Never underestimate the potential of a good meeting. Tough advice when you’re scheduled for back-to-back speakers and a chicken dinner. But there’s always the possibility of a “eureka!” moment like that which came to a stressed-out consultant attending a four-day conference at Haverford College in 1969.
Dismayed by the Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsberg had begun attending anti-war meetings. In August, he came to Haverford to attend the 13th Triennial Conference of War Resisters International. Inspired by attendees’ conviction that they could end the war—and their willingness to be imprisoned in the attempt—Ellsberg had a radical thought.
“As of this evening,” he later wrote, “I realized that I had the power and the freedom to act the same way.”
A month later, Ellsberg walked out of the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., carrying the first of 7,000 pages of a secret report detailing the lies on which U.S. involvement in Vietnam was based. Newspapers would label the documents “The Pentagon Papers.”
Born in Chicago, Ellsberg was the son of an engineer and a secretary. He graduated from Harvard in 1952 and then joined the Marines, in which he commanded a rifle company. Ellsberg later earned a doctorate in economics and joined RAND, a non-profit think tank that advises the U.S. military. (RAND is short for Research and Development.) His specialty was the control of nuclear weapons.
In 1964, Ellsberg joined the Pentagon to work on Vietnam. The following year, he was transferred to Saigon to evaluate the situation in the countryside.
“It didn’t take very long to discover in Vietnam that we weren’t likely to be successful there,” Ellsberg wrote in his 2002 book, Secrets. “You don’t have to be an ichthyologist to know when a fish stinks.”
Ellsberg had been a committed Cold Warrior since high school. He remembered the Soviet Union’s overthrow, in 1948, of a budding democracy in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin blockade. In Vietnam, he strongly desired a victory over that country’s Soviet-backed communists. But then Ellsberg had seen documentation of Johnson Administration lies that justified the Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorizing force in Vietnam. The chief result, he thought at the time, was to demonstrate Lyndon Johnson’s toughness and assure his victory in that year’s election.
In Vietnam, Ellsberg found a South Vietnamese army whose main criteria for promotion was connection to rich, Catholic, land-owning families that supported the unelected president, Ngo Dinh Diem. An army that avoided the Viet Cong. In Vung Tau province, Ellsberg and an officer were flagged down by a South Vietnamese lieutenant who explained that the road was closed because Viet Cong troops were crossing a mile or so ahead. The Americans ignored the officer’s protests, drove on and saw nothing.
“He was worried that, if we went through, he wouldn’t have any excuse for lying around,” the officer explained.
“He’d have to move out with his troops and find out if there really was anything in there.”
Ellsberg observed a school-building program from which concrete was stolen and sold on the black market, usually going into private projects for the politically connected. The missing concrete was made with sand, so new schools often began to crumble within a week. Such corruption, Ellsburg concluded, made Vietnamese villagers even angrier at their government and the Americans.
Ellsberg also witnessed the power of Vietnamese nationalism; he saw insurgents—boys—pop up in the middle of American battalions and fire at U.S. troops surrounding them. “They thought they were shooting at trespassers, foreign occupiers,” he wrote, “that they had a right to be there and we didn’t.”
And he noticed much casual brutality, when Americans and their allies burned houses and killed civilians for no compelling reason.
Finally, he observed the routine way in which U.S. officials lied. In 1967, on a long flight between Saigon and Washington, Ellsberg heard Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara despair about the deteriorating situation. Ten minutes after landing, McNamara told reporters: “Gentlemen, I’ve just come back from Vietnam, and I’m glad to be able to tell you that we’re showing great progress in every dimension of our effort.”
Ellsberg’s disillusionment deepened when he returned to a Pentagon in which everyone knowledgeable about the war knew it to be hopeless, but said nothing. Asked to compile a study of the decision-making that had led to the conflict, he agreed to help draft one volume.
Ellsberg was a wonk. He didn’t take on the project so much because he wanted to but to gain “access to the whole study for a comparative analysis and search for patterns.” (His question: How could we have been so stupid?) What he eventually learned from the project was that Johnson’s approach was not an anomaly. U.S. presidents had been lying about Vietnam for more than 20 years. Truman had aided the French secretly; Eisenhower had OK’d the crushing of political dissent; Kennedy had sent the first troops and called them “advisers.”
