Papers on the War

by Daniel Ellsberg

Simon and Schuster, New York, 1972

Pages 132 -  135

The Stalemate Machine: A Schematic Summary

The following imputed Presidential decision guidelines (A, below) will, under crisis conditions of the Vietnam conflict as perceived by Washington decision-makers, lead to policy choices and Executive performance conforming in some detail to those actually obtaining at major escalation points (not necessarily to behavior in between them) between 1950 - 68. (Presidential choices significantly escalating U.S.  involvement have occurred, in fact, only in crisis situations of impending failure.)

Together with decisions between major escalations, institutional consequences (including consequences for expectations), and external factors - mainly, GVN and DRV/VC behavior operating over time - these rules will generate an evolution of policy, involvement, and conflict very close to that observed over that period (B, C, and D below).

A. Presidential Decision Rules in Crisis

Rule 1 

Do not lose South Vietnam to Communist control - or appear likely to do so - before the next election.

Rule 2 

Do not, unless essential to satisfy Rule 1 in the immediate crisis or an earlier one:

  1. bomb South Vietnam or Laos,
  2. bomb North Vietnam,
  3. commit U.S. combat troops to Vietnam,
  4. commit U.S. combat troops to Laos or Cambodia,
  5. institue wartime domestic controls,
  6. destroy Hanoi or Haiphong or the dike system, or mine Haiphong harbor,
  7. mobilize reserves,
  8. assume full, overt administrative authority and military command in South Vietnam,
  9. invade North Vietnam,
  10. use nuclear weapons.

Rule 3 

Do choose actions that will:

  1. minimize the risk of loss - or public expectation of eventual loss - within the next 6 months, so far as possible without violating Rule 2.
  2. if this risk is significant without certain actions so far "prohibited" by Rule 2, break constraints ()  to use the types of actions minimally necessary (as judged by President) to reduce the risk to a very low level.
  3. so far as is consistent with Rule 1, and using fully any action no longer prohibited, maximize the probability of an eventual "win", in the sense of eliminating the Communist party in South Vietnam and assuring indefinitely a non-Communist regime.
  4. so far as is consistent with Rule 1, do not take actions that might appear to preclude or indefinitely forgo an eventual "win": i.e., a "no-win strategy".

() roughly in order shown under Rule 2, though, for example, any adjacent pair may be reversed, depending on judgement and circumstances.

B. Consequences for U.S. Policy

Viewed from inside [e.g. government, intelligence community, military, think tanks], resultant policies reflecting the above rules show certain "discrepancies" when compared to internal predictions, recommendations, and stated aims (as well as to public statements), giving policy the internal appearance of being purposefully dedicated to preserving a stalemate.

  1. Because of the short-term focus on Rule 1:
  2. To compensate for avoidance of "constrained instruments" (Rule 2), the chosen policy relies heavily upon:
  3. For reasons reflecting both Rules 1 and 2:

C. Institutional Consequences of Escalation

There are bureaucratic tendencies - except during  military or budget crises- 

These tendencies have the following consequences:

  1. Internal operational reporting, program analyses, and high-level expectations (though not necessarily intelligence estimates) gradually move, as chosen policy begins to be implemented, in the direction of the public optimism expressed earlier; early VC and GVN responses to the escalation reinforce this trend, to bring about a "Phase B" stage of genuine internal "euphoria" subsequent to - and caused by - the crisis-escalation of "Phase A".
  2. During this "euphoric aftermath" of the escalation, more ambitious goals are adopted within the Administration (more weight is given to the long-term "win"); these do not lead to qualitative escalation by the President - despite urging to do so- but to expanded effort, toleration of rapidly rising costs, and increasingly optimistic public predictions.

D. Consequences for Further Escalation

  1. The escalations themselves, and the institutional consequence above, increase the political stakes for a given Administration and it's successor, and reinforce tendencies to obey the Decision Rules above when a Communist resurgence or GVN collapse returns conditions of crisis.
  2. The recurrent estimates of the intelligence community - that the VC and DRV are unlikely to abandon or reduce their long-term aims in South Vietnam in response to U.S. escalation, and likely instead to match increased US/GVN efforts to the extent necessary to frustrate them and threaten their defeat - are in fact, correct: therefore, the dynamic result of the Presidential decision rules above is what John T. McNaughton in January, 1966, called "an escalating military stalemate" (Pentagon Papers, IV, 47, in cache).

Pages 197 -  233 

U.S. Policy and South Vietnamese Politics

Testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, May 13, 1970

Published in Impact of the War in Southeast Asia on the U.S.Economy, 

Transcript of hearings before the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, Part II, pages 257-346

The following text has deleted the testimony of the other two witnesses, Charles Cooper and David Schoenbrun, and most of the responses to it by Senators Fulbright, Gore, Pell, Case, and Javits, who attended. 

This text has also been lightly edited to improve readability.

page 197

The Chairman (Senator Fulbright): The Committee will come to order. The Committee is meeting today to hear testimony concerning the historical, political, and economic impact of U.S. policy on Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

Mr. Ellsberg, will you proceed, please.

