Media Beat, Apr. 19, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Ellsberg's Heroism, McNamara's Cowardice

When media commentators get tired of passing judgment on Robert McNamara, some might get around to remembering a man who stood next to him, looking out a window of the defense secretary's office -- as thousands of anti-war protesters below lay nonviolent siege to the Pentagon on Oct. 21, 1967.

By then, McNamara now says, he had decided that the war was unwinnable.

But what about the man who stood next to McNamara that Saturday afternoon long ago? We've searched through hundreds of mainstream media articles about the current uproar over McNamara's new book. Only a few even mention Daniel Ellsberg.

Yet, it would be logical -- and illuminating -- to compare the two men.

A quarter-century ago, Ellsberg did what McNamara was never willing to do: denounce the war during its murderous frenzy.

In June 1967, McNamara ordered a detailed internal review of U.S. policy-making on Vietnam -- but he insisted on secrecy for the results (which documented a pattern of government deception). Ellsberg, who had been a Department of Defense policy analyst and speech writer for McNamara, leaked ''The Pentagon Papers'' to the press in 1971.

McNamara subjugated conscience. Ellsberg took heed.

McNamara risked nothing. Ellsberg risked many years -- perhaps the rest of his life -- in prison on federal espionage charges.

McNamara went on to a prestigious new career as president of the World Bank. Ellsberg moved on to a path of civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent resistance against the military establishment he had served.

While McNamara was finishing his memoirs in the early 1990s, Ellsberg was launching ''Manhattan Project II'' -- an effort to bring about worldwide nuclear disarmament, putting him at odds with U.S. policy.

And this month, while McNamara shuttled from one TV network studio to another, Ellsberg was busy organizing a ''Fast for Commitment to Abolish Nuclear Weapons'' -- now under way as the United Nations holds a 26-day non-proliferation conference. (Fasters are urging a ''global effort to delegitimize and to ban, under international inspection, the possession of nuclear weapons by anyone.'')

When Robert McNamara discusses the lessons of Vietnam, he seems pathetic -- and still rather clueless. He asserts that his mistakes were ''not of values and intentions but of judgment and capabilities.'' Like many present-day pundits, McNamara bemoans that Washington persisted in an ''unwinnable'' war.

Ellsberg has struggled to come to terms with the moral lessons of the Vietnam War. He is clear: The war would have been just as wrong if it had been ''winnable.''

Both men have prodigious intellects. But McNamara remained emotionally bottled up and ethically paralyzed. That's why it's so infuriating to hear him talk.

In contrast, our conversations with Ellsberg have brought into focus not only past courage but also a marvelous ongoing spirit. Ellsberg does not evade the past, nor does he live in it. He sees every new day as an opportunity to create a better future.

Yet, even now, mass media rarely publicize Ellsberg's views. Perhaps that's because of a shortage of journalistic fortitude in matters of war and peace.

The media's rage toward McNamara these days seems fueled in part by media aversion to self-examination -- as if the more that journalists vent their anger at McNamara, the more they can let themselves off the hook.

In recent weeks, you'd get the impression that the American press led the nation's moral revulsion during the war in Vietnam. No way.

The national media were gung-ho for years. In early 1968, a Boston Globe survey of 39 major American daily papers found that not one had taken an editorial position in favor of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

After U.S. soldiers massacred 300 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in March 1968, nearly a dozen major print and TV outlets suppressed the evidence and photos of the blood bath for well over a year -- until a small, independent news service released the information.

This month, the media outrage in response to McNamara's book has largely accepted a key premise that made the press so supportive of escalating the Vietnam War in the first place: If the war could be won, it should be fought. Pundits are now furious that McNamara knew the war couldn't be won and didn't say so at the time.

Apparently, this country hasn't advanced to the point where -- winnable or not -- the Vietnam War is seen as wrong, wrong, wrong. No wonder the news media are giving us so much from Robert McNamara, and so little from Daniel Ellsberg. Maybe not much has changed, after all.

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