Ellsberg’s warning: stop US empire-building wars before they start

the statue of liberty with blurred american flag waving in the background. Democracy and freedom concept.

There is only one way to stop politicians and bureaucrats from beginning stupid and immoral wars.

Before his recent death Daniel Ellsberg went out of his way to deliver an important message.

This was the need to stop US empire-building wars before they start. His Pentagon Papers were not released until 1971 – five years after the Vietnam War had begun.

By that time the war machine was in full throttle. Too many people had a vested interest in its continuation.

That included President Nixon, using the war for his 1972 re-election landslide victory.

But how does one stop a war before it starts?

In 1964 as a first secretary in Australia’s Moscow embassy I had to accompany Australia’s then foreign affairs minister, Paul Hasluck, to the Kremlin on a fated mission to persuade the Soviet leadership – prime minister, Alexei Kosygin, and foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko – to join us in Vietnam.

The aim would be to stop the ‘Chinese aggression’ which threatened us all, he said.

For me at the time the sight of an Australian foreign minister making a fool of himself, and Australia, in the middle of the Kremlin was not just appalling. Combined with other factors it was strong enough to make me want to cease working for a deluded government and start working to try to prevent the dreadful war about to begin.

But where to start?

I knew that Canberra’s anti-China obsession was influential in persuading some of the doubtful in Washington to agree with Vietnam war involvement. If Australian attitudes to the war could be changed, some in the US might be influenced and war averted.

Pure fantasy, perhaps. But in my case those efforts would include a strenuous round of lectures and book writing.

In particular I thought that on the basis of my Moscow experience I might be able to correct the mistaken image of China that had emerged from the Sino-Soviet dispute then raging.

Many believed the dispute was due to a warlike China being opposed to a more peaceful Soviet Union. That mistaken image in turn had underlain Hasluck’s bizarre attempt to persuade the USSR to join us in Vietnam.

In fact, and as others have since confirmed, the dispute was due to Moscow, alarmed by US nuclear threats against a China bent of recovering some islands lost to Taiwan, reneging on a promise to assist China develop nuclear weapons.

Needless to say the efforts by myself and others in the anti-war movement were, if anything, counter-productive. Landslide election victories continued to be won by pro-war candidates. Ellsberg’s Pentagon papers – revelations by a five-year insider to the war decisions – were much more effective, at least in bringing an earlier end to the war.

There is only one way to stop politicians and bureaucrats from beginning stupid and immoral wars. If we are to have Departments of War then there should also be Departments of Peace— strong government funded organisations with some kind of veto or restraining power over war decisions.

Until that happens, senseless wars will continue.