Dr. Ellsberg and the Importance of Ground Truth

Last Saturday, I had the good fortune to join a book talk organized by professor of U.S. foreign relations Pierre Asselin for Daniel Ellsberg, the former Rand analyst and Pentagon official responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1972. Ellsberg has a new book, The Doomsday Machine,  published in December 2017. The book is a fascinating-yet-terrifying tour of American nuclear weapons strategies that for most of the fifties and sixties rested on one basic tactic should aggressions break out: total and overwhelming annihilation of the USSR, China and most of Europe. Summing up the book in a nutshell, there was no Plan B; and only after 1961 when American spy satellites confirmed the Soviets had only a handful of missiles did this nuclear planning ratchet down a bit. (See my piece on Corona photography in Vietnam here.) . For those who may not read Doomsday Machine, one other important fact Ellsberg dispels is that of the “football” or what President Trump in his tweets about Kim Jong Un detailed as his bigger “red button.” If readers take nothing else from the book, they should drop this notion that the President of the United States is solely responsible for launching nuclear warheads. Military officials further down the chain of command have had this ability since the early 1950s.  Another bit from the book that may surprise some historians of the 1960s and 70s is that when Ellsberg copied the thousands of pages in the Pentagon Papers taken from his Santa Monica office at Rand, he also copied material beyond it including a secret memo, NSSM-1, detailing Nixon’s strategy to expand the American war into Laos and Cambodia.

Meeting Dan Ellsberg

As an historian who spends most of my research time in the field, studying the places of the war in Vietnam rather than the halls of power that ordered it, I told Dr. Ellsberg how much I admired his principled stance as well as his incredible writing style–not only in these books but also in his now declassified reports such as “Revolutionary Judo: Working Notes on Vietnam No. 10.” I told him that his insights into the conflict put him right up there with another person I met on several occasions, Phạm Xuân Ẩn, a former Reuters and Time correspondent in Sài Gòn who it later turned out was a spy and general in the NLF. (Historian Larry Berman’s Perfect Spy details Ẩn’s story, at least the story Ẩn wanted told.) Like Ellsberg, Ẩn wrote detailed analyses of the situation in Vietnam and he was routinely consulted at the Time office in Saigon by American military and CIA specialists for his “take” on the insurgency. Ellsberg, like Ẩn, was a man who trafficked in secrets.

I managed to get a copy of my forthcoming book, Footprints, into Ellsberg’s hands, curious to get his take on my reading of many now-declassified reports and my perspective as an historian working on the ground in Vietnam today, exploring the rapidly-disappearing ruins of the American war. This is where the sharp-as-a-tack, 88-yr.-old surprised me. “You know, I was in Vietnam on the ground for two years. Read my other book, Secrets.” Ellsberg’s 2002 memoir of his travels to Vietnam and his eventual decision to leak the Pentagon Papers reveals an unexpectedly wild ride. Here was an analyst who not only synthesized reports but ground truthed them by spending time outside Saigon to see conditions for himself.

Ellsberg, mid-30s in the Mekong Delta, from Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

His chapters “Travels with Vann” and “Rach Kien” shocked me. Here was a man in his mid-thirties traveling with the arch druids of American counterinsurgency in Vietnam, Edward Lansdale and John Paul Vann.  He recounts how Vann insisted on not flying via helicopter like almost every other military and State Department observer in those days. Instead he drove Vietnam’s highways in an International Harvester full tilt with weapons at the ready, to see for himself how things were going on the ground.

“Travels with Vann” describes a series of road trips along highways that just months later would be brimming with deadly ambushes on U.S. soldiers.  In “Rach Kien” Ellsberg describes embedding with a U.S. Army infantry unit at a former NLF stronghold in the Mekong Delta south of Sài Gòn. While walking point with the platoon, Ellsberg comes under fire and describes participating in combat despite his official role as a civilian sent down to observe.  Here he considers multiple problems in the larger American military strategy called pacification.

What stands out to me as an historian focused on Vietnam was that Ellsberg was one of a very small number of higher-ranking American officials in Saigon who dared to hop in a car, hit the road and talk to people much less participate in such engagements.

