Daniel Ellsberg’s First Leak Helped Prevent War With China

Those unaware of Dan Ellsberg’s 2002 Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers may think the leak of the Pentagon Papers was Dan’s first unauthorized disclosure. Not so. Arguably, his first such leak, in March 1968, was even more consequential.

After the Viet Cong shocked most observers by mounting a countrywide offensive in South Vietnam at Tet (late Jan./early Feb. 1968), Dan leaked to the NY Times chapter and verse on how Gen. William Westmoreland had "cooked" intelligence, lowballing data on insurgent strength to create the impression the U.S. was making "remarkable progress" in the war.

The Only Thing Needed: More Troops

Unembarrassed by the Tet offensive, Westmoreland was asking for 206,000 additional troops. Dan knew that and expected President Lyndon Johnson to grant that request. In Secrets Dan writes:

"I wanted to deter him from it. I feared that once he had sent even more troops and called up the reserves, the public and Congress would demand an all-out attack against the North, up to and perhaps beyond the Chinese border. …

"This was what the JCS expected. … Whether or not some of the joint chiefs actually wanted war with China and use of nuclear weapons – I’m not sure on that question to this day – that is what we would be actually risking.

"The striking impact of [an earlier] unauthorized disclosure [in the NY Times on March 10] of the request for 206,000 additional troops – at the time one of the most closely held secrets in the administration – suddenly opened my eyes to my responsibilities as a citizen. I had never considered up till that point leaking classified information" …

"As I observed the effect of this leak, it was as if clouds suddenly opened. I realized something crucial: that the president’s ability to escalate … had depended on secrecy and lying and thus on his ability to deter unauthorized disclosures – truth telling – by officials."

Sweet Irony

Dan did not find out who the first leaker was; that is, who leaked the Westmoreland request, until after the leaker, Leslie Gelb, died in 2019. Gelb was a senior Pentagon official in 1968. Now, ready for this? It was Gelb who was put in charge of compiling the Pentagon Papers – which were leaked three years later – but this time not by Gelb! He remained in good odor as President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations until he died. Even so, we are indebted to Les Gelb and for the good example (incognito) he gave Daniel Ellsberg.

Ellsberg Wins the Sam Adams Award

At a small gathering today (April 11, 2023) in the Bay area of California, Dan Ellsberg, patron saint of whistleblowers) was presented with the traditional Corner-Brightener Candlestick Holder – the "Oscar" accompanying the Sam Adams annual award. Below is the award Citation:

Sam Adams Associates for Integrity

Presented this 11th day of April 2023 in the Berkeley Hills of California by admirers of the integrity of former CIA analyst, Sam Adams.

Know all ye by these presents that Daniel Ellsberg is hereby awarded the Corner-Brightener Candlestick Holder by Sam Adams Associates for Integrity.

Mentor, Mensch, "Most Dangerous Man," Friend: We honor Dan for setting the standard in exposing government lies and – although he himself never worked for an intelligence agency – for giving unflinching support to intelligence officials who blow the whistle.

Earlier Awardees: From Katharine Gun (2003) to Daniel Hale (2023); from Julian Assange (2010) and Chelsea Manning (2014) to Sy Hersh (2017) – all took courage from Dan and from one another. Ed Snowden (2013), having watched the "Justice" system abuse Tom Drake (2011), decided he had to go abroad in order to expose "turnkey tyranny." And, citing the patriotic example of Bill Binney (2015), Ed declared: "Without Bill Binney there would be no Ed Snowden."

Poetic Justice: CIA analyst Sam Adams, for whom this award is named, proved in 1967 that the US Army in Saigon was falsifying the number of armed insurgents in the South. Adams’s count was almost double the 299,000 Gen. William Westmoreland insisted on for political purposes.

Felicitous Leaks: The countrywide insurgent offensive during Tet (Jan/Feb 1968) proved Adams right. Still, President Johnson planned to escalate until leaks to the NY Times thwarted this risky plan. A story by Neil Sheehan and Hedrick Smith, "WESTMORELAND REQUESTS 206,000 MORE MEN, STIRRING DEBATE," led the Times’s front page on March 10, 1968, revealing plans to widen the war into Cambodia and Laos and noting the increasing opposition to escalation.

The Coup de Grâce: Enter Dan Ellsberg with his very first leak. Dan gave Neil Sheehan the damning data on Westmoreland’s lowball estimates designed to demonstrate "remarkable progress." On March 19, the Times front-paged Sheehan’s story headlined: "US UNDERVALUED ENEMY’S STRENGTH BEFORE OFFENSIVE: CIA REPORTS FORCES WERE SIGNIFICANTLY LARGER."

Escalation Thwarted: On March 25 the President complained privately: "The leaks to the NY Times hurt us. …  We have no support for the war. … I would have given Westy the 206,000 men." On March 31, Johnson paused the bombing and announced he would not run again for president. Westmoreland was pulled out of Saigon and ‘promoted’ to army chief of staff.

Dan Ellsberg has never rested on his laurels. Those who take seriously the danger of nuclear war are also deeply indebted to him for his The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2017). That unique book is even more important today than when first published.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).