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Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers


Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Viking Press, 2002, 498 pp.

Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets should be required reading in this season of American omnipotence and preemptive war. Read alongside Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, or perhaps the recent, excellent Michael Caine movie of the novel set in Vietnam in the 1950s, it would be a powerful and persuasive warning about the dangers of American arrogance, overreaching, and intervention in a world and in cultures we still barely understand.

Ellsberg, who from 1992-1995 ran a nuclear disarmament project with me at PSR called Manhattan Project II, is best known as the man whom President Nixon sent his “plumbers” after. Nixon’s hired operatives, including former Bay of Pigs and CIA man E. Howard Hunt, burglarized Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in hopes of discrediting him when, as a Defense Department official, he released the multi-volume, secret Pentagon history of the war in Vietnam to the media. The Pentagon papers are still available in many versions and remain an essential primary document for understanding America’s losing involvement in Vietnam and the workings of the U.S. national security bureaucracy.

The book opens dramatically with Ellsberg reading cables from the Gulf of Tonkin on his first day working for Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton. From page one, it is clear that the American public is being lied to since the supposed second attack on a US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 that was the casus belli for US direct combat involvement and escalation in Vietnam never took place.

For leaking these and other damning pieces of evidence, Ellsberg was tried for espionage in the 1970’s. and, after charges were dismissed, became an icon of the New Left. It is useful to recall now from this brilliant, analytical, and important memoir that Daniel Ellsberg began his career as a Cold Warrior, a combat Marine, a believer in the Vietnam War, and a Harvard-trained Ph.D. economist who was a trusted, rising star in the Pentagon.

Thus, Secrets is first of all the story of Ellsberg’s transformation into an opponent of the war. The Vietnam sections, which begin with his first tour in 1961, are as good as Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie whose detailed, haunting and almost obsessive concern with Vietnam Ellsberg shares.

For peace activists, Secrets also serves as an important lesson that even within the Pentagon in wartime, people are capable of change. I recall Dan telling the story of how in the 70s, he called a peace group from the Pentagon hoping to talk about the secret history of the war he had discovered. He was hung up on with the sanctimonious farewell, “Why should I talk to you, you bloody killer!” In Secrets, we watch a deeply patriotic and idealistic warrior slowly changed by personal experience in Vietnam, by the spirited, buoyant and unself-righteous peace activism of his future wife Patricia Marx, by the intriguing Gandhian disciple Janaki, and by the principled courage of American draft resisters Bob Eaton and Randy Kehler (too little known these days) who as young student leaders from Swarthmore and Harvard went to prison rather than participate in the draft or an illegal, immoral war.

Along the way, readers will learn the true dimensions of the Watergate scandal, the lies of Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and the daring drama of Ellsberg's copying, spiriting away, hiding, and publishing some 26 volumes of top secret Pentagon documents. We should be thankful that with this fine book, Daniel Ellsberg has been able to set the public record straight, that charges against him were dismissed, and that he risked so much in order to reveal definitively for all time that American justifications for the Vietnam War and its many escalations were consistently false. 

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