Daniel Ellsberg warns that the risk of nuclear war is growing as tensions over Ukraine and Taiwan escalate.

Daniel Ellsberg, photo 2020 (Image by Christopher Michel photo 2020)
In-depth interview with Daniel Ellsberg, the renowned Pentagon Papers whistleblower, who talks about his sustained anti-war activism and analyses the recent leak of Pentagon documents on the war in Ukraine. In addition, Ellsberg reflects on the people who inspired him on this path and says that those who admire his example should know that sacrificing to build a better world is worth it. “It can work,” he says. Ellsberg, who was recently diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, had this conversation with Democracy Now! last week from his home in Berkeley, California.

Transcript of the interview

The following is an excerpt from the 2009 documentary entitled “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”. The clip shows how the Nixon White House responded to the Pentagon Papers leak. We’ll hear from former White House aide John Dean, as well as Egil Krogh, who went to prison for his part in the Watergate scandal. But let’s hear from President Nixon first.

President Richard Nixon: Just because someone wants to become a martyr does not mean that we can allow this kind of large-scale theft or else it will happen in all spheres of government. We have to keep an eye on the main target. The main target is Ellsberg. We have to catch this son of a bitch.

John Dean: The leak of the documents changed the Nixon White House. It was what some of us have called the beginning of the dark period. Things were already murky and chaotic, but they got pretty ugly. That was an inflection point for the Nixon presidency. It was then that Egil “Bud” Krogh was chosen to head the so-called plumbers’ unit.

Egil “Bud” Krogh Jr.: The president called me into the Oval Office. John Ehrlichman and I met with him. It was suspected that Dr. Ellsberg had access to the most recent war plans developed by the Nixon Administration and was capable of making those documents public. I came away from that meeting with the assurance that I was facing a national security crisis and that all necessary steps had to be taken in response.

Amy Goodman: -Again, that was former Nixon administration official Egil Krogh in an excerpt from “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”. Dan, surely this brings back memories, though you live it every day, of the raid on your psychiatrist’s office. Talk about what that meant to you and if that was worse than a possible 100-year prison sentence.

Daniel Ellsberg: -I think that’s been misunderstood. Again, another aspect of the Pentagon Papers has been misinterpreted all this time. It’s almost always described as an attempt to tarnish my reputation or to stigmatise me in some way. Now, I was already an American citizen facing 12 felony charges and possibly 115 years in prison. So, they were not working on a completely new basis. By then, I had already been stigmatised in a big way. But that wasn’t the real purpose of the raid at all.

As Krogh pointed out – something that people don’t pick up on – what they were concerned about was what else I knew, that is, what else I knew and could document that went beyond the Johnson administration having to do with the Nixon presidency. The last year recorded in the Pentagon Papers was 1968, before Nixon’s inauguration, so they didn’t incriminate him, except for the role he played in the 1950s when the US supported France, including then proposing the use of nuclear weapons [in Vietnam]. But he was not directly involved. So, in fact, when the documents were published, he took it very calmly and rightly so. “This will show,” as Kissinger said, “that, on balance, this war is really the Democrats’ war.” So, they realised that the leak posed no real threat to them. But they also realised that they had these terrible secrets that had to be kept hidden from the American public because they were so criminal and dangerous, in peculiarity, the fact that they were threatening North Vietnam with nuclear weapons, which are the same kind of criminal threats that are now being made against Ukraine by Vladimir Putin. Nixon was making those threats through the Russian ambassador [to the US], [Anatoly] Dobrynin, and then directly at the time. And that had to be kept from the American people, because American democracy would not have stood for it. So, they had to shut me up.

And then it became a matter of finding out if I had documents that could reveal, or prove, what I was saying, because people were reluctant to believe that a president would be able to lie to such a degree or that he could be so criminal and reckless to that extent, unless they had the documents to prove it, which I didn’t have, and so I failed to convince society on that score. So I failed, in a sense, in my great project, which was to convince the public that a lying campaign, an imperialist campaign against Vietnam, which had been carried out by four previous presidents, was being carried out by a fifth. I said it, but The Nobodies didn’t believe it. They didn’t want to believe that the president was lying to them, just as they allowed themselves to be lied to by Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. Therefore, that part did not succeed. However, they had reason to think, and fear, that I could produce documents to prove it, which did exist.

