Thinking of voting for Ralph Nader for president? Anti-nuke activist Daniel Ellsberg has one word for you: Ka-boom!
By Patrick Sullivan
DANIEL ELLSBERG doesn’t scare easily. Roughly 70 times over the past three decades, the 69-year-old peace activist has put his freedom on the line by engaging in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience at protests against nuclear weapons and American military interventions.
And not all of these arrests involved the usual legal slap on the wrist. After his first and most famous transgression, Ellsberg was put on trial in 1973 on criminal charges that carried more than 100 years in prison, this for taking advantage of his position as a government researcher to leak the top secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times–an action many observers believe played a key role in ending the Vietnam War.
But even the man who never blinked during a head-to-head confrontation with Richard M. Nixon hesitates on some occasions.
When Ellsberg takes the stage at the Progressive Festival on Sunday, Sept. 10, in Petaluma (see “Progressive Festival,” next page), he’ll be delivering one message that his left-wing Sonoma County audience will enthusiastically appreciate: he’ll explain why he thinks America’s current nuclear weapons policy is deeply misguided and dangerously out of control.
But the author and activist has another strongly held belief that may not go over so well at an event featuring speakers from the Green Party, whose presidential candidate, consumer activist Ralph Nader, has been nipping doggedly at the votes on Democrat Al Gore’s left flank.
“This is a very important election, and Gore must win,” Ellsberg says, speaking by telephone from his home in Kensington in the East Bay during a break from writing his memoirs, which are due out next year.
“And I’ll go so far,” he continues, “as to say that I’m not appreciative of Nader’s efforts, for all my admiration for Nader, which is great and unreserved.”
That’s right: Ellsberg, the former Pentagon insider&-turned&-dogged critic of the military-industrial complex, plans to cast his vote for Al Gore.
That’s the same Al Gore who jump-started his political rise in the House of Representatives by helping President Reagan get his beloved MX missile plan through Congress back in the frosty old days of the Cold War, when every new weapons system threatened to tip the delicate balance of terror that kept everybody’s missiles snug in their silos.
“I love Ralph Nader,” Ellsberg says. “And I love his positions, and I wish they’d all come in. But anyone who says there’s essentially no difference between the Republican and the Democratic candidates is just wrong.”
To hear Ellsberg tell it, the biggest difference between Al Gore and George Bush is very big indeed. Gore is no dove, but he doesn’t favor a large-scale antiballistic-missile system. Bush does, and Ellsberg says that trying to throw up a complete antimissile umbrella over the United States could ignite a new nuclear arms race involving Russia, China, India, and Pakistan that would make the old Cold War look like a warm summer’s day.
Reagan’s old dream of a Star Wars system that would shoot down any incoming nukes may not ever be practical–recent Pentagon testing has revealed the available technology to be far from perfect–and President Clinton has decided to leave any decision about the system to his successor.
But even attempting to implement such an umbrella, says Ellsberg, could frighten other nuclear powers like Russia so badly that the world would again teeter on the verge of World War III. To avoid that nightmare scenario, Ellsberg is willing to do just about anything–even pass over a candidate like Ralph Nader, with whom he agrees on almost every issue, to vote for Al Gore.
Just how loudly is Ellsberg going to trumpet that pro-Gore message when he speaks at the Progressive Festival, where he’ll be appearing alongside the Green Party’s senatorial candidate?
“I don’t know if I’ll say it on the platform, frankly,” Ellsberg admits. “These people are my friends. I don’t know how far I’ll want to go, depending on what I hear them say.
“I’m certainly not there to condemn these people,” he continues. “I’m just saying that you can’t afford to ignore the difference between a bad position like Gore’s and a terrible, frighteningly bad position like Bush’s.”
ELLSBERG’S focus on nuclear weapons issues may seem strange in a time when pieces of the Berlin Wall are sold as curious mementos of a bygone age. But the danger of nuclear conflict is far from over, Ellsberg believes–indeed, it’s actually increasing.
“I think the situation is very bleak, and the public doesn’t realize it,” he says. “The danger that remains of accidental false alarms and full-scale exchanges is way down but far from zero, and if anything it’s increasing because of the problems of the decay of the Russian command-and-control system. It’s an enormous danger. And the danger of nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan is also very significant.”
Ellsberg doesn’t harbor any illusions that the vice president is hiding a dovish heart under his hawkish feathers. After all, Gore does favor a more limited version of an antimissile system. He has also been part of an administration in which progress on reducing nuclear arsenals in Russia and the United States has slowed to a crawl.
Moreover, Ellsberg has had two very educational one-on-one meetings with Gore: one to urge him to vote against Reagan’s MX missile proposal, and another many years later to urge then-Sen. Gore to vote against President Bush’s actions in the Gulf War. Ellsberg came away from both meetings with the same dismaying impression.
“He respected my opinion enough that he wanted to convince me that he understood my arguments,” he recalls. “And I was very impressed. He was very, very smart. I haven’t met a smarter member of Congress.”
But toward the end of Ellsberg’s meeting with Gore about the Gulf War, a curious thing happened.
“He suddenly started putting up arguments that were so pitiful and so laughable for going ahead in the face of the dangers that it was clear to me that no one would have given any attention at all unless they were searching for any rationale to vote for the war,” Ellsberg recalls. “So I went out and told the people who were counting votes, ‘Don’t count him in the undecided column anymore. He’s certainly going to vote for the war.'”
And he did: Gore was one of a small group of Democrats who crossed party lines to support Bush. Not long after, Clinton picked him as a running mate.
“As long as I’ve known of Gore’s positions, he has sacrificed what I’m sure he understands are important considerations for political expediency,” Ellsberg says. “I have to say that I don’t think he has any measurable passion for or commitment to anything other than gaining high office.”
But that just means Ellsberg will be pinching his nose all the more tightly when he enters the ballot box in November.
“Gore’s position [on nuclear issues] is in fact terrible, really terrible,” Ellsberg says. “And yet less terrible than the Republican’s stance, which is absolutely catastrophic.”
From the September 7-13, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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