responds to the Soviet Union as an aggressor by imitating its techniques? Thus, the USA becomes an aggressor.
I've just come from a conference of the War Resisters League, which was started by World War II conscientious objectors. The World War II COs were not at all incapable of seeing the evil of Hitler, but they had an awful lot to say about the costs of going into combat – that getting into an enormous fight with this powerful enemy was going to change the United States, and this direction was going to be reinforced precisely by the evil characteristics of the Hitler regime.
In other words, the process of making the United States into a huge machine for killing, on a vast scale, an enemy that seemed to require very inhuman techniques, was going to have very evil consequences for us. There's no question now that the effect went much further than we were generally willing to recognize. We have become a country capable of preparing the destruction of all life on earth.
Remember, it was unthinkable by us to use a weapon like the atom bomb as of 1940 or '41. Even our Air Force officers were genuinely shocked that the British were led to a strategy of city bombing and the bombing of industrial housing. It took four years until we were ready for the bombing of Tokyo and other cities in Japan on a massive scale. Having done that, it was perfectly natural to use the atom bomb.
This came at a time when the American president was less subject to having his powers monitored or challenged than ever before. Suddenly these scientists handed him an absolutely unprecedented power. The success of the Manhattan Project seemed to legitimize the unprecedented secrecy that accompanied it. It introduced the whole nation – as did a lot of wartime operations – to the notion that there are secrets the president must keep from the world, even at the cost of keeping them from his own people.
However, the nature of the information was such that you couldn't keep it a secret very long from other countries. It was just a layman's illusion that you could. But the illusion served to justify extending a program of clearances, a postwar phenomenon under Truman. A general system of classification for the first time extended to the civilian branches of the government.
The nuclear field seemed to involve secrets that must be kept for a lifetime. It developed of a community whose careers were dedicated to secret information – large bureaucracies where not only the day-to-day decision-making was kept invisible, but also the results and basic purposes of what they were doing.
This was a development essential to the things we're seeing lately – the ability to initiate secret wars and massive bombing campaigns without anyone leaking any of that information. Or even the Watergate operation, which didn't leak at all until the break-in, and not much after that, during the campaign
What were your personal experiences with secret decision-making and with the operational aspects of secrecy?
During my first period at Rand in 1958, I was working on the problems of the vulnerability of our retaliatory force, basically our Strategic Air Command. This information was very little known even inside the Pentagon, and was precisely the kind of thing that should not be revealed to an enemy. So I learned the process of secrecy in a context that made it seem very legitimate.
Later I studied crisis decision-making, such as the Cuban missile crisis, a legitimate kind of very fast, intense maneuvering where it was essential that an adversary not know what you were about to do. It was during that year, with very high-level access to all our secrets in the State and Defense Departments and the CIA, that I began to see that the very process of keeping secrets created problems in decision-making. Things were compartmentalized and kept by one section of government from another, often creating the crisis or making it more intense.
I also became aware of the degree to which domestic politics enters the process of foreign policy decision-making. Foreign policy serves the purpose of increasing the chances of reelection of an administration, or of avoiding the chances of being thrown out of office. I began to see the esoteric motives behind a good deal of our policy, but at that point I wanted to learn more from the inside.
I got the chance to take part directly in Vietnam staff work within the government and went to Vietnam during the first year U.S. troops were there, 1964-65. I was working with data which was being concealed from, and lied about to, the public – very largely because an election was going on. In the 1964 election, the policies of the opponent were ridiculed and condemned as insane, irresponsible and reckless, when every civilian and military adviser to President Johnson believed the policies were viable and took it for granted that the president would commit himself to those policies after the election. That expectation was carried out.
When you first started getting romanced by this access to secret material and the mysteries, how did you personally react to this knowledge?
Well, a lot of those secret facts were guesses as to the Russian missile buildup – which proved to be quite wrong. We were responding to a situation that was not developing. And that was a great jolt to me in 1961, discovering that the Russians had not built up their missile forces. That, too, was a secret piece of information. From that time on I became preoccupied with how the government could go so wrong in its perception and its predictions.
The explanation really came to me after I left Rand in 1970. I began reading the revisionist histories of the Cold War, and saw to what extent the perception of powerful dangers was crucial to the expansion and predominance of the executive, to selling an expansionist policy and, in particular, a large arms budget, to the public. A lot of these policies were seen as important to our economy, not only to certain specific industries, but also to our overall export trade and, perhaps, to the avoidance of a postwar depression.
You're describing a situation where, in response to actually a totally misstated set of foreign circumstances, the United States built up an arsenal and capability without reason.
With pretty good reason, I'm saying. With a strikingly coherent reason, but one thoroughly different from what was presented to the country. Apologists for these policies were mainly people who didn't know much about how the policy really was made. They were consciously exaggerating certain "threats," and were very prone to misperceive other events in a certain consistent way. Again and again they saw, for instance, a coherent worldwide Communist policy that didn't exist.
Was this a deliberate policy inside the executive branch? Did it increase their strength?
Yes, very much so. And it also was for outside interests that sustain the executive branch, particularly industries that were concerned with international trade. I'm talking about the auto industry, arms, IBM, oil, obviously, and fruit, public utilities, mining in Latin America, ITT; and then a growing number of industries – Wall Street, and international banking firms – with great financial interests in Western Europe.
Was there a coherent body of thought within these multinational and heavy industrial corporations, a conspiratorial aspect that brought influence to bear on the executive branch? Or was it a confluence of separately made decisions?
This is the kind of thing I want to do research on. The basic revisionist thesis is that a number of men late in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations feared an economic recession in this country after the war, and they say this, questionably, as the inevitable result of a collapse of our trade with Western Europe. These were people with economic interests in Western Europe.
To prevent a collapse they tried to get various economic policies out of Congress, including low tariffs – in which they did not succeed – and foreign aid for European recovery, to sustain U.S. exports to Europe. But they ran up against a Congress dominated by Midwest Republicans who represented economic interests relatively local in nature. These congressmen were not terrifically impressed by the need either to maintain our export trade or to help Europe help itself. But they were anti-Communist, and they did prove receptive to the need to fight against atheistic Communism.
So, these huge financial enterprises consciously and cynically presented Congress with that threat, exaggerated enormously with the thought of implementing a very valid and justified policy objective – in this case, getting money out of Congress for the Marshall Plan. Ultimately the emphasis shifted from foreign aid to a very large arms budget, including keeping a large number of troops in Europe, which has the same economic effect as providing credits.
These men set out, in the famous phrase of Vandenberg in his advice to Truman, "to scare hell out of the country," with the intention of avoiding a recession, the importance of which they could rationalize on 10 different grounds other than their particular economic interests in Europe.
This was a large part of the basis of our Cold War policy. That is not to say that Stalin was a benign force in the world at all; they did see him for what he was – a bloody, paranoid dictator. But he was a conservative ruler who was not at all inclined to expand into Western Europe.
We had this system of "misperceptions" which begin to show a very consistent pattern when you lay them end to end. We find [Truman's Secretary of State] Acheson, totally "misconceiving" the nature of the Greek situation, which he described as being run from Russia, despite a lot of evidence that it was being carried on despite the wishes of Stalin. The same was true in China. (Ironically, most evidence is, and was then, that Stalin was hostile to the success of strong, nationalistic regimes in areas not contiguous to the reach of the Red Army.)
The United States seemed dogmatically wedded to interpretations that the Korean invasion was the start of a worldwide advance by satellite armies, the notion that the Russians were running the Chinese revolutionary movement, and the notion that either the Russians or the Chinese were running the Indochinese movement. The missile gap in the late Fifties was totally misconceived, but it was an exact replica of the earlier bomber gap.
And in the course of all this we gradually acquired the attributes of what we were warned about very early in the period, even in '39 and '40, by these pacifists: the development of a garrison state, of a state dominated by militarist managers of foreign policy, a state that had the characteristics of an armed camp.
Do you think that economic imperialism is basically what brought us into Vietnam, and that an understanding of it is the key to what you call "an adequate comprehension of the forces" that brought us into Vietnam?
