Sunday , October 17 2021

Nicolas Lemann on Daniel Ellsberg

Long New Yorker essay on Ellsberg and his new book on the Pentagon Papers:

    To anyone over a certain age (forty-five?), Daniel Ellsberg needs no introduction, but it would be quite a challenge to explain Ellsberg to someone who had never heard of him. There was this brilliant young man from the Midwest who in 1948 went to Harvard on a scholarship, studied economics, demonstrated great promise, and got inducted into the small, super-élite company of game theorists, whose lifework was to formulate and fine-tune an American deterrence policy that would insure that the Cold War never became a nuclear war. Ellsberg, enthusiastic about this calling, served in the Marine Corps and then went to work for the RAND Corporation, the Santa Monica beachfront consulting firm, where the best defense intellectuals thought the unthinkable. He had a Forrest Gump-like talent for popping up at key moments and for meeting historical figures. In 1964, he moved to Washington to work in the E Ring of Robert McNamara’s Pentagon, just at the moment when it was determining Vietnam War policy. A year later, he went to Vietnam, where his guides in Saigon and the jungles and rice paddies of the surrounding countryside were General Edward Lansdale, the model for Pyle in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” and Colonel John Paul Vann, the antihero of Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie.” Guns and jeeps and patrols and ambushes replaced memos and meetings and press conferences as the stuff of Ellsberg’s routine.

    On his return to the United States, in 1967, Ellsberg embarked on a peculiar life, travelling back and forth between the anti-war movement and the top level of the foreign-policy establishment. In the winter of 1968, he was called to the Hotel Pierre, in New York, by his old Harvard acquaintance Henry Kissinger to help the incoming Nixon Administration with its war planning. In the summer of 1969, while attending a conference on “Liberation and Revolution,” he stood outside a Philadelphia post office at a vigil supporting a draft resister who was about to be sentenced. The following summer, Kissinger, on a visit to Richard Nixon’s vacation home in San Clemente, summoned Ellsberg’s friend Lloyd Shearer, of Parade, to advise him about the news management of his love life. Shearer brought along Ellsberg, whom Kissinger fobbed off on Alexander Haig so that he could speak privately with Shearer about the ins and outs of dating starlets. But, as Ellsberg was leaving, Kissinger invited him to come back for a talk – and Ellsberg cut short his honeymoon so that he could make it. One day in the spring of 1971, Ellsberg, in the company of Noam Chomsky and other friends, was teargassed by police in Washington for blocking traffic as part of an anti-war protest, then flew to New York so that he could hear McGeorge Bundy speak at the Council on Foreign Relations. Robert Kennedy, William Fulbright, and Clark Clifford were among the other eminences with whom Ellsberg had private meetings on Vietnam. When his anti-war activities made his position at RAND untenable, he left – only to be given a plummy international-relations fellowship at M.I.T.

But Lemann says war isn’t about information:

    For Ellsberg, the shattering revelation of the Pentagon Papers was that the American Presidents who made decisions about Vietnam had actually been well informed. Nobody was lying to them about the probability of success of American engagement, and they engaged anyway. All this contradicted not only Ellsberg’s own explanation for mistaken judgments but a whole way of seeing the world, in which if decision-makers can be given good information they will make rational choices. But even after reading the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg remained loyal to the tenets of decision theory; in leaking the Papers to the press, he was simply changing jurisdictions, trading in a faith that perfectly informed Presidents will make rational decisions for a faith that a perfectly informed public will force rational decisions on misguided Presidents. That’s why Ellsberg comes to regard “deception,” “secrecy,” and “lies” as the devils responsible for bad policy—they were other names for misinformation. Hidden within the morally outraged and civilly disobedient radical, in other words, was the soul of a wronged decision theorist. The publication of the Pentagon Papers presented a new kind of Ellsberg paradox: providing the public with complete information didn’t have the effect that Ellsberg expected.

    As a young theorist, Ellsberg had noticed that it’s hard to get people to change a course they’ve set based on bad information, even after you’ve given them better information. But in the case of Vietnam (and, by extension, Iraq) there is another explanation for the failure of accurate information to produce a single, rational outcome: the decision-makers are making value judgments about how important the goal is and how high a price they are willing to pay to achieve it. American Vietnam policy mystified and enraged Ellsberg because its goal, preventing Vietnam from becoming a Communist-governed country, was much less valuable to him than it was to Congress, the public, or the various Presidents during the years when the American commitment was being ratcheted up to the level of full-scale war.

    Why did Johnson and Nixon stick with a war that was going so poorly? Partly, it was a matter of wanting to avoid humiliation once the United States committed its forces. Also, they had an alternative scenario in mind: a Vietnam that looked like Korea, with a tense but stable relationship between a Communist North and a pro-American South. South Vietnam might even have moved from puppet governance to democracy, as South Korea has. And Johnson, at least, rejected an even more hawkish policy – using military force more aggressively in the hope of forcing the North to surrender. Ellsberg says that such a policy inevitably would have led to the use of nuclear weapons and a war with China, but Johnson’s policy, combined with the inexhaustible determination of the North Vietnamese, produced only protracted stalemate. Johnson was balancing public and congressional opinion, the goal of preventing South Vietnam from becoming Communist, his chances of success, and the likely cost in blood and treasure of the course he chose. If he had been willing to pay any price, he might have won; if he hadn’t cared about the goal, he wouldn’t have escalated the war. Instead, he wound up with a compromise policy that failed horribly, and a great deal of death and destruction occurred to no end. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy made similar illogical-seeming decisions, as Ellsberg discovered when he read the Pentagon Papers, not because they were ill-informed but because they, too, regarded preventing Communist rule in South Vietnam as extremely important, though not important enough to demand all the military options at their disposal.

    In the end, the Vietnam War can’t be reduced to a problem of miscalculated probability. It is of the utmost importance right now that we understand that the decision to go to war is ideological, not informational: the reason people disagree vehemently about war in Iraq is not that the facts on the ground or the true prospects of American military success are being kept hidden. What they disagree about is under what conditions and by what means the United States should try to affect the governance of other countries. It’s not what we know but what we believe in that makes all the difference.

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About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected],, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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