ZACHARY HAGEN-SMITH – MARCH 3, 2022
EDITOR: MEHUL SACHDEV
If there’s one thing Mai Huy Du knew, it was that the People’s Army would take him. No matter their age requirements or family restrictions, they’d let him into their ranks.
While Hồ Chí Minh’s army offered an open invitation for most young men in North Vietnam, for Du, they had only rejection. In 1970, the Communist North maintained a strained relationship with its rural proprietors, banning land-owning families from enlisting in the military. Their policies left Du, raised on a farm north of Hanoi, to watch in envy as all his friends ran off to fight in the Resistance War Against America.
“He wanted to do something for the country,” his niece told a journalist fifty years later, explaining what came next.
In the dead of night, Du ran away to a distant village where nobody knew his name or recognized his face. There, he enlisted in the army. Du was seventeen. He fought in South Vietnam for a year and then returned to Hanoi where he received a military award for distinguished service. Du went back to the South and fought a few years more, and suddenly, in the blink of an eye, he vanished.
In 1973, Du’s family received a notice that he had died a year earlier, but they never received his body. Or an explanation. Or anything in the way of closure. Mai Huy Du had suddenly disappeared, and nobody knew why.
Humans are ill-adept with ambiguity. We have an unquenchable thirst for information, and an equally insatiable desire to eradicate every dark corner of our unknown with explanation. When people’s basic instincts clash with the limits of everyday life, they can behave in odd ways. Take, for example, the classic thought experiment where a person wins $2,000 only if they retrieve a red-colored ball from an urn. In this scenario, there are two urns to choose from but the person can only pull from one: in the first urn, there are 50 green balls and 50 red ones; in the second, the proportions are a mystery — completely unknown. If everything hinges on pulling a red ball, which urn do they pull from?
Most people pick the first urn, where they know the odds. A 50-50 chance in all likelihood beats the other, unknown probability. But now suppose the colors are reversed. To win they now must also retrieve a ball of the other color. They have the same options: pull from an urn with 50-50 odds or an urn with unknown odds. Which is preferable?
Most people still pick the 50-50 option. But they shouldn’t.
Their perceptions are out of whack. Having already pulled a red ball from the urn with 50-50 odds, they’ve intuited that the probability for pulling red there is greater than that of pulling green. Through their warped psychology, the probability of pulling green is less than 50%. Based on these perceived odds, they should be pulling from the urn with unknown probability where in all likelihood the chance of pulling green is higher.
It’s counterintuitive, and that was Daniel Ellsberg’s point. When Ellsberg first introduced this thought experiment, known as the Ellsberg Paradox, he was putting a magnifying lens on a gaping hole in established economic theory. Before the release of his paradox-proposing paper “Risk, Ambiguity, and the Savage Axioms”, most economists thought that individuals were purely reason-driven. “People tend to behave as though they assigned numerical probabilities, or ‘degrees of belief’, to the events impinging on their action,” the titular Ellsberg noted of established theory, “However, it is hard to either confirm or deny such a proposition.” But, in his 1961 paper, Ellsberg did just that.
Still widely cited among decision theorists, Ellsberg’s publication demonstrated that in the face of uncertainty, people don’t behave rationally. Instead of running mental calculations logically, they violate all the “savage axioms”— the intricately-calculated postulates of rational behavior. People behave in ways that are “ambiguity averse,” acting to prioritize information, even when doing so isn’t a hundred percent logical. In this way, the better-informed people are, the better decisions they make.
Daniel Ellsberg was plenty informed and made plenty of good decisions. At just twenty-eight, Harvard educated Ellsberg began his career at the RAND Corporation: a Pentagon-backed think tank with deep ties to the US Military. The day he started, Ellsberg instantly left an impression, “He was considered the brightest person in RAND,” Guy Pauker, a former political scientist, said, “He was considered sort of our pride and joy. ‘How wonderful to have Dan Ellsberg.’”
Ellsberg was a wunderkind: a prodigy. In his first year at RAND, he published the Ellsberg Paradox, breaking the frame off decision theory and captivating financial academia. But Ellsberg didn’t last long at the think tank, he could get whatever job he wanted: positions in the White House; work in the Pentagon; an escorted tour through war-torn Vietnam. As the CIA organized a top-secret study on American military strategy there, security expert Mort Halperin suggested: “Why don’t you get Dan Ellsberg involved.”