My friend Roger Morris, who was working for Henry Kissinger at the time, had the documents, he saw the documents in the fall of 1969, which listed North Vietnamese targets, jungle transshipment points, 2.4 kilometres away from the Chinese border, and which estimated that they would only kill a handful of people. They literally had a number: three civilian casualties. Nothing to preoccupy themselves with. And that would send a strong signal to the Chinese. We were prepared to use nuclear weapons on their border, in the hope that China would send its air defence forces into that area, and then we could chase them into its interior and use nuclear weapons against them. The provocative aspects of this were quite deliberate. When I asked her later on why these documents had not been disclosed, which is what Nixon and Kissinger feared I had, and rightly so… I knew all the people who were working on this who resigned because of the escalation in Cambodia, so they should have given me those documents. And when I asked her why they hadn’t, he said, “We should have opened the safes and shouted that these were bloody murders, because that’s exactly what they were.”

What do you make of the most recent leak of Pentagon documents and what they reveal about the war in Ukraine, and who is known to have the most first-hand information about this war?

-It is clear, given the reaction to these leaks, the main revelation being, again as in the Pentagon Papers, that when a war appears to be stalemated, it can also be stalemated from its interior. That is what the Pentagon Papers showed, that there is no real prospect of progress and that killing people is, on both sides, unjustified whatever the expectation of a humane outcome.

Intelligence estimates have shown that in a year’s time we are likely to be in the same position, a stalemate, and there will be no will to negotiate. What does that say about our foreign policy decision-makers? If that does not define a crisis and an emergency, what would? Well, yes, I suppose the prospect that we are about to lose in a month’s time, but that is something that neither side is facing yet.

I don’t want to find out how one side or the other would react if they were faced with that, if the United States were to do what many are urging Biden to do, which is to involve the United States directly in the war, to shoot the Russians, as I said, for the first time since 1920. A year, two years after the end of the First World War, we were still shooting at the Russians, at the Bolsheviks, in 1920. All the Russians know that. How many Americans know that? None of them? [The Russians] have that very much in their memory.

When they ask Biden to send fighter planes, which the Ukrainians can’t operate yet, like F-16s, or tanks that they can’t operate yet, the tendency to send Americans to operate those tanks and take them immediately to the battlefield will be very strong. I just hope that there will be pressure on the Biden Administration, from a large segment of the population, not to involve the US directly in this war and to seek instead a negotiated way out, because right now the Administration is avoiding and rejecting the idea of negotiation.

There is more and more information that a year ago, at the beginning of April 2022, Zelensky and Putin had practically an agreement, they were very close to reaching an agreement to return to the pre-war status quo in Crimea and the Dombas, in relation to NATO and everything else, but the United States and the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, went there and said: “We are not ready for that. We want the war to continue. We will not accept a negotiation. I would say that was a crime against humanity. And I say that in all seriousness. The idea that we needed to see people killed on both sides to “weaken the Russians”, not for the benefit of the Ukrainians, but in general for a geopolitical strategy, is a perverse thing.

However, the war started, and I think it started with poor judgement on Putin’s part, with aggression and atrocities, and, on the other hand, with provocation on the part of the United States, in terms of implementing policies that were consciously foreseen to increase the likelihood of Russia committing crimes of this kind, it makes me believe that there were many Americans who wanted this war. And they got exactly what they wanted, even more than they could have imagined: huge arms sales to our allies, the United States again playing an essential role in Europe against an indispensable enemy, an enemy without whom we could not dominate the world, Russia. And Russia took on that role very willingly. To say that Russia had no choice but to do what they did is quite absurd. That’s like saying that you can provoke a person to shoot himself in the foot or, in this case, in the knees; that Putin had no choice but to shoot himself in the knees and give himself 1,300 km more of a contentious border with Finland and resurrect NATO and generate these arms sales and so on, it’s just absurd.

