DANIEL ELLSBERG--VIETNAM'S 'MYTH'?
Early in his review of my book Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg ["Pentagon Papers Chase," July 9], H. Bruce Franklin quotes words of praise and admiration for Ellsberg from a website designed explicitly to solicit tributes to Ellsberg. Franklin counterposes those tributes to my critical portrayal of Ellsberg, as if to imply that my portrayal doesn't jibe with reality. But as Franklin must know, people will often say very different things about a person when asked to pay tribute than in other circumstances--such as when talking to a biographer. That was true for a number of people in this case.
Franklin appears to believe that none of the criticisms of Ellsberg expressed in my book have merit, and he suggests that Ellsberg deserves to be portrayed as a great man and a hero. He disparages my view that one of the main reasons Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers was to achieve greater recognition. He claims that Ellsberg's efforts to get the papers out through a member of Congress contradict my view. Has Franklin never heard of Senate hearings, televised ones at that, at which witnesses testify? Does he seriously believe Ellsberg wished to act anonymously? Franklin questions my "motives" for writing critically of Ellsberg. How about this one: a desire to get it right. I believe strongly that my portrait of Ellsberg is accurate. (It may surprise Franklin that I am perhaps to the left of Ellsberg politically.)
Franklin finds fault with my use of sources who had reason to dislike Ellsberg but fails to note that many who applauded Ellsberg's release of the papers also speak critically of him in the book. Franklin repeats myths about Ellsberg's career that my book shows to be myths (e.g., that Ellsberg was "a principal contributor" to the papers). Franklin also misrepresents some of my views, as when he claims that I "continually belittle" the political impact of the papers. Actually, what I criticize several times is Ellsberg's belief that releasing the papers would end the war. If I did not think the papers were politically important, I would never have chosen to write about Ellsberg. Franklin also says that I don't understand what the papers were. That is nonsense, and I used them liberally in a book I wrote earlier on Vietnam (one Franklin may even have read). Curiously, Franklin deprecates me for calling the papers a "study." But aren't all histories studies? This one was called a study by those who participated in it.
Tom Wells's biography of Daniel Ellsberg is a solid piece of work even if it's not very concise and has an error or two: For example, he has my attorney in the Pentagon Papers case getting some things terribly wrong but doesn't explain how that was typical of him throughout the case, the poor devil.
More important, Wells presents the data that make the case that Ellsberg is a mythomaniac and a poseur. I know he is right, because I was there throughout: Ellsberg and I were joined at the hip for at least the seventeen-month indictment period and throughout the Ellsberg-Russo Pentagon Papers trial, a trial that materialized in response to my civil disobedience of 1971. If anything, Wells's work is an understatement, because Ellsberg is beyond mythomania. The story of the Pentagon Papers affair has only been partially told, with crucial parts having been covered up. Wells pulls back the curtain by an important amount but certainly not all the way.
H. Bruce Franklin, in his review of Wells's book, makes a series of helpful small critical observations, but in the end he is wrong, terribly wrong, in dismissing the work as "an extended character assassination." In thus characterizing Wells's work Franklin himself is attempting to assassinate Wells's character. But let us dispense with that ugly word and get to the facts.
Franklin makes a statement very similar to one made by John Dean in his Salon review of Wells's book when he says, "Nixon and his accomplices failed...to destroy Ellsberg's 'public image.' Now, three decades on, Wells seems to be trying to finish their botched job." Franklin doesn't mention the fact that Nixon failed because he didn't get my testimony; I went to jail rather than testify against Ellsberg, who has betrayed me by denying the cross I bear.
Franklin should know that criticism often comes from both the right and left, and that the latter is different in form and substance from the former. In John Dean's attack on Wells, he goes to the left to defend Ellsberg. Dean attacks me, calling me embittered. But how can one be embittered when one has found the Holy Grail? Franklin's attack on Wells goes to the right. That they meet as bedfellows shouldn't be seen as strange, because they are both dealing with the Ellsberg myth. Many desperately need the Ellsberg myth in order to crowd out having to come to terms with the details of the abomination of desolation done by our country to Vietnam, not to mention their own guilt.
How ironic that a conscious guy like Franklin, who wrote an entire book about mythmaking in America, falls for the Ellsberg myth. But so have many others; Ellsberg is said by many to be an icon of the peace movement. Wells shows him to be a false icon. His motives are obvious and of great interest. Faced with a false icon and committed to peace and progressive policy and ideas, Wells sees the absolute necessity of going beyond the press version of the Pentagon Papers affair and cleaning up the record. With false icons the movement for peace and progress is greatly hampered. Franklin, however, says Wells's motives are less obvious than Nixon's and are of no particular interest: "We might speculate that for some reason Wells simply has a visceral distaste" for Ellsberg. Hello!? Bruce!? Wake up!