When Ellsberg joined the CIA’s Vietnam study, he inexplicably changed. He stopped working. He sifted through documents, one after the other; eyes glazed and lips dripping with self-importance. His co-workers referred to him as the “kibitzer-in-chief” and “gadfly critic”. Future Vice President of RAND and co-worker on the project, Gus Shubert, recalled that Ellsberg “never wrote a thing, but he read everybody’s stuff.” Robert G. Gard, assistant to Defense Secretary McNamara, noted that Ellsberg’s lack of productivity was the only problem encountered by the task force. After completing a few unfinished drafts on 1961 operations in Vietnam (not a single word of which appeared in the study’s final report), Ellsberg was let go from the project.
His malaise continued. Working at RAND’s D.C. office, the paper Ellsberg had promised to write, “Lessons of Vietnam,” never materialized. Instead, he only produced a collection of inarticulate notes. Ellsberg’s supervisor, Charlie Wolf, a spindly Manhattanite and seasoned analyst, complained that Ellsberg never worked. According to Wolf, he had “a fundamental character flaw . . . of wanting to shine all the time. And that shining being an essential part of his self-esteem.” Ellsberg couldn’t build himself up, so he brought others down. Instead of doing his own research and writing his own papers, Ellsberg ridiculed others. Especially his boss.
In his memoir, Ellsberg derided Wolf as a “hawkish department chairman.” Later, Wolf accused Ellsberg of “besmirch[ing] the reputation of the place that had nurtured him”. Tom Wells, Ellsberg’s biographer, described the relationship between Ellsberg and his supervisor as fraught: “Ellsberg spent a lot of time appraising Wolf’s own work… strong criticisms that fueled Wolf’s criticisms of him.”
The animosity between Wolf and Ellsberg was all-encompassing. Both the senior economist and the once-revered researcher clashed in reverberations felt not just throughout the RAND Corporation, but around the whole world. And it began with a single paper.
“Rebellion and Authority,” written by Wolf and the Soviet-refugee-turned-RAND- sociologist Nathan Leites, was both a product of and response to America’s War in Vietnam. Their paper drew from an extensive trove of data collected during America’s operations in Southeast Asia, but also sought to provide instruction for future endeavors there. More than just Vietnam, the paper focused on a wave of anti-colonial rebellion that rocked the world after World War II, from the FLN’s anti-French insurgency in Algeria, to the Mau Mau’s anti-British uprising in Kenya. The paper also theorized about events in the US, particularly the Civil Rights and college protest movements, which the paper referred to as “urban and campus rebellion.”
Leites and Wolf proposed that all these issues, from guerrilla warfare to popular marches, relied on the same fundamental principles of insurgency, and both required the same treatment. Their paper’s conclusion was succinct: “[Rebellion] can be countered, not with rhetoric aimed at winning hearts and minds,… [but] with a discriminating use of force…” Governments had to treat rebels with a big stick and an iron fist. Any damage insurgents inflicted became “atrocit[ies] justifying– even requiring– huge retaliation.” In other words, “rebels,” whether North Vietnamese soldiers or anti-war protestors, weren’t to be listened to and negotiated with. They had to be crushed.
Leites and Wolf opined that “influencing popular behavior require[d] neither sympathy nor mysticism, but rather a better understanding of costs and benefits.” Pacifying insurgents was a math problem. If the Viet Cong were planting mines and ambushing troops, it’s because the consequences for doing so weren’t high enough. The US needed to ramp up the costs of rebellion and make them harsher.
Up to 1968, when “Rebellion and Authority” was published, every President who presided over the Vietnam War had adopted this strategy, escalating the war and, with it, the costs of Vietnamese insurrection. Those who didn’t acquiesce to American demands faced increasingly harsh punishment. Vietnamese people who didn’t provide information to US forces were tortured, subject to waterboarding, shocks, burns, and sexual assault, regardless of their actual knowledge of North Vietnamese strategy, which most civilians of course lacked. To deter Viet Cong operations, the US military razed entire villages. If townspeople protested, they’d go the same way as their homes. Even the most basic transgressions were punished with extreme measures; if Vietnamese civilians ran from American troops, troops had orders to shoot.
Mass violence was intrinsic to the war in Vietnam. By its end, US forces had fired 26 times the ammunition of World War II and released a bombardment equivalent to 640 Hiroshimas.
