Professionalism/Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
In 1971, prominent Vietnam War strategist Daniel Ellsberg leaked thousands of pages of the top secret Pentagon Papers to the press. Ellsberg blew the whistle on the lies and misconduct of the American government during the Vietnam War, and is credited with strengthening public opposition to the war. His actions may have contributed, too, to the withdrawal of American involvement in Indochina a few years thereafter .
- 1 Background
- 2 The Pentagon Papers
- 3 Aftermath
- 4 Conclusions
- 5 References
The Vietnam War (1954-1975) was a costly military conflict, and America's longest war to date . On one side were communist North Vietnam and their southern ally, the Viet Cong; on the other were South Vietnam and its primary ally, the U.S. Over 3 million were killed during the course of the war, including over 58,000  of the nearly 3 million uniformed Americans stationed there . Despite such extensive American involvement, opposition to the war steadily grew to a striking high of 68% in 1971, just before the release of the Pentagon Papers .
Daniel Ellsberg (1931-) was a former Marine with an Economics PhD from Harvard. He joined military strategy consulting company RAND Corporation as a strategic analyst in 1959, and began working with the Department of Defense on the Vietnam War in 1964 . Over the next few years he continued work – brilliant work, in the eyes of his superiors – justifying increased American involvement in the war, which included on-the-ground experience at the American Embassy in Saigon . His years of Vietnam-related experience and reputation for excellence led to his recruitment by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for a top-secret assignment in 1967: an in-depth examination of recent U.S. Indochina policy entitled History of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68. Colloquially called the “Pentagon Papers,” these 7,000 pages were completed in 1969 .
The Pentagon Papers
The Beginning of Doubts
The more Ellsberg learned about Vietnam, the more he questioned the the continuation of what seemed to be an unwinnable war. His time in Vietnam further solidified this view. Later, as one of few privileged with access to the entire Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg acquired an inside perspective on the history of American involvement in the war. What he discovered in these pages astounded him: the Papers revealed U.S. leaders willfully misleading, even lying, to the public on the status of the war throughout the 1960s. Even as policymakers spoke of the futility of the war and desiring peace, they had been acting to expand it, with surprising insensitivity to casualties. It appeared that internal justification for war had changed over time from ideological containment of communism to protecting the American reputation . In Ellsberg’s eyes, this new information made continuation not only unwise policy, but immoral as well .
The Tipping Point: Ellsberg's Decision
In March 1968, someone leaked President Johnson’s secret plans to escalate troops, making the front page of the New York Times . Although the escalation ultimately proceeded as planned, Ellsberg's views were shaped by seeing the impact they made. He “had instinctively accepted the ethos of [his] profession, the idea that leaking was always inherently bad, treacherous, or at best an unhelpful thing to do… [but] leaking could be a patriotic and constructive act” .
In August 1969, Ellsberg attended a War Resisters conference at Haverford College and left feeling “liberated” . Inspired by draft resister Randy Kehler, who was willing to be imprisoned for his beliefs , as well as by Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King, Jr. , Ellsberg resolved to take action. In October, he began xeroxing sections of the Pentagon Papers. In March 1971, he approached The New York Times. In June, the decision became irreversible: they began leaking portions of the Pentagon Papers to the public. He hoped the papers would turn public opinion even more strongly against the war, and bring about its end .
Initially, President Nixon did not take action against Daniel Ellsberg. The Pentagon Papers largely pertained to decisions made during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations; Nixon avoided blame . However, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. and Attorney General John Mitchell advised Nixon that Ellsberg's actions demanded repercussions . Two days after the 3rd partial publication of the papers, Nixon filed an injunction against the New York Times. Subsequently, Ellsberg released the documents to the Washington Post and 15 other newspapers .
The Plumbers and Ellsberg's Trial
At this point, Nixon organized a specialized group of intelligence agents led by John Erlichman, Nixon's Assistant for Domestic Affairs . The "Plumbers" were charged with stopping government information leaks, and Nixon instructed them to gather evidence against Dan Ellsberg. They broke into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office to find information on Ellsberg's mental state, and installed a wire tap on Ellsberg's phone . In 1973, Ellsberg was brought to trial, facing five counts of theft and six of violations of the Espionage Act . His trial coincided with the Watergate hearings. In the course of those hearings, the Watergate tapes came to light, revealing the illegal actions of the Plumbers. Such blatant government misconduct led Judge William Byrne to declare a mistrial. Ellsberg was freed from all legal repercussions .
