'Brave enough to face being called a traitor' (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

October 11, 2023   6 mins

Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps the most famous think-tanker of all time, passed away in June this year. But rather than any policy paper or legislative advocacy, he is remembered for an action then treated as treachery and now regarded as heroism. Following on from his work for the Rand Corporation, Ellsberg was hired by the US government in the Sixties to advise them in Vietnam. Eventually disgusted by what he saw, Ellsberg leaked the “Pentagon Papers”, the military’s secret internal history of the Vietnamese war. His actions led directly to the Watergate scandal, as President Richard Nixon began an obsessive campaign to root out internal enemies, eventually unravelling public support for the war and his own administration.

On 29 June 1971, in the midst of the uproar, the FBI sat General Edward Lansdale down for an “interview”. Lansdale was the godfather of US counterinsurgency warfare, often (falsely) believed to be the inspiration for The Quiet American by Graham Greene. He had supervised Ellsberg during their time in Vietnam and, asked about their relationship, Lansdale began to philosophise about the relationship between intellectuals and the leaders they advise. “Intellectuals are sometimes strange people,” he mused, adding that Ellsberg worked in a “cloistered atmosphere”. The FBI agents concluded that, in Lansdale’s view, Ellsberg “failed to realise the life and death of United States troops were involved” in the questions he dealt with. That last accusation might have come as a shock to Ellsberg, who had carried a rifle and walked into many life-and-death situations himself.

Lansdale’s interrogation notes formed part of Ellsberg’s FBI dossier, released after Ellsberg’s death under the Freedom of Information Act. And, read today, the files shed considerable light on the changing relationship between academia and power in the West. Ellsberg was one of the first generation of “think tankers”, originally freewheeling intellectuals drafted by the government to solve difficult problems. His line of inquiry would ultimately lead him to break the law and publicly oppose the government.

Today’s think-tank scene, for good or for ill, is far more conformist. A Lansdale figure, if he were alive today, would find little to rhapsodise about among the think-tankers who crowd Washington and Westminster. The all-purpose intellectuals of the early Cold War have been replaced by narrow specialists and single-issue activists, while the kind of principled bravery Ellsberg displayed is gone entirely. His life is an instructive parable from an age when the citizen-scholar was able and willing to serve his country — and brave enough to face being called a traitor.

Before becoming public enemy number one, Ellsberg had been the perfect example of a government-affiliated intellectual. Educated in economics at Harvard and Cambridge — and with a brief peacetime stint in the Marine Corps — he started working for the Rand Corporation in 1958, a think tank funded largely by the US Department of Defense. At first, Ellsberg’s job was to study nuclear command-and-control systems through the lens of decision theory. In 1964, the Department of Defense brought on Ellsberg as an official adviser. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, the beginning of large-scale US military involvement in Vietnam, happened during his first day on the job. A year later, Ellsberg transferred to the US Embassy in Saigon, where he worked as an analyst under Lansdale.

Nixon, then a mere political candidate, even paid the embassy a visit when Ellsberg was there. Lansdale tried to convince Nixon that free and honest elections were necessary to win Vietnamese support. “Oh, sure, honest, yes, honest, that’s right,” Ellsberg remembered Nixon saying sarcastically, “so long as you win!” Lansdale’s staff were unsettled, according to Ellsberg’s 2002 memoir, Secrets.

Ellsberg, like many liberals of that generation, believed in “Cold War liberalism”. He wanted a muscular United States to confront the enemies of human freedom abroad and at home, just as it had during the Second World War. Although Vietnam’s civil war was “very hard on those people”, Ellsberg later said to a journalist: “I told myself that living under communism would be harder, and World War III, which I thought we were preventing, would be worse.” Lansdale, paraphrased in the FBI document, understood this to be the general attitude of his advisers: “there was much criticism among the various agencies concerning the ways in which the various organisations were implementing United States policies, but all of this criticism was administrative, within the United States establishment there, and was for the purpose of doing a better job there”.

Ellsberg’s job sounded anodyne: “checking on specific problems in pacification work”, especially “economic problems”, according to the FBI notes. And Lansdale paints Ellsberg as something of a naïf who didn’t even realise that Vietnamese tap water was unsafe to drink. But according to Ellsberg’s memoir, he was a much more worldly employee than Lansdale let on. Ellsberg toured the countryside with “old Vietnam hands”, jaded American advisers who led him through guerrilla-infested provinces that other embassy staff refused to even visit. “These people were far from being cool, detached problem solvers. Unlike other Americans, they mostly spoke Vietnamese, and they had close Vietnamese friends,” Ellsberg wrote. “They had grown to love Vietnam and its people and wanted to believe, and did believe, that our presence there could be helpful to them.”

