Daniel Ellsberg at Augsburg College: Still Passionate for Justice
By Steve Clemens April 17, 2007
He is grayer now and walks slower, but Daniel Ellsberg at 76, still burns with the passion for justice and compassion that drove him to expose The Pentagon Papers more than 35 years ago. That act of defiance and courage helped push an ambivalent public toward a clear rejection of the Vietnam War. Today, Ellsberg wants us to break from our imperial past (and present) to hopefully end another war (Iraq) and prevent another looming one in the planning stages (Iran).
But rather than focusing directly on his own past, Ellsberg spoke about the history of the U.S. policy of genocide. He warned the audience at Augsburg College on a beautiful Spring day that the speech that would follow would not be easy for us to hear. This was not the type of speech for which you tell the speaker afterward that you “enjoyed it”.
Beginning with a definition of terror, he simplified it by stating that it was the deliberate killing of innocents, civilians, noncombatants for political reasons. Making it clear that distinctions as to whether the actor committing acts of terror were individuals or governments ultimately mattered little to the victims of violence, he said he had come to a personal opinion that even those acts committed by “revolutionaries” were not to be condoned, despite the glorification of some of own independence movement which laid the groundwork for other “revolutionaries” to follow. Quoting George W. Bush, he said he agreed with the President that all acts of terror are to be rejected but the rest of his talk exposed the blatant hypocrisy in this regard “by every President” since Harry Truman announced the “successful” use of the atomic bombs in 1945.
Ellsberg laid the groundwork for this charge of terrorism and genocide by reminding the gathering that the earliest followers of Jesus remained pacifist for the first 300 years. After being absorbed by the Roman Empire, and under the teaching of Augustine, and followed a century later by Thomas Aquinas, Christianity adopted a “just war” theory which, while allowing for the killing of combatants in war, still maintained an absolute prohibition on the killing of civilians and limited both the means and methods of warfare for those claiming to follow Jesus.
By the 19th century, as warfare became more murderous with the number and types of weapons, further attempts were made to limit warfare at The Hague and Geneva with Conventions drafted and adopted under their names. Even with the limits imposed, the horrific slaughter of World War I was primarily limited to combatants on both sides, with 60,000 British troops killed in one day! Ellsberg pointed out that toward the end of that war, militarists were exploring how dropping bombs from airplanes or rockets could “help” their side “win” their wars –ostensibly to end the wars faster and thus limit the slaughter.
Even before the U.S. entered WWII, President Franklin Roosevelt sent a message to the leaders of both sides in the European and Asian theaters denouncing the use of bombs in any civilian-populated areas. Ellsberg reminded his audience that even “the day that will live in infamy” (the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) was not an attack on civilians but rather on a military target and almost all of the 3,000 who were killed were combatants even though war had not been formally declared.
Daniel Ellsberg painfully recited what followed: Hitler’s deliberate bombing of London and Rotterdam, the Allies’ bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, and the war-ending nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. Air Force. At first, the U.S. policy was to limit its bombing in Europe to daylight “strategic bombing” where deliberate attempts were to specifically target military facilities and assets, using the newly developed Norden bombsight. The British RAF however, used the tactic of night bombing German cities when precision bombing was prevented by the cover of darkness. As awful as this practice was, the U.S. remained complicit with it as we followed the night-time British bombings with “strategic” attacks the next day over the same “targets”.
In 1923, a powerful earthquake in Japan ignited fires which merged with other fires, multiplying the heat and destruction. What the “Masters of War” discovered in the process was the possibility of using bombs to create a “firestorm”: incendiary bombs in the right places and with the right weather conditions would allow the fires to feed off each other and suck all the air out, generating hurricane-force winds, and destroying anything that couldn’t withstand the heat in-excess of 1,200 degrees. Even asphalt burned. People who went into the canals to avoid the intense heat were boiled alive. Those in bomb shelters were asphyxiated before being burned when all the oxygen was sucked into the inferno.