Mr. Ellsberg: Senator Fulbright, I heard you ask the first witness [Charles Cooper] if we have a vital interest in Southeast Asia. I would like to begin by giving you the thought that came to my mind. 

I found that my answer after the events of the last ten days or so is that the United States of America has a vital interest in getting out of Southeast Asia, getting out of Indochina.

I have participated, in the Government and outside the Government, in a lot of discussions over the last ten years as to what constitutes our "vital interests" and what that phrase might mean. I believe that this morning it has come to me with greater clarity than ever in my life what it means for us to have a vital interest -which is an interest that concerns the survival of this nation- in circumstances other than invasion or nuclear war.

Personally, I have thought during the last couple of years of protest in this country that it was still possible to exaggerate the threat to our society that this conflict posed for us. I feared that we might come to a pass in which there would be a major threat to our society but that we were not there yet. I am assured now that we do still survive as an American nation by the protest to the recent Persidential decisions on Cambodia. But I am afraid that we  cannot go on like this -as it seems likely we will, unless Congress soon commits us to total withdrawal- and survive as Americans. There would still be a country here and it might have the same name, but it would not be the same country.

I think that what might be at stake if this involvement goes on is a change in our society as radical and ominous as could be brought about by our occupation by a foreign power. I would hate to see that, and I hope very much that deliberations such as the Senate is undertaking right now will prevent that.

page 198

The Chairman: If I understand your reply to the question I asked Mr. Cooper, it is that our vital interest is in disengaging. There is no vital interest in remaining and controlling Vietnam.

Mr. Ellsberg: Absolutely. I am saying that earlier I felt we had no vital interest one way or the other, although a considerable interest in getting out. I now think it is vital that we get out, and fast.

The Chairman: Yes.

Mr Ellsberg: The subject I was asked to speak about some months ago was the impact of our policy upon politics in South Vietnam.

This might seem undramatic and less relevant than some other topics as of this week.

But I think that is not true. I think, in fact, that the question of politics in South Vietnam and the question of self-determination in Vietnam are crucial to the question of out ability to withdraw from South Vietnam even sooner than the year, or eighteen months, or whatever, that people are discussing right now. Specifically, I believe that moves toward self-determination in South Vietnam would mean allowing a greater voice and greater role of leadership to those Vietnamese who speak for the mass, I believe, of Vietnamese, who want this war over and who believe that American involvement is prolonging the war. That development may be the key to achieving a cease-fire and the prompt, orderly American disengagement that the health of this nation demands. (It can also greatly improve the political prospects of non-Communist elements after our departure.)

I will proceed with a brief statement; it is the first time in my life, I think, that I have obeyed orders to write a brief statement, so I will elaborate on it a little and I will be glad to have questions.

It concerns mainly what I take to be a central untruth at the heart of American explanations of our involvement in this war. and that applies over a generation of Presidents, 5 Presidents, going back to 1950.

page 199

This Administration like previous ones, has stated repeatedly that the primary purpose of U.S. involvement in Vietnam is to support and promote self-determination by the Vietnamese people, their right and ability to "choose freely their own forms of government, without outside interference". That statement has never been true in the past. It is not true today.

Obviously, "self-determination" has never been the effect of our involvement. Not one of the regimes we have supported, from the Bao Dai regime controlled by the French, through Ngo Dinh Diem, to the military junta that rules today behind a constitutional facade, could have resulted from a process of public choice that was truly free, or free of our own outside influence.

Not one of them has "represented" even a majority of the non-Communist Vietnamese it ruled, either in terms of composition, of political origins, or of responsiveness to values with respect to justice or the issues of war and peace. Nor has our Government in its private estimates ever imagined otherwise for any of the regimes it has supported with money, advice, and, increasingly, with our armed forces.

This last is the perspective which i would like to add to the comments of Mr. Schoenbrun, which I thought were very accurate, extremely pertinent, and regrettably unknown to almost all officials in the Government. I think I can add some knowledge of how these matters were seen in the Government at various times, from my own participation in it and from studying these matters with official access.

One of the startling things, I think, to someone from the outside and studying the official estimates and documents, is to realize how clearly one particular fact has been seen at virtually every phase of our involvement; namely that the Saigon government we were supporting at the time was one that did not command the loyalty or support of the majority of its own citizens, even of its non-Communist citizens, and that it almost sureley could not survive even against non-Communist challenges without our strong support in a variety of forms.

Few American officials, I think, have asked themselves whether we had a right to support such governments and thus to impose them on the majority of their citizens. They felt we had a necessity to do so, and hence the question of our "right" did not arise. Yet, as I say, I have increasingly felt that necessity to point in the other direction.

page 200

But the evident lack of self-determination in South Vietnam has not meant the failure of our policy. "Freedom of choice" has not been the effect of that policy, but neither has it ever been our intent. On the contrary, in certain specific senses, it has always been our determined purpose, on which we have acted effectively, to prevent certain forms or outcomes of self-determination by important segments of Vietnamese society. I do not speak here only of the Communists.

