Reassessment and Uncertainties: Ellsberg and Government Dissension During the Vietnam War

Erica Spinelli

Writer’s comment: The History 174C assignment for which I wrote the following term paper is by far the most challenging assignment I have encountered while at UCD. We had to discuss a comprehensive book on Vietnam, America’s Longest War, (a.k.a. America’s Longest Book) in light of a research topic we had to choose, all the while considering how the book and topic related to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Needless to say, an effective thesis that covered all of that took quite a while to develop. Only after a horrific first draft was I able to see the deeper thematic connections between both books and Daniel Ellsberg’s experiences. My work on this paper (and particularly the final editing that went into the draft that is printed here) has ultimately shown me that good writing takes time, patience, and many, many rough drafts.
—Erica Spinelli

Instructor’s comment: History 174C (America Since 1945) is a large class (over 250 students), but I encourage students to come talk with me about paper topics. Erica was one of the first to do so. The major requirement for the course was a paper on the Vietnam War era. Students were encouraged not to expect a simple “right” answer for the questions raised by the war, but rather to try to view the events of this period from many different perspectives. Since the other course assignments limited the students’ time, this assignment was something of a hybrid: less than a full-tilt research paper, but considerably more than a regurgitation of assigned readings or lectures. I wanted students to gain a basic familiarity with the issues, and then to choose some aspect of the Vietnam era to explore in greater depth. Before selecting their specific topics, students were required to read a general background history of the war years; the memoirs of a Vietnam veteran writer; and excerpts from a variety of decision makers, participants (U.S. and Vietnamese), and critics. Erica chose to explore Daniel Ellsberg, the former State Department strategist whose decision to leak internal documents (The Pentagon Papers) gave the nation a firsthand view of the unresolved contradictions that plagued U.S. policy toward Vietnam from the outset of the war. I was particularly impressed by Erica’s ability to draw connections between these high-level conflicts and the experiences of combatants in the field.
—Michael Smith, History Department

Daniel Ellsberg once believed in the need to contain Communism, in America’s military supremacy, and in the sanctity of those who governed America’s democratic institutions, yet decades of American involvement in Vietnam changed these beliefs for him. The nature of the Vietnam War forced Ellsberg to revise his earlier faith in America’s ability to win any war and his faith in the trustworthiness of America’s leaders. By 1971, this former Defense Department official had so completely altered his thinking that he leaked classified documents to the press in order to encourage public scrutiny of American foreign policy decisions in Vietnam and of the integrity of those who made such decisions. Although Ellsberg is an extreme example, he illustrates the way the Vietnam War called into question many widely accepted beliefs that were shaped by American experience in World War II and in the Cold War.
         The reassessment of these World War II and Cold War assumptions, however, was not universal within the nation nor within the government elite. As some leaders revised their thinking because of Vietnam, and others held tightly to their initial assumptions despite contradictory evidence, dissent and confusion increased in the higher echelons of government. This high-level dissension mirrored the differences of opinion in the nation and was often responsible for ambiguous, inconsistent policies in Vietnam. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried reveals how the lack of government consensus and clear purpose in policy, as indicated by an analysis of Ellsberg’s intellectual conversion, translated into confusion, purposelessness, and futility for those who actually served in the Vietnam War.

         Daniel Ellsberg was ten when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. Like most people who came of age in the mid-40’s and 50’s, his perceptions of his country and its role in the world were profoundly shaped by World War II and by the resulting Cold War against Communism (Schrag 30-31). The 50’s and early 60’s were an “age of consensus” when the American experience of World War II and the Cold War had so shaped American cultural assumptions that the country, on the whole, became “confident to the verge of complacency about the perfectibility of American society [and] anxious to the point of paranoia about the threat of Communism” (Hodgson 98, 104). Most Americans during this time of “liberal consensus” agreed that Communism threatened cherished democratic institutions and American capitalism. They thus believed that fighting Communism was necessary, and with the victories of World War II still fresh in their minds, they were sure that their nation was strong enough to fight Communism and win. “Few of them doubted the essential goodness and strength of American society” (Hodgson 98) or the goodness and strength of the government officials that led them toward their goal of containing Communism.
