(June 23, 1971, while Ellsberg was underground in Cambridge, Mass.)
CRONKITE [opening]: During the controversy, a single name has been mentioned most prominently as the possible source of the Times’ documents. Daniel Ellsberg, a former State Department and Pentagon planner, and of late something of a phantom figure, agreed today to be interviewed at a secret location, but he refused to discuss his role, if any, in the release of the documents. I asked him what he considers the most important revelations to date from the Pentagon documents.
ELLSBERG: I think the lesson is that the people of this country can’t afford to let the President run the country by himself, even foreign affairs, any more than domestic affairs, without the help of Congress, without the help of the public. . . .
CRONKITE: Isn’t this correcting of this problem of public information more in the character of the leaders in Washington than it is in anything that can be legislated?
ELLSBERG: I would disagree with that. It seems to me that the “leaders”–by whom, I think, you’re referring to the executive officials, the Executive Branch of government–have fostered an impression that I think the rest of us have been too willing to accept over the last generation, and that is that the Executive Branch is the government, and that indeed they are leaders in a sense that may not be entirely healthy, if we’re to still think of ourselves as a democracy. I was struck, in fact, by President Johnson’s reactions to these revelations as “close to treason,” because it reflected to me this sense that what was damaging to the reputation of a particular administration, a particular individual, was in effect treason, which is very close to saying “I am the state.” And I think that quite sincerely many Presidents, not only Lyndon Johnson, have come to feel that. What these studies tell me is we must remember this is a self-governing country. We are the government. And in terms of institutions, the Constitution provides for separation for powers, for Congress, for the courts, informally for the press, protected by the First Amendment. . . . I think we cannot let the officials of the Executive Branch determine for us what it is that the public needs to know about how well and how they are discharging their functions. . . . . .
CRONKITE: How was [this study] kept a secret from the White House?
ELLSBERG: The fact is that secrets can be held by men in the government whose careers have been spent learning how to keep their mouths shut. I was one of those.
CRONKITE: The documentation being somewhat incomplete, “flawed history” is what some have said of it.
ELLSBERG: It’s a start. It’s a beginning toward history. I would say it’s an essential beginning, but it’s only a beginning. . . . In the seven thousand pages of this study, I don’t think there is a line in them that contains an estimate of the likely impact of our policy on the overall casualties among Vietnamese or the refugees to be caused, the effects of defoliation in an ecological sense. There’s neither an estimate nor a calculation of past effects, ever. And the documents simply reflect the internal concerns of our officials. That says nothing more nor less that that our officials never did concern themselves with the effect of our policies on the Vietnamese.
CRONKITE: How would you describe the men who do not have the same emotional reaction to reading this, to knowing these, being privy to these secrets, as you? Are they cold? Are they heartless? Are they villainous?
ELLSBERG: The usual assumption, of course, the usual description of them is that they are among the most decent and respectable and responsible men that our society has to offer. It’s a very plausible judgment, in terms of their background. And yet, having read the history, and I think others will join this, I can’t help but feel that their decency, their humane feelings, are to be judged in part by the decisions they brought themselves to make, the reasons for which they did them, and the consequences. I’m not going to judge them. The evidence is here.
I’m sure this story is more painful for many people at this moment than for me, because of course it is familiar to me, having read it several times, but it must be painful for the American people now to read these papers–and there’s a lot more to come–and to discover that the men to whom they gave so much respect and trust, as well as power, regarded them as contemptuously as they regarded our Vietnamese allies.
CRONKITE: What about the immediate effect [of these revelations] on the war as of these days in June, 1971?
ELLSBERG: Yes, the war is going on. . . . I hope the Senate will go much further. I hope they discover that their responsibilities to their citizens, the citizens of this country and to the voters, do go beyond getting re-elected, and that they’re men, they’re free men who can accept the responsibility of ending this war.
My father had a favorite line from the Bible, which I used to hear a great deal when I was a kid: “The truth shall make you free.” And I hope that the truth that’s out now–it’s out in the press, it’s out in homes, where it should be, where voters can discuss it–it’s out of the safes, and there is no way, no way to get it back into the safes–I hope that truth will free of us this war. I hope that we will put this war behind us. . . . in such a way that the history of the next 20 years will read nothing like the history of the last 20 years.