Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of "Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy" (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Question: How were the Pentagon Papers produced?
Leslie Gelb: Robert McNamara was Secretary of Defense. And for reasons I still don't understand to this day, he wrote out 100 questions, almost all of which were about current Vietnam issues, basically, political issues and attacks on the administration. And there were about ten or so questions that were of historical nature. And I was, at the time, director of policy planning in the Pentagon and I was also given this assignment. And said, it's hard to answer all these current policy questions without delving into the history of them. So they said, yeah, go get yourself six people and work for the summer and answer the questions.
Well, we got into the archives to start to answer the questions. And I think all of us felt, we're a very bright group of people, that this was an opportunity to try to do a quick history. So we outlined a whole bunch of studies that we thought needed to be done.
And the next thought of McNamara was: take another six months and get it all done then answer the questions. And it turned into almost a two-year effort that I oversaw at the same time I remained director of policy planning, where we had access to government documents, not all of the government documents but, I would say, 85%, 90%. And we wrote a history based on those documents, which were then leaked to the "New York Times" and other papers and became known as the Pentagon Papers.
Question: How are the Pentagon Papers perceived?
Leslie Gelb: Mind you, I think that most of what's been written about Pentagon Papers just isn't true. They say that the Pentagon Papers show that the history of United States and Vietnam is the story of lying. That's what the Pentagon Papers prove, our leaders lied to us. There was lying that went on from time to time, to be sure.
But by and large, we got involved in Vietnam because that's what we believed. We believed in the domino theory. We believed that certain nations were lost and will lead to communism, will lead to loss of other nations.
That's what happened with Hitler and Hirohito in World War II. They took little nations and then bigger nations and then we got involved in World War II.
So we believed in the domino theory. My whole generation was raised on the domino theory. And it was believed at the time, including by me, that Vietnam was kind of the testing ground of the confrontation between East and West. So we fought there, principally, for that reason. And it was supported by domestic politics and it was supported by the arrogance of power, as I write in my new book on power ["Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy"].
Recorded on 5/1/09.