On the contrary, I think that this explanation goes so clearly against a lot of the phenomena in Vietnam, that some people are just tempted to say that Vietnam disproves the economic model overall. That was my own inclination for a long time. What is needed is a more complicated understanding of the way the system works.
I think Vietnam, in effect, was a cost of that overall ideology, rather than an objective. You couldn't stay out of intervention in Vietnam without to some extent questioning, or undermining, the rationale for your overall policy.
Specifically, you had a system in which politicians competed for campaign contributions, and ultimately for votes, on the basis of their ability to manage the Cold War competently and toughly. Nearly every election after '48 was run with this as a primary issue. Kennedy ran against Nixon, in part, on the grounds that Eisenhower and Nixon had allowed our arms strength and military prestige to decline, that we were relatively weak, and that they had allowed Communists to take over an area 90 miles off our shores. They had "lost Cuba to Communism," just as Harry Truman was accused by Nixon of having lost China and North Korea to Communism.
In '64 the contest was not between a dove and hawk, but between a more responsible or less responsible manager of the Cold War conflict: Whom did you prefer to have run the Vietnam War?
McGovern, in '72, was the first candidate in that generation – and in this he differed from Muskie, say, or the other candidates – to run not as a potential manager of the Cold War. Who knows what he might ultimately have done? But he was offering an alternative to a Cold War policy and preoccupation, and he was questioning the basic premises of the Cold War.
So you think that Vietnam is a result of the overall deception that was created for the economic interests?
Yes, quite specifically the Democratic administration of Truman and Acheson in 1949 and '50 could not afford to accept the victory of a Communist group, however nationalistic in reality, in Indochina on top of the inevitably coming victory of Communism in China – which they were going to be charged with bringing about by their own lack of foresight.
Yet they would not have had to face this had they not created the lie in the first place, which they were forced to sustain.
They themselves called up the anti-Communist genie out of the bottle, and having raised that genie, they were vulnerable to its being turned against them for their own failures in the face of Communism, specifically the Russian atom bomb in 1949 and the Communist attacks and successes in Korea.
Later Democrats could only really blunt that attack – or deflect it – if they were willing to attack the basic premises of the Cold War. And those premises, by the way, became very shaky with the death of Stalin. Maintaining the Cold War after 1953 meant very resolutely refusing to perceive any of the indications that there were potentials for rapprochement with people like Malenkov, Bulganin or Khrushchev. It meant refusing to perceive, until very late in the game, splits between China and Russia, refusing to see that various insurgent movements abroad were getting very little help or encouragement from Moscow. We really had become increasingly divorced from reality.
If victory seemed unattainable in Indochina, which it has mostly always been, your choices were either to postpone any definitive defeat by escalating to whatever degree necessary, or to pull out and suffer the charge of having lost Indochina, a liability that no one ever wanted to go into an election with. Or, third, to challenge the whole set of premises and, say, "All right, Communists won there, but that doesn't hurt the United States, that doesn't mean Peking or Moscow have been made significantly stronger. Our welfare doesn't depend on that; our economy doesn't depend on it." You could have said all that, but you'd be charged with being weak and self-serving. More importantly, if you had gotten to office at any given point, you had done so with the support of groups that were benefited by popular belief in an implacable Cold War conflict. And, that meant that campaign contributions would become very problematic.
So, we couldn't get out of the war without changing a domestic political system that serves powerful elites in our society.
Except for Nixon who was engaged in the third alternative of changing the attitudes toward the Cold War, i.e., his China and Russia moves; he could easily have made the loss of Indochina a part of that change at a very early point. He was supported by business interests who by this time were nearly unanimously opposed to the war in Vietnam, except for the major military contractors.
In Nixon's case, it's not possible to look to economic forces outside the government to explain his actual continuation of the war. Or, his expansion of it. You have to refer to the fact that he was a professional politician who wanted to succeed within a particular political context – he wanted to stay in office.
So what was the position he found himself in? He would, on the one hand, surely have gotten wide acceptance if he'd ended the war; that, in itself, would not have resulted in his defeat. The trouble was, it wasn't good enough to get him re-elected because the population as a whole could have said, "thanks," and then voted for somebody else. They didn't like Richard Nixon, and he knew that.
I think, he figured, "How can I do what Mitchell wanted: hold on to my votes from '68 and get Wallace's 1968 votes?" It meant, first, hoping or ensuring that Wallace didn't run. Then, if Wallace were out of the race, he had to assure that Wallace's votes went to him rather than to his opponent.
Wallace was a very genuine threat to Nixon – not that he might win the election, but that he might throw it to a Democrat. He almost did that in 1968; he could easily have done it in 1972.
I've always suspected that the chance for a true negotiated settlement on Nixon's part went off the bridge at Chappaquiddick in July of '69. Because until that moment Nixon had to confront the prospect of a coherent Democratic party line that was very, very challenging on the war. After Chappaquiddick, for at least the space of a couple of years and maybe indefinitely, he really didn't have to worry about the Democratic party. He could devote himself to a different problem – attracting the votes of Wallace supporters by a tough pursuit of an "honorable" settlement.
He could better appeal to instincts for authoritarian government, racist instincts and some of the chauvinist instincts. And I think, in particular, he wanted if possible to be able to tar his opponent with a weak, feminine appearance, a pro-black appearance and a pro-Communist appearance.
By linking all these things together with a Democratic policy of ending the war that appeared less virile and patriotic than the one Nixon held out for, he would stir up a right-wing backlash that would strip votes from the Democrats and, hopefully, hand them to Nixon instead of to Wallace. That meant he had to keep the war going, rather than accept the only kind of terms on which it could be ended (and on which it finally was ended, after the election).
So here again we see an example of the lengths to which Nixon would go to assure his re-election. Since Watergate, do you think people are as vulnerable to this sort of deception and vicious manipulation of the political process?
One reason I'm following Watergate so closely is that I think it's affecting the mass consciousness in a very crucial way, which will change the political culture of this country. It's reawakening people and giving them tremendous vitality at last. It's also providing a lot of data, which is otherwise unobtainable, about how the system has worked and what the specific influences were. And part of it is data that's very important to confirm. It'll call for a lot of rethinking by anybody serious who's trying to understand this.
How does it feel to watch the Watergate hearings and hear your name come up day after day?
From the week the trial ended, midway through a crescendo of the Watergate revelations, the hearings have kept me absorbed. I watch them with a feeling of tension and alertness, like being hunted. I see how I was hunted over these two years, far more than I realized. I had this sense that the president was coiling himself for one last attack on me.
As he is pushed closer and tighter into a corner on the criminal issue of his own involvement in the burglary of my doctor's office, he's virtually got to attack me: He has got to provide the extenuating circumstances – that this guy Ellsberg was really a dangerous person – why he had to use these extra-legal methods to discredit me or "reveal" my true nature to the public and to prepare a Justice Department prosecution.
It must be frustrating – to hear the accusations and not be able to answer them.
Having them talk about me in front of 25 million people, and laying charges of criminal actions on my part... espionage and treason... I'm sitting in front of that television set, all alone, and all I can do is shake my fist at the screen, without being heard. They talk about my giving the Papers to the Soviet Embassy, or use this word "theft" very promiscuously. It's as if I were still sitting at the defense table at the trial. I wait for the senators to say something on my behalf, and they never do.
Have you found any way to ease any of the anxiety?
Somebody pointed out that we ought to send a letter to the committee, so I helped my lawyer draft a letter which we asked to be read. I, of course, totally denied the charges and expressed regret that no senator had seen fit to challenge them. Ehrlichman made them a dozen times altogether, and Haldeman and Mitchell, too.
We wrote that we wished they had asked those guys, and would they please ask in the future, such questions as, "What evidence do you have that these Papers ever went to the Soviet Embassy?" "What evidence do you have that Ellsberg was associated with its going to the Embassy, if it did?" "Why has no one been indicted for this crime?" "In two years of prosecution with two grand juries, why was no hint of it ever mentioned?" These seem fairly obvious questions, but they haven't been asked.