The 1967 International War Crime Tribunal, led by Nobel Prize winners Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, unanimously found America guilty on a number of human rights charges, among them, “genocide, the use of forbidden weapons, [as well as the] maltreatment and killing of prisoners”. The tribunal also found that the US military deliberately bombed civilian facilities, including hospitals, schools, and churches. American strategy in Vietnam was stringent and harsh and everything else “Rebellion and Authority” recommended. So why hadn’t they won?
Ellsberg knew why. America’s Vietnam strategy didn’t work as Leites and Wolf predicted, because Leites and Wolf were dead wrong.
In the flooded grasslands beneath Vietnam’s Central Highlands, Kontum City acted as an unsuspecting linchpin. Squished between Cambodia, Laos, and several coastal provinces, the town bound a conglomeration of South Vietnamese regions. If North Vietnam seized it, the South would collapse like a tower of Jenga blocks.
In April 1972, the North Vietnamese Army launched a barrage of artillery and rocket fire at several American encampments stationed near Kontum. The battle lasted two months, but by June, the US had salvaged a firm victory, marking a crucial success in the late war, albeit one that cost more than 1,000 American lives. North Vietnam lost over twenty times that.
Among the dead was a teenager who had run away from his family: Mai Huy Du. The dispatch sent to Du’s family claimed he died in battle, but what really happened is shrouded in obscurity. In a 2019 article for the Daily Beast, writer Joseph Babcock followed Du’s family in their attempts to understand his true fate.
Mai Thanh Ha, Du’s niece, traveled to Kontum in early 2019. At the time, workers were constructing a monument on the hill where Du, with many other soldiers, had supposedly been killed. Veterans at the memorial told Ha that Americans had pummeled the hill with bombshells and “everyone had died.” The odds of coming across a survivor who knew Du were slim.
Ha also visited a nearby military cemetery. “It’s a beautiful place, a nice place,” she recounted to the Daily Beast. It wouldn’t be a bad place for Du to be laid to rest. She talked with a security guard and wandered through the burial ground, searching for her uncle. The cemetery was hot, but also calm and serene. As she walked, row after row of headstones had the same three words, “chưa biết tên”: “name unknown”.
Ha didn’t find any good information on her trip to Kon Tum. She still didn’t know what had happened to her uncle or where his body might be. It stung.
During the Vietnam War, over 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers went missing. Some estimates put the number closer to 500,000, a statistic excluding the many civilians who also vanished.
Numerous Americans also went missing in the Vietnam War, so many that tit galvanized an entire movement to recover the bodies of missing American soldiers and POWs. The number of Americans missing is estimated around 3,000, which is already too high and heartbreaking a number. But the same statistic for Vietnamese is over a hundred times that.
Play the numbers game again. American and Vietnamese casualties: 58,000 American soldiers died, but so did over a million North Vietnamese soldiers (and twice as many Vietnamese civilians). Weapons? America used planes and missiles and toxic chemicals; North Vietnam relied on homemade booby traps and hand-me-down weapons from earlier conflicts and Communist sympathizers. While both sides fought viciously and suffered severe losses, the scales aren’t comparable.
The least experienced novice could tell you that “Rebellion and Authority” was wrong. The costs of rebellion were sky high in Vietnam, and millions paid the price. Still, the Vietnam War chugged forward without pause.
The North Vietnamese insurgency didn’t end as Leites and Wolf predicted because rebellion isn’t an equation.
Their entire paper hinged on the assumption that people behave rationally, but Ellsberg knew that wasn’t true. He had spent the entirety of his career up to that point proving so. His eponymous thought experiment, the Ellsberg Paradox, demonstrated that when people are placed in precarious situations, they tend to behave not with their brain, but with their gut. And what is perpetual guerilla warfare, if not the most precarious of all situations. Even Leites and Wolf acknowledged that their “rationality assumption [was] an oversimplification.” They incorporated some of Ellsberg’s critiques into their final paper and granted him an acknowledgement in its preface, but Ellsberg continued to seethe with contempt for Wolf study. His disgust with his boss ran so high that Ellsberg’s academic complaints had to be relayed through his colleague Albert Wohlstetter.
Wohlstetter, in an official memo, pointed out what had so bothered Ellsberg: the Leites-Wolf manuscript didn’t actually care about what people engaged in a civil war actually wanted. Instead, the purportedly impartial study tended to take the side of authority figures. The paper didn’t acknowledge the various ends of the local population, insurgents, counterinsurgents, and the many outside interests backing either party. Ending rebellion is more complicated than raising government authority until it outweighs other factors. In one moment, Wohlstetter did away with all pretenses: “It is plain…that the end of protecting the Vietnamese population is poorly served by destroying it.”
