Interview with Daniel Ellsberg

Mr. Hayes: What do you think of the JASON study?
Mr. Ellsberg: I think it verges on silly, because the options they’re looking at are essentially an absurd use of nuclear weapons. I remember that people, by ’66 and ’67, were not thinking too immediately of the kinds of situations that actually did arise in ’68 and ’72, where nuclear weapons I think in both cases were looked at rather seriously, and those involved offensives by the North Vietnamese, which in ’66 and ’67, I think they really weren’t looking forward-they weren’t expecting. In ’64 and ’65, remember, and even before that they always considered that almost any kind of involvement by the U.S. could trigger some kind of North Vietnamese reaction and they thought that unlikely in ’65-or even a Chinese invasion. And they thought that unlikely, but something they always mentioned as a possibility.

By ’66, I think they were pretty confident that that wouldn’t happen. And in ’68, then, the scale of the offensive they actually encountered was a surprise. They didn’t think they had either the capability or the inclination to do that. But that presented them, then, with targets that would have, in fact, made some sense for tactical nuclear weapons. They would have been entirely different from trying to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which is an absurd use of nuclear weapons and just no use even doing calculations on that. So the fact that they said, “Well, you’d need six thousand or sixty thousand” or whatever is of no interest.
Mr. Hayes: Three thousand per year, I think, is the number.
Mr. Ellsberg: That’s ridiculous. Any more than it would have made sense-and the comparison is very relevant-to use B-52s that way, you know, just to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail. If you don’t have a target for B-52s, you don’t have a target for nuclears. But on the other hand, in ’68, you did have targets for both B-52s and nuclears. And the same was true in ’72. We have the fact, then, that a year after this study is published-exactly a year-Westmoreland admits that he did have a small study group looking into the question of the use of nuclear weapons, for two reasons: to actually destroy the North Vietnamese division around Khe Sanh, just above the DMZ and second, “to send a signal to China and to North Vietnam” that we could use them more extensively if they didn’t meet our terms or if they didn’t back off. And clearly, the more extensive use would have been against what they would call “lucrative targets.” Not in the jungle. It would have been ports and industrial targets and cities, really, ultimately. So you have this study in a kind of vacuum of serious consideration of the use of nuclear weapons.

If you could show-if these people would tell you who they were responding to and you could show that there was more serious thought than I am yet aware of in ’66 and ’67 for the use of these, in the absence of a North Vietnamese offensive, that would be interesting. But you don’t have that here. You just have them in effect saying, “We’re looking into it,” as if they’re initiating it, which obviously I’m sure they weren’t. But you can’t tell that from the study itself. I would have said: “Who are these guys? Why are they even looking at this question?” For example, “concern that the Soviets would give these to other guerillas,” amounts to a bizarre kind of concern. [Laughs] If no one had ever thought of that before, you’d say, “Hmm, well, that’s physically possible. I guess it should be thought of, once we look at it.” But it doesn’t have any tinge of plausibility to it.
Mr. Hayes: In fact, the Soviets have always been much less willing to share nuclear weapons with allies than the United States.
Mr. Ellsberg: Exactly.
Mr. Hayes: And thus, they’re much less subject to loss of control. So let’s go back and try and look at the world through their eyes. They’re sitting at JASON in the summer and they hear someone talking in a wild fashion. Loose lips-whatever. And they decide-let’s impute a motivation to them, they think this is a bad idea. At that point, the United States is actually fighting primarily an insurgency. So what they’ve actually analyzed is whether you can use nuclear weapons in a counter-insurgency campaign.
Mr. Ellsberg: I never heard anyone suggest such a thing, except what seemed to me to be the clear use of a coercive strategy to threaten, you know, the “source of the insurgency.” Basically, the threat against North Vietnam or China. I may or may not have said to you when were talking about this briefly: I’m increasingly persuaded that there were members of the Joint Chiefs who wanted to use nuclear weapons against China in a one-sided way. To roll back Chinese communism and at least punish them for their defiance and obstinacy, or for existing-in a way that rollback had been given up for Europe, but had not been given up for China, because it could still be relatively one-sided in China. That is, nuclear use. So that it seems to me that it’s quite possible that the Vietnam War was seen by some of these people as considerably motivated as a trigger for an excuse, a justification, for hitting China. Basically, a provocation to get the Chinese to involve themselves and give us an excuse for launching nuclear weapons.
Mr. Hayes: Let’s go back to the scientists for a moment. In a sense, what one discovers in terms of what’s not analyzed in here is how na�ve they were at the time-the scientists, I’m talking about-about either the inevitable expansion of the war, if one was to defeat the insurgency. They were not thinking in political terms and they were not thinking, therefore, in the military nuclear terms that were relevant.
Mr. Ellsberg: They weren’t just going by any relevant interests.
Mr. Hayes: So they were really na�ve?
Mr. Ellsberg: This study doesn’t impress me as showing these people as have any strategic sense at all or political sense. That doesn’t amaze me, because of experience with these weapons people and with physicists in general, was that even the most brilliant of them seemed rather obtuse on strategic questions.
Mr. Hayes: So I guess then you come back to in fact what they admit is their motivation, which actually is a moral and ethical concern. Because you have to ask-particularly with what you’ve written in here in Secrets-who else was standing up at that time for ethical reasons against the war that early? Or against the expansion of the war.
Mr. Ellsberg: See, the JASON people themselves lent themselves to other ideas that made slightly more sense, but not a whole lot. They got very involved in the McNamara Line. Remember that when you talk about ethical-moral considerations, understanding that to make them explicit would rule them out, almost, with the audiences they’re seeking, of discussions in the Pentagon and in CIA. So if you raised moral issues, you would be regarded as not worth talking to and not reliable enough to talk to, because you couldn’t be counted on to keep your mouth shut. If you really think this is sinful and a moral evil or whatnot, you might tell somebody about it, if only your priest. I mean, if you feel that way, you’re likely to tell somebody. So you shouldn’t be dealt with. You’re not good to talk to. Not safe to talk to.