From a political point of view, I can sympathize with the senators. They have enough to deal with, in confronting the president directly, without having to defend me. They put themselves against burglary and for the Constitution without getting in the vulnerable or controversial position of being for Ellsberg. They're saying, in effect, "OK, let's agree, for purposes of discussion, that Ellsberg is a traitor and a thief and all that, but does that still give you the right to burglarize?" That's a very strong position for them, but it does kind of push me off the sled.
What's most unsettling about an accusation like that is that it's so off the wall. It suggests Nixon's willing to say literally anything; there's no way to guess what he'll say next. If one charge doesn't float, I have to assume that he feels completely unrestrained in his next shot.
Of course, Nixon's credibility isn't at its greatest. If you had a choice of someone to make charges against you, Nixon would be pretty good except for the fact that he still is president of the United States.
The first sign that you were going to be a tactical target came as Nixon's first response to the Watergate hearings, the banquet he gave at the White House for the POWs.
I had been invited to speak on the Today Show, something I thought I'd better do because things were getting a little heavy – Strom Thurmond and Hugh Scott had just denounced me – and maybe I should make an appearance. I was at the Today Show studios in New York at 7:00 in the morning. They ran film clips of Nixon's speech the night before, which I hadn't seen because I had been flying to New York.
It was very dramatic footage.
He was lit in a rather Rembrandt fashion – what do you call that? Chiaroscuro lighting? Floodlit faces and deep shadows.
He was building up, extolling the bravery of the men who had bombed Hanoi. They cheered. Then he said, "I think it's about time that we stop making national heroes out of men who steal secrets and give them to the press." The POWs leapt to their feet and began cheering wildly. It was an eerie feeling to watch the president of the U.S. appealing on such terms to this group, the men Nixon was trying to sell as the nation's heroes.
A lot of people might say, Nixon is just saying that because he has to defend himself. But I have to report that it's not easy to be fully relaxed while watching the president make that kind of attack on you.
He went on to say, "I ask you to help me, to help me in opposing leaks." And I had to ask myself, what exactly is he asking them to do?
It was a grotesque moment. The lighting was like Albert Speer describes rallies.
It had a Nuremberg-like flavor to it. There's no getting around that. I was in the television studio waiting to talk in quite general terms about my case. I had to react immediately, and I didn't have time to reflect fully on what I'd just seen.
That was one occasion where they caught me off guard; I was not braced for it all. The very discovery of the president's involvement was only a couple of weeks old, and I didn't have the whole picture. I wasn't yet aware of how the president had apparently personalized this conflict in his own mind.
Now, if there was one thing that I had concealed or dissembled during the two-year period, it was the weight of this process on me – whether it scared me or not. I had the feeling that part of what they were trying to achieve was to deter other people and to confirm, through a big drama, "presidential guerrilla theater," the widespread feeling that you can't fight the state. They wanted to show that for one rash act of daring, I was paying the penalty, being destroyed by focused hostility. So when I was asked how I felt, I simply refused to express any fear, any anxiety or tension. I thought that would be giving them what they wanted.
But for once, at that moment on television, I was conscious of a defensive tone in my voice – sort of tacitly saying, "Hey, what's happening here? What's in store for me? Should the president of the United States be attacking me like that?"
This feeling of not knowing what was coming next and being even less able than I was in the courtroom to participate in some kind of strategic or tactical reaction has made it hard. We've been alone – which is what we wanted after the trial – but that means our whole team of people has dispersed and hasn't been around to confer with... it's feeling isolated.
Why do you think Nixon is so obsessive about you?
Egil Krogh, one of the "Plumbers," told the Christian Science Monitor that in the very first meeting, when Nixon discussed the "special investigative unit" and gave Krogh the assignment to investigate me, he told him to read his chapter on Alger Hiss in Six Crises. Krogh told yet another reporter that "to Nixon, Ellsberg is Hiss." From the time I heard that, my assumption was I represented an opportunity for Nixon to relive his greatest triumph – the exposure of an Eastern-educated guy with good Establishment credentials who really turns out to be a vicious liar and spy.
There is another line of thinking on this, that they really were panicked by the Pentagon Papers, that Nixon was obsessed with me because I really did challenge and threaten him in some personal way. It's possible... we just haven't heard enough about it.
Any other reasons?
Perhaps they wanted to demonstrate to others that the behavior of conscience, of speaking out, was not at all permissible.
In a general way, what I did could be seen – I did see it as such – in very Gandhian terms. It was nonviolent, in fact an act of pure, abstract truth-telling. It's almost a classic Gandhian dream, to suppose that such an act of truth-telling – and taking personal responsibility for it, publicly – is precisely what it took to disturb this government profoundly.
Their policy and administrative framework had been based for a whole generation on secrets and lying. The notion that the Ship of State is leaking truth is as frightening and unstabilizing for the government as anything could possibly be.
Now we know why he had reason to fear leaks: He had more to conceal in the way of actual operations than I realized. I knew that he was concealing his intentions and his plans, but I wasn't sure of the scale of the secret bombings of Cambodia. And there well may be other operations that remain to be revealed.
When I'd started on this, I had always assumed they would attack me – first by putting me in prison for the rest of my life, and second by going after my reputation. It's just a standard approach. In fact, it was always very puzzling why it didn't seem to be happening at any given moment. We knew they were collecting as much as they could on my sexual life, associations and personal things, but they didn't seem to be using it. We were always waiting for that shoe to drop.
Frankly, part of my unsettled feeling was that I didn't really know quite how to feel. If my reputation was smeared, that, in itself, is not of any particular political significance. Patricia said something that did put it into perspective and made it easier to think about: "All right, say that just because his back is to the wall, Nixon does have to attack you; and say that it sticks, it really hurts your reputation. You just have to regard yourself as a casualty of Watergate. And it will have been worth it."
We now know that when the burglars were caught in the Watergate, everybody connected with it understood that, sooner or later, the burglary of my doctor's office was almost sure to be revealed since the very guys who had done it were in the hands of the Justice Department. I presume that they then structured my prosecution so as to limit the damage to them of that coming out.
In fact, when it did come out, the prosecutor, David Hassen, immediately told reporters, "You will not find a word of testimony in our case that could have come from a psychiatrist's files." He seemed to know that so quickly, which would suggest he had designed it that way. And that would explain why we hadn't heard rumors about my personal life during the trial. It made for a surprisingly clean prosecution.
Did they in fact find anything in your psychiatrist's files?
They did see some things in his files, because they'd been displaced. These were papers with my name on them, but not actually interesting – nothing that they would have liked, nothing personal. They probably did see medical history, which didn't amount to anything; they had that on me anyway from government service.
I think they did photograph more than they admitted. I'm virtually sure they lied when they said they photographed nothing that had my name on it.
They had quite a bit to risk if they were to use that stuff during the trial, after the Watergate break-in. But they don't have anything to lose now. They have little to lose by trying almost anything that might possibly be helpful to them, true or false.
What kinds of things do you think they might use?
There really is nothing true that I've been able to think of which would embarrass me at this point. However, that Soviet Embassy gag suggests they are not going to be limited to true events.
Have you been able to trace where the Soviet Embassy charge originated, and who thought it up?
It first appeared in Krogh's affidavit at the tail end of our trial. He said he had been told by the FBI. Last week, Time magazine quoted another FBI source that there was never any concrete evidence such an event took place at all, just a "vague rumor" floating around.
From the start, my guess has been, and still is, that probably nothing ever did go to the Soviet Embassy; but if I ask myself who had both the ability and the motive to send the Papers to the Russians, the White House is the only one I can think of. After the Papers were published in The New York Times, who the hell else would give them to the Russians, and why would the Russians even want them? It was worth about $2.95 to the Russians, for the Bantam book, maybe $50 for the government edition. And meanwhile, they were getting it for 10 cents a day in The New York Times. The White House people had a fine opportunity to turn my prosecution into a true espionage case, in a way that would be costless to them. Nothing could be easier than to run off an extra copy and send it over to the Soviet Embassy.