End of Vietnam War
The Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, two years after the release of the Pentagon Papers. In a 1971 interview, Ellsberg had hoped that "the truth will free of us this war" . The Pentagon Papers leak did not result in an immediate end to the war as Ellsberg had hoped , but may have contributed to its end by strengthening public opposition.
Government Culture and Ethical Implications
In publishing the papers, Ellsberg overcame a strong government culture. In 1971, powerful leaders anchored the top of the government chain of command. Ellsberg compared an order from Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, to "an order from God”  An advisor to the White House affirmed this culture: “If I had criticized the president to the press as a special assistant, I would have been fired within an hour.” Moreover, he generalized, “Virtually all bureaucrats would agree.”  This exhibits the concept 2+2=5. The government culture in 1971 was not conducive to whistleblowers. In this hierarchical atmosphere, superiors would demand, and inferiors were expected to follow. Personal qualms of integrity and responsibility against orders were not tolerated.
The secrets contained in the Pentagon Papers had the potential to embarrass and damage the reputation of all involved; the burden of guilt and responsibility lay with all group members, though to varying degrees. In any such group, the tendency for one person to speak up in opposition is low - a phenomenon termed diffusion of responsibility. Such disincentive, combined with pressure from powerful superiors, made the effect more pronounced. Ellsberg recognized the “understandable career motives” that kept the “bystanders” from speaking up, but sought to persuade people to act otherwise . Before resorting to release of the Papers to the press, Ellsberg attempted to convince two anti-war senators to read them on the Senate floor. This would have been a safe, yet effective, way to bring the information into the public domain, as a senator is free of guilt from any speech on the floor. However, the “culture of timidity,” as described by Historian Howard Zinn, was “so strong” that it overcame the anti-war inclinations of these senators; they declined to read the Papers .
To align members, an organization can indoctrinate them with a collective goal that cannot be achieved individually. Members become less like individuals with free wills, and more like instruments. The organization then has achieved the agentic state in its members. The Federal Code of Ethics mandated that every federal employee “place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws, and ethical principles above private gain” and "not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual"  But, in actuality, the Code was an “absolute contradiction of the bureaucrat's operating code: agency first, then person." An authority higher than the president was "unthinkable" . Although Ellsberg knew that the war was “a mistake and based on lies”, initially he stayed loyal to the Secretary of Defense and the President. He had long valued his identity as keeper of the secret documents and even called himself “the President’s man” . As the government pressured employees to become “agents,” perpetuating unethical objectives without individual interference became easier.
Nixon disparaged both Ellsberg as a "sonofab*tching thief" who was made "a national hero" and the New York Times for "getting the Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents" . His statement reflects a shift in the traditional interpretation of professionalism. In Nixon's view, a professional was held accountable to his employer and should not steal. In contrast, Ellsberg and the New York Times held themselves accountable to the American public. In releasing the Pentagon Papers, they broke laws and certain commonly held ethical standards. However, they also upheld other interpretations of ethical standards, and anti-war Americans hailed Ellsberg as a hero and true professional. . These events underscore the necessity of recognizing where one's true duty and loyalty lie: it can make all the difference in ethical interpretation.
According to his critics, Ellsberg was a threat to national security . He exposed government weaknesses during wartime and leaked government documents with disregard for his superiors. This conservative interpretation of Ellsberg's actions coincides with Nixon's view of Ellsberg. Critics believed he acted unprofessionally.
According to his supporters, Ellsberg had a character of integrity that exceeded that of his surrounding culture. Ellsberg believed that public servants, as well as all American citizens, have a personal and moral responsibility to speak the truth . He recognized and “was prepared to answer to all consequences” he faced . He risked losing his career, his family, and his freedom, but he believed that Americans' right to the truth outweighed these risks. Egil Krogh, who opposed Ellsberg, later testified that Ellsberg always tried "to do what he thinks is the highest right, regardless of the circumstances” . Ellsberg saw his government perpetuating lies, as exposed in the Pentagon Papers, and throwing away American lives in a hopeless war. As a result, Ellsberg believed breaking the laws of the United States was the best way to serve his country. Similar principles may be of use when evaluating cases such as Bradley Manning and Wikileaks of today.
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- Ellsberg, R. (2010) "PEACEMAKER HERO: DANIEL ELLSBERG" http://www.myhero.com/go/hero.asp?hero=Daniel_Ellsberg