Lying About Vietnam
by Daniel Ellsberg
New York Times
June 29, 2001
The Pentagon Papers, published 30 years ago this month, proved that the
government had long lied to the country. Indeed, the papers revealed a
policy of concealment and quite deliberate deception from the Truman
A generation of presidents, believing that the course they were following
was in the best interests of the country, nevertheless chose to conceal
from Congress and the public what the real policy was, what alternatives
were being pressed on them from within the government, and the pessimistic
predictions they were receiving about the prospects of their chosen course.
Why the lies and concealment? And why, starting in 1969, did I risk prison
to reveal the documentary record? I can give a definite answer to the
second question: I believed that the pattern of secret threats and
escalation needed to be exposed because it was being repeated under a new
About the first question, I can still only speculate. Let me speak to the
Johnson administration, in which I was a minor participant. The familiar
answer is that in 1965, Lyndon Johnson was protecting his Great Society
programs by concealing the scale of the war he was launching.
But there is also a much less famliar reason that explains Johnson's lack
of candor during his entire term. Throughout the campaign of 1964,
President Johnson indicated to the voters contrary to his opponent Barry
Goldwater that no escalation was needed in South Vietnam. He sometimes
added, almost inaudibly, "at this time."
As the Pentagon Papers later showed, that was contradicted as early as May
1964 by the estimates and recommendations of virtually all of Johnson's own
civilian and military advisers. I believe he worried, not only in 1964 but
over the next four years, that if he laid out candidly just how difficult,
costly and unpromising the conflict was expected to be, the public would
overwhelmingly want escalation on a scale that promised to win the war.
To this end, Congress and the voters might compel him to adopt the course
secretly being pressed on him by his own Joint Chiefs of Staff. From 1964
through 1968, the Joint Chiefs continuously urged a litany of secret
recommendations, including mining Haiphong; hitting the dikes; bombing near
the Chinese border; closing all transportation routes from China; sending
ground troops to Laos, Cambodia and the southern part of North Vietnam;
possibly full-scale invasion of North Vietnam.
I think that this escalation would not have won the war. I suspect that
Johnson thought this as well. But beyond that as Johnson brought up
repeatedly the Joint Chiefs' course would have greatly risked war with
China. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were ready to accept that risk.
President Johnson was not.
But Johnson didn't want to get out either. We now know from memoirs and
documents declassified after the Pentagon Papers that a number of his
people, not only George Ball, an undersecretary of state, were urging him
to do just that, to extricate us by a disguised withdrawal. But Johnson
couldn't face being accused of losing a war. Instead, he stayed in and lied
about the prospects. And that made for a prolonged war, an escalating war
and essentially a hopeless war.
I do not believe that the war would have been less hopeless if the
recommendations of the Joint Chiefs had been followed. It would have been
much more bloody. It might well have involved a nuclear war or a major
conventional war with China. That would have been even more catastrophic
than what actually happened. So the worst was avoided. But at the cost of
58,000 American and several million Vietnamese lives.
I first learned of these debates in 1964 and 1965, when I was special
assistant to John McNaughton, the assistant defense secretary. I read all
the documents of that period that were later included in the Pentagon
Papers, and I heard from McNaughton of his discussions with Defense
Secretary Robert McNamara and President Johnson. I strongly regret that at
that time, I did not see it as my duty to disclose that information to the
But then I was in Vietnam for two years from 1965 to 1967. I saw that our
ground effort in South Vietnam was hopelessly stalemated, and I did not
believe that increased bombing of the north would ever cause our
adversaries to give up. Therefore I came to the belief in 1967 that we
should negotiate our way out.
But in 1969, when I read the entire Pentagon Papers, covering 1945 to 1968,
I became aware that every president from Harry Truman on had heard this
advice from people more authoritative than me. And for some reason the
presidents had always chosen to stay in. Their determination not to suffer
the political consequences of losing a war outweighed, for them, the human
costs of continuing.
Finally, I learned that Richard Nixon also refused to lose. In the fall of
1969, Morton Halperin, who had just given up his job as deputy to Henry
Kissinger, informed me that Nixon really had a secret plan. It was widely
thought he had no plan, that his campaign claim was just a bluff. Not true.
His plan included secret threats of escalation unless there was a mutual
withdrawal of North Vietnamese as well as United States forces.
I thought this plan would fail. From my experience in the government and in
Vietnam, and from reading the Pentagon Papers, I thought the Vietcong would
not give up, that the threat of escalation would be carried out, and that
it would fail, with a great loss of life on both sides.
So my concern in releasing the Pentagon Papers was not simply, or even
primarily, to get out the truth. I thought I would probably go to prison
for the rest of my life. I wouldn't have done that just to set the record
straight. I released the papers because I foresaw prolonged war and
eventual escalation, including incursions into Laos and Cambodia, the
mining of Haiphong and the bombing of Hanoi. I wanted to avert these
events, but they all occurred.
I never had any sense that putting out these documents was likely to end
the war, just that it might help. Maybe it did.
Daniel Ellsberg, who made the Pentagon Papers public, served in Vietnam and
is a former Defense Department and State Department official.
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