Wells has an admirable desire to see the peace movement with worthy icons and not false poseurs who will cave during crises, as Ellsberg did numerous times, from the publication of the papers to the trial to the third Indochina war. So many, Franklin included, get it wrong because they fail to break through the Ellsberg myth. The myth has Dan turning the documents over to Neil Sheehan. The truth, however, is that Ellsberg wanted to retain control, and when he saw that Sheehan and the New York Times had gone to publication, he tried frantically to stop them. Too late. The papers hit the street on St. Anthony's Day--June 13, 1971. Sheehan had ruined Ellsberg's plans to get the papers safely on the record, and then be called to be a star witness in Congressional hearings.
At our trial Ellsberg said we had accomplished our goal by getting the papers out and that all we had to do was get off on a technicality, if we could. I disagreed; the war was still churning cruelly. We had to go on the offensive in the courtroom, taking risks commensurate with the need to oppose the scale of human savagery continuing in Indochina daily.
Over the years the Associated Press has done periodic puff pieces on Ellsberg, usually failing to mention me at all, even though my civil disobedience shaped the case and won the trial because of my strategy and tactics. Whenever a study of the Pentagon Papers affair leaves me out, it can only cover much less than half the story and therefore fails almost totally in accuracy. In the few works to date, the authors have done poor research; the same cannot be said of Wells. Although his work is not at all the final say on the case or on Ellsberg, it does break new ground. The story deserves to be told; the Ellsberg-Russo Pentagon Papers trial exposed the crimes that resulted in the demise of Nixon. The key to telling the story appropriately comes from Howard Zinn's philosophy of history: It has to be told from the bottom up; it has to start with the Vietnamese people and the People's Army of Vietnam (called the Viet Cong and the NVA by the Westmoreland mentality, subscribed to by the press). The best vehicle for that is the top strategic intelligence project of the war: the RAND corporation's "Viet Cong Motivation and Morale Project." Reams and reams of the RAND interviews are available and have been looked at by the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, in Boston. It will be done one day when we realize the absolute necessity of producing an accurate and detailed history of the Vietnam War.
In the meantime Wells's book must be read.
ANTHONY JOSEPH (TONY) RUSSO
Your excellent review failed to give credit to the courageous publisher of the papers in book form. Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association, printed the complete Pentagon Papers in paperback, thereby incurring the wrath of the Nixon Administration. The liberal church group had to cope with an FBI fishing expedition to obtain its financial records. The federal incursion was beaten off, but at considerable cost. The incident is detailed in Warren Ross's The Premise and the Promise.
THE REV. CHARLES W. GRADY
Tom Wells says his only motive in Wild Man was "to get it right," but he never does tell us what "it" is. I had assumed that "it" was expressed by the subtitle: "The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg." As I said in opening my review: "What a marvelous subject! Does any other person's life express more intensely the contradictions of American experience during the past fifty years?" But Wells never seems to get it, much less get it right. By ignoring the history of these times, Wells misses the significance of Ellsberg's life, including its profound meaning today. But how could Wells comprehend a subject as vast and vexatious as the life and times of Daniel Ellsberg, when he seems incapable of comprehending even my review, each point of which he either misses or misrepresents? Nowhere did I suggest that the book should be an uncritical hagiography; what I found missing was a biography of that ardent cold warrior so transformed by living inside the US war machine during the Vietnam War that he performed an antiwar act of still-transcendent importance and then dedicated the next thirty years of his life to peace activism. Wells asks again and again, Why did he do it? A good question, especially in the twenty-first century. But Wells ignores the obvious and crucial answers, turning instead to ahistorical psychobabble and decades-old memories of Ellsberg's associates, many with powerful motives to discredit him to legitimize their own behavior.
Tony Russo gets it exactly right when he says that the key to telling the story is the Vietnamese people. It was indeed their heroic struggle that changed so many of our lives, even transforming a couple of RAND cold warriors like Daniel Ellsberg and Tony Russo into heroes. But Tony, you need to recognize that you and Ellsberg are still, to use your words, "joined at the hip." Suppose we also asked about you, Why did he do it? The answer would be much the same, as it would be for millions of other Americans who, inspired by the Vietnamese, committed antiwar actions that, though mostly far less effective and courageous than Ellsberg's and yours, were also brave and historic.
H. BRUCE FRANKLIN
VIET VETS--HOME TO ROOST
Corte Madera, Calif.
My book Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement took thirteen years to write and involved more than 600 interviews. It earned receptions in Washington from the National Office of Vietnam Veterans of America and from Senator John Kerry, and speaking invitations from the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech, from Vietnam Veterans of California and from the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, in Boston. Clearly these people must know something that Michael Uhl doesn't, judging from his scathing review ["That's Vietnam, Jake," July 9].
