“Cast your whole ballot, not just a slip of paper, but your whole influence.”
— Henry David Thoreau
Seeing Daniel Ellsberg speak is like grabbing hold of a high-tension power line that runs through recent American history. I had the honor of meeting him at a screening of a new documentary about his life, “The Most Dangerous Man in America” last night in Portland. He spoke after the film about his role in ending the war in Vietnam and wars we are in now, opening with this lovely quote from Thoreau about citizen involvement in government.
Though initially an Obama supporter, he said he was troubled that Obama has “continued the coup that the executive branch of government has made since 2001 with it’s illegal imprisonment, illegal wiretapping and illegal wars.” Ellsberg believes Obama’s biggest mistake has been to make Afghanistan his war and that he has no intention of stopping the escalation of the war in Afghanistan at 100,000 troups. “I think Obama was threatened by the generals in the Pentagon the same way LBJ was. They told LBJ they would resign, go public and call him ‘weak’ as a president. Imagine that — threatening someone with weakness causes wars,” said Ellsberg. “I predict we will have 200,00 troups there in four years and the war will end up costing us two trillion dollars unless we stop it. The soviets killed one million Afghans. How many will we kill before we are through? Afghan society is organized to repel invaders. That is what they do.” He did say that like Kennedy, Obama is young and may have a change of heart and confront his generals they way Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis.
Ellsberg spoke of the hubris caused by secrecy. He recalled counseling a colleague who entered the inner circle of the Nixon administration telling him, “you will get access to information that is two or three levels above top secret –stuff only an handful of people know. Your first reaction will be giddiness. Then you will feel stupid that you did not know these things. Then you will stop listening to experts on any topic because you believe you know more than they do.”
He asked the audience where the personal courage will come from to stop the war. “I don’t see people risking imprisonment or their careers today like they did then. Colin Powell came back from Vietnam, rose to Secretary of Defense and helped lie us into the Iraq war. He could have stopped it.” Ellsberg said the only way to stop the Afghan war is to cut the funding in congress. “Your former senator, Wayne Morse, told me if he had access to the Pentagon Papers during the Gulf of Tonkin incident the resolution would not have gotten out of committee and there would have been no war.”
I asked Ellsberg afterwards about people using civil disobedience and not paying their taxes. “My friends have done it but they garnish your wages and take your house. It would take a half a million people doing it to make a difference. That would have an impact.”