Our actual intent has been expressed both in our actions and inaction, words and silences, and in our internal policy statements. It is expressed most clearly in the internal statements of U.S. objective in South Vietnam adopted as official Presidential policy in March 1964. That statement said: "The United States seeks an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam". A further provision is that the South Vietnamese Government, while it need not be formally allied to the United States, must be "free to accept outside assistence" (NSAM 288, March 17, 1964 (Pentagon Papers III, 50))

Senator Gore: What was the date of this?

Mr. Ellsberg: March 17, 1964, sir. It could as well have been written in 1954. It was our policy in 1954, it was our policy in 1950, '58, '60, and I believe it is our policy today. (Although the formal wording in the internal documents has been changed by the present Administration to omit the requirement "non-Communist", many aspects of Administration behavior convince me that it is still there in spririt.) I would like to make clear that this was by no means a policy that was first adopted in 1964. On the contrary, that statement merely put into words American objectives that had often been reflected in our policies before but not always explicitly in internal documents (see, for example, Statement of Policy by the National Security Council, "United States Objectives and Courses of Action with Respect to Southeast Asia", June 25, 1952 (Pentagon papers I, 384-90)).

page 201

Senator Gore: Whenever stated it is in contravention of the Geneva Accord.

Mr. Ellsberg: That is correct, sir, and that is one reason that it has involved, as I mentioned, one of the central untruths of our policy. The policy has, in fact, been far more knowing, and one would have to say cynical, to insiders, in its contravention of the Accords and of our announced goals of self-determination, that an outsider would easily imagine. Again I would have to say this of the Administration of 5 Presidents, 3 Democratic and 2 Republican. At each time they have been aware we were undertaking actions in contradiction to past policies of the United States, in this case our anti-colonial policy, but more importantly in contradiction to treaty committments and public declarations of various kinds.

This is one of the moral burdens which our leaders feel they are called upon to accept from time to time: the responsibility for such choices and deceptions.

In the '50s it was often spelled out in internal policy statements quite sharply that it would be gravely against interests of the United States, if there should be a Communist takeover in South Vietnam after 1954 (or anywhere in Vietnam, before 1954) "by whatever means". That was a very significant clause, as you will recognize.

The policy statements made it quite clear they were not referring only to a breach of the principles against invasion ore armed aggression across borders. They felt that a Communist-dominated South Vietnam after 1954 -no matter how it occurred- would jeopardize our interests in terms of influence and prestige; it would lead to Communist takeovers in other countries, in other parts of Southeast Asia and ultimately elsewhere, and thus would jeopardize our national interest. And that specifically meant whether it occurred by means of infiltration, subversion, by "free choice". Another way to put it, if that is too nice a phrase -and people have questioned whether we should use it about our own elections, I have found- at any rate, by some sort of representative process.

page 202

Our officials, civilian and military, have typically interpreted this requirement for a non-Communist regime as inconsistent not only with acceptance by us, or by a regime we supported, of immediate Communist domination or even participation in a Saigon regime, but as inconsistent with an attitude of tolerance toward political activity by Communists or others that could possibly lead to an increasing Communist role.

I might say that those words, those particular words emphasizing our aim of a "non-Communist" regime, do not merely lie dusty in safes but have been brought out quite regularly since 1964, particularly by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a specific refutation of any proposal of political processes that could possibly lead eventually to a Communist Vietnam, or to any proposals of neutrality, or of negotiation with the other side that could lead to a coalition.

The JCS, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in particular, missed no opportunity to point out that such proposals were in direct contradiction, as they read it, of the policy statements -which was NSAM, National Security Action Memorandum 288 in March 1964- that we wanted an independent non-Communist South Vietnam.

Thus, we have supported only regimes whose policy has been to exclude totally the Communist element of Vietnamese society from any organized or even individual participation in political activity, and if possible to destroy it as an organization.

There have always been arguments as to exactly how large the organization of Communists is in Vietnam and how many people maintain loyalty to it. I have never seen any estimates below about 10%, and have seen arguments as to whether it is 15, 25, or 30%, and possibly higher at such times as 1964. But if we consider it even as 10% and consider it as a minority as well organized as the Communists are and with the prestige accruing from the victorious liberation struggle against the French, and then consider that we were backing policies to exclude totally that organization and destroy it, one sees, I think, the questions that must be raised of both the legitimacy and feasibility of such policies. In fact, both in terms of legitimacy and feasibility, this project has been comparable to an attempt to exclude totally and destroy the Communist parties in France or italy. It has required, eventually, an enormous investment of foreign -that is, American- money, arms, troops, and lives.

page 203

But the effect of our intervention has by no means been limited to excluding this one minority element from representation. We have also thrown our weight against the emergence of any governments, although non-Communist and representative of a majority of the population, that would not be, in our opinion, sufficiently reliable to safeguarding our own dominant interest, preventing eventual Communist domination.