Somehow Uhl manages to miss the fact that in a whole range of seminal veteran events--from the Winter Soldier Investigation and Dewey Canyon III to the shaping of a post-traumatic stress definition to the fizzling of the Agent Orange lawsuit to the Gainesville conspiracy trial to the Cranston office hunger strike to the Wadsworth Hospital strike to the crippling of the Vet Center program--I am the first writer to bother interviewing a whole range of participants to flesh out the historical account of these very important occurrences. Aside from saying that I correctly locate the genesis of the campaign to legitimize PTSD within the antiwar movement, Uhl has virtually nothing good to say about the book. He even misses the point of the PTSD chapter, which is that it is the first time the whole history of the creation of that definition was assembled from fresh interviews with dozens of the original participants--something no one had ever thought to do, and which now, because several key participants are gone, can no longer be done.
In trying to synthesize the accounts of hundreds of witnesses, there are going to be contradictions and even outright mistakes. But Uhl deliberately misleads the reader time and again to make it appear that Home to War is rife with error. Uhl blasts me for my supposedly incorrect association of the Concerned Officers Movement (COM) with the Dellums committee hearings in April 1971, on US military atrocities in Vietnam--hearings organized in part by Uhl and his partner Tod Ensign. "COM played no role, nor did any active duty officer appear before the panel," asserts Uhl.
Uhl incorrectly claims that COM was composed only "of antiwar officers still on active duty." In fact, the March 1971 COM newsletter, Common Sense, explains that many of its 600 members were no longer on active duty, since the military quickly released or demanded resignations from officers as soon as their membership in COM was discovered. Many officers did participate in the Dellums committee hearings, as revealed in the published testimony. My sources for the connection between COM and the hearings were my interviews with two key national organizers of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), Jack Smith and Skip Roberts. But here's the kicker: That issue of Common Sense reveals that Uhl's group, the Citizens' Commission of Inquiry (CCI), had been meeting for months with COM to gather atrocities testimony. The newsletter also mentions that COM members "are pointing with high hopes toward the April 24 rallies in Washington." Strange of Uhl not to mention such things.
Uhl also claims that I'm way off in asserting that VVAW was leery of associating itself with the Dellums committee hearings--a statement made on tape by Jack Smith. Uhl claims he knows this assertion is false because he "spoke with frequently and knew quite well" most of the leadership of VVAW. In fact, during more than 100 hours of taped interviews with almost every major leader of VVAW, I never heard one of them mention Michael Uhl. The only one who mentioned him was his partner, Tod Ensign, who says, on tape, "Michael, because of his work with us, never really became part of VVAW."
Uhl attacks me for failing to consult another important book on VVAW, Andrew Hunt's The Turning, as well as Big Book: Nobody Gets Off the Bus. In fact, Hunt, who began his book when I was well on the way to finishing Home to War, came to me for help, which I gave by phone and correspondence. And far from ignoring Big Book, I am a contributor to it. Perhaps the most egregious misrepresentation, an outright lie, is Uhl's claim that I have overlooked the true progenitors of CCI and its war crimes hearings: Bertrand Russell and his assistant Ralph Schoenman. I devote two pages to Russell and Schoenman and their connection to CCI, and I cite Schoenman's book Against the Crime of Silence in my footnotes.
I don't have space to list all of Uhl's inaccuracies, like placing Dewey Canyon III in 1970 (instead of 1971), making Bob Kerrey sound like a leader of VVAW (he wasn't even a member), claiming John Kerry was charged with murdering a prisoner (a totally discredited campaign slur), claiming US atrocities in Vietnam were "almost always" against civilians (at least half I've read and heard of were against military prisoners and Viet Cong suspects) and putting twenty years between the Gainesville trial and the filing of the Agent Orange lawsuit (actually it was six years).
Worse are the numerous ad hominem attacks against me in the piece--claims that I am "spooked by things progressive," that I am filled with "underexamined anxieties," that I am "overfascinated" with veterans and so forth. Such remarks betray Uhl's true bias and the fact that his review is really an agenda-driven act of vengeance and spite. "There's been bad blood between many in VVAW and the original group that created Citizen Soldier [the later incarnation of CCI] since the beginning," wrote Jan Barry, the founder of VVAW. Uhl's real beef is that I chose to focus on VVAW rather than CCI, the work of John Kerry and Ron Kovic rather than the work of Tod Ensign and Mike Uhl.
Uhl has a right to attack my choices as a writer but not to misrepresent for his own ends the content, sources and overall care with which I put the book together.