That is great a restraint on discussion, because you can’t raise that issues that will look very important to the rest of the world and to your own people and to your allies when they come out, and it will look bizarre that there was no internal discussion of [morals], but still, there you are. You can’t talk about it.

Second, having accepted that restraint, they want to make it entirely a practical thing, then. It’s just impractical, you know. It’s a bad use of these resources. You can do better elsewhere. You’ve got to save them for other uses and so forth. And that is a very, very strong constraint in the sense of moving them toward lesser evils, accepting to a very large extent the framework of policy and the premises of policy-here’s what we’re after; here’s how important it is; here’s what we rule out; and so forth. For instance, negotiation or agreement. [Laughs] You know, or concessions. We except that. Excepting that, how do you do the job?

And you can be led, finally, to be extolling the benefits and the merits of courses of action that are in fact less awful, less murderous, than the one being proposed by the Joint Chiefs, but which still are half-assed, murderous, dangerous, crazy.

Now, you can’t say all those things of the McNamara Line, which JASON got very involved in. Their idea was, let’s make interdiction unnecessary. All this bombing, which worried them because of its possibilities of escalation. That’s a good reason to be worried. And the people that it was killing and the international reaction it was causing. So let’s get away from that by building a barrier across here. It could be of all kinds of things. Now, I remember hearing at one point-first of all, that didn’t really impress the JCS and JCS were not really doing this interdiction in order to interdict. They were doing it because it was all McNamara was letting them do at that time.
Mr. Hayes: What year is this?
Mr. Ellsberg: Because they wanted the escalation and he didn’t want it.
Mr. Hayes: What year is this?
Mr. Ellsberg: This is really every year. ’65, ’66, ’67-
Mr. Hayes: Right. The constant pressure for-
Mr. Ellsberg: The constant pressure to get away from these stupid targets in the south and go for the important targets in particular, since it seemed fairly obvious that merely destroying their industrial base wasn’t going to have any big effect on the war. Yes, you could do it. You could destroy it. But where were you then, once you destroyed it?

What they really wanted to do was several things, but they all required a much bigger attack. They wanted to stop the flow of materiel into North Vietnam, into the top of the funnel, from China or from Russia, from East Europe. Well, that had to be done largely by political means. And they knew that couldn’t be done physically. But they wanted steps that purport to do it physically-hit the targets on the border of China. Now, why are you really doing that? Is that going to stop the flow? All their analysis told them that it would not stop the flow. It wouldn’t dent the flow. So, why are they so anxious to get all those targets? I think, in hopes of bringing Chinese reaction which would lead them across the border and finally give them the excuse to plaster China.

Remember, they would always assume in Schelling-like terms that the real effect of those things is going to be its demonstrative effect. In other words, the military effect will not be great for the same kinds of reasons they describe in this study. In fact, one thing: I think these people-the high levels who hadn’t looked at it very closely, sometimes did think that nuclear weapons could perhaps be very effective in these case. But they hadn’t looked at it very closely. This is by somebody who has looked at it more closely.

Namely, you have people, even without nuclear weapons, saying, “Well, if the North Vietnamese come in strength, you know, then we’ll cream them.” If they really come out and fight-somehow having a notion that they’re on broad plain here, somehow concentrated. Then we’ll really go after them. Well, when it was a question of going after a fixed point like Khe Sanh, they did expose themselves to heavy fire power. That occurred in ’72 quite a bit. But in general where they’re just moving, they don’t have to move in large units. There was an assumption that if the Chinese brought x-divisions in, then we’ll plaster those divisions. But if they come in over a period of time in smaller units, you can’t.

It was a little interesting that this study was very focused on blowdown. Blowing the trees over. I wonder if that isn’t what Goldwater was loosely alluding to when he talked about using nuclear-he did talk about using nuclear weapons in early ’64 to strip the vegetation off trees. To blow the leaves off trees. It sounded very bizarre as a way of dealing with the ambush problem. That’s what it sounded like.

