Daniel Ellsberg “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers”

Leaking top secret documents has become a somewhat run-of-the-mill business, partly due to Wikileaks which spits out (or used to, at least) secret government memos and cables like a broken pipe. The ur-leak at the roots of the whistleblowing movement was undoubtedly the Pentagon Papers. The 7000-pages of top secret government documents, exposing the US President’s and government’s lies and deception about the Vietnam War, was leaked to the press in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, a feat which elevated him to the status of saint of whistleblowers, the American hero. Ellsberg was an unlikely rebel, starting his career as a military analyst in the government machine who did a fair share of lying deception himself. “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers” is a self-exegesis in which Ellsberg tells his story – a story of the ultimate Washington insider turned, in the words of Richard Nixon, “the most dangerous man in America”.

Naturally, the bulk of the book concerns American policy in Vietnam, both the political and military side of the war. This story – a morbid tale of spiralling folly – had already been told elsewhere and if you’re not familiar with it, you might be better off starting with the brilliant “The Best and the Brightest” by David Halberstam, at least to get acquainted with dramatis personae1. The power of Ellsberg’s memoir is that the story is told from the inside. Ellsberg began his career as a nuclear policy whiz-kid at the epitome of cold war policy planning, the Rand Corporation. Then, for several years, he worked as a military analyst with higher-than-top-secret security clearances and access to classified documents which reflected an internal decision process flatly contradicting what the President and his cabinet told the public about the war. The book starts on an almost Hitchcockian note – though not exactly an earthquake – with Ellsberg witnessing the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident, American provocation which gave green light to military escalation set in motion by Lyndon Johnson. Purportedly, an American destroyer had been attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats, which led to threats of American retaliation and prompted the Congress to pass almost unanimously a bill enabling the president to wage a full-scale, open-ended war. There was one problem with this story – the North Vietnamese attack was completely bogus. The whole incident was engineered by the government to trick the Congress into supporting an escalation that had already been planned for years. From then on, the strand of deception grew only thicker and the President waged the war in almost complete secret from both the Congress and the public.

Ellsberg, at first a genuine hawk and cold warrior, went aboard with the policy. Soon, however, as he obtained more and more expertise on Vietnam, he started to become disillusioned. After a long stay in Vietnam, during which he learnt the true picture of the war from most knowledgeable local experts, including the legendary “troublemaker” John Vann, he saw a growing chasm between the official version of the war – that victory was almost around the corner and the war would end perhaps in a year or two – and grim reality. The reality that America had been involved in a bloody stalemate, a dismal reenactment of the French colonial war from 1940s, a war it had no prospects of winning, repeating the same mistakes as the French and backing up a South Vietnamese government that would collapse to Vietcong as soon as US forces moved out. As the Pentagon Papers revealed, top government figures were well aware of the impossibility of victory – how this debacle could come about, then, is a topic for a separate book (though Ellsberg manages to convey the decision process in elaborate detail). For Ellsberg, who had been growing more involved in the anti-war movement, the tipping point came with Nixon’s presidency – Nixon, who came to power promising no wider war, secretly intensified the bombardment campaign, now covering not only Vietnam, but Laos and Cambodia as well, and, as revealed by his conversations with Henry Kissinger, thought of nuclear weapons as viable possibility. Seeing the impending disaster, Ellsberg resolved to stop the war no matter what, which prompted him to copy and leak the Pentagon Papers in the hope of deterring Nixon from pursuing his disastrous policy.

Initially, the Pentagon Papers were a killer. While Ellsberg went underground hiding from the FBI, newspapers all around the country printed the Papers2, sparking a fire which Nixon only helped fuel with his attempts at making the court stop the publications (a step blatantly against the First Amendment, not that the law mattered to Nixon anyway). However, as the Papers concerned the US policy only up to 1967, the public could not be convinced about Nixon’s true intents, still believing he was about to end the war as soon as possible. Instead, Pentagon Papers ended the war indirectly, by making Nixon precipitate his own downfall. Turning paranoid about possibility of further leaks, Nixon set about to solve the problem by starting a secret unit – the notorious “plumbers” – aiming at discrediting or disabling Ellsberg, whom Nixon suspected of having more damaging documents (he particularly feared exposure of Laos and Cambodia bombings), not to mention wiretapping political opponents and other dirty business which led directly to Watergate affair. When these attempts were uncovered, Nixon was forced to step down and Ellsberg was acquitted on the grounds of gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering. A sort of “happy end”, after all.

Ellsberg is not only a brilliant thinker, but a top-notch writer – the whole story is captivating, especially the last fragment, concerning the Pentagon Papers release and subsequent trial, which reads almost like a political thriller (which it was, really). Having skimmed through Tom Wells’ “Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg”, an unflattering biography depicting Ellsberg as an egotist, narcissist and sexual maniac, I was positively surprised that Ellsberg the writer comes across as rather level-headed, if intense, and manages to keep his ego in check, with no self-aggrandizing. The book contains numerous memorable conversations, perhaps the best known is this conversation with Kissinger, in which Ellsberg warns him about the dangers of secret knowledge (predictably, Kissinger didn’t quite heed the warning). Some of them are rather creepy, as the one in which Nixon advises Kissinger to “think big!” (read – don’t hesitate to use nukes), but probably this conveys the spirit of the era, in which nukes were still considered a real means of conducting foreign policy.

Compared with Ellsberg’s intensity and strong purpose, Assange’s Wikileaks seem rather inconsequential. While Ellsberg had a clear goal and good timing, Assange fires in full automatic mode hoping that some stray bullets will hit the target. In result, the public only gets bored and the important documents get lost in a deluge of random unsorted cables. If this is the new generation of whistleblowers, it doesn’t bode well for keeping the governments of the world in check (which is as important as it was 40 years ago). Without doubt, Ellsberg is a hero – unfortunately, reading his memoir and observing current events left me with more pessimism, and distrust for authorities, than before.

1 Or The Making of a Quagmire by the same author – it’s much shorter and covers only the Kennedy period, but this only makes it more striking (as it was clear as early as 1963 that war couldn’t be won)
2 The media played a big role here – see The Powers That Be (again, by David Halberstam), which devotes a lot of space to Pentagon Papers.

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