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The Mouse That Roared

How Speaking Out Made Daniel Ellsberg a True American Hero

WILD MAN: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg, by Tom Wells, Palgrave: 650 pp., $32.50

September 09, 2001|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer, whose nationally-syndicated column appears weekly in The Times, is a contributing editor to The Nation. He is working on a book about the Wen Ho Lee case

This could have been an important book. Daniel Ellsberg performed an uncommonly heroic act when, in 1971, he released the Pentagon Papers--the government's secret history of the Vietnam War--to an American public that was even then sacrificing its young as well as a significant portion of the population of Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers, an internal Pentagon study commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and written by scholars with access to a massive trove of historical documents, still constitute the most complete and insightful view of how the U.S. came to be involved in a brutish and failed war in a small country of no particular strategic significance to the U.S. McNamara intended the study to be kept secret until after the war was over, when it would be found useful by scholars. But Ellsberg undermined that agenda by letting the public know what the Pentagon knew when it still mattered.

This was a war that the Pentagon Papers proved was always devoid of common sense. Just how misguided that effort was only became clear, beyond the point of rational debate, when Ellsberg, a Rand Corp. scholar at the time, turned over copies of the Pentagon Papers to members of Congress and to leading news organizations.

The Nixon administration subsequently failed in its efforts to use the courts to block publication by the New York Times and the Washington Post. Still, Richard Nixon sought to blunt the effect of the report by smearing Ellsberg's reputation.

Nixon insiders, particularly Henry Kissinger, who had been a colleague of Ellsberg's at Harvard, became obsessed with Ellsberg. Attempts were made, including breaking into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, to find incriminating evidence against the man. Thus was born the infamous "plumbers" unit to plug security leaks, which botched the Watergate burglary and precipitated Nixon's downfall.

As it turns out, the Nixon burglars found nothing of interest on Ellsberg in their break-in, and it remained for this unauthorized biography to dig up the dirt on Ellsberg's unconventional sex life. It offers nothing truly startling in the context of the 1960s: some multiple-partner exchanges and the adroit use of mirrors in the bedroom. Unfortunately, the failed hunt for even more dirt seems to have consumed much of Tom Wells' years of effort.

If this search for the prurient is intended to explain why Ellsberg emerged as the only person with access to the papers to dare turn them over to the public, it fails. Surely there were others in the chain of command with at least as lusty a libido who did not make the papers available.

"Wild Man" also dodges the question: Did Ellsberg perform an important public service in informing the citizens as to the folly of a war waged in their name? Wells takes a startlingly contradictory approach to the value of the papers: On the one hand, they are described as the greatest trove of secrets ever turned over and, on the other hand, dismissed as stuff we all knew to be true anyway.

Both positions are false. There were no national security secrets in the published report that endangered the lives of operatives or weakened the national security position of the United States. What publication of the papers did establish, and the reason politicians complicit in the war wanted to suppress them, is that they undercut the rationalizations of four administrations responsible for involving us in Vietnam. More to the point of Nixon's hysteria, once having read the Pentagon Papers, no one would find it possible to justify his administration's escalation of the war into North Vietnam and Cambodia.

The Pentagon Papers confirmed what critics of the war suspected but could not prove to the majority that supported the war. Although Wells asserts that the public knew all this, those urging a pullout from Vietnam were still in the minority at the time of the Pentagon Papers' publication: The documents significantly strengthened the hand of the critics, who were privy for the first time to the essential facts of the U.S. involvement. An example would be the truth about the second Gulf of Tonkin attack, which justified Congress' passing of a resolution that LBJ interpreted as a declaration of war. The alleged attack by North Korean PT boats on U.S. ships never occurred, but neither the public nor even the senators knew it at the time, and certainly it is information that is required for intelligent decision-making in a democratic society. Why Ellsberg was alone among those with access to the Pentagon Papers in understanding the right of the public to this information is the important question that goes unexplored here.

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