Compare Jerome Slater's conclusion concerning U.S. motives in 1965 for opposing the victory of forces in the Dominican Republic that proposed to restore President Juan Bosch, who had been elected in 1963 and deposed by a military coup later that year. Although neither Bosch nor the groups supporting him were believed to be controlled by Communists, Slater points out, "There is not the slightest doubt that the primary, indeed the overwhelming factor in the U.S. decision to intervene was the belief in both the Embassy and the State Department that the apparently imminent constitutionalist victory would pose an unacceptable risk of a Communist takeover. ... As both, the Embassy and the State Department saw it, even if Bosch should be re-installed in the Presidency, he would soon be discarded by the better organized and more determined extremists, and there would be a Communist takeover within 6 months." (Interventions and Negotiation, page 31). Similar dynamic models, and similar caution, in the minds of American officials, have worked against the prospects of "Third Force" politicians in Vietnam for 25 years.

Our main support went, instead, to those most reliably "anti-Communist": as distinct from the mass of "non-Communists" that may indeed make up the majority of the population of South Vietnam today. I might mention that the distinction between anti-Communist and non-Communist is one that is very often made by almost any Vietnamese you get into a political discussion. But it is one that is not really familiar to Americans, including officials, who tend to translate the assertion that "the people do not want Communism" immediately into the phrase that they are "anti-Communists", and read into that that they are dedicated to the support of the GVN [Government of South Vietnam], at least as a lesser evil, and are willing to risk their lives or make sacrifices for that regime.

That last is not true, and I think the truth is captured better by this distinction between anti-Communist and non-Communist, with the strongly dedicated "anti-" being a very small minority, scarcely larger, if at all larger, than the Communists.

page 204

These "anti-Communists have comprised parts (not all) of the French, and U.S. trained army, the civil service, the Catholics and especially refugee Catholics, and all of the landlords and businessmen: in general, those who feel they have most to lose from a Communist takeover, or whose families have alrady suffered from the Communists.

Senator Case: Excuse me. Since you made that distinction, does this mean that the people whom you describe as this third group, the non-Communists, want to be under Communist rule or are indifferent to whether they were under a Communist regime or just that they are rather apathetic? They are not activists.

Mr. Ellsberg: That is a very crucial question, which, I believe, has been wrongly answered by many analysts within our Government over the last decade.

Senator Case: I think it is rather important.

Mr. Ellsberg: I think it is terribly important.

Senator Case: Because if it is just a matter of their not caring who governs them and not having any views about ideology, let them go. But if they are anti-Communists and even though they are not activists, that is a different situation, it seems to me.

Mr. Ellsberg: Sir, I have found within the Government great assurance that what we were doing in Vietnam, basically in pursuit of our own interests, was legitimate because it did, after all, accord with the interests and desires of the majority of those people, even if they did not have the opportunity to express those desires democratically.

We have been convinced that the people "do not want Communism" and, as I say, that comes into official policy statements very frequently, and always in terms of justifying our involvement.

(See McGeorge Bundy - on his first visit to Vietnam - in his memo recommending sustained bombing of the North after the Pleiku attack, February 7, 1965: "The energy and persistence of the Viet Cong are astonishing. They can appear anywhere - and at almost any time. They have accepted extraordinary losses and they come back for more. They show skill in their sneak attacks and ferocity when cornered. Yet the weary country does not want them to win." (Pentagon Papers III, 311; italics added)

page 205

I think when there is evidence that that does not mean or seem to translate immediately into dedicated support to the Saigon Government, we then got to the second model that you suggested, which was, they do not want Communism but then they do not want very much of anything intensely. To put it less politely, what lies between the lines is that they are dumb peasants. They are illiterate and apathetic. If we look at a book by John Mecklin, who was the U.S.I.S Director in Saigon at a certain period, we have the extraordinary statement, and I think very revealing one, that for the half of the adult rural population that are illiterate, their "power of reason ... develops only slightly, beyond the level of an American six-year old". 

(Mission in Torment, New York, 1965, page 76)

In other words one takes reassurance that even if they are not strongly with us, they are indifferent, they are childish abd apathetic and probably malleable, and if our policies can be rearranged slightly and publicized properly, perhaps we will get their ardent support.

The actual model, to answer your question as directly and as accurately as I can, is I think, that the mass of the Vietnamese people have a considerable antipathy, not indifference, both to the Communists and to the GVN [Government of Vietnam]. That has been described by a former Ambassador of South Vietnam to this country, Vu Van Thai, as a "double allergy', growing more and more intense. That can lead to behavior similar to that of apathy, of course, or to a sort of self-seeking opportunism, but on other occasions it can beget other sorts of explosive phenomena.

The fact is, I believe, that even those who back the GVN regard it at best as a lesser evil. And one of the most significant statements I have ever seen on the problems of the Vietnam War is by a VietnamesE nationalist, now in the Senate, named Dang Van Sung, who said in 1963: "Man is so constituted that he will not willingly make great sacrifices or risk his life merely for a lesser evil, although he will gladly die for an illusion."

I think it is because we have offered, with our backing, the mass of the Vietnamese at best a lesser evil that we have not ever found them wholeheartedly backing -

Senator Case: But you would not want to offer them an illusion, either, that they would die for.

page 206

Mr. Ellsberg: Sir?

Senator Case: You would not offer them an illusion that you just spoke for, the man you quoted.

Mr. Ellsberg: The striking difference between the two sides is that those who back the Communist side do not on the whole regard it as a lesser evil, but as a cause worth dying for.

