BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. When it comes to peeling back the curtain on White House Wizards of Oz, journalists can come across as heroes or at least gritty crusaders for the First Amendment, as in the 2017 Steven Spielberg film The Post about The Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers.
REPORTER Ben, how are we supposed to comb through 4,000 pages.
DIFFERENT REPORTER They're not even loosely organized?
REPORTER The Times had three months, there's no way we can possibly...
HOWARD He's right, we got less than eight hours.
BEN Hey, hey, hey, for the last six years we've been playing catch up. And now, thanks to the president of the United States, who, by the way, has taken a sh*t all over the First Amendment, we have the goods. We don't have any competition. There's dozens of stories in here, The Times has barely scratched the surface. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But getting and publishing the papers and the subsequent trial was the end of the story. How about the beginning? Back in 2018, I sat down with Les Gelb, who was a 30 year old Defense Department official when he was put in charge of compiling the papers by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. And he told me how those papers came to be.
LES GELB We got a list from McNamara of 100 questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Things like what's happening in the field, how many of the enemy died?
LES GELB Right, what's the body kill? 8 of the 100 questions were historical. I was given 6 people to work on these questions and we were given 2 months to get them done. By the way, we were told not to tell anybody about this. We stared at the questions. We all started laughing. They said, well, why are we doing this? This is the kind of stuff we sent up to the press secretary when we're preparing him to answer questions. And we're not going to be able to add anything to what we're doing on a daily basis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But some of the questions were bigger than that. The questions included, are we lying about the number killed in action? Can we win this war?
LES GELB Yes. And those were, those were the daily questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Real answers to those questions would take a lot more than a sound bite from a press secretary.
LES GELB Well, we were giving what we thought were the real answers to the questions when we did the press guidance for the press secretary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how did the government feel about the war?
LES GELB I would say almost everybody in the government felt that the war was not going well, but a number felt there were ways to fight it better. There were very, very few people in the Pentagon or the State Department or the White House who were flat out against the war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. They believed in the domino theory.
LES GELB Essentially, that was it. We're all brought up in that tradition of the domino theory, that somehow if we lost the strategic place such as Berlin, we would lose Europe. And in fact, in one of the memos you'll see in the Pentagon Papers, the State Department referred to Indochina as the Asian Berlin. That's how central they thought it was to the future security and safety of the United States. Hard to believe, but that's what we thought.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But why did McNamara ask you these questions if you were already giving the best answers you could to the press secretary every day?
LES GELB To this day, I don't know. McNamara initially just said answer those questions. Then after this group of 6 that I had assembled, schmoozed about it for several days, we decided, well, you know, it might be interesting if we could look back into the files, and maybe give more in-depth answers to the questions we had been answering, more or less from our daily experience. And inevitably, you had the dip back into the history. We wrote up a list of about 20 some odd monographs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Short papers.
LES GELB That's really what the Pentagon Papers is, a bunch of short papers. I sent the memo to McNamara and he wrote on that memo, OK, let it be encyclopedic and let the chips fall where they may. But the only ones who really knew were CIA, because McNamara called the head of the CIA, Richard Helms. And Helms shipped over to me an enormous quantity of these documents from the CIA. But he never called Dean Rusk the secretary of state. He never called Walt Rostow the national security adviser. He told Lyndon Johnson, the notion that this was a definitive history is just plain wrong, Brooke, because we didn't have that kind of access and we never were allowed to do any interviews.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How long did it take?
LES GELB A little over a year and a quarter. Started in June of '67, finished in February '69. And when it was all done, you know, we had these 36 volumes, which very few people who have written about the Pentagon Papers, I assure you, have read. And then I took the papers over to McNamara's office at the World Bank. He was head of the World Bank in February '69. I brought him into his office and we're sitting around this coffee table having a little chat. And then finally I said to him, Would you like to see the papers? I opened up one of the boxes, handed him one of the monographs. He flipped through it like you flip through a deck of cards with his thumb and he threw it back into the box and he said, and I quote, Take them back to the Pentagon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think he ever read them?
LES GELB I have no idea. I spoke to him many times over the years and I never asked them and he never said.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He was replaced by Clark Clifford as secretary of defense, blueblood lawyer who had virtually no foreign policy experience.
