As in any tradition, there are certain old stories that deserve to be told and retold. In the tradition of opposition to American war-making, Daniel Ellsberg’s is one of them. His was an odyssey through the bureaucratic underworld of a secret American government which, as Chalmers Johnson notes below, has only grown more labyrinthine and secretive with the passage of years. Ellsberg has recently told his tale in a memoir, Secrets, and Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback, reconsiders Ellsberg’s tale here — he was a CIA consultant at the time the papers were released — in an important essay which has just appeared in the London Review of Books, but has been released as a two-part review on-line by the Guardian.
In the context of the Cold War, Ellsberg might be considered the first (and, if Johnson is right, the last) significant American “defector.” The difference is, he “defected” to us. Like the communist spy and defector Herbert Philbrick, Ellsberg emerged from a Cold War netherworld, as if from the land of the undead, to tell his tale. From the point of view of then President Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, he was indeed the ultimate bad trip. Such a “defector” from the inner reaches of the government today might be lucky not to find himself in Guantanamo.
Johnson in retelling Ellsberg’s courageous adventure — in a better world his story would long since have made a thrilling film — reminds us that lying is the great American presidential tradition of our lifetime and that, again and again, the lies of our leaders, forged in the secret worlds they inhabit, have been taken for gospel in the endless flush of what often passes for patriotism here. Like many of the best tales, Ellsberg’s is a cautionary one for our moment and Johnson’s exploration of it is well worth your time.
Recently a friend sent me the following Mark Twain quote, which seems applicable here: “Patriotism means being loyal to your country all the time and to its government when it deserves it.” Tom
The disquieted American (Part 1)
Daniel Ellsberg’s leaks from inside the Pentagon helped to end the Vietnam war. On the eve of another unpopular war, Chalmers Johnson holds out for an Ellsberg in the Bush administration in this latest essay from the LRB
By Chalmers Johnson
February 6, 2003
Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg Viking, 498 pp., $29.95, October 2002
The subject of Daniel Ellsberg’s memoir is the decadence of American democracy. The conditions he began fighting in 1969 are much worse today and far more dangerous to many more people. Yet central casting could not have produced a more perfect foil for the American imperial Presidency than Ellsberg.
An infantry lieutenant in the Marine Corps with genuine battle experience in Vietnam, a PhD in economics from Harvard, and a defence intellectual employed by the Rand Corporation of Santa Monica, with the highest security clearances, Ellsberg is as good as the American system can produce in the way of a male citizen working in the foreign policy apparatus.
His odyssey from Pentagon staff officer to the man who spirited 47 volumes of top secret documents out of the Rand Corporation, copied them, and delivered them to the New York Times and a dozen other newspapers is breathtaking.
The disquieted American (part 2)
By Chalmers Johnson
Thursday February 6, 2003
Ellsberg first approached this problem via the old idea that the President is innocent but deceived by sycophantic underlings: if only Kennedy – or Johnson, Nixon, the Pope, the King, the Tsar, Stalin etc – had known what was going on, he would have fixed things. Ellsberg calls this the standard ‘quagmire school’ approach to the Vietnam War, led by people like David Halberstam and Arthur Schlesinger. The problem is that a close scrutiny of classified documents will not bear it out: ‘For Kennedy, as for Johnson, in fact, it was the President who was deceiving the public, not his subordinates who were deceiving him.’
Chalmers Johnson is a retired professor of international relations at the University of California and author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. His new book, forthcoming in late 2003, is The Sorrows of Empire: How the Americans Lost Their Country