Last week I watched the movie “The Post”, it has a stellar cast with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, Spielberg directing. For me the technical side of the movie was irelevant, because what was more important in this movie was the story itself, the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
Ellsberg, who had served in the marines in the late 50s, joined the Rand Corporation as a strategic analyst focussing on nuclear strategy. He completed his PhD in economics in 1962, and then in 1964 went to work at the Pentagon as assistant to John McNaughton. He then went to Vietnam for two years, working for general Lansdale through the State Dept. It was while in Vietnam that Ellsberg began to question the US involvement in the war.
When Ellsberg returned from Vietnam he returned to the Rand Corporation, and in 67 he contributed to the top-secret study on the Vietnam war commissioned by McNamara. This study was completed in 1968 and titled The Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg now understood the war to be one of US aggression and not one of support for a legitimate govt. under attack, and was therefore an illigitimate war under the UN Charter. Ellsberg could see from the study that from Kenedy to Johnson to Nixon the US Administration had known they would never win the war the way they were fighting it, so they were simply face saving and condemning a generation of young men to death while destroying another country. Ellsberg with help from a colleague, made secret copies of the Papers. In 1970 he tried to persuade selected US senators to bring them to the senate floor as evidence. This failed, and in 1971 he sent a copy to the NY Times correspondent Neil Sheehan, who published an excerpt with teh promise of a serial. The Nixon Administration sought a court injunction, and succeeded. Ellsberg then gave the papers to The Washington Post, and several other newspapers, who printed them. Another injunction was sought, but the Administration lost and the ruling allowed freedom to print, and they did.
As an aside, Nixon aide Erlichman authorised the formation of “The Whitehouse Plumbers”, Hunt and Liddy, as they were infamously known, to break into Ellsberg’s Psychiatrist’s office and get his files, they did but found nothing worth using against Ellsberg. This action was recorded on tape, and was the undoing of the Administration’s attempt to convict Ellsberg. Notably, shortly after this, the “Plumbers” raided the Watergate office of the Democrat Party, and so Nixon’s fate was then sealed.
The publication of the Pentagon Papers were deemed by the US Supreme Court to be a right of free speech and this ruling was seen as a landmark case. The publication damaged the war effort and was part of the turning of the tide, it shocked a nation that they had been so blatantly lied to by successive administrations. The truth had been a casualty, the truth had disappeared.
But then, isn’t that the story of politics?
- The fabrication of stories to create a power block in Argentina 74 – 88, which included the systematic murder, rape and torture of citizens deemed to be in opposition to the Junta.
- The illegal coup by Pinochet based on the projected fear of communism, also resulting in systematic murder, rape and torture of citizens deemed to be in opposition to the Dictator.
- El Salvador – ditto.
- Bush Jnr., Blair, Howard and the cooked up (the never found, mythical weapons of mass destruction) need to invade Iraq (not forgetting Somalia and Afghanistan before that).
- The current rhetoric coming out of the US and UK on Iran is going the same route.
The truth has disappeared in politics, and when truth disappears we should be concerned to restore the truth. I do not believe that governments have any right to hold documents in secret. The argument that secrecy protects the government and security is clearly an oxymoron. Secrecy in government is about staying in power and hiding unethical and criminal behaviour, as a series of whistleblowers have shown over the decades.
Whistleblowing is a dangerous role in any society, and one where any govenrment can cast you as the enemy, but one that some people take seriously as the only action they can take for the good of the people. Ellsberg, Felt, Bukovsky, Ponting, Silkwood, Wright, Vanunu, Serpico, Gun, Manning, Asange, Snowdon, and dozens more have surrendered their own safety and rights to expose the lies that governments and corporations (sometimes colluding) concoct for their own puposes. Sadly, while many western governments have legislated to give some protection of whistleblowers, it usually falls short of full protection and such legislation is still prejudiced in favour of governments and corporations.
Daniel Ellsberg set up “The Truth-Telling Project in the early 2000s, but that is now defunct (though other groups now use that name for other puposes). He spends time writing about the importance of whistleblowing, and supporting those who take that step.
The Pentagon Papers release and whistlebowing in general reminds me of that famous dictum of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good (men – sic) people do nothing.” And that beautiful quote from Ann Frank: “How wonderful is it that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Let’s not be ostriches, let’s be truth tellers where we are, let’s make truth reappear.