If not harshness, then what did America lack that North Vietnam had? While it’s easy to point to American war crimes as a determining factor (which they were), Hồ Chí Minh’s forces were also brutal, perhaps moreso. During the Tết Offensive, Viet Cong forces systematically executed South Vietnamese officials, intellectuals, and other “enemies of the people”, along with all their families. Like the Americans, North Vietnamese forces didn’t hesitate to murder civilians under the slightest, most ill-conceived suspicion. And when North Vietnam eventually conquered the South, they did what totalitarian regimes do: they shut down the free press, censored education, and “disappeared” perceived dissidents.
What blindsided Leites and Wolf, and what Ellsberg and Wohlstetter understood, is that the people who fought in the War did so with unquantifiable but articulate motivations. Vietnam had been the victim of supra-national domination for nearly a century. First, then French, then the Japanese, then the French again. Vietnam hadn’t been ruled by its own people since the nineteenth century, and even then it was ruled by autocratic monarchs, not popular decree. Though visions of a self-deterministic Vietnam varied drastically, people of all persuasions, of North and South, sought a country that’d be legitimately Vietnamese.
The concept of political legitimacy comes from German philosopher Max Weber. “The basis of every system of authority… is a belief” Weber explained, “a belief by virtue of which persons exercising authority are lent prestige”. Legitimacy is essentially a nation’s right to exercise power, and it’s granted by the very people it rules.
If a country’s population follows its laws and properly interacts with government agencies, then the regime is legitimate. If people don’t recognize the governing entity as a real authority and don’t follow its rules, then the government is illegitimate. It’s as simple as that.
So, where does that leave Vietnam?
In North Vietnam, Hồ Chí Minh held broad respect. He wasn’t some anti-Yankee Soviet figurehead, he was a familiar face beloved by millions. More than a communist, Minh was a stalwart nationalist who put Vietnamese self-determination at the core of his mission. He had led the fight against French occupation and, before that, Japanese invasion. While Minh committed numerous atrocities throughout his rule, including the execution of 15,000 landlords and other “class enemies,” he remained a celebrated national figure.
The 1956 North Vietnam elections were never held, but if they were, many Western observers think Minh would’ve won. Even President Eisenhower conceded that, “had an election been held, Hồ Chí Minh would have been elected Premier.” Hồ Chí Minh’s North Vietnam, despite its systemic violence, held legitimacy. South Vietnam’s government did not.
The South Vietnamese residents who had welcomed American intervention in 1954 were primarily city-dwellers who had prospered under French rule. For the 80% of South Vietnamese who lived in the countryside, America might as well have been France or Japan or some other foreign invader.
America’s choice of allies in Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm didn’t help. Diệm had been appointed by Emperor Bảo Đại, a puppet of colonial France. Emperor Đại lived in Europe and couldn’t hold a steady conversation in Vietnamese — he wasn’t fluent.
So why on God’s Earth was Đại, of all people, entitled to choose the country’s leader? The US didn’t ask those sorts of questions, though. Diệm held an executive office and America needed his cooperation, no matter what that entailed.
Diệm wasn’t all that different from Hồ Chí Minh’. He had all the totalitarian leaning of his Northern counterpart, just without the class consciousness. Diệm plastered his face across South Vietnam and declared a self-aggrandizing song as the country’s national hymn. Though Diệm claimed to be “the mediator between the people and heaven,” his regime stunk of nepotism. One of his brothers was selected to be a Catholic Bishop; another became a provincial administrator (though he behaved more like a lawless warlord); and Diệm’s sister-in-law served as his Presidential hostess, exercising steep control throughout the capital palace.
Diệm was neither charismatic nor popular. To ensure his initial election, the CIA relocated nine hundred French collaborators from North Vietnam to the South. They were supposed to fuel Diệm’s political base, but, for Diệm they weren’t enough.
According to Frances Fitzgerald’s acclaimed history of Vietnam, Fire in the Lake, Diệm’s party couldn’t be supported through traditional revenue streams, so they financed themselves through a combination of piracy, extortion, opium trading, and currency-exchange manipulation.
Still, Diệm’s government held an insatiable appetite for power. In 1955, it launched a campaign to remove Emperor Đại from the throne and eliminate the monarchy. Diệm’s regime fixed the referendum and won. His rapid, unstable consolidation of power raised a red flag for his American allies.