But they had a problem trying to explain why I would give the Papers to the Russians. All the evidence they had on me was as the CIA profile certified, that I'd acted out of patriotic motives, or at least, that my background was very patriotic – more than ordinary. So how could you explain my giving documents to the Soviets?
Blackmail. Harper's had a guy who was writing a book on Watergate and had talked to Sturgess, one of the guys they found in the break-in. And Sturgess told him the team had been told I was a homosexual...
The Watergate team. They had been told I was a homosexual who had been blackmailed into giving the Papers to the Russian Embassy.
Well, as soon as I heard this, I could see a sense to it. Their minds run to blackmail in all cases, anyway. They blackmail each other; it's the first thing they seem to think of. The only thing they could actually find on me would be a particular period of what could be called promiscuity, the kind of thing you wouldn't go out of your way to tell a jury – even though I hadn't been married at the time – but with a larger audience might make me a cultural hero. But you can only do so much with that, and it certainly would be no basis for blackmail.
So what they were looking for, I now suspect – this is all speculative – was something they could plausibly claim was a basis for blackmail, and they hoped to get it from my psychiatric files. They do seem to go toward this charge of homosexuality, despite the advances made by gay liberation.
What else are they digging into concerning your private life?
Well, it was known to Hunt, for example, that I had taken LSD twice, under controlled clinical circumstances, in '60 and '61. Everybody at Rand knew that. I never regarded that as any secret or particularly embarrassing.
From the very point at which you were identified, it appeared that the attack on you – whether by prosecution in the courts, personal attacks, leaks in the press, or now during the Watergate hearings – had come right from the White House.
I had assumed that the prosecution was a White House decision because it was so unprecedented in legal terms. That raised the question of what the general objective was.
Our first notion was that I had been indicted simply because I'd just given out thousands of pages of information stamped top secret, so how could they not indict me? But the more we looked into precedent and the actual law, the clearer it became that no statute had been violated.
This must have been known to the Justice Department. The issue of prosecuting someone for releasing or using classified documents had often arisen in the government, but the legal counsels of the various departments – State, CIA, Defense and Justice Department – had often expressed, in writing, the view that there was no legal basis for prosecuting. If there was no way to prove intent to harm the interests of the United States or to help a foreign power, there could be no prosecution under the Espionage Act. And as far as copying was concerned, transferring information, not tangible property, is not subject to prosecution as theft.
They had no authority, no Official Secrets Act of the type the British have, and they knew it. So we supposed they were reasoning: Well, we'll prosecute just to support the usual layman's belief that there is such a law.
The prosecution went on and on, but really wasn't doing everything it could to get me. They were trying pretty hard, pulling in quite a few witnesses, especially on rebuttal, but still, not trying as hard as it seemed they could. Their case was thin.
More and more the question in our minds became why was the prosecution brought? Our main assumption was that they were trying to get, by convicting me, the equivalent of an Official Secrets Act, which they couldn't get from Congress, thanks to the First Amendment. I still think that was part of their reasoning.
But that finally came to seem not quite enough for all the effort they were going to. What gave me the clue was one other piece of information. There had always been a potential in the case for implicating a number of people who had dealings both with the Pentagon Papers and with me. All those people happened to be advisers to Senator Muskie.
To see the full importance of that, recall what we know now from the hearings about the mood of the White House in the years 1969 to 1971. As late as mid-1971, and really as early as '69, the White House was very worried about the next election.
The 1968 election had been very frightening to them because Nixon had lost his early lead to Humphrey, even against an extremely divided and demoralized Democratic party. They barely squeaked through, and they knew from then on that '72 could not be regarded as a pushover. The results of the 1970 election confirmed that even more ominously.
As late as '71, even after the China trip had been announced, the polls told them that if the election were held then, and if Muskie or some other Democratic centrist were nominated especially Ted Kennedy, and if Wallace were also running, Nixon would come in third. The polls indicated Muskie ahead as late as January and February, '72, which is when the plans for bugging the Watergate were discussed in the Justice Department. The president then had every reason to be running scared, especially against Muskie.
It isn't easy to touch Muskie – that's the very limitation of Muskie, from my point of view. He didn't take stands, he didn't commit himself and he didn't make up his mind, or he shifted his mind. There wasn't much the White House could get him with.
But, there was one thing: Mort Halperin, Les Gelb, Paul Warnke, Clark Clifford – the exact chain of command on the making of the Pentagon Papers – all were working for Muskie. So, when the Pentagon Papers were published in the press, in June of '71, there suddenly appeared a very promising circumstantial case against Muskie's closest foreign policy advisers.
Clifford had continued MacNamara's study. Why? Warnke, Gelb and Halperin had sent these papers to the Rand Corporation under special conditions that led to their being held outside the regular top-secret control system, and Halperin and Gelb were directly involved in authorizing me to study them at the Rand Corporation.
Since I knew that this would be an inevitable inference, I had always committed myself to take public responsibility for the disclosure if there were ever a grand jury investigation. I would be free, then, to be very explicit that these others had not been involved.
Just before the second indictment came out, in December 1971, we learned there were teams of prosecutors trying to establish a link with Halperin, Gelb and Warnke. The Young memo to Ehrlichman was perfectly explicit on that point. In fact, one of their criticisms of the FBI was that of all the agencies working on the case which apparently included State, Justice, Defense and the White House, "only the FBI believed that Ellsberg was the prime mover in this case." Score another one for the FBI!
But even after Muskie dropped out, they could still link me with almost any other Democratic candidate. I'd worked for both Bobby and Ted Kennedy. McGovern had announced that I offered the Papers to him. So had McCloskey, the Republican challenger. Even Humphrey had a link to me, because he had asked me to work full time for him in '68. I was available to tar any Democratic candidate except, perhaps, Jackson.
The White House had just two problems: I was somewhat too popular, and although I was controversial, I wasn't as negative a figure as would be ideal. So they had to blacken my reputation, and that, as Young says, was the purpose of going into my psychiatric files and, earlier, of getting the psychiatric profile. The other problem was to link me directly with these other guys, which would not really be provable, even though it would look that way.
How else did they attempt to go after your reputation?
We learned from Time magazine, and then from testimony, that the Watergate crew had been sent to assault me on the steps of the Capitol in May, 1972. The Cuban Americans have testified they were brought up from Miami, having just been recruited and paid by Barker, who had gotten the money from Liddy. This is the famous $114,000 in Barker's account. They were shown a photograph of me and told, "This is the target," according to testimony, "and you are to punch him in the nose and call him a traitor, and get away."
I had decided to attend this particular rally because of the bombing of Haiphong. We have a tape of my talk, about 12 or 14 minutes long, and you can hear people yelling, "Traitor" in the background. Afterwards, I was told that men had been trying to break through to me, and they'd been constrained by the young people who were behind the platform. They were taken off by the police when the scuffle started, and then, witnesses agree, there was a signal by some man in a gray suit, and the police released them.
When did you leave your job at Rand?
In mid-April, 1970. In that regard, let me mention something that is still a mystery. In April, '70, the FBI knew something about what I'd been doing. I actually started copying the Papers September 30th, 1969, and gave a large chunk of them to Fulbright in November. In the spring of 1970, my former wife called and told me that the FBI had been to see her about secret documents that I had copied. I resigned from the Rand Corporation immediately, in a day, on the assumption that the FBI would certainly be coming, and it would be very hard on Rand to be associated with me.
But the FBI didn't come, and I never heard from them. I stayed away for a month; then Rand seemed interested in having me come back and finish a paper I'd been writing for them on insurgent tactics. I figured I'm not endangering them too much; the FBI just doesn't seem to be following this up. So I did come back to Rand, writing the study until June 30th. In September I left Santa Monica and moved to Cambridge. Throughout that time, I kept my top-secret safe and still had access to top-secret documents.
At Rand, very few things are top secret, unlike the Pentagon, and I was one of the very few people – maybe there were four or five others – who had a top-secret safe, which is heavier and means your office gets checked nearly every hour by a guard.
In the last week of the trial we got some astounding documents by way of court order – the contents of Hunt's safe and material they had on the Rand witnesses who testified. To our amazement, we discovered the FBI had been to Rand in 1970 and had told them about this report they had that I had copied top-secret documents. Rand immediately identified the documents as the MacNamara Study on Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers.