         In America’s Longest War: the United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, George C. Herring explains how this widely perceived need to contain Communism formed the basis of American foreign policy in Vietnam for over two decades (xi). Herring argues that even though various administrations came and went during American involvement in Vietnam, the assumptions underlying their policies remained much the same: Communism had to be contained, and Vietnam was vital to American interests because it was the “last military bulwark” that could contain Communism and prevent the “fall” of the rest of Southeast Asia (17).
         The “ideology of the liberal consensus” (Hodgson 97) not only affected policy-making in Vietnam through the perceived need to contain Communism, but also shaped foreign policy there via the fundamental belief that America had the power and strength to succeed in containing Communism. Herring contends that few American leaders questioned their assumption that the United States had the diplomatic and military strength to defeat the North Vietnamese and to secure a solid democracy in the South. With such a mindset, American officials embarked upon years of “experiments in nation building” in which they attempted to manufacture strong, stable, democratic governments in South Vietnam through shifting allegiances with such leaders as Ngo Dinh Diem, Nguyen Khanh, and Nguyen Van Thieu (Herring 47).
         Although Daniel Ellsberg would later reassess his views of the policy of containment and of America’s right to build democracies in the South, he was originally one of the government officials that Herring describes as having taken containment and its conclusions about nation building as “articles of faith” (17). Not only did the cultural climate of the “age of consensus” shape Ellsberg’s perceptions of the Vietnam War before 1967, but his participation in the military and in the government also solidified his “tacit, unquestioned belief that [the US] had a right to ‘win’ in many ways defined by us (i.e., the President)” (Schrag 40).
         Fifteen years before the release of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg had been a “well-disciplined” Marine who served in the First Marine Division, the company with the lowest AWOL rate (Schrag 24). After his time with the military and after he had earned degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, Ellsberg advised the State and Defense Departments during the Cuban Missile Crisis and was responsible for “estimating the so-called missile gap” for the Kennedy Administration (Schrag 25). His experience with the military, his level of education, and his experience in Cold War events, along with his titles of Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense and Special Assistant to the Deputy Ambassador, marked Ellsberg as a dedicated Cold Warrior and “rising star of the military-intellectual complex” (Schrag 26). As a part of this military-intellectual complex, Ellsberg was firmly committed to “the system, the War, the elaborate security measures they entailed,” and to the assumptions about containment that underlay each of them (Schrag 32).
         Like many of the “closet dissenters” (Chafe 356) in the State Department and Defense departments who began to question American assumptions in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968, Daniel Ellsberg also eventually abandoned the ideology of the military-intellectual complex and began to challenge the very notions that created American foreign policy in Vietnam. It was not Tet, however, that precipitated Ellsberg’s “conversion” to a repudiation of his initial Cold War thinking (Schrag 32). His research interests, his two years of living in Vietnam, and his unparalleled access to the Pentagon Papers shaped his later views of American involvement in Vietnam and ultimately led to his release of the once-classified study.
         Ellsberg’s “long time concern to understand policy making,” as reflected in his 1952 Harvard honors thesis on the effects of uncertainty on government decision-making, only grew when Walt Rostow asked him to research government decision-making during crises (Ellsberg 14). Through this project, Ellsberg gained access to documents concerning decisions made in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Crisis, and the U-2 incident, the 1960 Soviet capture of an American U-2 spy plane and its reconnaissance pilot (Ellsberg 15). His experience with this research allowed him to develop an intimate knowledge of government policy-making.