LES GELB And we thought Clifford was sent to the Pentagon by Johnson to sit on people like us who had begun to ask questions about the war that the White House didn't like. Clark Clifford sensed this right away, and laughed, and said, you know, realize I've been against this war since 1965.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What did he think of the domino theory?
LES GELB That was the reason why he became a dove in '65. Johnson had sent him to talk to the Asian leaders about sending more troops to fight the war, and none of them would give any troops. And so Clifford said, I thought to myself, well, if the dominoes don't think they have to fight to save themselves, what the devil are we doing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE By the time you were assembling what became the Pentagon Papers, it was already known to the secretary of defense and to the president that the war was not going to be won.
LES GELB That's correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet they felt they had to continue to send battalion after battalion into the field to die.
LES GELB No question about it. But I think most people, by some time in '68, came more to believe that we couldn't afford to lose.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They continued to send soldiers into it,
LES GELB Not to lose,
BROOKE GLADSTONE To maintain a strange balance of power in the world. The domino theory, a bankrupt notion as it later came to be believed,
LES GELB but at the time, most people in government believed it. The story has been put out of the Pentagon Papers showed they were all lying. But while the papers show some lies, the main message is that our leaders from Truman onwards didn't know hardly anything about Vietnam and Indochina. They were ignorant. And it also shows that the foreign policy community believed that if we lost Vietnam, the rest of Asia would fall. Here we're talking about all this stuff and you know far more than the average informed person about the Pentagon Papers. And you're surprised by my answers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Precisely why we called you Les. Because there are legends about the Pentagon Papers and you think that they convey a false narrative. Now, you concede there was an enormous amount of lying about numbers, constant statements of optimism. There was the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
LES GELB Yeah. What the American people were told in 1964 was that North Vietnamese boats attacked American ships in the Tonkin Gulf area and that our ships fired back. But what I found out when I actually saw the negatives of the pictures taken during that night, these were negatives that showed our ships firing huge guns and no evidence of any small ships firing guns at us. I was astonished.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Confusion in the Gulf of Tonkin initially, and later outright deception, enabled President Johnson to effect a huge escalation in that war.
LES GELB That's right. It provided the public justification.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I would argue that you may underestimate the significance of the continuous lying throughout the conduct of that war.
LES GELB I don't think I underestimate the lying. I know what it was and I know who is doing it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you think the media narrative about it is outsized?
LES GELB It's outsized based on the Pentagon Papers, Brooke. Ellsberg created the myth of what the papers show is that it all was a bunch of lies. But the truth is, people actually believed in the war and were ignorant about what could and could not actually be done to do well in that war. That's what you see when you actually read the papers as opposed to talk about the papers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So essentially, a set of beliefs forced the government to continue to sacrifice in order to get the enemy to the table, maybe.
LES GELB And Nixon negotiated for another four years or so before he concluded the deal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And how many people died in that period?
LES GELB As many as died in all the years before. And God knows how many lives ruined. And look, I wish I had turned against the war much sooner, and I regret it. You have no idea. No idea. But eventually I did. And then I spent several years of my life fighting against the Nixon policy and for the early end of the war. But it was too late.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how did you feel back in 1971 when you discovered that The New York Times was about to publish the Pentagon Papers?
LES GELB That's a very good question, because to be perfectly frank, as I think I've been throughout this interview, my first instinct was that people would think this was the definitive history of the war, which they were not, and that people would think it was all about lying rather than beliefs. And look, because we never learn that darn lesson about believing our way into these wars. We went into Afghanistan and we went into Iraq. You know, we get involved in these wars and we don't know a damn thing about those countries. The culture, the history, the politics. And my heavens, these are not wars like World War 2 and World War 1. Where we have battalions fighting battalions. These are wars that depend on knowledge of who the people are, what the culture is like. And we jumped into them without knowing. That's the damn essential message of the Pentagon Papers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Les, thank you very much.
LES GELB You're very welcome. You know, again, I don't deny the lies, I just want him to understand what the main points really were.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Les Gelb, former correspondent and columnist for The New York Times, former senior state and Defense Department official, former head of the Council of Foreign Relations and compiler of the Pentagon Papers, died in 2019.
And that's the show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Lowinger, Eloise Blondeiu, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Molly Schwartz and Anthony Bansie with help from Ellen Li. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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