On November 1, 1963, the South Vietnamese military invaded the presidential palace, taking Diệm and his brothers hostage. It was a coup d’état, and the US supported it. Diệm’s overtly anti-democratic tendencies had become a bane for America’s international credibility, making it preferable for the US to have a different face at the helm of South Vietnam. In the end, Diệm and his brothers were executed, shot in the back multiple times by one of their own army captains.
While Diệm’s regime had become unstable and corrupt, his removal posed a larger challenge. In Diệm’s place emerged a massive power vacuum. Multiple coups and military governments followed, each collapsing like Dominos. American intervention became increasingly necessary not just for the war, but to maintain basic living standards. South Vietnam couldn’t defend or manage itself. Its government wasn’t organized or functional. It wasn’t legitimate. That was the issue. No matter how many troops or resources America poured into the conflict, South Vietnam didn’t have a real government. South Vietnam, and by extension the US, didn’t have legitimacy. That was what Ellsberg had been trying to get at.
When he was younger, Ellsberg had supported the Vietnam War as a necessary measure against Soviet dictatorship, but after a week during first visit in 1961, he knew that the US was doing poorly. As Ellsberg put it, “you don’t have to be an ichthyologist to know when a fish stinks.” He adopted the position dominant among the upper echelons of Washington’s policy elite: the Vietnam War could be won, but only with a radically different approach. A student of economic decision theory, a field relevant to military strategy, Ellsberg began actively studying alternative war plans, enmeshing himself deeper and deeper into America’s diplomatic elite.
After being recruited for the CIA task force on America’s military history in Vietnam, everything Ellsberg knew changed. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara commissioned the project out of historical intrigue, so that future generations of military strategists would be able to learn from America’s midcentury experiences in southeast Asia. Ellsberg was assigned to study Kennedy’s strategy in 1961.
As he scoured archives, the truth gradually poured out: America never had a shot at winning the Vietnam War.
The military knew. Old memos from McNamara declared that nothing could prevent the fall of South Vietnam to the North. Numerous documents indicated that escalating troop presence made no discernible impact.
From Ellsberg’s own experience in the Pentagon, it made enough sense that for one bureaucratic reason or the other, the President and his representatives were being deliberately lied to. Before reading the papers, Ellsberg thought Kennedy was simply mistaken, but now it seemed like military leaders, whether from a place of unrealistic optimism or misplaced ambition, were the ones really pulling the strings.
Ellsberg’s portfolio, culminating in the Ellsberg Paradox, emphasized that bad decisions were the product of inadequate information. If Presidents were dragging the nation into an unwinnable war, then, all they needed was the right information. Ellsberg needed to provide explanations – for everything.
He developed an “‘unhealthy and emotional probing into the failures of US policy, convinced that ‘there was a gigantic deception,” one RAND historian recalled. His quest for answers snowballed into severe depression punctuated by bouts of manic research.
When the CIA eventually removed Ellsberg from the project, he still wallowed in denial. Part of him was still invested in the Vietnam campaign, but another part knew there wasn’t a point. It was painful for Ellsberg to admit, as he later did, that “one’s own, and the country’s effort, was wasted, hopeless, from the start.” When the task force’s paper, titled “History of US Decision-Making in Vietnam, 1945–1968” was released in 1969, the RAND office received a copy of the top-secret publication, and Ellsberg read the whole thing.
The paper flipped all of Ellsberg’s assumptions sideways. American presidents weren’t being misled. They were doing the misleading. “Each president had chosen to continue the war,” Ellsberg recalled, “despite warnings from knowledgeable advisors [that] their policies would lead to stalemate and would at the most delay withdrawal and defeat.” Kennedy, who Ellsberg studied for the task force, had been warned by more than just policy advisors. Vietnam would be, “an entanglement without end,” French President Charles de Gaulle had cautioned Kennedy, just years after France itself had withdrawn from the conflict. Jawahralal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, had also told Kennedy that sending American troops would be disastrous. Walter Lippmann, Dean of American Political Commentators, a political pundits’ association, in 1963 declared that “the price of a military victory in the Vietnamese war is higher than American vital interests can justify.” It seemed that everybody and their chief of staff had been telling president after president that the war was unwinnable. The presidents knew it was a lost cause, but they didn’t care.