         This knowledge, along with his direct experience with military decision-making in the Pentagon as the Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense, helped form his view that poor decisions were often the results of misinformation. General Edward Lansdale’s request that he visit Vietnam and oversee the Pacification process gave him an opportunity to prove his hypothesis: his two years of service in Vietnam (1965-1967) confirmed Ellsberg’s view that “official reporting [was] grossly inadequate to the job of educating high-level decision makers.” Ellsberg discovered during his time in Vietnam that the President often received misleading reports that were falsely constructed to imply optimism (16).
         Aside from this discovery of manufactured information, Ellsberg’s time in Vietnam also revealed to him the failure of the unquestioned World War II and Cold War assumptions that Herring discusses. Ellsberg comments that the tactics he saw implemented in Vietnam had “discredited in [his] eyes any hopes of success.” He also remarks on “the increasingly obvious unlikelihood of our changing [our tactics]” or the assumptions upon which they were based. This process of realizing that his long-held beliefs may no longer have been adequate or even vaguely applicable to the situation at hand “was the most frustrating, disappointing, disillusioning period of [his] life” (Ellsberg 16-17).
         Ellsberg’s continuing doubts about the efficacy of American policy and policy-making increased when he returned to the United States in 1967 and was commissioned by Secretary of Defense McNamara to help compile a historical study of American decision-making in Vietnam. Convinced to help in exchange for access to a full copy of the report once it was completed, Ellsberg began his research of Kennedy’s 1961 foreign policy decisions. During this research, Ellsberg came to conclude that there were “ultimate discrepancies” between the President’s policies and the policies recommended by his advisors (21).
         Ellsberg did not initially understand such discrepancies, because he still believed that poor decisions were the result of misinformation that advisors provided to the President. After reading the entire McNamara study (later known to the public as the Pentagon Papers), however, Ellsberg came to understand that “the President was part of the problem” (Ellsberg, 34-35). Ellsberg realized that poor decision-making was often the result of the President ignoring the advice of his advisors. Ellsberg pinpointed the structural causes within the Executive Branch that accounted for the President’s tendency (no matter who filled the office) toward independent decisions and for years of policies based on the same unquestioned Cold War assumptions. Ellsberg saw that the power invested in a single Executive placed the full responsibility for failure directly upon the President. This institutionalized balance of power and responsibility made questioning the assumptions of one’s predecessors a risky venture: to stray from previous policy by heeding the words of one’s advisors was to brave the culture of the consensus and to personally risk one’s political future. Presidents were thus reluctant to approve changes in policy, even in the face of new evidence or changing circumstances. Within this context, Ellsberg came to understand the Vietnam War as a manifestation of the “institutional ‘anti-learning’ mechanisms [in the US Government] working to preserve and guarantee unadaptive and unsuccessful behavior” (18).
         The McNamara study also enabled Ellsberg to see another side of the immense power and responsibility of the Executive. He found that the structural allocation of power “gave [the President] enormous capability to postpone or conceal . . . personal failure by means of force or fraud” (Ellsberg 34-35). Although Presidents were concerned about failure resulting from their decisions to change accepted policies, this ironically promulgated their need to conceal the failures that accompanied their conscious decisions to uphold the status quo. Ellsberg came to understand how the secrecy of the “insider consulting,” which had been the basis of his own career, had “supported and participated in the structure of . . . unchallenged executive power that led directly to its rigid, desperate, outlaw behavior” (35). By reading the McNamara study, Ellsberg discovered that “Kennedy and Johnson had consistently misled the public about their intentions in Vietnam” (Herring 267) and, as such, had attempted to conceal their errors of judgment in policy-making with the power of the Presidency. Ellsberg felt that this abuse of power and unadaptive decision making would continue without public scrutiny; therefore, he photocopied and leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers to the press.
