Kissinger and Ellsberg in Vietnam
Thomas A. Bass
Before Henry Kissinger was secretary of state in the Nixon administration and Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, they met in Saigon in July 1966 to swap views on Vietnam and discuss how the war was going. Then a Harvard professor looking to make his move into politics, Kissinger was visiting Vietnam as a consultant to Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., a fellow Harvardian and former senator who was serving as US ambassador. Ellsberg, a military analyst who had been in Vietnam for ten months as an assistant to the CIA agent Edward Lansdale, gave Kissinger two important pieces of advice: never talk to someone in the presence of their boss, and do not go to official briefings. Rarely for an American in Vietnam, he also suggested that Kissinger interview some Vietnamese.
Ellsberg was studying pacification for Lansdale, which meant he was looking for ways to subdue the rural population. This was Lansdale’s second tour of duty in Vietnam. He had become famous in the 1950s when he helped to establish the former French colony of Cochinchina as an independent state, eventually called the Republic of Vietnam. After France’s defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States had plucked Ngo Dinh Diem, the country’s first leader (1954-63), out of a Belgian monastery and equipped him with an army. Aided by lots of money from the CIA, Lansdale managed to create South Vietnam as a client state led by a corrupt but reliable group of Catholic refugees from North Vietnam.
Having already performed a similar miracle in the Philippines, Lansdale was a favourite of President Kennedy. Unfortunately, after Lansdale’s return to the Department of Defense, where he worked under cover as a colonel in the US Air Force, Kennedy gave the former advertising man an assignment that he described as his biggest failure. Lansdale was supposed to arrange the assassination of Fidel Castro. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was the Soviet Union’s response to Lansdale’s larger assignment—to invade Cuba, for a makeover of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion the previous year. By 1965, with Castro still alive and Cuba still communist, Lansdale got turfed back to Vietnam. Travelling with him was an odd assortment of assassins and bagmen, and one newcomer to his team, Dr Daniel Ellsberg, a civilian adviser whose own career in the Pentagon had hit a dead end.
Ellsberg and Kissinger had crossed paths at Harvard in the 1950s, when Kissinger was a young assistant professor of history and Ellsberg was a graduate student in economics, specialising in game theory. If Ellsberg was working for a spy, Kissinger was actually a spy. For all the books written about him, few dwell on the act of treachery during the election of 1968 that got him his job as President Nixon’s national security adviser. Always willing to trade inside information for political power, Kissinger was an FBI snitch on his colleagues at Harvard, but he was so successful in his next act of betrayal that Nixon thought he owed his election as president to Kissinger’s dark hand.
A courtier liberal with his praise, Kissinger on several occasions would describe Ellsberg as the person from whom he had learned the most about Vietnam. Ellsberg had spent a year in the Pentagon studying the war as an assistant to John McNaughton, right-hand man to Robert McNamara, the secretary of defence. Now as part of Lansdale’s team, Ellsberg was travelling deep into the countryside. For his part, Ellsberg was impressed that Kissinger followed his advice. ‘McNamara never did any of these things,’ he said. ‘He always talked to district advisers in the presence of the general in charge and never seemed to realize how much he was being fooled.’
Kissinger and Ellsberg were advisers to men of power, whom they hoped to succeed by themselves becoming powerful men. Kissinger accomplished this task. Ellsberg failed. His military service had been honourable but undistinguished. His first marriage had collapsed. He had worked in the Pentagon for a year before being edged out to Vietnam. Nonetheless, Ellsberg was a government employee at a higher rank and with more security clearances than anything Kissinger, a private citizen, had yet to obtain. He was a good storyteller and quick learner. He knew the lie of the land and was, indeed, Kissinger’s best informant. From that point on, as their lives intersected, Vietnam was the fulcrum on which Kissinger and Ellsberg balanced their careers.
A Jewish refugee whose family fled Germany in 1938 when he was fifteen, Heinz Kissinger—renamed Henry on his arrival in Manhattan—was working in a shaving brush factory and studying accounting at City College when he was launched on his diplomatic career. Drafted in 1942, Private Kissinger marched across Europe with the 84th Infantry Division, where this fluent German speaker was soon administering captured towns and working in military intelligence. After the war, the GI Bill sent Kissinger to Harvard, where this son of a former school teacher in Bavaria devoted himself to studying history. As an undergraduate, graduate student and then—after three years of seasoning at the Council on Foreign Relations—as a professor at Harvard, Kissinger specialised in studying the aftermath of revolutions. Putting the world back together after the Napoleonic wars was the subject of his doctoral dissertation. The topic might seem obscure, except when one notices that the first paragraph mentions nuclear weapons.
Atomic warfare was Kissinger’s other area of expertise. In Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy—a book admired by Nixon when it was published in 1957—Kissinger argued that America’s post-war military strategy was based on old-fashioned ideas about nukes. They were not just big bombs that flattened every building within a mile of where they exploded. They could also be shaped into handier little devices, known as tactical nuclear weapons, and used in a much wider variety of military confrontations. Kissinger’s book got him hired as a professor at Harvard (over the opposition of colleagues who found his scholarship feeble and most of his ideas borrowed from other, unacknowledged, sources.) The book also launched Kissinger into the world of military consultants—the same world that Ellsberg, seven years his junior, would occupy when he too became a specialist in nuclear weapons.
Kissinger was looking for a presidential candidate to advise and perhaps accompany into the White House. He favoured Republicans but offered his services to Democrats and Republicans alike, and it was this equalopportunity approach to foreign policy that got him his big break. In 1968, Nixon won a razor-thin victory over Hubert Humphrey, his Democratic opponent, by violating the Logan Act, which forbids unauthorised citizens from interfering in the foreign affairs of the United States. Nixon had secretly promised the president of South Vietnam that if he failed to sign a peace treaty ending the war in 1968, he would get a better deal the following year from the newly elected President Nixon. Guiding Nixon’s hand—with leaks from the negotiations in Paris, while at the same time serving as an adviser to Nixon’s opponent—was Kissinger.
Ellsberg is a divided man. The first split came over the 4 July holiday in 1946, when he was fifteen. Driving across country from their home in Michigan to a family reunion in Colorado, Ellsberg’s father fell asleep at the wheel and hit a bridge abutment, shearing the car in half and killing Ellsberg’s mother and sister. Ellsberg was in a coma for thirty-six hours. His parents had abandoned