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50 Years After Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg Reveals U.S. Weighed 1958 Nuclear Strike on China over Taiwan

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As President Biden meets with leaders of NATO countries, where he is expected to continue stepping up rhetoric against China and Russia ahead of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this Wednesday in Geneva, we speak with famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg about why he recently released another classified document showing that U.S. military planners in 1958 pushed for nuclear strikes on China to protect Taiwan from an invasion by communist forces. The top-secret study revealed the U.S. military pressed then-President Dwight Eisenhower to prepare a nuclear first strike against mainland China during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1958. Taiwan “could really only be defended, if at all, by the U.S. initiating nuclear war against China,” says Ellsberg. The document also shows that U.S. military planners were ready to accept the risk that the Soviet Union would launch its own nuclear retaliation, including against Japan. Although Ellsberg’s online release of the document was publicized in May, he reveals that he shared the same information with Japan decades earlier. “I had given the entire study to the Japanese Diet,” Ellsberg says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

This week does mark the 50th anniversary since The New York Times published the first excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, leaked by our guest, the legendary whistleblower Dan Ellsberg. Last month, he made headlines again after sharing a top-secret document with The New York Times revealing that the U.S. military in 1958 pressed then-President Dwight Eisenhower to prepare a nuclear first strike against mainland China during the Taiwan Strait crisis. The document shows U.S. military planners were ready to accept the risk that at the time the Soviet Union would launch its own nuclear retaliation on behalf of its ally China and that millions of people would die.

Dan, can you talk about the document and why you decided now to release it, decades after it was actually written? And the significance of it today? Could have gone to nuclear war in 1958. If we made it to now, what it means, as President Biden ups the rhetoric against China and Russia, as he makes his way, his first international trip, from NATO to the summit with Putin?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It was clear, even in 1958, that to defend a couple of rocks occupied by Chinese nationalist Chiang Kai-shek forces one mile off the mainland — Quemoy and Matsu — could really only be defended, if at all, by U.S. initiating nuclear war against China. And nevertheless, the president and the Joint Chiefs all agreed that if the Chinese pressed their attack, their blockade of Quemoy, we would have to and we would use nuclear weapons against China, and that that would lead, they assumed, rightly or wrongly — I would guess, wrongly — but they assumed that the Soviet Union would respond, annihilating Taiwan. Ten years later, we heard about destroying a town to save it: Ben Tre in South Vietnam. Well, we were going to destroy Quemoy and Taiwan to save it from the communists in ’58. And more recently, it would seem, people are talking that way.

The Japanese had not been told that the Soviets might actually respond against Japan, as well as Okinawa and Guam, where we had bases. We had bases in Japan, as well. And I don’t think they were at all aware of the risk we were running in their name for them at that time.

So, when an issue arose — now, this isn’t usually a program for breaking news. I will break a little news here, which I didn’t share with Charlie Savage, who did a wonderful job in telling this story in context in The New York Times last May 22nd. He just did wonderful. But I didn’t want to prejudice him too much against telling that, about how close we had come to nuclear war in '58, as we are now doing. If I had told him or mentioned to him that I had given that same full study, top-secret, to a former Times man, very famous, wonderful, Tom Wicker, who had, for reasons not known to me, chosen not to print it, not to do anything with it — didn't want to discourage Charlie by that precedent.

Moreover, I had given the entire study to the Japanese Diet, who had translated it into Japanese, split-split, like in two days, with their parliamentary capability. And it was over in Japan, not mentioned at all in the U.S. It will be interesting, when they try me for this, how they explain why they didn’t bother to prosecute me for this top-secret release 40 years ago. But that’s the way they do. They do it when it’s helpful to them, or not.

The reason I did it now again was that now again we are faced with the possibility, very quickly, of initiating war with Japan, which once again will raise the problem whether we can defend it against the newly armed Chinese without using nuclear weapons.

Let me make a prediction, which I hope is false. Many people are advising Truman — pardon me for saying that; I go way back. Many people are advising Biden to announce no first use, along with Putin, at the coming summit, that neither will, under any circumstances, initiate nuclear war for any reason, even including Taiwan. That is nothing other than that is sane. That is sane thinking. To initiate nuclear war means the annihilation of Taiwan and probably the annihilation of many, many other people, including Japan. My prediction is he won’t say that. And I say I hope I’m wrong. But I hope people will urge him otherwise and he will obey it.

I think he won’t give up the implicit threat, the open threat on the table, of initiating war in hopes that it will deter. And it may deter, or it may not. We are clearly facing a Prime Minister Xi who fears he would lose office if he accepted a status that many Americans are urging Taiwanese to assume, and that is to declare full sovereign independence from a country which up until this century, all through last century, every Chinese accepted was part of China, a secession like the 11 Confederate states, whose secession was not met with favor by the president at the time.

We should not initiate nuclear war, in my opinion. But I am not in decision. I think that Americans and Japanese and Taiwanese should have the full opportunity to examine the nature of the thinking that is brought to bear in secret about their futures. Insane thinking.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan — Dan, we just have — 

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Insane thinking.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute, but I want to ask you one last — about a news headline, and then we’ll do a post-show on the other whistleblowers, like Daniel Hale, about to be sentenced, Julian Assange, Ed Snowden. But Attorney General Merrick Garland is meeting today with executives of CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post around the revelations that they have been spied on by President Trump, that their reporters were being watched, their email requested, that the Trump administration secretly sought email and phone records from their reporters. Merrick Garland told lawmakers he’ll prioritize investigating, though, at the same time, he said, a massive tax leak to the news outlet ProPublica. But what message do you have to reporters in this time of this crackdown? And now the Biden administration said they will not go after reporters. We have 30 seconds.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I think the — I’ve certainly been led, more than almost anyone, to appreciate the necessity of our First Amendment, our almost unique First Amendment, the protection of the freedom of the press, the freedom of the thought in this. You can’t have democracy without it. And not only now is the Trump administration, now the Biden administration, are using the Espionage Act against a journalist — no freedom of the press involved there — I’m talking about Julian Assange. Biden should drop the appeal he has made, that Trump initiated, to extradite Julian Assange. He should drop the case against Daniel Hale.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, but we’re going to continue the discussion after the show. Dan Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers whistleblower. Check out democracynow.org. Fifty years ago, that’s the date. I’m Amy Goodman.

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