         Once Ellsberg understood the true mechanism of power and politics at work within the policy-making in Vietnam, he came to deeply question American leadership and its tactics. He came to view the McNamara study as a history of foreign (American) aggression, and he came to doubt the necessity and appropriateness of America’s policy of containment. As Ellsberg came to mistrust American leadership and the policies of containment, he saw American involvement in Vietnam as “a wholly illegitimate unilateral intervention.” Ellsberg and his colleagues had frequently dismissed similar notions before as “overblown rhetoric” and had never paid attention to anti-war demonstrators' similar insights. After weighing the Pentagon Papers against his own knowledge of Vietnam, however, “Now [Ellsberg] had to [believe those who did not support the War]” (Ellsberg 33-34). Once again, the Vietnam War forced Ellsberg to reassess fundamental perspectives and opinions that he had held for years, if not decades.
         America’s experience in Vietnam seemed to have that effect on many people within and without the government: “America’s failure in Vietnam called into question the basic premises of [containment] and provoked a searching reappraisal of Americans’ attitudes toward the world and their place in it” (Herring xi). As it did for Ellsberg, Vietnam made Americans rethink their once unquestioned active role in containing Communism. In fact, after the fall of Saigon, only “34 percent [of the American people] expressed a willingness to send troops should the Russians attempt to take over West Berlin” (Herring 308). Even in a situation that involved clear Communist aggression, the American people were far less willing to militarily fight Communism than they had been before the Vietnam War.
         American disillusionment with containing Communism was all the more bitter because Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong had forced the United States to reassess its military superiority and the complacency which had been part of the nation’s liberal consensus for decades. Similar to the way Ellsberg saw how American tactics discredited Vietcong success, Americans, including Secretary of Defense McNamara, came to see “Ho Chi Minh [as] a tough S.O.B” who “won’t quit no matter how much bombing we do” (Herring 193). The U.S. was not easily winning the War, and American tactics and the notions of containment upon which they were predicated seemed senseless and futile. The destruction of villages like My Lai under the ethos of “We had to destroy the town to save it” (Herring 210), the endless bombing, and the skyrocketing body counts seemed pointless and even morally reprehensible to many Americans.
         Such tactics, taken together with Presidential rhetoric, made many Americans question their faith in their own government. The renowned photograph of the South Vietnamese police chief committing a street execution in 1968 during the Tet Offensive certainly challenged American rhetoric that we were fighting for democratic principles like our own (Herring 203). The ability, through TV media, to see the actual events and destruction of the War furthered the notion that reality did not often match up with American Presidential optimism that made such claims as,” We shall and we are going to win the War” (Herring 225). Many American people within and without the anti-war movement began to doubt their government, as factions of the government began to doubt themselves.
         Opposition to the war increased within the government especially after the Tet Offensive, yet the reassessment of assumptions was not unanimous within the higher echelons of government. There were people like Kissinger who clung to Cold War assumptions of American supremacy and containment even though he claimed that the Nixon administration was not “making the same old mistakes,” yet there were also people like McNamara and Ellsberg who reassessed American tactics and who searched for ways to change policy in Vietnam (Herring 243, 195). This lack of consensus amongst those responsible for making foreign policy led to internal “confusion and uncertainty” and even worse, “ambiguities and inconsistencies” in decision-making “that had marked American foreign policy from the start” (Herring 209, 228).
         Such uncertainty at the top amongst “smart men in pinstripes [who] could not agree on even the most fundamental matters of public policy,” led to uncertainty in executing the policies at the level of a typical combat soldier (O’Brien 44). Tim O’Brien’s stories in The Things They Carried reveal “the hard and exact truth as it seemed” to a young combat soldier who experienced the War; his stories are aimed at getting us (the readers) to feel as he (and other soldiers) felt (78). O’Brien’s stories thus articulate the confusion, lack of purpose, and futility that soldiers felt as they followed orders in Vietnam that were based upon uncertainty in Washington.
