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A man for all seasons

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, by Daniel Ellsberg, Viking: 498 pp., $29.95

October 13, 2002|George C. Herring | George C. Herring is the author of "America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975."

The publication of Daniel Ellsberg's memoir, "Secrets," at this particular moment is undoubtedly coincidental, but there is an eerie timeliness about it. Rumors of war abound, this time perhaps for a unilateral preemptive full-scale attack unprecedented in American history. Decisions are being made on the basis of secret information that will be divulged, in Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's words, "only if and when the president decides that he thinks it's appropriate." It is this arrogance and secretiveness that are at the heart of the events in Ellsberg's book and that, he believes, pose a grave threat to the democratic process.

"Isn't it after all only history? Does it really matter?" With these dismissive words, Ellsberg recalls, Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) in 1970 refused to make public the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret internal history of America's early involvement in Vietnam commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in 1967.

It was only history, perhaps, but it was this history that finally persuaded an already deeply skeptical Ellsberg that the war in Vietnam had no basis in legitimacy and that led him to do something he believed would land him in jail. He purloined the report from the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, where he worked, and released it to the New York Times, an action that caused a furor in the country and in the White House and set into motion events that led to Watergate, the fall of Richard Nixon's presidency and the end of the Vietnam War.

The story has been told before, most recently in Tom Wells' gossipy and critical biography, "Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg," but "Secrets" gives Ellsberg's version of these dramatic events. It provides a personal account of his conversion from gung-ho Marine and Cold War defense intellectual and bureaucrat to antiwar zealot prepared to go to prison to stop a war he had come to despise. The book also offers a valuable glimpse into the workings of the national security bureaucracy in the heyday of the Cold War and a searching analysis of the government secrecy that helped sustain it.

Ellsberg's connections to the war in Vietnam are quite remarkable. He first traveled there in 1961 and claims that during the visit he began to doubt that the United States could achieve its goals. His first day at the Pentagon as a lower-level official was Aug. 4, 1964, the day of the second alleged attack on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, which, although it surely did not take place, led to the first U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. During 1964-65, the period of then-President Johnson's stealthy movement toward full-scale war, Ellsberg worked closely at the Pentagon on Vietnam issues with John McNaughton, McNamara's top assistant. In that capacity, he even presented the government's position at several campus teach-ins. He then worked in Vietnam for two years at the "rice-roots level" with the legendary counterinsurgency experts Edward Lansdale and John Paul Vann.

After returning to the United States, he was part of the team that wrote the Pentagon Papers. In March 1968, he joined the task force--headed by McNamara's successor, Clark Clifford--that reevaluated U.S. policy after the Tet Offensive. He later helped draft National Security Study Memorandum 1, a survey of past policies and future options designed to shape the Nixon administration's policies toward the war.

In an era rife with controversy, Ellsberg is one of the most controversial figures, hero to some, traitor to others. Brilliant and charming, he never achieved what some had expected of him. Intense, zealous and flamboyant, he admits to becoming "obsessed" with Vietnam -- hardly unique to him in those days -- and having been under a psychiatrist's care.

What he seeks to show in "Secrets" is that his conversion from hawk to dove was an entirely rational response to specific events. In August 1964 and afterward, he saw the way the Johnson administration, and especially the president, played fast and loose with the truth. As a civilian in the Viet Cong-dominated Mekong Delta, he remained committed to the war and the Lansdale-Vann approach to it, but he increasingly questioned the practicality and the morality of the way it was fought. The Tet Offensive confirmed to him, and to others, its hopelessness.

But it was his work on the Pentagon Papers that finally convinced him the war was wrong, not just unwinnable. His research led him to question the then-fashionable theory that overly optimistic advisors had led unwary presidents into a quagmire. What he found instead was that presidents had repeatedly escalated the American commitment, despite uniformly pessimistic estimates from their advisors, and had repeatedly lied to the public about what they were doing and the results achieved.

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