Analyst Assigned To Compile Pentagon Papers Discusses Their Release
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
We reported here yesterday on the formal declassification and release of the Pentagon Papers and we spoke with the man who leaked that compilation of documents about the war in Vietnam back in June 1971, Daniel Ellsberg.
Mr. DANIEL ELLSBERG (Former Military Analyst): Vietnam is a fiasco for 30 years, essentially, that would not have stood the light of public discussion if, I think, the very documents in the Pentagon Papers had been available during that time.
SIEGEL: Well, today, another voice on the Pentagon Papers - the man who was assigned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to compile them, Leslie Gelb. Before he became a New York Times correspondent and columnist, before he became an assistant secretary of state in the Carter administration and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Les Gelb was director of Policy Planning at the Defense Department from 1967 until 1969.
He joins us now from New York, welcome.
Dr. LESLIE GELB (President Emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations): Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: And tell me first about the assignment you got, to put together what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.
Dr. GELB: Well, in June '67, I was asked to put together a group of six people to answer a hundred handwritten questions about the Vietnam War. They were questions like how do we know that the kill count is accurate, not made up; how do we know that the Strategic Hamlet Program is effective; how do we know that pacification could work; what about the effectiveness of bombing. These are all the questions you would ask if you went to a Pentagon press briefing.
And the group of six and I got together and talked about it. And I sent a memo to McNamara, saying we could answer these questions the way they're always answered at press conferences and do it in less than three months. But if you want us to answer them seriously, we'd have to sequester some documents and do some studies and then get back to you - and here are the kinds of studies we would do.
And at that point, McNamara approved the monographs that were to become the Pentagon Papers, and said write them and let the chips fall where they may.
SIEGEL: Now, we should just point out here that the kind of questions that you mentioned, in addition to being - as you say - news conference questions, tough ones, were also - this was the stuff of what people were asking and saying at teach-ins and the antiwar movement in the United States, in all the polemics about the Vietnam War, people were arguing about these things.
What, as you understood it, what was the point? What did McNamara want to with your - what turned out to be - voluminous answers to his questions?
Dr. GELB: The truth is we didn't know. And to this day, I tell you, even though I've talked to McNamara about this enterprise many times, I still don't know.
SIEGEL: Ellsberg reads this lesson into the Pentagon Papers. He says it demonstrates that the U.S. was lying and duplicitous about how we got involved in Vietnam; if the public had known about those lies - and he would count as a lie, not say the story of the Gulf of Tonkin, that U.S. warships had been attacked, but the certainty with which it was said that U.S. warships were attacked and the justification for military action.
He says if all of that had been known, the Vietnam War never would've happened.
Dr. GELB: I just disagree with him profoundly because while there were lies, I don't know of a war were there weren't lies - the two go together.
But the main reason we got involved in the Vietnam War was because of what we believed, namely that we were in a mortal struggle with communism - Soviet Union and China; that the domino theory applied, that we if we allow North Vietnam to conquer South Vietnam, the dominoes would fall throughout Asia and the rest of the world.
Almost every one of the people in the national security field believed that, including Daniel Ellsberg.
SIEGEL: This all began, as you said, under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. McNamara leaves the Pentagon and is succeeded by Clark Clifford, one of the wise old men of the Democratic Party at the time and close to Lyndon Johnson, and he inherits this entire project. Did he understand it or did he put some new purpose to it?
Dr. GELB: Well, I went to brief him about it and he thought the project was wacko, and he kind of laughed. But he said, you know, if Bob wants this, go finish it for him.
When we finally finished the papers in 1969, and I brought over a set to Bob McNamara - who was then president of the World Bank - I went into his office, we sat down on the couch. I handed him one of the studies and he sort of looked through it without looking through it, gave it back to me and said: I don't want them, take them back to the Pentagon.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. GELB: I know. It's hard to believe.
SIEGEL: Well, Les Gelb, thank you very much for talking with us once again.
Dr. GELB: You're very welcome.
SIEGEL: Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, recalling the days when he was in charge of assembling, compiling what became known as the Pentagon Papers.
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