Now, that stuff was in my safe at the time, so, of course, from that moment on, the FBI was in a position to examine it. And I presume they did. They had a number of interviews with Rand officials during April, May and June, including the president of Rand.
Rand decided not to alert me to the FBI interest so as not to interfere with the investigation. And they also made the very interesting judgment in 1970 – a year before the Papers were published and a year before I was indicted – that it was compatible with National Security for me to continue to have access to top-secret documents and to my safe.
In particular, they told the FBI that since Fulbright could have gotten this information anyway if he'd asked for it, and since it was proper for him to get it, then "what was being charged was an impropriety rather than espionage." Except that Fulbright had already twice asked Laird in writing for those documents, after I'd given him the first batch, and Laird had refused. Ultimately, Fulbright asked two more times, and twice more Laird refused. My judgment was proven correct – namely that there was no way for Fulbright to get them other than for me to copy and give them to him.
So it was very interesting to learn in June of 1970, the very month when President Nixon was preoccupied with the question of dealing with internal subversion, the month he called for this domestic intelligence plan drafted by Tom Huston and gone over by all the intelligence agencies, that the FBI knew all about this largest leak of classified information in history.
It is inconceivable that the president was not told about this case at that time, and certainly other people in the White House knew about it.
So, you're suggesting that he deliberately let you go ahead and do it?
I really don't know; I regard that as a real mystery. For instance, it is totally inconsistent with the impression Ehrlichman tried to give of his people being thrown into panic when the Pentagon Papers came out. It is certainly not true, as Ehrlichman put it, that, "We didn't know who'd done this, how it had come about; we didn't know what was happening." That's absurd.
The FBI obviously knew every relevant fact, about every act for which I was actually indicted (which didn't include distribution of the Papers), a year before I was indicted. So from the time they read those headlines in The New York Times, it couldn't have been an hour before even the top people knew who had leaked, what was copied, what the study was, when I did it, how I did it. For instance, an FBI agent was knocking on the door of my wife's doctor in New York the morning after the stuff started coming out on Sunday. They also pulled in [co-defendant Tony] Russo for questioning within days.
All this has to be seen in the context that, "We had to set up a special unit in the White House to carry out an investigation." Investigation of what? This was something they'd known about for 12 months.
I might say here, parenthetically, the name "Plumbers" is just one more euphemism. Hunt and Liddy, from what we know of their activities, did nothing ever to plug leaks. They certainly didn't need to find out the source of the Pentagon Papers because I'd already been indicted by the time they were hired, and the FBI had known a year before that. So for what purpose were they collecting all this personal information about me? They weren't plumbers. Their job was leaking, leaking scandal.
Do you think they had a role in the bombing of the Capitol Building in 1971?
They easily could have, or it could have been other units we haven't heard of yet. It's obvious from what we now know of Mitchell that every judgment he made in the Justice Department, and every conspiracy case brought, deserves to be looked at again. One of those cases has been reopened – Kent State.
With all the emphasis they were putting on bombing, on violence and so forth, those who they had actually prosecuted – me, the Berrigan group, the Harrisburg group, the Camden 28, the Minnesota Eight – were as nonviolent as you're likely to find. In virtually all these cases there were government provocateurs and informers; I think the widespread use of such agents needs looking at very closely. And such violence as we saw needs very close reexamination.
Someday we should reopen the question of how it really came about that SDS was shattered in the way that it was, and who might have been involved in the disputes between PL, Weatherman and SDS. The anti-war movement was shattered during that period; there were disputes over the issue of violence. And I would be very curious at this point to know just who was paying some of those people who were so hot on violence.
We now know how broad the objectives of the whole political espionage operation were, particularly against the Democratic nomination for the presidency. I suspect that the effect on the Democratic nomination was greater than even the people involved realized.
There may have been a lot more against Muskie's side than we know. We know, of course, that they tried to get Wallace out of the race early, by spending at least $400,000 to defeat him in his primary race for governor in 1970. Yet we have learned almost nothing about direct operations against Wallace's chances for '72.
The really insidious possibility suggested here, of course, is that the assassination attempt was arranged by the White House.
Well, that is not any allegation that I want to make prematurely...
I agree. It has the ring of hysteria to it and colors the way in which everything else is perceived, but nonetheless...
Well, I think this much can be said: Wallace was absolutely critical to their election chances. If you look through the Evans and Novak book, you'll find that from 1969 on, Mitchell's preoccupation was that in 1972 Nixon must add together his and Wallace's 1968 votes. The "Southern strategy" was adapted to that end – Nixon must not antagonize any Wallace-type votes by favoring blacks in any way, or failing to favor Southern candidates, as in the Supreme Court nominations.
But all of that merely made Nixon eligible for the Wallace votes, if Wallace didn't run. There isn't a single word in the Evans and Novak book about how this aim of adding Nixon and Wallace votes was going to be achieved if Wallace ran.
You could imagine that they hoped to make a deal with Wallace not to leave the Democratic party, and there were rumors that there had been such a deal. It's one thing for Wallace to decide not to run against Muskie or Kennedy; but suppose they were successful in the other part of their strategy, to knock Muskie out and get a candidate like McGovern. How could Wallace be induced not to run as a third-party candidate then?
Even with McGovern as the candidate, Nixon was in deep trouble if Wallace ran. And he would lose if someone other than McGovern were the candidate.
Now, let me try to state this very carefully, without being coy, but without totally avoiding the subject. Knowing now what the Nixon team was prepared to do to help his election, knowing that prominent members of that team were professional managers of assassination – I'm referring here to Hunt and to people who worked with him – and knowing that Wallace's not running was crucial to their success in '72, I think we must face the fact that the attempted assassination of Wallace deserves very close reexamination by law enforcement agencies. There is no need to say more than that. But I think at this point you needn't say less than that.
What else do you think?
I'll make one more guess on this question of why the FBI didn't come down on me immediately, why they let me go on copying. My guess is based on Evans and Novak's book, Nixon in the White House, which describes the congressional campaign of 1970 into which Nixon injected himself.
The original enemies list was renegade Republicans, who drove all the White House people crazy, especially Nixon. And at the head of the list was [Senator Charles] Goodell. Nixon apparently just hated him, and was determined to get him, as he did get him in the fall of '70 by supporting the conservative candidate, Buckley. The original FBI report, which happened to be incorrect, stated that I'd given the Papers to Goodell. This must have excited the White House people, that they had a good chance of pinning an espionage rap on Goodell.
It's very indicative that the enemies list contains Halperin, Gelb, Warnke, Clifford and MacNamara, in addition to me. In other words, everybody connected with the Pentagon Papers. Rather than pursuing the failing radical Left, they were after the liberal establishment.
The list also includes Harry Rowen, the president of Rand. That explains the puzzling testimony of the Rand people during my trial. I now see that they were under heavy investigation for inclusion in the conspiracy, and I'm sure that the prosecutor made them aware of that, aware that if they didn't testify along certain lines, they were prime candidates for indictment.
So you think there was an operation to silence all opposition, not just the radicals?
I think Nixon had reason to worry about the election of 1972; but as we know more about the real inner thinking of these people, I have a growing feeling that he was also thinking more broadly than that. What he and his close associates had in mind, whether or not they were fully conscious of it in these terms, was a quite radical change in our form of government.
We know, of course, that Nixon had certain goals for the Supreme Court, and although he may not have faced the implications of those goals, he was, in fact, emasculating the Court and eliminating it as an independent branch of government for a lifetime. The Congress had already accepted that passive role, and he did what he could to keep them in their place. So he was moving, very obviously, toward a single branch of government.
Beyond that, now that we know of this domestic intelligence plan, he was moving faster than I realized toward an even more authoritarian kind of police rule. That's not only the revocation of the First Amendment, but a decisive change in our form of government – an executive coup.
