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Daniel Ellsberg: Without Nuclear Threats, We Could Have Avoided Vietnam War

Published in partnership with MintPress News.

MINNEAPOLIS — MintPress News is proud to host “Lied to Death,” a 13-part audio conversation between famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and social justice activist Arn Menconi.

Menconi wrote that these interviews are a “mixture of historical, political science and Dan’s sixty-year scholarly analysis as a former nuclear planner for Rand Corporation.”

For more information on the interview and Daniel Ellsberg, see the introduction to this series.

Chapter 4: America Used Nuclear Threat To Counteract Communism’s Popularity

In chapter 4 of Ellsberg’s interview with Menconi, the whistleblower goes deeper into the history of the Vietnam War and the ways that nuclear weapons played a role in that conflict.

America first became formally involved in a ground war in Vietnam in 1963 under President Johnson but, in this chapter, Ellsberg emphasized that our involvement in the region goes back much further by reminding Menconi that the official title of the “The Pentagon Papers,” the thousands of pages of government documents he leaked in 1971, was “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense.”

The United States first became involved in the conflict in Vietnam shortly after World War II. Ellsberg explained that, by supporting the French with weapons and aid money, President Harry Truman hoped that France would support the rearming of Germany. Truman also wanted to keep China, and communism in general, from making further gains, especially since part of Truman’s election strategy involved accusing President Roosevelt of “losing China to the communists,” even though Ellsberg believes that nothing could have prevented this from happening.

This same anti-communist strategy that led to supporting the French in their wars in Asia also led the U.S. to fight the Korean War. “Korea was a stalemate and a hopeless, unnecessary war as far as the Americans were concerned,” said Ellsberg. After World War II, communism was extremely popular, with China in particular gaining ground by lending its support to nationalist fights for independence throughout the East, so the Korean War was deemed politically necessary to prevent the communists from gaining more ground.

Ellsberg explained that by the time Eisenhower became president, the U.S. was terrified of losing Vietnam to communism just as they’d lost China and Korea so, as the French withdrew their forces, American forces gradually replaced them in the lead-up to a full ground war under President Lyndon Johnson, as Ellsberg explained in the previous chapter. The United States also blocked elections which had been agreed to at the 1954 Geneva Conference, because they knew the communists would easily win.

Ellsberg explained that only the threat of nuclear war prevented North Vietnam from launching a full-scale war when elections were blocked. Without the nuclear threat, Ellsberg believes the communists would have easily taken over Vietnam and, as a result, thousands of deaths in the Vietnam War could have been avoided.

Similarly, nuclear threats were used to keep East and West Germany separate during the Cold War, as Ellsberg believes U.S. forces would have been unable to fight an actual ground invasion by Russia.

Of course, it’s unlikely that Americans would accept the way the U.S. uses the threat of nuclear power to grow its empire, which is why, Ellsberg said, imperialism depends on lies. U.S. citizens, he noted, generally reject the idea of being lied to by their own leaders, “But it’s done. All the time. Every day. Every hour of the day.”

The lies on which American power depends, he noted, “would not be possible if the leaders could not count on the myriad people … inside the government who understand what the President is saying is untrue.”

This, he explained, is why the U.S. goes to such lengths to prevent whistleblowers and leaks.

About Daniel Ellsberg

As sites like WikiLeaks and figures such as Edward Snowden continue to reveal uncomfortable truths about America’s endless wars for power and oil, one important figure stands apart as an inspiration to the whistleblowers of today: Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked the “Pentagon Papers,” over 7,000 pages of top secret documents, in 1971.

A military veteran, Ellsberg began his career as a strategic analyst for the RAND Corporation, a massive U.S.-backed nonprofit, and worked directly for the government helping to craft policies around the potential use of nuclear weapons. In in the 1960s, he faced a crisis of conscience while working for the Department of Defense as an assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John T. McNaughton, where his primary duty was to find a pretext to escalate the war in Vietnam.

Inspired by the example of anti-war activists and great thinkers like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., he realized he was willing to risk arrest in order to prevent more war. Lacking the technology of today’s whistleblowers, who can carry gigabytes of data in their pockets, he painstakingly photocopied some 7,000 pages of top secret documents which became the “Pentagon Papers,” first excerpted by The New York Times in June 1971.

Ellsberg’s leaks exposed the corruption behind the war in Vietnam and had widespread ramifications for American foreign policy. Henry Kissinger, secretary of state at the time, famously referred to Ellsberg as “the most dangerous man in America.”

Ellsberg remains a sought-after expert on military and world affairs, and an outspoken supporter of whistleblowers from Edward Snowden to Chelsea Manning. In 2011, he told the Chelsea Manning Support Network that Manning was a “hero,” and added:

I wish I could say that our government has improved its treatment of whistleblowers in the 40 years since the Pentagon Papers. Instead we’re seeing an unprecedented campaign to crack down on public servants who reveal information that Congress and American citizens have a need to know.


Kit OConnell

Kit OConnell

Kit O’Connell is a gonzo journalist and radical troublemaker from Austin, Texas. He is the Associate Editor and Community Manager of Shadowproof. Kit's investigative journalism has appeared in Truthout, MintPress News and