Despite seeing the dirty underside of the war up close, these veterans had “retained a sense of the legitimacy of this effort because of knowing a few Vietnamese… who had seemed to have faith in our mutual efforts”, Ellsberg wrote. And, much like contemporary figures who invested years in Afghanistan and the Middle East, they must have felt that letting up the war effort would be a betrayal of the West’s loyal supporters in the region. But Ellsberg’s own faith in the project — and its benefits for the Vietnamese — were profoundly shaken by his experiences on the ground. He saw villages bombed to rubble for no good reason and apparent bystanders shot dead from the sky. Tanks crushed Buddhist altars. A drunk South Vietnamese major talked about how humiliating the American presence was and threatened to shoot his advisers. When Vietnamese children smiled and waved at visiting Americans, another South Vietnamese officer told Ellsberg that he used to greet Japanese invaders the same way during the Second World War.

Then Ellsberg’s girlfriend Patricia visited Vietnam. As a journalist, she had access to contacts that government officials did not, including refugees driven out of the countryside by US bombing. And she told Ellsberg that his colleagues, rather than brave crusaders for Vietnam’s freedom, were “desperate men, enamored of danger and the war, risk takers who didn’t feel they had a lot to lose”, as he remembers in Secrets. Speaking to the FBI in 1971, Lansdale correctly guessed that Patricia had been a big influence on Ellsberg’s worldview. While visiting her boyfriend, Lansdale said, Patricia made “academic arguments” against the war, even if she were not quite the “burn the draft card type”.

Opposing the war in theory is one thing. Leaking classified documents is another. Lansdale told the FBI that “ELLSBERG’s apparent change of feelings concerning the United State’s [sic] is something entirely new to him,” but “he is not too shocked by this change because ELLSBERG is such an intense man”. The general sighed to the FBI agents that Ellsberg did not really understand the “need to keep his lip zippered”, but added that a “hell of a lot of Americans” were loose-talkers as well, both in Vietnam and at home. But few of these loose-talkers would have the impact of Ellsberg. Even if he is now regarded as a hero, the leak would almost destroy his life. The government put Ellsberg on trial under the Espionage Act, and the case was thrown out only because a judge discovered that Nixon’s lackeys had tried to steal Ellsberg’s psychiatric files.

The modern world will not produce another Ellsberg. Conservatives activists waged an intense campaign against “Vietnam Syndrome” in the Eighties, and liberals hawks fully re-embraced the idea of military intervention by the Nineties. Although the pro-intervention arguments are basically the same — locals want Western protection and the alternative is worse — the apparatus for delivering them is much more sophisticated. In Ellsberg’s day, there were a few large think tanks mostly attached to governments, like the Rand Corporation in Washington and London’s Royal United Services Institute, or those sustained by mega-philanthropists, such as the Brookings Institution and Chatham House. Since then, political parties and business interests have set up hundreds of boutique think tanks, all competing for access to and attention from governments.

With a few exceptions, their work no longer resembles the rough-and-tumble frontline action that Ellsberg participated in. One researcher found that around half the “Iran experts” at American think tanks had never been to Iran, and a similar number could not even speak Persian. Instead, today’s think-tankers spend much of their time flattering and being flattered in Western conference rooms. Brookings expert Jeremy Shapiro described the ritual of think-tank events in a biting 2014 essay:

“After 15 minutes of stilted chit-chat with colleagues that the thinker has the misfortune to see at virtually every event he attends in Washington, the senior government official strides calmly into the room, plops down at the head of the table and declares solemnly what a honour it is to have such distinguished experts to help with this critical area of policy… A brave thinker raises his hand and speaks truth to power by reciting the thesis of his latest article. From there, the group is off to races as the thinkers each struggle to get in the conversation and rehearse their well-worn positions.”

According to Shapiro, officials rarely find the think-tankers’ suggestions useful. Instead, these meetings are an exercise in flattery. Think-tankers, convinced that they were part of the decision-making process, are more inclined to either defend the government in public or grant it the benefit of the doubt. In turn, the think tanks can tell donors that their money is buying them influence. Ironically, the private status of these newer think tanks has therefore made them more dependent on the government, since their access to officials relies completely on those officials’ goodwill.

Back in 1971, according to the FBI notes, Lansdale “said that ELLSBERG was a very intense person, very excitable, and always very eloquent in his view”. This characterisation, or rather the dynamic characters who merit it, is precisely what is missing from government today. People like that get dangerous ideas, like airing the government’s dirty laundry in public. Better and cleaner to have a thousand dull sycophants than one Daniel Ellsberg.