They weren’t working on nuclear-I would say this with great confidence: McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, and the President as far as I know, would have been extremely unwilling to see nuclear weapons used. I think, in fact, their talk-McNamara’s talk about being willing to contemplate these nuclear weapons, for example, against the Chinese was like McNaughton’s talk about studying the dikes: simply, entirely a way of putting off-showing toughness, in principle, toughness hypothetically, for some future situations, to compensate for a current position which was being attacked as weak or as pacifist. Namely, an unwillingness to hit all the cities at once and to mine the harbors and go against China, and so forth.
Mr. Hayes: So it’s a rhetorical, tactical hard line.
Mr. Ellsberg: Yes. It’s putting it off. “Yes. That we might do sometime. Let’s study it. I’m willing to study it. Let’s study Auschwitz. We might have a need for it.” Which is what you’re talking about.

So to show that, far from having ethical qualms, you have only practical considerations in mind. You’re willing to do anything. You don’t rule anything out. But my guess is, you’re dealing now with an administration that’s extremely hostile in its core to any such consideration. They’re not thinking in those terms at all. And that’s what everything we know about ’66 and ’67. If there were serious work done, that would be of interest. That would change the picture. But this doesn’t change the picture.
Mr. Hayes: So the “serious work” that was going on was the actual operational planning, targeting and deployment in the unified commands, because that’s what would have actually been drawn on by decision-makers very quickly as they formulate their own political strategy.
Mr. Ellsberg: Again, I don’t think they foresaw a need for this kind of response, unless they got the OK, the go-ahead, to do what they really were proposing and what they wanted to do. And they proposed that in ’67 and ’68. And if they’d gone that far, then they would have done some serious planning on what to expect from the Chinese and how to deal with it. And all of their previous work implied explicitly that they assumed that they would use nuclear weapons. So against a truly insurgent war, there was extreme hostility to the use of nuclear weapons by the civilians at the top. That wouldn’t have been true under Nixon.
Mr. Hayes: What is restraining the Bush Administration from attack or using nuclear weapons?
Mr. Ellsberg: The precedent that that causes, I think. Effects will be, first, greatly to magnify the revulsion and outrage against the U.S. that’s going to occur anyway from the use of non-nuclear weapons against Iraq. And it will be that much greater. The U.S. would have defined itself as a rogue superpower very clearly, which it’s on the way to doing right now. But that will have done it. A Hitler-like aggressive power. And the rage, then, that this caused in the Muslim world altogether, I think, greatly increases our dangers and the dangers of Israel. I would think it would be close to a death warrant for Israel. That it would create a situation where the use of nuclear weapons-there in particular, very specifically-would greatly enlarge the number of people-and I believe the number is not zero now-who are thinking in the Arab world and working and acting to annihilate Israel right now.

The number right now is probably very significantly greater than ten years ago, and after this war, would grow by a factor of a hundred or something, and the idea would be to annihilate it at the cost, if necessary, of large numbers of Arab death. It would be a suicide bomber mentality applied to other people. Not only we the attackers may or may not die, but they would accept that a lot of Palestinians and whoever, Egyptians maybe or people in the whole area would die from fallout, but they would want to get a nuclear weapon basically and end the Israeli problem.

Third, you would have even without the nuclear weapon, you have the deterrent that the attack disposes Saddam to share his biological and chemical capabilities, whatever they are, with al Qaeda, which he wouldn’t do otherwise. A nuclear weapon would even go further on that. Fourth, probably more important, it would really signal to the whole world that nuclear weapons are now going to be used. The threshold has been broken. They are useable. The U.S. certainly can’t take the same stand on this issue as it did before. And so the Indians and the Pakistanis now begin really thinking much more seriously about perhaps the need to preempt even, because they’re facing a serious threat.

I think proliferation would go very quickly. Countries would say, “We need these weapons to deter others from using them. We need them to threaten by ourselves and we need to possibly be able to use them. So we have to have these weapons now.”
Mr. Hayes: Yes. I think that’s probably going to be the biggest effect very quickly if they go ahead. So, to the extent that insurgencies represent a WMD risk that’s new today because of technological diffusion and so forth, the fact that they’re stateless is enormously dangerous.
Mr. Ellsberg: Yes. We created this peculiar stateless fanatic terrorist organization. We created it because we wanted a lot of recruits for Afghanistan. So we were recruiting them all over the place and using fanatic mosques, basically. Fundamentalist mosques, including in the United States, to recruit these people. So it wasn’t using a state base, necessarily, to do it. And we end up with this well funded-we set up the channels for covert funding for them and we use these people. And what we’re left with, then, is a group that always regarded the U.S. as the second Satan. They were quite likely to see us as the target, once the Soviets got out.
Mr. Hayes: There’s a great irony there.
Mr. Ellsberg: And they can’t be restrained. They really can’t be deterred. Whereas I say that the position we’re taking that Saddam can’t be deterred, that’s an absurd assertion. He was deterred in the Gulf War. There’s no reason to think that he can’t be deterred and nothing we know about him suggest that he can’t be deterred. Whereas with Osama, there, the analogy with Hitler in a certain sense, who could not personally have been deterred, is very strong. But it’s totally different from Saddam or Stalin or Mao, who could be and were deterred, as we have been deterred.