Senator Case: I am not really trying to take a position here at all. I am just trying to find out exactly what we are talking about. It seems to me it is quite conceivable that people who are completely apathetic about the outside world, who want to be left alone to till their few acres and worship as they please and to honor their ancestors in the same place that they believe they have been for a long time, may be entirely much more aware that we are of the destruction of their environment.

Mr. Ellsberg: I certainly agree with that. I am just taking exception to the phrase "they only want to be left alone", because I believe that has lulled our officials considerably.

I take two points of exception to it. One, I think they are not at all indifferent to the nature of the officials who rule their districts and their provinces, and the battalion commanders and the regimental commanders who control firepower within that province. They know very well that the control of the armed forces, police, allied units like our own, and GVN unit depends very much on those officials. They hold bad troop behavior, extortion, and indiscriminate firepower very much against the officials, and they are not at all indifferent about such matters. I say this because people ask, "Do they care about elections; do they care about officialdom at all?" As my friend Tran Ngoc Chau, now in prison in Vietnam, used to say, "Peasants would appreciate very much the chance to throw out an oppressive, rotten, or inhumane official if they could. Elections are not the only way to do that, but if elections gave them that chance, they would take to elections very quickly."

page 207

The other thing that they are not at all indifferent about is the continuation of this war. And they know very well that is beyond the control of the village officials. ...

The phrase "the people in between" is a phrase that has often struck me in Vietnam. The model, the description I have given of attitudes with, say, very roughly, 20% perhaps on one side and 20% on the other, leaving a great mass of people not committed to either of these parties and not indifferent at all to the carrying on the war, supports an understanding of the plight of "the people in between". Again, if I may quote Va Van Thai, who said to me recently: "The problem in Vietnam is that of a people ground down between two competing authoritarian regimes."

On the other hand, if you ask, "Is there anything we can do about this?" the answer is yes; we have been doing something about it for a very long time. We have shown the ability to preserve that situation, essentially, to prolong it, and we are seen as doing so by the Vietnamese people. We can keep on doing that if we really want to pay the price. It is not a very idealistic program.

Senator Case: Do you not think it is really true, despite the concentration on the situation in Vietnam that we have given verbally over all these years, that our real concerns have been geopolitics on a larger scale?

Mr. Ellsberg: This has led to what I described as untruth actually. We have felt compelled -and perhaps one should be glad in some sense that our leaders did feel compelled, although we paid a price for it in the frankness of public discussion- to say we were not pursuing our own interest entirely at the expense of the Vietnames people. But that in fact would have been the accurate thing to say. ...

page 208

Senator Case, I would like to mention something else that your question suggested to me. Even in years when I felt that our policies there were unsound and unwise and should be stopped, I did not have the strong feeling that what we were doing was wrong and intolerable until I began to become aware of much of the history and the background that Mr. Schoenbrun has made a great effort to bring to the American people over some time. My reading of that history, after my return from Vietnam, influenced me a great deal. And I might mention I do not think I have ever met an American official of the Deputy Assistant Secretary level or higher connected with the problems of Southeast Asia who could have really passed a simple college seminar quiz, or I should say a high school quiz, on any of the dates or facts on which Mr. Schoenbrun has properly put such emphasis. ...

Your question suggests to me one that I asked a Vietnamese in this country named Hoang Van Chi, the author of a book called From Colonialism to Communism, which is a classic study of the Communist takeover in North Vietnam. He had been an official in the Viet Minh in the war against the French and then gone to work for the Diem government and ultimately over here.

I asked him  if North Vietnam, his native region, would be better off today, if Ho Chi Minh had not headed the revolution, and he said, "Oh, yes" right away, which did not surprise me because he is known as an anti-Communist. When I asked him to go into more detail, how it would be better, he said, "My country would not have been destroyed or divided". He said, "If Ho Chi Minh had not headed the liberation someone else would, not a Communist. If one other than a Communist had headed the liberation movement against the French, the United States would never have supported the French with money, weapons, planes, and napalm, and many of my countrumen would not have died."

"Moreover, the liberation would have applied to the entire country."

Frankly, when I heared him say that, it made the hair on my neck stand on end, to realize as an American that the greatest reproach that a Vietnamese could make against Ho CHi Minh would be that he had been responsible for triggering a more or less reflex destructive action over 20 years, by the United States. ...

page 209

The Chairman: Yes, I would ... I would like to make this observation. This question, of course, arose in the early days of the hearings before this committee, particularly with Secretary Rusk. If my memory serves me correctly, it was quite clear then that the decisive question was not the balance of power other than the ideological obsession we then had. Much of it grew out of our domestic situation. That is the influence that Senator McCarthy had developed here. It had great domestic political implications, which, as you have already described, caused Secretary Dulles to decline to even participate personally in the Geneva Accords.

In the many questions at that time, I think we reduced it to the point of asking if Ho Chi Minh had not been a Communist, do you think we would ever have intervened? I think it is quite clear we would not have. It was the ideological aspect that triggered our intervention, and this was true of situations not only in Southeast Asia, especially, but in Europe. I mean, in the fear of Stalin and his effect.

I always thought our departure from our traditional role, in supporting the French colonial power, was because of our fear of French weakness in Europe.

