This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. James Spader played Ellsberg in the 2003 film, The Pentagon Papers.
Pentagon Papers Clip: Tony Russo's girlfriend, Linda, let me use the Xerox machine at her advertising agency in West Hollywood. I'd copy from 1:00 to 4:00 in the morning, sleep for an hour or two, and have them back in the safe before anyone knew they were missing.
Brooke Gladstone: As we know, Ellsberg finally got the New York Times to take on those Xeroxed pages, but in the summer of '71, the paper was hit with an injunction barring it from printing any more scoops from the Pentagon Papers. With The Times put on ice, The Washington Post stepped in, got copies from Ellsberg, and went hunting for their own scoops. Steven Spielberg's 2018 film, The Post, tells that story.
The Post Clip: How am I supposed to come through 4,000 pages?
The Post Clip: They're not even loosely organized.
The Post Clip: The Times had three months. There's no way we can possibly--
The Post Clip: He's right. We got less than 8 hours.
The Post Clip: -- then we'd have 10.
The Post Clip: 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 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.
Brooke Gladstone: In The Post, Ellsberg, played by Matthew Reese, lays out the origins of the papers.
Matthew Reese: We were all former government guys, top clearance, all of that. McNamara wanted academics to have the chance to examine what had happened. He would say to us, "Let the chips fall where they may." I think guilt was a bigger motive and encouraged McNamara lies for all the rest, but I don't think he saw what was coming, what we'd find. It didn't even take him long to figure out, well, for us all to figure out, if the public ever saw these papers, then we'd turn against the war. Covert ops, guaranteed debt, rigged elections, it's all in there.
Brooke Gladstone: Another one of those top clearance guys was 30-year-old Les Gelb, who in 1967 was a defense department official when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara tasked him with compiling the secret history of the war, or officially the "Report of the office of the Secretary of Defense, Vietnam taskforce." Without Gelb there, there would have been no papers. When I called him in 2018, we drilled down on the impact of the Pentagon Papers, but he wasn't so sure the press got the right message. What's more, he said he rarely got the chance to set the record straight, because the Hollywood researchers didn't reach out.
Les Gelb: People behind the movie, The Post, didn't call. The only one who came by, really, was Ken Burns.
Brooke Gladstone: What did he ask you?
Les Gelb: He asked me about the origins of the Pentagon Papers, and I told him what they were. Namely, that 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: That's right, what's the body kill? 8 of the 100 questions were historical. I was given six people to work on these questions, and we were given two months to get them done. I collected the people. By the way, we were told not to tell anybody about this. We stared at the questions, and we all started laughing. They said, "Why are we doing this? This is the kind of stuff we send up to the press secretary when we're preparing him to answer questions. We're not going to be able to add anything to what we're doing on a daily basis."
Brooke Gladstone: Some of the questions were bigger than that, Les. The questions included, are we lying about the number killed in action? Can we win this war? 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. That somehow if we lost the strategic place such as Berlin, we would lose Europe. In fact, one of the memos you'll see in the Pentagon Papers, the State Department referred to into China as the Asian Berlin. That's how central they thought it was to the future's security and safety of the United States. Hard to believe, but that's what we thought.
Brooke Gladstone: Why did McNamara ask you these questions if you were already given the best answers you could to the Press Secretary every day? Why?
Les Gelb: To this day, I don't know. McNamara initially just said, answer those questions. Then after this group of six that I had assembled, schmooze about it for several days, we decided, well, 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. Inevitably, you had to 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, "Okay, let it be encyclopedic, and let the chips fall where they may." We were still enjoined from telling people about it. 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. He never called Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State. He never called Walt Rostow, the National Security Advisor had told Lyndon Johnson the notion that this was a definitive history. It just plain wrong, Brooke, because we didn't have that kind of access, and we never were allowed to do any interviews.
Brooke Gladstone: You are a 30-year-old punk, pretty much, right?
Les Gelb: I was 30 years old. I was director of Policy Planning in the Pentagon.