-I want to touch also on China, because in 2021 you revealed that the US government had drawn up plans to attack China with nuclear weapons because of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Can you talk about the current relevance of that and when you got that information?

-Yes. I disclosed that information just after The Economist magazine published a cover story with a map of Taiwan in the centre of a radar image, showing that it was, and I quote, “the most dangerous place” in the world at the time. And what was at stake was a U.S. intervention in China’s politics, that is, supporting a secession movement, an independence movement, in a part of China almost universally regarded by the Chinese population as part of China, and supporting it in a way that the Chinese were absolutely certain would lead to war, that they would not accept it, just as Lincoln would not accept secession from the Confederacy.

And we were pushing for that in a way that I have to say I can’t quite understand. People are acting as if they want war with China. How can that be? To sell them arms? Yes, I understand that. But that they want to change the Taiwan relationship, which has been more or less the same since 1979, at this point in time in a way that the Chinese guarantee us will lead to war is inscrutable to me. Well, anyway…

-And you said that these plans for nuclear war over the Taiwan Strait were made in 1958?

-In ’58, yes, that’s right. And by the way, there was a crisis almost the same years earlier, in 1954 or ’55, so that’s known as the second Taiwan crisis of the ’50s. But the idea was that we were going to start a nuclear war if the Chinese successfully bombed some islands that were within the range of their artillery, actually within visual range of the content, a very simple bombardment. A couple of those islands are only a mile or two and a half miles from the content. To keep those rocks out of Beijing’s control, we were prepared to send in US aircraft to break that blockade. And if Chinese artillery prevented that or if there was a danger of losing American ships, we would attack Chinese targets as far away as Shanghai, something that certainly, in Eisenhower’s terms, and whoever approved this, if necessary to take control of those islands, would lead to nuclear war. And he foresaw that that would lead to Russia – as an ally of China – attacking Taiwan, Okinawa, Guam, and even in Japan, something that would, in turn, guarantee, based on our planning, an all-out nuclear war with attacks on every city in Russia and China, killing, by our estimates at the time, 600 million people, and dropping 100 kilowatts….

-And what relevance does that have today?

-…on Taiwan. And that’s what they had planned to do. And the number of targets in China has not been reduced since then. That was a time, during Eisenhower’s tenure, when any engagement with the Russians, even if it started with the Berlin issue, was guaranteed to include an attack on the whole of China as well. That may have changed to some extent, but largely, at various times, we have continued to say: “Shouldn’t we have a plan in case of war with Russia that doesn’t include destroying China?” To which the response is: “Well, do you really want to destroy Russia and not also destroy China? We will be destroyed in the process. And that would leave China ruling the world.” In short, Russia and China must be seen as a joint target.

And that is real madness. This is a form of insanity, like a kind of myth and delusion, that has taken hold of American society. It is insanity on the level of QAnon or the belief that Trump is currently the real president of the United States. And yet, the belief that we can reduce the negative consequences if we strike first, rather than if we strike second, is what means that in Ukraine we face a real possibility of the conflict ending in nuclear war, in other words, of most life on Earth becoming extinct, not all, but most, as a result of the struggle for control of Crimea, the Dombass or Taiwan. That is madness.

Who is going to stand up to that? I want to encourage again the young people that Greta Thunberg has mobilised to say: “The adults are not dealing with this, and our future absolutely depends on this changing quickly, right now”. The picture I was looking at, I can show you, I happened to have it here next to me, is from when I was in Norway. I was receiving an Olof Palme award. And we went to where this young woman had just started her Fridays for the Future and her Climate Strikes, and at first, she was days and weeks all alone. And then, no end, she was joined by more people, as you can see in the picture. I think that was at the beginning of January, shortly after it started. There were about 50 or 60 people out in the snow on a Friday morning, not on a Saturday morning or a Sunday morning, but on a day she was supposed to be in school. Her teacher said, “Everything she’s doing is fine, but she needs to be studying in school”. And her response was, “What’s going to be left to study, or what good is that going to do, if the weather changes the way we’re going?” The reason I admire her so much is not just the brilliance of this movement, her acting on her own initially, taking the initiative, mentoring others, and doing it in the form of a general strike, and I think that’s an important way of demonstrating in a non-violent way, by withdrawing support [for the system].

