On Schlesinger and Ellsberg: A Reply

Daniel Ellsberg’s reply to Arthur Schlesinger’s “Eyeless in Indochina(NYR, October 21) has been delayed. Meanwhile, the following reply has been received from Leslie Gelb, whose views were discussed in Mr. Schlesinger’s essay. Mr. Gelb was the director of the task force that produced the Pentagon Papers. Further comment by Mr. Ellsberg and Mr. Schlesinger will appear in coming issues.

—The Editors

At one point in his essay “Eyeless in Indochina,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., notes that he and Daniel Ellsberg agreed on the inscrutability of history. I would like to join them in this and, having done so, to join them, too, in shedding further inscrutability by insisting on my own interpretation of Vietnam.

Mr. Schlesinger pitted his revised version of the quagmire thesis (it was all a mistake, a lot of wishful thinking) against Mr. Ellsberg’s anti-quagmire thesis (it was all clear-sighted malice aforethought). In the process, Mr. Schlesinger has wrongly lumped my views with those of Mr. Ellsberg.

I do not agree with either gentleman. In order to explain this, to show why I disagree especially with Mr. Schlesinger, and to argue that the optimism versus pessimism issue is not, to my mind, the central Vietnam issue, I am compelled, embarrassingly, to briefly quote myself. In an article in Foreign Policy, “Vietnam: The System Worked,” I wrote that three propositions suggest why the United States became involved in Vietnam, why the process was gradual, and what the real expectations of our leaders were:

First, US involvement in Vietnam is not mainly or mostly a story of step by step, inadvertent descent into unforeseen quicksand. It is primarily a story of why US leaders considered that it was vital not to lose Vietnam by force to Communism. Our leaders believed Vietnam to be vital not for itself, but for what they thought its “loss” would mean internationally and domestically.

The point I meant to make is that the forces driving American actions in Vietnam were 1) strategically, a belief that the world was filled with dominoes—a psychology based on strategic links as well as on the Munich analogy, and notions of prestige; and 2) domestically, a belief that political instability and ungovernability would inevitably flow from the loss of a country to communism—the pathology of anti-communism. These forces, more than predictions of either success or failure, caused our leaders to plunge on. To put it another way, our leaders persisted in Vietnam neither because they were promised victory nor because they anticipated defeat, but because they believed they had to: “They ‘saw’ no acceptable alternative.” This is largely what I meant by the statement quoted by both Messrs. Ellsberg and Schlesinger that “US involvement did not stem from a failure to foresee consequences.” Both, however, chose to assume that this statement solely concerned the anti-quagmire thesis.

Mr. Ellsberg and I also differ on the emphasis to be placed on domestic and international forces. Mr. Ellsberg would have us now believe that the overriding reason…

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