Mr. Schoenbrun: Yes, sir, and the French have played upon that, as you know.

The Chairman: ... I never followed the idea that it is all history and it is not important. What do we do now? I think what you do now is based fundamentally upon your understanding of how we got there.

Mr. Ellsberg: Mr. Chairman, having studied the documents of a number of administrations and found the internal rationales in terms of strategic interests palpably inadequate, I have more and more come to look at the domestic political contexts in which those decisions were made year after year. This is something that rarely gets into the internal documentation, and if it is even talked about in the Executive branch, it is done very privately, one or two people at a time. I am speaking of the relation of these strategic moves to domestic politics.

page 210

The Chairman: By strategic you mean in the interest of the security of our country?

Mr. Ellsberg: That is right. As a friend of mine, Morton Halperin said recently, people other than the President, bureaucrats in fact, make their decisions on the basis of bureaucratic and agency considerations, and Presidents typically make their own choices in terms of domestic political considerations, far more than the public realizes; but in describing their motives and reasoning to each other and to the public, both talk a language of national security and strategy, which creates certain confusions.

In this particular case, I would say that since 1949 no American President has been willing to see the fall of Indochina added to the fall of China during his Administration. And that, I think, has warped very much his perception and weighing of priorities with respect to short-run and long-run interests of this country.

I believe that each President really has been willing to invest major resources to take considerable risks in order simply to postpone the fall of Saigin. He has not wanted to be in office, in effect, when the red flag went up over Saigon.

The Chairman: That is, for politcal reasons here at home and not strategic reasons?

Mr. Ellsberg: Essentially political reasons. And this has led us to take strategies that were risky and costly but did promise that they would postpone this event, even if they offered little hope of averting it indefinitely, that is, of "winning" at acceptable cost.

Senator Case: Can I throw out a suggestion? This unwillingness to be in office at a time when Saigon fell might be based upon a consideration that the people of the country don't  believe it is a wise thing to let happen -

Mr. Ellsberg: That is right.

page 211

Senator Case (continuing): ... and not for unworthy reasons, but from some deep instinctive feeling about what is in the national interest. Presidents, in following this feeling, haven't therefore been unworthy of the move. That is not the least worthy, I suppose, of motives: To an important degree to follow what I think is our basic guide here, and that is the instinctive movement of the people of this country in one direction or another. And that doesn't mean that everybody hasn't got the obiligation to do his own thinking. But the people of this country, when they have been sufficiently informed -and they have an amazing way of getting information, including, I think, osmosis as well as watching television or listening to people on the radio and reading newspapers or listening to political speeches or whatnot- the people, I think, probably are our best reliance when it comes to great policy.

Mr. Ellsberg: I agree completely. I think that is one of the premises that goes into the President's mind, and I am talking now, as I keep repeating, of 5 Presidents. I should say I know of the premises of the most recent, Nixon, only from newspapers; the others from considerable documentation.

But I think the problem, as the President sees it, is a little more complex that that in this area. He sees, in the first instance, as you say, that the people may well punish him politically if he lets Indochina fall, to that extent, acting to prevent that is doing the people's will, which is his democratic responsibility. But at the same time he reads his intelligence analyses and his operational estimates, which tell him what will be required to prevent that from happening, and he compares those calculated requirements with what he thinks the public and the Congress will let him do. And there always has been a great gap between these sets of considerations.

Each President has seen, i think, that although he will lose prestige and power -that is, lose votes- if Indochina falls, he probably cannot get Congress or the people to let him do what his advisers tell him is needed to keep it from falling, reliably and indefinitely. That has meant various things. First, it meant backing a colonial regime, which we did with some distaste. We accepted that. Later it meant backing an authoritarian police state, which we did, though we didn't want to publicize it. 

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Third - when that began to fail in 1963 and 1964 (I came into the Department of Defense in August, 1964)- the President's military and cvilian advisers believed strongly that unless we were prepared to bring direct military pressure on North Vietnam, the situation was irretrievable. Finally, ground troops appeared necessary.

Now during that whole period bombing and ground troops looked perhaps ultimately necessary but were ruled out. Thus, up to 1965, each President was led to take steps short of those measures, steps which he believed to be probably inadequate to the situation. He hoped these lesser steps might work and believed they would at least postpone the dilemma of using troops or bombing or of losing.

This put one further pressure on him to mislead the public as to how these lesser measures were working. We were under great pressure to imply, since advisors were all we could afford to put overt there, that advisors were doing the job; or Diem was doing the job, or ealier the French were doing the job. And this meant consciously distorting what our reports were conveying to the President.

Senator Case: We have had direct experience with this again and again, for what, 15, 20 years.

Mr. Ellsberg: Yes. When the President starts lying he begins to need evidence to back up his lies because in this democracy he is questioned on his statements. It then percolates down through the bureaucracy that you are helping the Boss if you come up with evidence that is supportive of our public position and you are distinctly unhelpful if you commit to paper statements that might leak to the wrong people.

The effect of that is to poison the flow of information to the President himself and to create a situation where a President can be almost, to use a metaphor, psychotically divorced from the realities in which he is acting. ...