I used to talk of it as a slow coup, and emphasized the potential and the trend, the aspects which it had been taking for a generation. But I'd say the documents on domestic surveillance and the 1972 campaign are showing us plans for a coup that isn't all that slow, that was pretty close to the timetable in which the government changed its form in Greece and the Philippines recently. I'd suspected for some time that Nixon had some envy of those particular changes and that they might well be in our future.
When did you begin to suspect that?
On May 13th, 1970, when I testified for the first time before the Fulbright committee. This was during the week of the Cambodian invasion. I'd come to Washington to find the city filled with tear gas and with buses lined up in front of the White House, protecting the White House lawn from a couple hundred thousand people who had come to protest. I started out by commenting on a question that Fulbright had asked an earlier witness: What are our vital interests?
I said, "I think I have come to understand more clearly in this past week what a vital interest is in this country. We have a vital interest in getting out of Vietnam." I described what had been going on this week and said, "We cannot go on like this without a change in our institutions as radical and ominous as would be brought about by our occupation by a foreign power."
I had in mind a fairly specific sequence of events when I said that. The president had very obviously been taken by surprise by this invasion of the Capital following his invasion of Cambodia. Remember his actions on that Saturday morning: He went out to the Lincoln Memorial with his valet, and he sounded unhinged – that was the impression that he made on the students he spoke to.
But I knew he was going to be presenting the public with more such escalation, and he knew it, and now that he'd seen this reaction, I was sure that he would be prepared next time to deal with it much more forcefully.
That's part of it. The other part was how to use the excuse of anti-war activists, what he could call subversion and violent dissent, to dramatize the need for his re-election and to justify an internal police apparatus that would give him a complete lock on our political processes. Well, once you achieve a real power to manipulate individual opponents and manipulate the nominating process of the other side, to deter certain strong opponents from running against you, you have achieved essentially the same influence over elections that General Thieu has in Vietnam. You know, they still do have elections in Vietnam.
In some respects his re-election policies were as good as they looked, in terms of reversing some of the Cold War confrontations he had been so vital in establishing 20 years earlier. He was ready to close out the China and Russian confrontations. But, in addition, I think we can say from this amazingly detailed testimony we've been hearing and the memos his aides were writing to each other, that Nixon and his aides have a set of political values not universally shared by American politicians, that they have very little understanding of or sympathy for democratic values and processes.
They do not admire or trust democracy. They don't respect or trust the American people. They think of them at best, as Nixon himself put it, as children, and not wise or good children.
When Nixon began to impound funds, and in effect take control of the whole budgeting process, he took away the only power that Congress had left. He has not only changed the composition of the Supreme Court, but has publicly indicated he will ignore its rulings, as he announced recently with respect to the tapes.
We're getting to a situation like in Vietnam, where the Vietnamese Supreme Court reviewed the case of my close friend, Assemblyman Tran Ngoc Chan, arrested in early 1971 in the National Assembly and convicted on trumped-up charges by an illegal military court. The court held all of those actions unconstitutional, according to the Vietnamese constitution, but they refrained from ordering President Thieu to release him from prison, where he still is. The head of the court explained off the record to newsmen that they suspected Thieu would just ignore the order – thus their own power and authority would be shown to be not diminished, but destroyed. Similarly, Senator Harold Hughes told me at a rally in the spring of 1971: "What makes you think that the president would stop bombing if we cut off the funds?" In other words, the Congress had a strong suspicion they had already lost their power over appropriations and over war and peace and were simply acting to delay the moment when the public noticed. To say that is to say, in all substantive aspects, the coup had taken place.
Would you describe Nixon and his aides, then, as virtual fascists?
I am not assuming that these people would recognize fascism as a clear-cut goal. But rather – and this is enough – they had attitudes throughout this period which were perfectly compatible with that state, and they were working consistently to change the current state of affairs steadily toward an end-state that could ultimately be recognized as fascism.
They obviously wouldn't accept that name. I might say that, in speaking publicly, I have used for some years the term "monarchical form of government." The word "fascism" sounds, after the debates of the Thirties and Forties, like a smear word, an attempt to equate people with Hitler. It's hard to use the word in a technical way today.
The word "monarchy" not only has a freshness to it, but also conveys a large part of what I want to show – a move toward an unchecked executive branch which holds virtually all authority, in which a single man at the top has overwhelming power and is inevitably surrounded by people who, like courtiers, depend only on his favor and good will for their power; they vie for telling him what he wants to hear and doing what he wants done – regardless of law or reality.
If you ask congressmen why they didn't exert the powers they had on the books, you immediately run into a direct fear of offending the White House. No matter which party was involved. And we're beginning to find out what some of those fears were based on.
Goodell was a good example. The very mantle of his own party identity was removed from him, which meant that he was deprived of regular Republican sources of funds. Goodell, remember, was described by Agnew as the "Christine Jorgenson of the Republican party." Very interesting metaphor. First, Agnew was saying that Goodell was no longer a "real" Republican, which was very damaging. Second, the metaphor emphasized his change from a hawk to a dove. Third, it suggested very strongly the change from a man to a woman, that the politics of anti-war criticism were the politics of effeminacy, of weakness; whereas the Nixon values were those of strength, virility, brutality, threat.
The word "monarchy," with respect to the formal government, is a pretty close metaphor. The image of president as monarch has entered the American consciousness to a degree – thanks mainly to Watergate and, to a lesser degree, the Pentagon Papers. That's a big step forward. However, it doesn't raise the extremely controversial and heavily defended questions of what economic interests lie behind or are intertwined with the power of the state. In other words, who picks the king, and who does he serve?
The concept of "fascism" is closer to our own time and our industrial society; in particular it suggests the coalition of forces married to the state that sustains the ideological, the economic and police control of the masses – institutions outside the state, such as corporations, unions, universities, local police forces or organized crime. The Intelligence Plan of 1970 and other "dirty tricks," for example, suggest a very strong movement toward police control in our society.
But another reason I liked the word "monarchy" and talked about an executive coup, was that I was always arguing with the point of view that ascribed all power and influence to the Pentagon. A very common belief is that the Pentagon people are in control; they run the war, they escalate the war, the risks come from the military. I came to conclude, on the contrary, that the military had not been predominant in designing our war policy.
Because the Pentagon Papers show unmistakably that each president pursued policies which were different from ones the military had proposed to him, that he consistently rejected the military proposals. On the other hand, he did choose to continue the war. While military pressure for greater measures was possibly a factor in his prolonging the war, still, he wasn't doing what the military wanted him to do, and he was taking courses of action that the military consistently said would not work.
So the responsibility for events fell particularly on the president himself, and the pressure on him to escalate came as much from civilians as from military.
I attacked the "quagmire myth" of the Vietnam War – that it was "the politics of inadvertence," the inattention of the president, which allowed the military to drag us into the war. The story told by the president and his defenders about Watergate is the exact counterpart of the quagmire theory, namely that subordinates took advantage of his inattention during the campaign to take actions of which "he would have disapproved" had he known of them. This is supposed to absolve the president of direct blame, on the thesis that ignorance is an excuse.
And just as I came to believe from studying the Pentagon Papers that the quagmire myth was quite wrong, that the president was responsible, I've always assumed for similar reasons that the president was closely responsible for all the events around Watergate. That remains to be proven.
Do you recall that Mitchell said at a cocktail party, very early in the Nixon administration, that this country is headed "so far to the right that you're not going to recognize it"?
I'd forgotten, but it's very well worth mentioning.
Do you feel that such a remark coming from his then closest adviser would seem to indicate a coherent scheme?
The White House gang had coherent values, which were basically antidemocratic values. They talked, in referring to the executive branch, about "elected officials" and that the president had been elected by all the people, really ignoring that he was the only person in the entire executive branch, except for the vice president, who'd been elected.
Whereas they had nothing but contempt for the Congress, every member of which had been elected: five hundred people over there who couldn't be trusted with the kind of information they dealt with every day.
Well, these are not just cultural attitudes, these are fundamental, political attitudes which are choices against democracy: You cannot respect the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, you can only regard it as a misguided, or at best, an outmoded document; and if you have power and responsibility, you have to improve on it.