To cover themselves, presidents lied to the public and to Congress. No president wanted to be the one who lost Vietnam, so they kept passing the buck, gambling that a strategy in the mold of Leites and Wolf would work. They hoped that, with enough escalation, the costs of North Vietnamese insurgency would exceed the benefits of rebellion. Needless to say, that never happened. Instead, more Americans were drafted, and more Vietnamese deployed, and more people died in a protracted conflict doomed from its inception.
“The belief that we had ever had a right to try to ‘win’ in Vietnam, to impose our political preferences by military means, died for me,” Ellsberg demurred. Once again, he returned to what he knew best: decision theory. Better decisions are made by better information. So, if presidents are knowingly dragging the nation into an unwinnable war, then the logical solution is to inform the public. Though a perfectly-informed president didn’t work, a perfectly informed public might.
Ellsberg emerged as a prominent and credentialed anti-war figure. He attended peace conferences and protests, at one point getting tear gassed at a demonstration with Noam Chomsky. In 1970, on the panel debate show The Advocates, Ellsberg argued his case against a coalition of hawks, among them late senator Bob Dole. When one of the pundits tried baiting Ellsberg, asking if he thought the President of the United States had been brainwashed, Ellsberg calmly replied, “I believe, as a matter of fact, sir, that five presidents have brainwashed themselves, brainwashed their own staffs, and brainwashed the American public for a number of administrations.”
As Ellsberg became more involved in the antiwar movement, his work at RAND further diminished. His boss, Charlie Wolf, thought Ellsberg was conning him. In 1969, when Ellsberg was invited to testify against the war in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Wolf demanded Ellsberg quit. “You’re exploiting the name of RAND,” Wolf told him, “You should dissociate yourself from RAND by resigning, so you can speak as an individual.”
“You can fire me, Charlie,” Ellsberg responded, “But I’m not going to resign.” Ellsberg walked out of the room without looking back. He went on to testify before Congress multiple times with RAND-backing.
Ellsberg’s antiwar activism reached a turning point in August 1969 during a conversation with Mort Halperin, the friend that had recruited him for the CIA task force. At the time, Halperin was an assistant to Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council. He knew all the ins and outs of American-Vietnam policy, and that Nixon had no plans to withdraw.
Just like Johnson, Kennedy, and Eisenhower, Nixon planned to escalate the war. He wanted to show North Vietnam that he wouldn’t abide by the limits set by previous administrations. Halperin detailed to Ellsberg the intricacies of Nixon’s covert bombing of Cambodia, and an emerging plan centered around “mining harbors and blockading, hitting dikes…and even using nuclear weapons.” According to Halperin, Nixon wouldn’t go into the next election “without having mined Haiphong and bombed Hanoi.”
Halperin’s version of Nixon’s plans lacked consistency in Ellsberg’s political circles. While discussing the potential for Nixon to extend the war with Harry Rowen, the President of RAND, Rowen echoed the language of Leites and Wolf, telling Ellsberg that, “If [Nixon] really can get the costs and casualties down …and the American public would find that acceptable . . . what’s so bad about it?”
Ellsberg responded, “It would mean our bombing Vietnam forever. And that’s not acceptable to me.”
Whether the Nixon administration took a path more along Halperin’s or Rowen’s vision, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people would die, American and Vietnamese alike.
For Ellsberg, it all came back to decision theory. For voters to make the best decision in the next election, they needed the same information as Ellsberg: American presidents had lied and manipulated the public into supporting a war that couldn’t be won, sacrificing tens of thousands of American lives in the process. The public needed to know what he knew, even if that information was classified.
At first, Ellsberg pressured RAND to give more people access to the CIA task force study, the one that detailed America’s history of blunders throughout the conflict, by expanding its acquisition list, but the Pentagon repeatedly blocked his requests. At the same time, Ellsberg began sneaking thousands of pages of the paper out of his office. He copied them one at a time on a friend’s Xerox machine. Wolf knew that Ellsberg had access to the papers for note taking purposes, but he had no clue what was coming next. In a way, neither did Ellsberg.
At first, Ellsberg tried releasing the papers through the offices of anti-war senators Fulbright and McGovern, but they turned him down. Since Congress wasn’t an option, he went to the press. The New York Times had been the obvious choice. After distributing the documents to his contact there, Ellsberg spent many paranoid nights seeing phantoms of the FBI and CIA holding him at gunpoint, as if they knew what was about to occur. In June 1971, he was abroad in Cambridge, England, when these “Pentagon Papers” were finally released.
