Daniel Ellsberg on life and groupthink

HT Paul Monk who cites this as one of his favourite passages. It’s now one of mine. And a nice explanation of how easy it is – whether within an organisation or the caverns of one’s own riotous psyche – to slip into the pathologies of groupthink and self-deception. Somehow this doesn’t quite get the emphasis it should (if it gets any at all) in schools of management and/or government.

The urgent need to circumvent the lying and the self-deception was, for me, one of the ‘lessons of Vietnam’; a broader one was that there were situations – Vietnam was an example – in which the US Government, starting ignorant, did not, would not, learn. There was a whole set of what amounted to institutional anti-learning mechanisms working to preserve and guarantee unadaptive and unsuccessful behaviour: the fast turnover in personnel; the lack of institutional memory at any level; the failure to study history, to analyse or even record operational experience or mistakes; the effective pressures for optimistically false reporting at every level, for describing ‘progress’ rather than problems or failure, thus concealing the very need for change in approach or for learning. Well, helping the US Government learn – in this case learn how to learn – was something, perhaps, I could do; that had been my business.

Daniel Ellsberg Papers on the War, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1972, p. 18.

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John Walker
6 years ago

Nicholas that quote is so wonderfully succinct !

Ken Parish
6 years ago

“helping the US Government learn – in this case learn how to learn – was something, perhaps, I could do”

You’d have to suggest Ellsberg was being unduly optimistic, given subsequent events in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Not to mention ongoing and vastly increased bugging on a global industrial scale. I can’t actually bring to mind a case where a large bureaucracy, public or private, has managed to rid itself of groupthink or self-deception to any significant extent for a sustained period of time. Can anyone else?

Maybe the sort of highly evolved independent external merits review tribunals (e.g. AAT) for which Australia has become famous may be the best we can do, despite its numerous imperfections.

Jaben Maheno
Jaben Maheno
6 years ago

Its a great passage and it surely applies to middle management of that war. But it kind of lets the most powerful psychopaths off the hook. No doubt at mid-level, institutional dysfunction, goose-stepping and general stupidity prevails. But at the top level you just cannot have this mass-murder masquerading as war, without intent. Killing millions of people in Vietnam, and doing grave harm to the US was no unintentional consequence. No misguided accident. At the higher levels it was the whole point of the operation.

6 years ago

jaben maheno

I hear comments like yours from lefties all the time but I’ve been to Vietnamese festivals where vn vets sign autographs and pose for selfies with vn-australians while a loudspeaker broadcasts a thank you for the sacrifices of the Aussie heroes who tried to give them freedom.

In 25 years of visiting VN I’ve not heard one person denounce American involvement in that country although I’ve talked to many of the locals about their war experience. Even the former VC I have spoken to bitterly regret being on the wrong side.