Now we add the other element they had witnessed within their own tenure, anti-democratic changes in the Philippines, Greece and South Korea. The three countries we "saved from Communism" after World War II.
Did you see what was done to the man who ran against President Park and got 46 percent of the vote? He was kidnapped by the Korean CIA in Tokyo.
Right! Meanwhile, you had the undisguised sympathy of Agnew and others for these regimes. Now, I absolutely take for granted something that I have never seen mentioned in the press: that we knew the details of the Philippines takeover months before it was carried out, and that there was detailed coordination and, in effect, tacit approval from our government – if not enthusiastic promotion of the idea.
Marcos' ministers have mentioned that the plans for this change were in preparation months ahead of time. Knowing our relations with the government of the Philippines, I have almost no doubt that they had to know they had the approval of the Americans in advance. The first man that they jailed was Benigno Aquino, who was likely to run against Marcos in the next election and almost sure to win. His campaign was to get rid of the U.S. bases in the Philippines.
I don't think we had any reservations about that change in government, a change which accords with all the values that Nixon, Agnew, Mitchell and the others talked about and acted on. So I think they could certainly see that as a possibility for this country, if necessary.
Do you know of any documents of a plan for an explicit domestic executive coup? Or to suspend elections? There've been so many rumors about a Rand study.
I was told at Rand that was absolutely untrue, that there was no such study, and I believed it implicitly when I was told. I would have to say now, with a little more experience, that I can't take that absolutely on trust as I did at the time. The idea that there might have been such a study is one of those things you have to reconsider.
Given the segmentation of study areas in the way Rand operates its departments, isn't it possible that such a study could have been made?
Yes. But it was not a natural subject for Rand to be addressing, in subject matter or sponsorship or anything. It was implausible, to begin with. But it was possible that such a thing could be done and that I certainly wouldn't necessarily know about it.
I did ask the president of Rand, directly, whether Rand had ever been asked to do such a study, a study of possibly suspending elections in a period of domestic unrest, and he told me no. And then he added, gratuitously and reassuringly, "Moreover, we wouldn't do such a study if we were asked."
So, having been a good, ingenious Rand systems analyst, I said, "Well now, let's see if I couldn't design a request that could get done. Supposing you were asked by the White House to do a study of how to hold elections despite domestic unrest."
He sort of nodded at that.
And I said, "Suppose you were asked to consider a number of alternative options of dealing with the situation. And just for completeness and as sort of a devil's advocate position to contrast to the others, to spell out all its disadvantages, suppose you were asked to consider the option of postponing the elections for a while – as one design and method of responding to this unrest."
He looked a little uneasy at that, and I said, "Can you imagine yourself accepting that study?"
And he said, "Not now, since you've mentioned it."
Seven Days in May is a rather effective, supposedly fictional description of a secret government apparatus set up in the Pentagon...
Yeah, that was pretty realistic. They used the notion of secret bases. We've now seen that in Cambodia: Special Forces bases whose function it was to carry on a secret ground war – entirely separate bases, separate teams of mercenaries, code-named bases whose very existence was not to be known.
It is exactly what the book described, except that the secret base was located in Texas.
In physical terms, one could say that all that apparatus, all the procedures and practices, exist right now. If you ask, "Could that be used to take the government over?" keep in mind that the Greek coup was run by CIA-trained intelligence officers on the basis of an existing NATO contingency plan which had been developed, supposedly, to take over the government in case of Communist takeover or attack. They simply set that plan into motion by issuing the proper code words, and everybody began doing what he was supposed to do.
James McCord, as a Reserve Air Force officer, helped to write that plan; he also was designated an officer in an emergency censorship plan for taking over all information facilities in this country in the event of a national emergency designated by the president. Although Congress probed rather closely on what the national emergency was intended to be, whether it was supposed to be something like a nuclear attack, it came out that a national emergency was essentially anything the President determined it to be.
This plan exists right now, and could be set into motion on the President's giving the word.
There have been background stories from the FBI pointing out predictions in the summer of 1970 that as many as 300, 400 college campuses might remain shut down or be in some sort of revolt in the fall of 1970, after the Kent State/Cambodian protests. However, it turned out – and I was very disappointed – the campuses were inactive. The FBI sources say that had the predictions been accurate, "a good deal of repression would have become a reality."
I think that if resistance to the war had continued on the lines or scale of reaction to Cambodia, we might well have seen plans put into effect like this Emergency Information Control Plan.
Are you aware of any other similar contingency plans for national emergencies in addition to the one McCord describes?
I wasn't aware of any.
But do you feel that these could exist in the Pentagon or other agencies?
Probably they do exist. I felt pretty sure, before I knew of the Huston plan, that after the Cambodian reaction took the administration by surprise, they would be doing contingency planning among the domestic agencies.
If these and similar contingency plans in fact exist, what do you think should be done?
It's not the pieces of paper that are dangerous; it's the whole set of attitudes, the configuration of power in the executive that gave rise to such plans. In the process of investigating Watergate, the Congress will come to understand what needs to be done.
Ervin has not minced words about this, nor have some of the others. He called the Huston plan quite accurately, "a Gestapo mentality." Executive secrecy, executive arrogance, executive usurpation, elective monarchy and fascism are words that I didn't particularly use two years ago but are becoming more and more applicable as we learn actual facts.
The public is coming to understand that they were facing a massive and urgent threat to our remaining democratic institutions, and that what happened here was the uncovering, essentially, of a coup on the eve of its completion.
A great number of the people who carried out this coup are still in power, starting with the president. His capacity to lash back, to carry out some of his earlier plans, has diminished considerably, but it's not zero. There's no evidence yet that [Attorney General] Richardson will be any great impediment to a presidential initiative, but there's at least a chance.
Mary McCarthy wrote recently that the Watergate hearings were a subconscious attempt on the part of the Senate and the American people to atone for Vietnam.
I doubt it. The people who are diving into Watergate either don't feel as complicit in Vietnam as they should or really care that much about it.
My hope is that, having developed the courage and insight to oppose the executive branch on these Watergate-related domestic matters, they might become more courageous and skeptical in foreign affairs – more resistant, and ultimately, more insightful about their own past role which will have a dynamic effect and push them still further.
Watergate is not being pressed by McGovern or Fulbright. The whole thing would be far less effective if it were. The battle is being carried by people like Ervin who has a powerful regional base, and is a significant figure politically, precisely because he hasn't had to fight very strongly for civil rights over the years. He wouldn't be the political figure he is in the South if he had. That isn't to say he was justified, just that the impact on the White House is far greater because it's being fought by Ervin.
I have very little to say in favor of John Stennis' career in the Senate, but I am glad that he is seeing the light on the need to investigate the CIA and cut it back. I'm more glad to see that than I am to find that Rep. Drynan has put in a bill for impeachment... what's more, I would always have hoped that these people, even as individuals, could change progressively.
If you want an example of that, you can't do better than Stuart Symington, who started exactly where I was with the missile gap and was then my idea of a senator who was as responsible and clearheaded as the executive officials I was serving. The missile gap exposure bothered him, too, and had the same kind of corrosive effect on him. Over time he's become a very powerful battering ram. He has changed enormously.
The hearings may have set off a series of reexaminations of the assumptions and operations of government. What would you recommend the Stennis committee do on the CIA?
I think we should change our relationship with the rest of the world in such a way that there is no business for the CIA's operations branch – dirty tricks department. It should essentially be disbanded. I don't think much of a problem is raised by the intelligence part of the CIA. It used to be that the operation of U-2-type reconnaissance vehicles was a terrific generator of crisis, but satellites aren't posing the same kind of problem. The secret agent intelligence gathering tempts you to get into other kinds of operations but, in itself, doesn't pose the same kind of risks.
I think the operations role of the CIA will be one of the earliest things that people will be critical of. The secret wars it runs. One question pending immediately is whether the CIA will be allowed to continue to run an insurgency war in Indochina and Cambodia from bases in Thailand. That will be the test... whether Congress can cut that off. I think they probably will.
Is that issue being directly focused on now?
It's in the Hughes and Symington Armed Services subcommittee.