Prior to the apocalyptic destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, British and American bombers were able to create firestorms in both Hamburg and Dresden, killing 40-60,000 civilians in each. Attempts were made to duplicate the firestorms in Berlin and although sections of the city were destroyed, the Allies were unsuccessful in creating a firestorm there. In the Pacific, the campaigns to capture Iwo Jima, Saipan, and Guam were essential for the plans of General Curtis LeMay. He had realized that the wood and paper houses in Japan were perfect targets for this new war-fighting strategy. More than 120,000 were killed in one night when 300 U.S. bombers dropped incendiary bombs on Tokyo and created the world’s third firestorm. Following the destruction of Tokyo, the next 50 largest cities in Japan were all bombed – however, the conditions were never “right” to create another firestorm.
Although the immediate deaths caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not as great as Tokyo, what made those bombs “special” was that it took only one plane and one bomb rather than 300 bombers flying at low altitudes – and a firestorm was guaranteed every time!
After laying out this gruesome history lesson for us, Ellsberg proceeded to bring the realities into the present. He described the task he was given by the Pentagon in 1961 when he was 30 years old: he was told that JFK wanted calculations on the number of fatalities which would occur if we exploded nuclear weapons on the cities of the USSR and China that we had targeted with our atomic and hydrogen bombs in our stockpile. After careful research, he concluded that 600 million people would die within 6 months in such an attack – and then discovered a mathematical error which gave the result of at least 1.2 billion people killed – just as the result of our attack, without figuring in a Russian response. Then he proceeded to say, “At that time, the USSR had only 4 nuclear weapons!” (China had none) and we were making war plans which would kill that many people. “Every President ever since [JFK] has had the same targets [for our nuclear weapons]” and has acquiesced in allowing those plans to remain. That is the reality of terrorism and genocide in U.S. policy today.
Ellsberg pointed out the irony in our firebombing of Hamburg- no Jews were killed because they had all been shipped off to concentration camps in Eastern Europe by then. The Jews killed at Auschwitz were forced into “shower rooms” 2,000 at a time where they inhaled Zyklon B gas which killed most right away. This he contrasted with the horror of being burned alive or boiled to death in the Hamburg firestorm. What took the Nazis many days or months to accomplish, American and British bombers were able to do in one night. He, as a Jew, was not trying to equate one death with the other but rather to remind his audience that we do not possess “the high ground” when it comes to genocide and terror.
Ellsberg described how bombs containing magnesium or white phosphorus can’t be put out by water. They burn right through the skin and sometimes even through bone. The British used magnesium bombs in Hamburg. The U.S. used “willy peter” [white phosphorus] in Vietnam which Ellsberg witnessed as a young Marine. Israel used it in Beirut, the U.S. (again) in Fallujah. Weapons designed to create terror.
When President G.W. Bush says, “All options are on the table”, in reference to a possible military attack on Iran, Ellsberg reminded us that “such a threat to use nuclear weapons against a country that does not have nuclear weapons is a war crime. And, when Hillary [Clinton], [Barach] Obama, and [John] Edwards [and Senator Amy Klobuchar] repeat the same to their AIPAC audiences, they too are committing war crimes.”
Ellsberg’s 75 minute speech was received soberly and quietly by the audience. The applause at the end was out of respect for the courage and determination of the speaker rather than “enjoyment” of the message. Like the cod liver oil I was given as a kid, it was hard to stomach but we needed to experience it. Although many could not remain for the 30 minute question and answer session which followed, the perspectives shared by Ellsberg then were not any lighter. If we go to war with Iran (and Seymour Hersch has revealed many of the plans in progress), or if another 9/11-like attack occurs, Ellsberg predicted the following: an immediate resumption of the draft, all Middle Eastern persons in the US will be herded into internment camps, and it will be the end of democracy as we recognize it today. He called for a new generation of whistle-blowers (and gave his thanks to Colleen Rowley who was in the audience) and left us with the responsibility to join him in resisting the path we are on.