From the Archive — From the May 2017 issue

Paper Pushers

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studs terkel: Your name is known to quite a few Americans these days. You let the country and the world know about a series of documents called the Pentagon Papers.

daniel ellsberg: I have a feeling that a lot of my former colleagues at RAND see me with a kind of horror — not just anger, but with an awe of the sort that you’d have for an astronaut who stepped out of that capsule and cut his umbilical cord and just floated off into space and became weightless, drifting in a black void, because he cut himself off from the capsule and from NASA, and the U.S. government, and the U.S. budget that supports that entire system — no salary, no Mama, no Papa. He’s become part of a vast nothingness.

I think four-year-olds have fantasies like that, and that’s just what the men in power are speaking to, those four-year-old fantasies of what the world would be like when the mother went away. And the mother is the U.S. executive branch.

terkel: The implication is that you feel liberated now?

ellsberg: Oh yeah. My wife, Patricia, knew me at that earlier period when I was in the Pentagon working for men who were addicted to the flow of secret information that passed their desks. It was like electricity coursing through their veins. In fact, the speed of decision-making, flickering from one part of the world to another — a weapons system to be decided on, or one set of decisions about force levels, or big wars or little wars — from moment to moment, almost a kaleidoscopic kind of effect, gave their lives an electric excitement to which they were clearly addicted and which they could not imagine living without.

They were nervous men, constantly flipping pencils, constantly drumming on tables, cracking their knuckles, as they moved from one decision to another with this hypnotic fascination. The course of power, however, could only be theirs if they toed the mark. They could lose access to that flow of information in minutes if they made the wrong move. They would not be invited to the next White House meeting. They would no longer be in it, be part of it.

I remember once I came back from a trip to Vietnam when I was accompanying the secretary of defense, and we came down at Andrews Field. It was a foggy day at about six in the morning. We’d flown for seventeen hours, I think. Secretary McNamara flew in a tanker, a converted tanker. As we came down in the fog, there were banks of television lights set up and reporters waiting with banks of microphones. I remember describing that to Patricia, the electricity, and saying, “I hope I never become corrupted and addicted by that kind of drama.”

These men were.

There’s a phrase that Gandhians use a lot that translates as “speaking truth to power.” I find myself very skeptical about that phrase; at the least, it’s ambiguous, because certainly all of my former colleagues at RAND, or in the government, I think, would have thought of what they were doing, their professional lives, as “speaking truth to power.” To be sure, they were speaking truth for power, and some of them were also writing lies for power, but they figured that that was the price they paid for the right they got, on government payroll or on government contract, to speak truth to power. And it certainly seemed to me, increasingly, that there was so much self-deception involved that I had to stand back and really think hard about it. About just what kind of truth you spoke to power when you were working for power, when you found your whole livelihood dependent on it, when you were constantly afraid of what power would do to you if you spoke the wrong truth.

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