Here is the full transcript of American activist and former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg’s talk: The Doomsday Machine @ Talks at Google conference.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Is this mic working? Can you hear me in the back?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: OK. I feel overdressed. Usually I only wear all this when I get arrested. I always tell people, if you’re about to get arrested, if you have a suit and tie, wear it, showing that that doesn’t exempt you from the obligations of citizenship, and that people like you can get and should get arrested at times. It’s funny. Being here, you always hear speakers say, it’s an honor to be here.
It’s not actually a formula I use, particularly I don’t go into it. And yet it’s occurring to me here, people who stand here, of course, know they’re at the center of the universe exactly, and speaking to — This is, by the way, a much younger audience than I’m used to speaking to. Generally, they’re all gray hair or — I see one here OK, the scroll overhead is a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Except that in the “Star Wars” movie, the galaxy we’re in, the same bullshit is going on as in far, far away. It’s been going on all along.
I was just talking to people from the bookstore. They tell me they actually have– I was surprised– copies of my earlier book, “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.” Good book. I encourage you to read it. It should be coming out now. It would explain how we got into Afghanistan, why we stayed in Afghanistan, why we’re not getting out of Afghanistan.
The movie, “The Post,” which is coming out shortly– and I’ve seen it a couple times– is set in 1971. And that was at a time when America thought it had been going on for a very long time in war, in Vietnam, six years. That was longer than any American war prior to that. People then, your age and twice your age and three times your age, had not experienced a war that had gone on 16 years that was likely to go on another 10 or 16. That wasn’t in our experience.
And yet the question was just as sharp then, of course, as now: What’s going on? Why are we here? What is this? The movie, a documentary that was made from “Secrets” is called “The Most Dangerous Man in America, Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.” It got an Academy Award for the longest title, actually.
But really, the movie, “The Post”, now, in which I figure, played by somebody who looks a lot better than I did then, Matthew Rhys of “The Americans–” so it’s a good movie, in other words– really doesn’t give a clue as to answering the question, why was Daniel Ellsberg dangerous to anybody, to Kissinger, to Nixon?
It was Kissinger who called me that, the most dangerous man in America. Why did I copy the Pentagon Papers? Using the then cutting-edge technology of the time, Xerox, without which I couldn’t have copied 7,000 pages and made a number of copies, which took a long time, one copy at a time in those days, bar goes back and forth.
And to make several copies took a long time. I couldn’t have done it in the electric typewriter days that just preceded that, or manual before that, just as Ed Snowden and Chelsea Manning could not have put out hundreds of thousands of files. If I talk a little softer, could you hear me? Can you hear this? I’ve had a bad cold for six weeks and my voice is always on the edge of going. So it’s better I don’t talk louder than I have to. If you can’t hear me, please wave your arms.
OK, I’ll try not to talk so loud. They couldn’t put out hundreds of thousands of files or millions of pages except, of course, in the digital era, which they now can with this new technology. But what made that dangerous at any time, then or now? And the answer was that the government secrets that they were holding onto were secrets about criminal activity, actions that would be extremely embarrassing to a president, because they were illegal or unconstitutional or simply incredibly reckless, dangerous, horrible priorities, unlikely ever to succeed in any sense or to end. The public would not have applauded if they understood the actual strategy and the actual prospects.
And the prospects generally were pretty well-known inside the government. It’s wrong to say, as you often would see on the Pentagon Papers, that what they showed was that the presidents were told the war was unwinnable. Anybody here ever heard that expression? Let me see more hands. Don’t be shy. There’s quite a few. Right, that’s simply false.
It’s not what the Pentagon Papers say any time. The president is never told on writing the war is unwinnable. He’s always told by the Joint Chiefs in the papers it is winnable. Just do it the way we say. It is not winnable the way you are doing, the only way you’ll do it.
But if you’re willing to risk war with China, if you’re willing to hit every target in the north, if you’re willing to put at least 500,000 troops in Vietnam– which we eventually did have– up to a million, which the president was told in 1965 was also a real possibility, a million troops in Vietnam, then we’d win.
Well, why would we win? Would the other side give up? Well, if not then, with more. They’ve got to give up eventually, aren’t they? We’re the U-S of A. We’re the greatest and so forth. Everybody’s got to bend eventually. They’ve got to have a breaking point. Let us find it and we’ll give you your victory. No one said quickly. Five years, 10 years, 15 years, that’s what they said.
In 1965, the president asked the Joint Chiefs, how long will it take and how many troops? And he gets the word from the commandant of the Marine Corps troop, five years, 500,000 men. Now, that’s not low balling it exactly, is it? It wasn’t right. Because three years later, we had 500,000 troops there and we weren’t near winning it. And we weren’t any nearer than we were three years earlier. But still, you can’t say the Joint Chiefs are saying, oh, this will be a snap. Don’t worry about it. The president chose that.
Do I have to explain why the president chose not to tell the public that’s where we were going? No. He was able to do it because he didn’t have to tell the public. Because he could count on people to keep secrets. They’d signed a promise, often described as an oath. But actually, it’s not an oath. It’s not, so help me God. It’s not a I swear this and that. It’s an employment promise. I don’t know what you sign when you come here in the way of non-disclosure agreements.
But most organizations of any kind, whether it’s a PTA or union or whatever the hell, you sign something, what I hear here stays here and so forth, can’t use it outside, or I can be fired or I can be demoted. I can be punished in various ways. It’s not a crime. Corporation can’t make it a crime. Google can’t make it a crime for you to reveal Google’s secrets unless they’re some kind of trade secrets.
There probably are some narrow, little areas where they could get away with it, but not just general how decisions got made and so forth. Just a second. I had taken an oath many times, as had every member of the armed services. I’d been a lieutenant in the Marine Corps, platoon leader and company commander, rifle company commander. I was very proud of the fact I was the only First Lieutenant in the 2nd Marine Division who had a rifle company, usually. I succeeded a major, actually. And other majors wanted that job away from me and they couldn’t get it.
I took the oath. then I took the oath in the Pentagon, in the State Department. And the oath was to protect and defend the United States, support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.