Travels with Vann

While working in Vietnam, Ellsberg became a friend and disciple of John Paul Vann, a career army officer and military adviser who was then serving as Deputy for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support in the twelve provinces north and west of Saigon. Vann was among the most informed Americans about the war, and he had grown into an ardent and outspoken critic of the way it was fought by both the South Vietnamese and the Americans as a result. 

Each week, he and Ellsberg would drive to a different province and survey the security situation on the ground. The lessons and wisdom he imparted on Ellsberg during this time had a lasting impact on his thoughts and opinions about the Vietnam War.

John Paul Vann died in a helicopter crash in 1972 at the age of 47.

Vietnam Questions (NSSM-1)

Ellsberg was rehired at the RAND Corporation upon his return from South Vietnam. In January 1969, RAND was tasked by Henry Kissinger and the Nixon administration with writing a list of questions for the different government agencies dealing with Vietnam – a top secret document which came to be known as National Security Study Memorandum Number One (NSSM-1). The questions were distributed and answered separately by each agency, making it clear where they agreed and disagreed on the course of the war. Ellsberg drafted questions that he knew would evoke controversy in an effort to expose the many uncertainties about Vietnam to the President. He would go on to leak the NSSM-1 alongside the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The leak of the NSSM-1 worried the Nixon administration more than the Pentagon Papers since it exposed their policies and suggested he might have access to additional classified information.

From Hawk to Dove

What Ellsberg saw both on the ground in Vietnam and in the highest offices of government led him to become increasingly disillusioned with the war. In August of 1969, he attended the 13th Triennial Meeting of the War Resisters International where he heard a speech by Randy Kehler, a draft resister who was about to go to prison. The speech moved Ellsberg to tears and opened his eyes to the possibilities of peaceful resistance. Alongside conversations he was having with Janaki Tschannerl, an Indian pacifist, the conference marked a pivotal moment in his transition from a “hawk” who supported the war to a “dove” who vehemently opposed it. Just two months later, Ellsberg began smuggling pages of the Pentagon Papers from his office at RAND and copying them using a friend’s Xerox machine.