-Dan, I don’t want to exhaust you. We’ve been talking for more than an hour. But I wanted to ask her about what is most helpful to you after you disclose that you have inoperable pancreatic cancer. What can your friends or people who value what you’ve done do to help you?

-Well, first of all, that disclosure, I was hesitant to make it, but my kids thought my friends should know, and then it got bigger, and it’s meant that I’ve been inundated with messages, all positive, essentially, thanking me for what I’ve done and remembering the times when we’ve worked together, and indicating that that’s a tradition of working together that people want to see continue. And that’s, above all, what I’d like to see.

I’m smiling because I’m thinking of a friend, her name is Julia Butterfly Hill. She got her name because she chained herself to the great boreal redwoods to keep them from being cut down….

-Her tree moon.

-and she climbed that tree for a long time. -Can you repeat that?

-Her tree, her name was Luna. -Yes, right.

-Yes, that’s right. -Yes, right. So, she mentioned something once, I heard her say, that when someone asked her, she said, “People say to me, ‘You inspire me.’ And I say to them, ‘Really, for it to make what?’”

So, I’m hearing a lot of people tell me that I’ve been inspiring. And I’m sure, God knows, that without people like Bob Eaton and Randy Kehler and, before them, people like Rosa Parks, much more, and Martin Luther King and Thoreau and others, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do what I did. I’m very proud that Ed Snowden said that “without Daniel Ellsberg there would have been no Ed Snowden”. And he was impressed by the film “The Most Dangerous Man”. He says the film gave him the force for it to make him do what he thought he had to do.

The key in all these cases, of all these people who write to me… and I’d like to take this opportunity to say that I’m reading all your messages, but with all the other things that are going on I’ve been able to respond to very few, not even the best or most inspiring ones. But I hope I have the time for it to make it. I don’t know how much time I have left. If I only have a few weeks or a month left, you may not hear from me. If it’s more than that, there’s nothing I’d like to do more than try to maintain the interaction I have with my family.

And my family, my larger family, my extended family, are the people who consider what we are living through to be an emergency. And we are working together, non-violently and sincerely to change it. And to the people who have been arrested along with me, but also to the people who are taking advantage of their jobs and their associations and their work to educate themselves about what’s going on, and to act effectively, what I can say to them is: Things can work out.

-One of the things that you’ve allowed people to do because of your letter in which you say you don’t know how much time you have left is to talk about everything you’ve done. And I ask her what you want people to focus on, what you’re most proud of.

-Well, pride at the moment is not my dominant emotion. At this point I’m much more aware of, as Greta would say, how little the world has changed in these critical areas related to the danger of nuclear war, and how limited the effectiveness has been in stopping what we’ve done. You might think it’s unreasonable to say, “We’ve done all this, and it hasn’t made any difference”. And it is important to think about why it has not had a greater effect and to ask her what we can do better.

Looking at this war, for example, which is happening now, the cold war is incompatible. God knows… America has not caused this on its own and Russia has not caused this on its own. There are people in many parts of the world who want a cold war, people who prefer to run the world with an adversary in front of them, whether it’s Russia, the United States or China, so that they can explain to us why we have to do what they say we have to do and why we have to have these conflicts. So, I think it is essential to study and understand that this is not in the hands of people who have among their top priorities our interests or the interests that are going to help the survival of humanity. And understanding this is in many ways painful, but it’s hard to imagine that we can escape our own actions without doing so.

-Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers whistleblower. He has recently been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Fifty-two years ago today, on May 1, 1971, he took part in a protest against the Vietnam War in Washington D.C., along with Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Four years later, the Vietnam War ended on 30 April 1975.

Amy Goodman