         As O’Brien states, war, in general, is confusing: “War is hell, but that is not the half of it because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love” (86-87). Soldiers have to reconcile various, often conflicting feelings, illustrated in the account of the camaraderie and friendship between Curt Lemon and Rat Kiley playing in the jungle, and the immense horror and sadness the entire Company experiences when Curt Lemon is accidentally killed only seconds later (O’Brien 78). The narrative structure of O’Brien’s various, conflicting accounts of how Kiowa, a young combat soldier, died also metaphorically demonstrates the confusion of war. In “Speaking of Courage,” Norman Bowker circles the lake, haunted by his guilt that he failed to grab Kiowa’s boot and save him. The next story tells us that it was O’Brien, and not Bowker, that regretted his inaction. Later, in “In the Field,” O’Brien describes an unnamed soldier struggling with guilt over Kiowa’s death. Within these various war stories, as within the confusing, traumatic qualities of a soldier’s war experience, “the angles of vision are skewed,” “the pictures get jumbled,” and the truth is elusive (78).
         O’Brien reveals the confusion and distortion of any war experience, yet he also explains why the Vietnam War, in particular, was even worse. Because of the government’s failure to articulate a clear vision and clear policy, many young soldiers saw “no unity of purpose, no consensus on matters of philosophy or history or law” in the execution of the War, even before they were drafted to fight in it (44). Their experience in the jungles of Vietnam following orders that were built upon such lack of consensus reinforced their previous feelings. Soldiers followed their orders, relied upon their instincts to keep themselves alive, and ultimately had no greater “sense of strategy or mission.” With their own lack of clear purpose mirroring that of their high-level superiors in Washington, “they searched the villages not knowing what to look for, not caring, kicking over jars of rice, frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, sometimes setting fires and sometimes not, then forming up and moving on to the next village, then other villages, where it would always be the same” (O’Brien 15 and HIS 174C discussion). Not understanding or even caring why they were doing what they were doing, troops often became disillusioned and came to see their participation and the entire war itself as futile and meaningless.
         O’Brien’s example of the baby Vietcong water buffalo perfectly illustrates the frustration and meaninglessness that soldiers felt during the Vietnam War. Rat Kiley indiscriminately and violently slaughters the water buffalo. His act is “a question of pain”: he has just lost his best friend and cannot make sense of why he died. Ironically, he reacts to these feelings about the meaninglessness of his friend’s death with a meaningless act. Just as the soldiers in Vietnam had no clear purpose upon which to act, Kiley has no clear purpose in slaughtering the buffalo. Mitchell Sanders’ reaction to the violent incident is quite telling: “Well, that’s Nam” (O’Brien 86). For soldiers, such meaningless violence was Vietnam. O’Brien’s soldiers come to the same conclusion that Ellsberg did: without unity of purpose, American tactics in Vietnam became meaningless, futile violence and aggression.
         Daniel Ellsberg and The Things They Carried illustrate the way Vietnam forced Americans, and particularly those creating or executing policy, to reassess their earlier notions. Vietnam made the American people as a whole re-think America’s fundamental military strength, the assumption that Communism must be contained at all costs, and the integrity of our leaders. We were not clearly victorious in Vietnam; year after year people were sent to die under the same types of futile policies, and the government was not honest about such occurrences. The Vietnam War was like no other war that the U.S. had fought to date: the nature and the particular situations of policy-making in the Vietnam War, like the Civil Rights Movement, shook loose assumptions upon which Americans had agreed for decades. The War promulgated the weaknesses of the “liberal consensus,” and the resulting identity crisis brought some Americans into the 60’s and 70’s more likely to re-examine other crucial assumptions. Such relatively unquestioned assumptions about the trustworthiness of the government, or about gender roles, sexual orientation, and the status of minority groups, like the World War II and Cold War assumptions, would be prime for reconsideration. It seems that if any consensus was left intact after the Vietnam War, it was one of cynical distrust, critical questioning, and ideological confusion.

Works Cited

Chafe, William H. The Unfinished Journey 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Ellsberg, Daniel. Papers on the War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: the United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.

Hodgson, Godfrey. “The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus” in History of Our Time. Ed. William H. Chafe and Harvard Sitkoff. 4th edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Schrag, Peter. Test of Loyalty: Daniel Ellsberg and the Rituals of the Secret Government. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974.