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Mr. Ellsberg (resuming his statement): Most Vietnamese on both sides of the struggle see the hegemony of this particular minority grouping, which I described earlier- the Diem coaltition of army, Catholics, civil servants, landlords, and businessmen- as the result of American policy and decisions. They are basically right. They do not thank us for it. As Tran Ngoc Chau said to me in Vietnam a few years ago. "The United States gets very angry and disappointed when it finds that the leaders it has selected for Vietnam do not command the loyalty of the Vietnamese people." I believe Vietnamese feelings go beyond that now. Any group of leaders who had won the support of the majority of the people right now, I believe would have done so by appealing to end the war.

Has anything in this matter changed lately?

President Theu's successful campaign from November, 1969, to March, 1970, to imprison the oppositionist Assemblyman Tran Ngoc Chau, in disregard of the 1967 constitution, indicates strongly an open return to the familiar form of politics, described above and known to Vietnames as "Diemism"...

The Chairman: As what?

Mr. Ellsberg: Diemism. Diemism without Diem. And perhaps I should describe Diemism more fully. It implies a narrow political base for the regime, exclusion of all other groups such as the Buddhists, the students, unions, the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai, from any participation in power and the use of divide-and-rule tactics on them, an authoritarian police state regime; suppression of free speech; suppression of political activity; total unwillingness to negotiate with or tolerate the existence or activity of the Communists; and extrme reliance on the Americans. This constitutes the context which is "Diemism".

Watching President Thieu pursue Chau despite the obstacles of the constitution, which made Chau supposedly immune from the particular tactics Thieu was using, all Vietnamese that I spoke to and of whom I heard in Vietnam, immediately said, "We are back to Diemism". Shortly after Chau's imprisonment in March I spelled out at length what seem to me the implications of such a conclusion in a memorandum I shall submit for the record of these hearings.

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More recent repressive actions by Thieu against students, veterans, political rivals, and newspapers all point in the same direction.

If self-determination were truly our aim, Thieu's policies would be directly thwarting it. But, as we have agreed, we have really other interests that we are pursuing.

How does Diemism without Diem serve these other interests? Well, it does not serve our announced interests in a negotiated settlement - that is certain.

Thieu's policies show a clear intent to monopolize governmental power in the hands of a narrow group which coincides with those least willing to see any reduction in U.S. presence or aid or, indeed, an end of the war that would bring about such a reduction.

Again to quote Vu Van Thai, who represented essentially the same group as Ambassador to Washington, a period that he is not proud of at this point: They are precisely those who could not survive politically an end to the war and American presence; so their status and prestige and power depends entirely upon a prologation of the war. Even winning the war, even victory would end this power. Prolongation is precisely what they want, with American presence.

This same grouing of forces will accept no compromise of a rigid anti-Communist policy that precludes the concessions required for negotiated settlement. United States policy, in turn, that predicates any agreement with North Vietnam of the NLF upon acceptance by this Saigon regime, cannot lead to successful negotiations, and one can say that to choose continued support of this regime is knowingly to choose against negotiations as a way out of the Vietnam War for the United States.

Does Diemism without Diem serve our policy of Vietnamization? That depends on what Vietnamization means. Not if it means the aim, for Americans, of leaving Vietnam altogether, leaving it with a government worthy of the United States and Vietnamese sacrifices and one that can survive to fight or negotiate or coexist with Communists without us. Even with President Diem, a far more authoritative national leader than Tieu, Diemism failed to achieve this or to survive at all, even against non-Communist opposition.

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I should say I believe that in continuing there with U.S. troops to support the Thieu government, there is increasing likelihood we will be called upon, unless we change policy, to support the survival of the Thieu government against non-Communist opposition devoted to ending the war. We will be called on to support it by use of our own military forces, just as we lent transport planes to Ky to suppress the Buddhist uprising in 1966.

Thieu would be even less likely than Diem to successfully build an anti-Communist authoritarian regime that would be strong and stable without either popular support or an American presence.

But the signs are that the Nixon Administration privately knows this quite well and that Vietnamization means something else to it. Since the political component of the policy is clearly predicated on support of Thieu, including his repressive measures of the last 6 months, it almost surely presumes a large American presence as well. I believe that Vietnamization, as shown more clearly by support of Thieu, is not a policy of withdrawal at all but of reduction of forces to 100,000 or 200,000 troops expected to stay there indefinitely. A slogan that paraphrases views I have heard from officials in the last few months would be: "There is nothing wrong with Diemism that a hundred thousand U.S. troops can't cure."

That in turn, I might say, reflects another attitude, a very nostalgic attitude, for the earlier days of Diem, which could be similarly paraphrased: "Diem would have won if only we had assassinated David Halberstam instead." Again, this imagines that events in that country depend entirely on events and decisions in this country, that they are swung by them and that the realities were leading to victory over there, when in fact that was very far from the case.

The recent U.S. adventure in Cambodia, with the U.S. Administration imitating in Presidential style Thieu's "loose construction" of his own constitution, warns clearly that this Administration is no more ready to contemplate the "loss" of Indochina to Communism, during its term of office, than any of its predecessors.