With no solution that might be called victory to allow U.S. withdrawal, Ellsberg placed his hopes on a new president. Those hopes died when it became apparent that Richard Nixon—equally reluctant to stain his reputation by losing a war—would escalate the war. Dismayed, Ellsberg turned to people he had previously dismissed: anti-war protesters.
“My knowledge of such people still came almost exclusively from media accounts, overwhelmingly negative, in which they were presented as being, in varying degree, extremist, simplistic, pro-Communist or pro-NLF, fanatic, anti-American, dogmatic,” wrote Ellsberg, ” I went to Haverford in part to find out if these labels were accurate.”
Founded in 1921, War Resisters International (WRI) and its U.S. affiliate, the War Resisters League (WRL), were full of people like Ellsberg. They’d opposed both world wars, nuclear testing and civil defense drills. Many were involved in the Civil Rights movement.
Vice chairman Igal Roodenko had been arrested with Bayard Rustin in 1947 for violating a North Carolina law requiring segregated seating on buses. When the judge learned Roodenko was Jewish, he sentenced him to 90 days—three times Rustin’s sentence—as a lesson to other “Jews from New York” who might “upset the customs of the South.”
Administrative secretary Ralph DiGia was a conscientious objector jailed during World War II because the draft didn’t recognize his secular rationale. In jail, he organized hunger strikes to integrate the dining halls.
In 1969, WRL—based in Manhattan—was focused on protest organizing. League minutes record 200 participants in an April 4 vigil outside New York’s Selective Service headquarters and a “tremendous” turnout for a rally and parade the next day. Also on the agenda was a planned visit to Cuba and a campaign to organize tax resistance.
“Some felt that adults should match the challenge of the young who are saying ‘no’ to the draft by saying ‘no’ to war taxes,” read the minutes.
It was a shoestring organization with a counter-culture sensibility. WRL’s April financial report showed “cash on hand” of $760 and payables of $14,385. In July, the group found it was no longer welcome at the New Jersey farm it had used for summer retreats. Too much marijuana and nude sunbathing, said the landlord. Plus, the feds were watching. When WRL staged a fundraiser to finance relocation of its office, FBI agents recorded the names of those who entered. In May, after WRL offices were ransacked, New York police showed no inclination to investigate.
WRI had never convened in the United States. Some activists thought it shouldn’t do so as long as the war continued. But others, arguing that the war made the United States the logical choice, carried the day. Haverford agreed to host the event for $10 per person, room and board. The theme was “Liberation and Revolution—Gandhi’s Challenge,” and it marked the centennial of Gandhi’s birth and provided coherence to topics that ranged from U.S. militarism to economic justice in southern India. There were last-minute changes. David Harris (Joan Baez’s husband) was scheduled to speak about draft resistance. But he had been jailed by the time the conference started.
Ellsberg was impressed by Robert Eaton, a Quaker who, in 1967, had sailed to Hanoi on the Phoenix to deliver medical supplies; in 1968, had been arrested in Hungary for protesting Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia; and, that week, was scheduled to be imprisoned for refusing the draft. So when attendees took a break on Wednesday to hold a vigil outside the U.S. courthouse where Eaton was being sentenced, Ellsberg went along.
Still professionally connected to RAND and the Pentagon, Ellsberg worried about being recognized. But he couldn’t decline. “A man I admired was being sentenced to prison for an act of conscience,” he recalled. “There was an invitation to join … in the company of one of the heroes of the century, Pastor Martin Niemoller, and others I admired no less. How could I not go?”
Handing out leaflets left him feeling liberated. (Niemoller, the anti-Nazi theologian most famous for his poem “First they came …,” was a WRI vice chair and conference participant.)
Ellsberg’s epiphany came the last day. In concluding remarks, Randy Kehler, head of WRL-San Francisco, told of being the only male left his office. All the others were in prison.
“When I go, it will be all women in the office,” Kehler said. “But I can look forward to jail, without any remorse or fear … because I know that everyone here and lots of people around the world like you will carry on.”
The audience stood and cheered. Meanwhile, Ellsberg slipped into a men’s room and sobbed.
“I had never cried like this before except when I learned that Bobby Kennedy was dead,” he wrote. “A line kept repeating itself in my head: We are eating our young.”
A few weeks later, Ellsberg asked a friend if he knew anyone with access to a copier.
A productive meeting, indeed.
E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at email@example.com.