One passage in the book, especially, captures the same fascination that I had for the layered, historic landscapes of conflict especially in central VietnamEllsberg describes driving south of Đà Nẵng on Highway 1 in spring 1966 to survey responses to the Buddhist protests. He notes “an unusual succession of abandoned fortifications, of various constructions, that dated from different periods successively further back in time.” (p. 134). His Vietnamese interpreter notes that one is French and then another series of rounded ones were Japanese. When they reach the crest of a hill, the interpreter points out a pile of rubble that is reputed to be a more ancient fort from a period of resistance to Chinese occupation in the 1400s.

I had a very similar experience when a guide pointed out to me beyond the rubble of the former US Army Phú Bài Combat Base were the ruins of French, Japanese and imperial Vietnamese bases. Ellsberg recounts a feeling that I believe many American soldiers felt as they explored this historic conflict zone:

“I knew we were following the French in Vietnam, who for all their colonialism were our allies in two world wars. But as someone who had grown up on movies of the war in the Pacific, and then on war stories in the Marines, I found it eerie to hear I was walking in the footsteps of Japanese invaders.”   (Secrets, p. 135)

This perfectly captures the metaphor of footprints that I use in my new book. Footprints of War is my attempt to write the history of a place where so many different soldiers have passed, showing how this more grounded perspective conflicts with and challenges the more common aerial views of war zones favored by generals, high-ranking officials and screen-viewing publics today.

Ground Truthers in Vietnam

Wolf Isaac Ladejinsky
Wold Ladejinsky

Of course Ellsberg wasn’t the first to hit the roads of Vietnam and report his findings.  Former OSS officers, US development officials and others repeatedly reported disturbing signs from the ground. A decade earlier, another State Department economist, Wolf Ladejinsky, traveled many of the same highways to report on the “rural situation.” (I describe his forays in my book Quagmire.) Ladejinsky was a child of Russian Jews who fled the communist revolution, and he established his reputation developing policies after 1945 designed to ensure the continuation of private rural economies in Japan and Taiwan. However, as a youth in New York who spoke Russian and worked with the Soviet allies in WW2, Ladejinsky was also a target of McCarthy’s red scare. Eisenhower did what he could to vouch for him, but ultimately Ladejinsky was forced out of his secret clearances and high-ranking posts. He was not fired from government service, however, as the McCarthyites had nothing on him; but he was forced to take a transfer…to Saigon in 1956.

What distinguished Ladejinsky from the moment of his arrival, like Ellsberg a decade later, was that he got out and talked to people. Unlike many Americans holed up at the Embassy or in the many coffee shops and bars, Ladejinsky traveled by road to the farthest corners of the delta. He met with former Viet Minh officials and described rampant corruption in the newly formed Republic of Vietnam. Like Ellsberg, Ladejinsky also wrote fantastic reports!

However, Ladejinsky’s reports for unknown reasons went almost a year before being received in Washington. When they landed, they earned him a lot of friction with peers in the Saigon embassy. This time he was forced to retire, tried in an administrative procedure on a weird, conflict of interest charge from his time in Taiwan later found to have no grounds. Remarkably, Ladejinsky stayed on another year in Saigon as an advisor to South Vietnamese President Diem before leaving to work for the World Bank in Nepal. (Robert McNamara suffered a similar, soft fate in 1968 when he left the White House to serve as the Bank’s president.)

Ground Truthing Today

What strikes me most in Ellsberg’s book and with others like Ladejinsky is how comparatively little reporting regarding American wars today in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Africa is coming from the ground. I’m not sure what new rules in the Patriot Act or other conditions have so thoroughly muzzled reporting from these fronts. C.J. Chivers’ recent essay for the Times War Without End” is a welcome exception though it describes actions from almost a decade ago. What’s vitally missing today in our continuing military conflicts is steady reporting from the ground. Of course, Ellsberg’s reports at the time were classified, so one may at least hope that similar internal reports on these “situations” today will eventually come to light.