How Daniel Ellsberg Helped End the Vietnam War

By Russell Vandenbroucke

The recent death of Daniel Ellsberg offers an opportunity to recall what leaking The Pentagon Papers accomplished and ask what it reveals about ending a war, including the one in Ukraine. Alas, publication of this secret, political and military history of American involvement in Vietnam did not immediately end that war, then America’s longest (Afghanistan lasted five months longer).

Ellsberg, a Marine veteran and national security analyst, contributed to “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” the official name of the report that Defense Secretary McNamara initiated in 1967. It ran 7000 pages and revealed, among much else hidden from the public: that the U.S. had expanded the war to Laos, officially neutral; that successive presidents knew winning was unlikely; and that they disregarded American casualties. Ellsberg first offered documents to Senator Fulbright and other Congressional leaders in 1969 and 1970. When they did not respond, he turned to the press in 1971. By then, countless efforts to stop the war had occurred, including:

April 1965: 20,000 protest in Washington, the largest antiwar rally in American history to date. Fewer than 1000 Americans have died by then. Instead of listening to voices for peace, LBJ escalated both bombing and numbers of troops.

April 1967: In “Vietnam, A Time to Break Silence,” Dr. King announces to an overflowing crowd of thousands that he now opposes the war for many reasons, including “Negro and white boys kill and die together for a nation unable to seat them together in the same schools.” Three-quarters of Americans reject his opposition, including 55 percent of African Americans. Of more than 58,000 Americans who die in Vietnam, 78 percent perish after this date. Vietnamese casualties are not recorded at the time but are later estimated to exceed two million. 

Feb.1968: Walter Cronkite, the country’s most respected broadcaster, tells his nightly audience that, since the war is headed to stalemate, negotiations should begin to end it. The war continues apace; nearly 30 percent of all American deaths occur in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive.

March 1969: President Nixon, recently elected because of, in part, his secret peace plan, begins bombing Cambodia.

Oct.1969, the Moratorium to End the War attracts millions of peaceful demonstrators across the U.S. and around the world.

Nov. 1969: Nixon announces his “Vietnamization” policy to transfer responsibility for the war—without ending it—to South Vietnam. Some 58 percent of the public approve Nixon’s plan. At no point from 1965-1972 do a majority of Americans support immediate withdrawal. About 35 percent of American deaths occur during Nixon’s presidency.

June 1971: Pentagon Papers are published.

March 1973: Nixon announces “peace with honor” and U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

April 1975: a quarter-century after first American military advisors sent to Indochina, Vietnam’s civil war ends with the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese troops. 

Ellsberg, sent to Saigon in 1965 to evaluate civilian pacification programs, would spend 18 months with patrols into towns and villages. His skeptical reports about death and destruction and potential victory by North Vietnam went nowhere. 

Ellsberg struggled with his knowledge. He was a family man with a brilliant career, all of which would be at risk if he blew the whistle, and he knew it. At one point, after he released the papers, he was charged with 125 years of felonies and Nixon was so vengeful and enraged he had his “plumbers” break into Ellsberg’s therapist’s office to steal confidential medical records. Ellsberg was both a Marine who risked his life and a man of peace who risked everything in order to stop the killing.

The peace movement affected Ellsberg, who affected us all. MLK affected us all, and thousands of antiwar troops and veterans affected us all. No one person, no one demonstration, and certainly no one elected official brought peace. The cumulative impact eventually overcame the mighty destruction of war, but only after years of pain.

So this partial litany shows how difficult it is to stop a war, even an unpopular one, after governments begin military action and orchestrate the siren songs of patriotism that inevitably follow. These are always pitched—by each side—to assure the nation of their moral superiority. Such abiding mindsets persist today. 

Wars start more quickly than they end even when, as now seems inevitable in Ukraine, negotiating a settlement is more likely than “victory.” Pious posturing delays peace talks as casualties among combatants and civilians mount. Each side mires itself in platitudes. Like schoolboys, they are too macho to put down their fists and talk. Little has changed, alas, since the first woman elected to Congress, Jeannette Rankin, asserted, “you can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”

Russell Vandenbroucke is recently retired Founding Director of the Peace, Justice & Conflict Transformation Programat University of Louisville and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

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