Brooke Gladstone: It was your team who came up with the idea of writing these short papers, which became the Pentagon Papers. Ken Verne suggested, it's also suggested in the post that McNamara commissioned this study as a cautionary tale for those who might follow in his footsteps. What do you think of that narrative?
Les Gelb: I think it's an explanation that Bob McNamara came up with after the fact he told some people that he was doing this to save future leaders from making the same mistakes. He told others who didn't like it. For example, he told Dean Russ that he never asked for these studies, he just wanted a collection of documents.
Brooke Gladstone: How long did it take?
Les Gelb: It started in June of '67, finished in February '69. When it was all done, we had these 36 volumes, which very few people who have written about the Pentagon Papers, I assure you have read. 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 them into his office, and we're sitting around this coffee table having a little chat. 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 flipp 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 him and he never said.
Brooke Gladstone: He was replaced by Clark Clifford as Secretary of Defense, a very blue-blood lawyer who had virtually no foreign policy experience.
Les Gelb: By the way, 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, "I 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, long before the rest of US foreign policy experts caught in the trap of our thinking. 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. 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, and possibly to you, if you were sending that information daily to the Press Secretary, that the war was not going to be won.
Les Gelb: Yes. Well, there were some people who thought it could be won.
Brooke Gladstone: Not the President and not the Secretary of Defense.
Les Gelb: That's correct.
Brooke Gladstone: 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 Walt Rostow and Dean Ross continued to believe that we still could pull this out. I think most people, by sometime 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: At the time, most people in government believed it. The story has been put out that the Pentagon Papers showed they were all lying. While the papers show some lies, the main message is that our leaders from Truman onwards didn't know hardly anything about Vietnam and into China. They were ignorant. It also shows that foreign policy community believed that if we lost Vietnam, the rest of Asia would fall. That was a given. 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: That's precisely why we called you, Les, because there are popular 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: Yes, I didn't even know that, Brooke, by the way, on the Tonkin Gulf, until I saw the actual negatives of the pictures taken during the shooting.
Brooke Gladstone: Contrast, the story we were told in what you saw.
Les Gelb: 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. What I found out when I actually saw the negatives of the pictures taken during that night, that showed our ships firing huge guns, and no 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 was doing it.
Brooke Gladstone: You think the media narrative about it is outsized?
Les Gelb: It's outsized based on the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg created the myth that what the papers show is that it all was a bunch of lies. 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: [laughs] Essentially, a set of beliefs forced the government to continue to sacrifice thousands of men in order to get the enemy to the table, maybe.
Les Gelb: Nixon negotiated for another four years or so before he concluded the deal.
Brooke Gladstone: How many people died in that period?
Les Gelb: As many as died in all the years before. The total, I think is something like 58,000 deaths. God knows how many lives ruined.
Look, I wish I had turned against the war much sooner. I regret it, you have no idea, but eventually I did. 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: 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 if they just hit the papers, people would think this was a definitive history of the war, which they were not, and that people would think it was all about lying rather than beliefs. Look, because we never learned that darn lesson about believing our way into these wars, we went into Afghanistan, and we went into Iraq.
Brooke Gladstone: Do you think that's why it's important to clarify what the real lesson of the Pentagon Papers is?
Les Gelb: Absolutely. We get involved in these wars, and we don't know a darn thing about those countries, the culture, the history, the politics, people on top, and even down below, and, my heavens, these are not wars like World War II and World War I, 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 darn essential message of the Pentagon Papers.
Brooke Gladstone: Les, thank you very much.
Les Gelb: You're very welcome. It's so hard for people to swallow all this because of all these years of hearing the other story. Again, I don't deny the lies. I just want them to understand what the main points really were.
Brooke Gladstone: Les Gelb led the team that wrote the Pentagon Papers. He was also a former columnist and correspondent for the New York Times, and a long time head of the Council on Foreign Relations. He died in 2019.
Coming up, we hear from the Ink Stained Wretches. This is On the Media.