I'd like to see the Senate investigate the entire nature of the Nixon foreign policy as it fitted into his overall reelection strategy in '72. I think they made a start toward that. It's essential they come to understand the massive hoax played on the American public by Nixon and Kissinger as part of their strategy. A hoax which was only possible because of this elaborate apparatus and conspiratorial bureaucracy that was directed toward keeping secrets.
Nixon's whole relation with the public during his election and after it was based on his assurance, private and public, that he was getting out of the war as fast as possible, and, Henry Kissinger was telling Quakers and other visitors to the Executive Office Building that they should be judged by where they were six months from then, with a strong implication that we would literally be out of Vietnam six months into 1969.
The secret rooms, these bureaucrats trained to keep secret records, in the end were an essential part of making it possible for a president who was elected on the promise of ending the war to keep the bombing going for four and a half years.
I think it is accurate to understand the Watergate hearings in several ways as about what the form of government in the United States shall be.
The hearings inevitably are going to create an appreciation for the specific form of government that was invented by the drafters of our Constitution, particularly our Bill of Rights. I have never been so conscious as in the last couple of years as to how relevant to our current problems of self-government were the perceptions of the men who led the American Revolution. Only a few times in our history have those principles been so relevant. I don't currently get as much inspiration in relation to our present problems from any other country in the world. The governments of a lot of countries deserve our attention for ways of improving ourselves, but on this precise question of leashing executive power, our own historical debates are more instructive than any other I know.
As Tom Paine put it, "The pride of monarchs is the cause of unnecessary wars"; he saw that the greatest evil that could be inflicted on a people was an unnecessary war, and that included nearly all wars. And that the way you asked for such evils was to confide all power to an unchallenged executive body cloaked with secrecy and mystery. And the only way to avoid that is to shed the cloak of invisibility and make it open, and to provide countervailing centers of power with legitimacy, with open formal roles.
You've got to be thankful that it's all coming out. I say that in the same spirit that so many people thanked me on the street, or after meetings. Sometimes, I would question why that was, because, after all, I was bringing them very bad news, that they'd been lied to for a generation by presidents and that we'd been directly responsible for all the deaths in Indochina. I would have expected more of an unanimous reaction of "thanks for nothing... who needed that?" It told me that there was still life in democracy, because people did feel that they could act on the information I was bringing them.
Now you're going through a far stranger ordeal than your trial. It seems more severe, because it's not being played by legal rules. You're up against the most potent administrative group in this country, the White House, and it has been working on its attack against you for months. Are you getting any counsel or advice on how to handle this sort of trial?
I'm glad to have any kind of advice. During the two-year period around the Papers trial I had very little. I wouldn't let anybody write anything for me, not that anybody offered except once or twice. I found that even when it did happen a couple times, I couldn't live with somebody else's writing in my name. I would have been happy to have some advice to choose from and react to, but I got very little.
But I am aware, from having been through those two years, that I do have to keep the sense that I'm responsible for determining what I do; I can't give that over to somebody. And to be effectively involved in what I have tried to act for and to achieve, simply rules out a lot of tactics that are available to the White House. Specifically, I haven't said anything misleading and I won't.
I think I have a basis for putting it to the media who've been watching, "Look, you guys have been taking down virtually everything I've said in public for two years, and look at your records and ask yourself if I've ever lied to you." I should be able to draw on that record of credibility.
In dealing with the personal attacks on me before, I could afford to ignore them to a large extent in confidence that the legal process would eventually bring the facts out and vindicate me. But in this case, they can make charges without that assurance.
Madly dashing about is not going to help. The attacks on you aren't working anymore. The president's in a far worse position. Seventy percent of the people, at least, just don't believe anything he says, not after the last four years. Maybe you shouldn't reply at all.
It would be playing into Nixon's plans to personalize my reactions to his attacks on me. It would certainly distract people if the issue arose: "What kind of guy is Ellsberg?" Or, "Did he really do these crimes?" Any attention that I attract to myself is attention deflected from him. That surely is not good.
I'm dismayed to find how much sympathy he does get from his attacks on me, especially in the widespread concern among Americans about people who are disobedient to a boss or regulations or who expose secrets. I would hope that Watergate would reveal to people the perils of obedience and the corruption of loyalty.
Now, I think that these men are going to suffer, finally. They didn't hope to end up this way, and they didn't expect to, but their strategy did collapse on them. I think it shows that there was more vitality in the American myths and ideology than these people realized, more than a lot of us realized.
Once an exposure occurred, which was pretty fortuitous, it came out that the American people really didn't think they were supposed to be lied to by the president. They were not taking that for granted.
Presidents fall into this trap – they lie so much, they lie so casually, and in the inner circle they are so conscious of this, they take it for granted – that over time they come to forget how successfully they have hidden from the public the fact that they are consciously lying. They imagine that the public really knows this, and the lack of opposition to it is assent, toleration – "the public doesn't care, they know it happens all the time."
The truth is that their cover stories have been very effective, and their cover story for Watergate is that mistakes happen, that people down below do these sorts of things in all administrations, and the president doesn't know everything and so forth. And that, the public can live with. They do accept that.
But the public does not live with the awareness that the president himself is deceiving them all the time. When that becomes apparent, the public reacts very aggressively and takes the president entirely by surprise. I think he probably feels betrayed. He says, "What are you really so mad about? You must have known I was kidding. What are you getting so sanctimonious about, for Christ's sake? About a few tapes and a few lies and a few burglaries and so forth. My God, I've just been burning down Cambodia and lying to you about that. You knew that."
What do you think is going to happen if Nixon is not impeached? What if he doesn't resign? What if he is not thrown out of office?
That would depend on the circumstances of how that came about. If it meant the public turned its attention to the World Series – as he's expecting – and simply gets bored, forgets, and decides that it wasn't all that bad after all... Then, of course, the situation would be worse than before. We would have gone very far from democracy.
But take the situation at this moment. There is not a lot of documentary or direct first-person testimony linking the president to some of these acts. It may yet come. However, if there is no more evidence than there is now, then there is still enough on which to convict a president.
But given the consequences, and the symbolism of convicting the president, you could also say that a reasonable man could vote not to at this point. And, if people realized that although the president was almost surely guilty, that there simply was not enough evidence to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt, that wouldn't necessarily mean toleration for what he'd done, and they might remember the lessons of this.
But every day does bring new implications. It's getting harder and harder to say that we could live with letting the president off and still think of ourselves as a country of laws.
It's going to appear that we were much further along toward a monolithic police state than almost anybody knew, a system much closer to what appeared to be paranoia for conspiracies and such.
In contrast to the president's breaking of "international laws," in the domestic context everybody knows that there are laws that are meant to be enforced, and there's a machinery of enforcement and a principle that's meant to apply even to the president. These statements the president is making now – that he is not obliged to give evidence to the courts, and so forth – are not going down. I think people are realizing that he is writing a Constitution as he goes along, and it's a different one from the one we have.
What do you think the Watergate hearings really are accomplishing?
I think the hearings are, first, giving the people the facts about how they were lied to and misled, and gradually the realization that it was the president, the man they elected, the man they believed, they listened to, and they voted for, or failed to work hard enough to defeat.
That connects the responsibility up to them personally and I think they feel an immediate sense of responsibility only for what the president does, not for what some subordinate down in the bowels of bureaucracy may do.
Second, the hearings show him doing these illegal, self-serving, and in some cases, violent things to Americans, which also strengthens their sense of responsibility and concern.
And third, I think Congress is rediscovering powers it has really never used or had forgotten about long ago; powers of subpoena, of impeachment, of demanding witnesses and testimony, of going to court, of threatening contempt, above all, of cutting off funds. And this has given people hope that there are sources of organized power outside the executive branch.
I think they are discovering the power of truth and the effectiveness of a man willing to take a risk. We have the spectacle of this collection of suits, and exposures, even if going on in a rather diffuse way: people telling the truth; former servicemen, at last, coming clean and so forth.
So many of these individuals, even now when they come clean this late in the game, are still taking some risk of retaliation when they do it. And the impact of that is becoming apparent to some people. That a man can make a difference.