Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Daniel Ellsberg: Civil Disobedience and the Vietnam Conflict

“If the machine of government is of such a

nature that it requires you to be the agent of 

injustice to another, then, I say, break the 


-Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience (also known as nonviolent resistance) is the active defiance of particular government demands.  It is nothing new; you can find it in Antigone, the ancient Greek play.  It was used by the Egyptians against the British occupation, Gandhi and Thoreau made it particularly famous, Martin Luther King was a proponent of it  for Civil Rights, East Germany manifested civil disobedience to banish communism, and it is a current favorite with the Baltic revolutions.
Sometimes you just gotta say no and stand up for what you know is right.
Sometimes being neutral or being all talk and no action isn't enough.

Daniel Ellsberg knows this.
Many people do not know his name.  Unfortunately.  He is making the rounds with these new NSA leaks because he knows a thing or two about whistle-blowing (well, he kind of wrote the book on it).  Ellsberg is the reason that the American people know so much about Vietnam, and by revealing secret documents about the inadequate, fallacious instigation of the war in Indochina  the American public was able to educate themselves and unite in protest against the war and helped fuel a conclusion.  Ellsberg even had a role in Watergate the downfall of President Nixon.  He is a fascinating guy and a personal hero of mine (and, of course, an inspiration to Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden).

Vietnam was an ugly war.  It lacked the dignified marches into battle of earlier wars, instead taking on the tone of the Korean War, in that it was a Cold War conflict set in Asia.
Fighting in 'Nam was in unfamiliar jungles in humid heat against guerrillas and much of the later was was televised.  The draft further unpopularized the war.

The war was begun (and justified by) the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident, when Vietnamese torpedo boats supposedly attacked the U.S.S Maddox while it was an an espionage mission. A "sea battle" ensued. There are multiple theories as to what really happened, the most popular being a radar issue that made it seem as though the Maddox were being attacked with torpedoes.  Some think the whole incident was fictitious and warhawk President Lyndon Johnson (who during Vietnam would become villainized in the chant "Hey Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?") manipulated it in order to warrant a presence in Vietnam.

Daniel Ellsberg started work the day of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident as Special Assistant to Secretary of Defense McNamara.
Two years later, wary with the war and what it was turning into, McNamara ordered an investigative report into the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
I love Bob McNamara. Please see the documentary The Fog of War if you haven't-- it is an interview-type session with Bob before he passed away, as an old man, speaking on the lessons he learned throughout his life (often the hard way).  It is absolutely incredible and his perspectives on Vietnam, which he was profoundly involved in under multiple presidents are wise, clarifying, and indispensable to anyone analyzing a difficult war.

Anyhow, this top-secret commissioned report became known as The Pentagon Papers.

Ellsberg was involved with the creation of the report and completed a 350 page draft regarding JFK's Vietnam policy.  In 1969 the study was completed and ended up being 7,000 pages.  It had numerous volumes and dealt with America's presence in Indochina between the early 1940s and 1968 (bet you didn't realize we were involved there that early, eh?).

At this point, Ellsberg was working on a project with the Defense Department and the copy of the Pentagon Papers he was given was ordered to be kept in a locked safe in his office.
But Ellsberg knew what he had in his possession, and as the year went on and the crisis in Vietnam worsened, he knew that he had to take action and employ this critical document beneficially.

In the autumn of 1969, Ellsberg began selecting volumes of the papers and smuggling them out in his briefcase, Xerox copying them at night.  He met with several members of Congress to help draft a resolution advocating withdrawal from Vietnam.
He provided copies of excerpts of the papers to Senator Fulbright and Secretary of State Kissinger.  Fulbright's aide suggested a way to make the papers public in order to inform the American people and Ellsberg admitted he was considering sending it to a major newspaper for publication.  For the next few years Ellsberg investigates various possibilities for best disseminating the report to the American people. 
He nearly got presidential candidate George McGovern to read the Pentagon Papers on the Senate floor, but McGovern backed out.  He had several meetings with The New York Times and finally, in 1971, the Times published several columns regarding the report on the front page and Tricky Dick read the report and was not happy.
And anyone that knows anything about Nixon is aware that he never hesitated to go after anyone that made him angry.

By the way, Ellsberg never released anything threatening to the country or foreign negotiations--it was all intended as education for the public that had been mislead from the beginning on the cause and goal of the conflict in Vietnam.  As Ellsberg has put it, "Of about 7,000 pages, I withheld about 3,000 pages that dealt with negotiations because I didn’t want to interfere with negotiations. I wanted to interfere with the war. I put out 4,000 pages of secret material, high-level documents by the joint chief of staff, the secretary of defense, the White House, the CIA. Not one paragraph of those 4,000 pages was ever shown by the government to have done any harm on its release. Not 1 percent."

The New York Times had an injunction filed against it preventing further publication so Ellsberg took the papers to the Washington Post. 
At this point the FBI was hot on his trail and he was jumping from motels constantly to stay one step ahead.  It was a national manhunt and Kissinger infamously labelled Ellsberg "the most dangerous man in America."

Smaller papers began publishing the papers as well and injunctions were sought against them as well, but the truth was finally getting out and the government trying to stop the publishing drew more attention to the story.
The Supreme Court had to hear the argument regarding the publication of the secret documents in national newspapers and determine whether or not the First Amendment protected this right.  They determined that the newspapers could publish he classified documents without threat of censorship or punishment.  It was a landmark decision.

Two days after this decision, on June 28, 1971, Ellsberg submitted to arrest at the federal courthouse in Boston.  He was wanted to ensure the information was successfully put out there and protected, and then his job was done.  He enacted civil disobedience to inform the American people, stating
"I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision."

A grand jury indicted him for espionage and theft.

Nixon, in an attempt to discredit Ellsberg to the American public, got his famous "Plumber's Unit" together (headed by G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt).  This was their first assignment.  The Plumbers functioned out of a basement in the White House and were called such because they "fixed leaks."  Nixon had them break into Ellsberg's therapist's office to steal his file and make him look like a complete nutter. 
But, in typical Tricky Dick fashion, this ended up backfiring.

During the case against Ellsberg, evidence of illegal wiretapping and other government miosconduct, including the therapist office breaking on Dr. Fielding came out.

The Plumber's Unit got busted, though nothing near what would happen later when the Watergate break in was investigated.

It was declared a mistrial and all charges were dropped.
I highly recommend the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America (you can watch the whole thing on YouTube, see video below) about Ellsberg, who tells the story in his own words.

Find more on the whole shebang here with primary sources, including access to the Pentagon Papers themselves.  More on civil disobedience principles here.

Ellsberg is back in the spotlight with more leaks coming to light, and the leakers proudly declaring who they are and why they did it, much in the manner of Ellsberg itself.
Read his article from yesterday comparing what he did to what Manning and Snowden have recently done, where ha analyzes whitle-blowing and encourages their act of civil disobedience (saying that Snowden's release is even greater than the Pentagon Papers).  As he writes of Snowden, "A lot of people will surely call him a traitor, but they’re mistaken. That’s an extremely unpleasant experience for someone who knows he’s a patriot, who’s certainly a patriot from what I know so far. Someone willing to sacrifice and die for his country."

What do you think? When is civil disobedience appropriate?  What would you risk to provide accurate but secret information your were privy to to the uninformed nation?
Can one person's disclosure really make a difference?

"We were young, we were foolish, we were arrogant, but we were right."
-Daniel Ellsberg

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