“No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War,” former President Richard Nixon wrote in his memoir No More Vietnams, “It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now.” When Nixon published his book in 1985, Ellsberg had long grown past his need to oust the disgraced commander-in-chief. Following the infamous series of whistleblower trials that culminated in Ellsberg’s dismissal by the Supreme Court, he turned his anti-war credibility into anti-nuclear advocacy, pushing for deterrence programs and arms reductions.
Ellsberg ultimately felt ambivalent about the Pentagon Papers’ impact: “I never convinced anyone that Nixon was doing the same thing as his predecessors. Nobody wanted to believe that, and I did not convince them. The Times’ slant on the Pentagon Papers was, ‘This is history.’ The message I wanted to get out was: this is history being repeated.”
While releasing the Pentagon Papers didn’t turn public opinion against Nixon and the war as Ellsberg had hoped, it did achieve his aims in a roundabout way. Worried that Ellsberg had more dirt on him, Nixon’s infamous “plumbers” broke into his psychiatrist’s office. The smoking gun tape that ultimately spurred Nixon to resign wasn’t Watergate, but a hush money payment from the Ellsberg operation.
Today, Ellsberg lives with his wife in Berkeley, California. He remains a committed advocate of whistleblower rights and anti-war movements. At 90 years old, in June 2021, he released another batch of documents that he had copied at the same time as the Pentagon Papers. Detailing 1958 tensions over Taiwan, the leaked papers show how close the US came to nuclear war with China. At the time, one chairman declared that the US “would have no alternative but to conduct nuclear strikes deep into China” if it continued its attacks on Taiwan. As tensions with China continue to rise and those with Russia spell the beginning of a new Cold War, Ellsberg remains concerned that history is entering another revolving door.
While much has changed since the Vietnam War, a lot hasn’t. As recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan show, American war continues to be waged on ideological foundations rather than factual ones. In both the Far and Middle East, America failed to build political legitimacy, leaving massive power vacuums in its absence. As the Pulitzer Prize winning author Việt Thanh Nguyễn wrote of America’s withdrawal from Kabul, “The wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan happened as a result of American hubris, and, in both cases, Americans mostly focused on the political costs of war for them. But in each case, the Vietnamese…and now the Afghans, have paid the much greater toll in human suffering.”
Look no further than the past weeks’ invasion of Ukraine. Even if Putin reigns supreme militarily, Russian attempts to govern the country, either directly or through political puppetry, will inevitably run into political legitimacy barriers. Relying on harsh, Leites and Wolf type strategies rather than more nuanced ones will only perpetuate bloodshed.
As the world hurtles towards an increasingly uncertain future, Ellsberg’s view of a society based in information-based decision making looks increasingly desirable, but perpetually implausible. Though the Vietnam War has ended, its second life in memory is far from over.
Mai Thanh Ha, still searching for her uncle Mai Huy Du’s body, drove to a memorial in the city of Gia Lai in early 2019. On its walls were the names of every missing soldier who fought in the Battle of Kontum. The list totalled over 13,000 names, but none of them were her uncles. She found it strange. He had died here. Hadn’t he?
With only hours left before her flight back to Hanoi, Ha made a couple of calls. An official she had spoken with earlier had discovered her uncle’s name on a form deep in some archive.
The yellowing document listed Du, along with eighty-two other soldiers, as missing, but that didn’t mean anything. “Missing” only means that authorities never found or identified the body. It means they don’t know about anything that happened to him. They can’t even confirm that he died.
The records also didn’t match the death certificate that Du’s family had been mailed fifty years earlier. This death certificate listed his date of death as March 3rd, but the records indicated that Ha’s uncle went missing on February 29th.
Talking to the Daily Beast reporter over the phone, Ha mentioned something about contacting another official who had access to another trove of records. Then she paused, tears filling her eyes.
“I just want to see his name written somewhere, you know?,” she said, “When I do this searching for my uncle, I think about his parents, my grandparents. How could they die and never know what happened to their son?” After the words left her mouth, Ha cried. She cried for everything she knew, and then she cried for everything she never would.
Featured Image Source: [The Associated Press]
Disclaimer: The views published in this journal are those of the individual authors or speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of Berkeley Economic Review staff, the Undergraduate Economics Association, the UC Berkeley Economics Department and faculty, or the University of California, Berkeley in general.