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Mr. Ellsberg: You have brought up the Tonkin Gulf incident. I was startled in reading the record of your last hearings, when you were questioning someone or other and you made the remark, Senator Fulbright, that you felt "shame" for your part in that operation of getting the Congressional resolution.

The Chairman: Yes.

Mr. Ellsberg: That word leaped out at me because I had not remembered seeing an American official use such a word or in any way imply a sense of personal responsibility to that degree. It is almost un-American to do so, it would seem. There were many people involved in that incident, but you are the only one I have heared admit responsibility and regret. I think your word seems appropriate for you in your position, and I think you have done a service for the Senate in the eyes of college students and of the older people of this country, as they look at people who like to think of themselves as the Establishment or the power-holders, the decision-makers, in having the courage and the character to acknowledge that publicly. I think that helps.

I regret, on the other hand, that the people who were involved at that same point in misleading you and getting us deeper into the war have unfortunately not been heard from, not even to say "I was wrong", let alone to say that they feel any degree of shame for their role in this. I think the reason that is vitally needed if we are to get ourselves out of this crisis of national self-confidence is that the voters of the country and the youth of this country, everyone, must hear statements from their leadership that imply that those leaders have a sense of personal values and of personal responsibility and are capable of acknowledging it.

The political consequences of refraining from that, of refraining from the indignities of "mea culpa" and post mortems and so forth, are that the lessons of history remain clouded, remain unreadable, and that the current President is put ever more in the position of bearing the whole responsibility for terminating the involvement.

Now he chose to do that, unfortunately, by not even trying to share the responsibilities with Congress on this occasion, but the less he shares it and the more he feels himself that all humiliation and shame for what happens in Vietnam after we leave will accrue only to him, the more we are condemmed to this war so long as he is in office. So I feel that it is really important that other people who shared in that decision-making, as I did in a very minor way, but especially the people like McNamara [note by J. Gruber: in later years he eventually did detail having made grave mistakes, see In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, Wlson's Ghost] and Rusk and Bundy, and the others, be prepared to say, as I hoped they would say before the President took up the standard of Nixon's war last November: "It is not your war. Don't make it your war. It is our war. We made the decisions and the lies and fatal mistakes that got us into this war and kept us in and made it larger. Don't make the same mistakes. Get us out."

I am afraid it is because they have not yet be willing to say that that we find our President and our Executive branch in fact repeating those mistakes today.

The Chairman: Since you mentioned it, I have felt very badly about that. I should have had much greater skepticism, of course, but at the time I had no reason whatever to believe that it wasn't just as they represented it.

The study that the Committee made was long after the fact. What I should have done was delayed and held hearings on the Tonkin Gulf resolution and done what we are trying to do now. which is to examine these actions before the fact if we can. I am bound to say, however, that even now in the hearings two days before the Cambodian invasion, we did not receive any reasonable notice of it. Therefore, we were prevented from having any reasonable opportunity to express an opinion prior to the fact.

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As a matter of fact, only incidentally but not because they knew it was impending, a number of Senators, specifically people like Senator Cooper and Church and some of those who had been involved in the previous effort to put a restriction on enlarging the war into Laos, had this very much on their minds. But not having any notice whatever that we were going into Cambodia, they had no opportunity to express themselves. This is what I meant by subverting the democratic process.

I should have been more skeptical simply because, well, I always wish I were wiser than I am and that I could have foreseen that it hadn't happened that way. As I look back I had no reason to do it, but still I think as chairman I should have said, "Well, wait a minute". The Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed the House unanimously, and it came over, and their greatest plea was that it must be done immediately in order to deter the North Vietnamese from any further actions. To get the full effect we must show unity of purpose and determination, and it would look unpatriotic not to follow the President's recommendations as conveyed in that resolution. At the time it looked that way.

All I say is that I should have been wiser. I should have said, "No, I will have the hearing; I will not allow it to be voted". It is possible that it would have happened, although there were only two dissenting votes in the Senate. Any way that is history.

I hope we are doing better. At least we are not falling in line like sitting ducks as we did then and we are trying to make an effort to inform the Senate and the public before we get deeper and deeper into greater difficulties. Whether we have any success or not remains for history to prove, but you gentlemen have made a great contribution in my opinion.

I can't emphasize more the importance of understanding how we became involved. It does relate to the conviction on the part of my colleagues and members of the public as to what we should do now. I think it is very important. If we don't have any feel about the justification of the war, how can we have any feel about ending it? If you accept the rhetoric that this is a holy war, why then there is no excuse for urging the President to end it. We ought to go through with it: If you accept some of the basic assumptioms, it ought to be pursued to the end. But I don't know any responsible people who wish it.

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The most difficult thing, as Senator Javits said, is that rhetoric is one way and the action is the other, and it is always difficult to come to grips with the essential question. You are always in a position of appearing to think the leaders are not telling the truth. This is a rather objectionable position to be in before the American public.

They resent the suggestion that they are being hornswoggled, as they say in the country. Therefore, it destroys your own credibility when  you question it.

It is extremely difficult to come to grips with the essential elements involved in this war.


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Joachim Gruber