It's nice to know Gerald Nicosia has received support for his book within the very community with the greatest stake in advancing the--however deserved--entitlement agenda of veterans and the warrior mystique of their culture. Mazel tov! On his boast of being "the first writer...to flesh out the historical account" of PTSD as a disability of war, I praised the chapter, as he acknowledges. But many writers--Andrew Hunt, Judith Herman and Christian Appy, among others--have given credible accounts in trade publishing of this disability's emergent legitimization long before Home to War appeared.
Take two on Nicosia's sketch of the Concerned Officers Movement (COM) is even more garbled than the original. CCI did meet frequently with COM activists beginning in late 1970; we were organizing events on behalf of the fledgling group. At one press conference, five COM members--all on active duty, incidentally--formally requested that their Pentagon superiors convene "courts of inquiry" into the widespread allegations of US atrocities. COM based its requests on "testimony" from a CCI-sponsored event that predated the Dellums hearings by almost five months. The facts on this combined CCI/COM action are all there, in Neil Sheehan's New York Times article (January 13, 1971). And, yes, when some members left the service, they remained affiliated with COM, and often with VVAW and CCI as well. But it was as an organization of active-duty officers that COM exercised its unique historical and moral powers. Many former officers did participate in the Dellums hearings; I was one of them. None of us were on active duty, and, I repeat, COM itself played no role whatsoever in the hearings. In what strikes me as the symbolic equivalent of shooting himself in the foot, Nicosia actually brags that his two principal sources for information about COM and the hearings had no connection to either.
Nicosia tallies one point on my alleged "inaccuracies," misdating Dewey Canyon III; mea culpa. It was 1971, and I was there. As for "making Bob Kerrey sound like a leader of VVAW"--where is that exactly? And "claiming John Kerry was charged with murdering a prisoner"? I made no such claim. Both Kerrey and Kerry were busted by men who served under them in Vietnam, who reportedly remained their close friends even while revealing all to members of the Fourth Estate. The John Kerry story appeared initially in the senator's hometown paper, the Boston Globe (October 27, 1996). Far from being "charged"--or even investigated--the allegation against Kerry seems to have evaporated. That's fine with me. My review makes quite clear who I believe bears responsibility for US war crimes policies in Vietnam. But can anyone doubt that this smoking gun will reappear should Kerry eventually decide to contest for the presidency? That other "inaccuracy"--my failing to distinguish between Vietnamese civilians and VC suspects or military prisoners--has Nicosia done any homework on the Vietnam War?
Nicosia claims to have helped Andrew Hunt, who wrote The Turning, and refers to phone calls and correspondence with the author. Strange that Hunt, who provides a long list of acknowledgments, does not mention Nicosia. Maybe I missed another footnote. And to accuse me of an "outright lie" in claiming that he "overlooked the true progenitors of CCI" and so forth borders on hysteria. I merely stated that Nicosia's version of the founding of CCI was "even more convoluted than his account of the Dellums hearings."
None of Nicosia's 600 interviewees (211 cited, by my count) ever mentioned my name. Oh my! I should scorn this cheap shot, although I will immodestly suggest that such anonymity reads well on any organizer's résumé. But, for the record, if Nicosia were to call the VVAW principals he interviewed, he would be surprised at how many of them knew or remember me quite well. I never claimed to have been active in VVAW. CCI's offices were on the tenth floor of New York's "movement building," 156 Fifth Avenue; VVAW was three floors below, and for almost a year the two groups worked in coalition. So, Gerald, call especially VVAW co-founder Jan Barry, whose name you invoke to opine--quite correctly--that "bad blood" existed between my group, CCI, and some VVAW leaders after the Winter Soldier split in early November 1970. Such sectarian clashes, alas, were not our movement's finest hours.
And speaking of Barry, here's a wee item that may convince Nicosia to haul his own unconscious up on charges of self-betrayal. He writes that my review makes it appear that "Home to War is rife with error." Surely he must know that "rife with error" is virtually the same phrase Barry assembles to sum up Home to War in his review, "A Troubling Tribute," for The Nonviolent Activist (July/August 2001). In the piece, Barry goes on to score Nicosia's work as "marred...by a lack of fact checking." Sound familiar? (To still the doubters, Barry and I have had no contact for several years, nor had I known of his review until after mine was published, whereas the thirteen years Nicosia worked on his book seems a sufficient span for checking a few facts.) Well, it gets worse. To my charge of Nicosia's being "overfascinated" with veterans in some voyeuristic fashion, Barry adds, "what fascinated Nicosia were the battles angry vets fought.... he dwells on disputes among the participants." But Barry really seems disturbed that Nicosia's "focus on dramatic moments in the lives of some extraordinary, outspoken activists obscures the lasting legacy of VVAW." Now that's the kind of friendly fire that can really wound the reputation of a book claiming to be "A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement."
There are two problems with that subtitle. Home to War is not a history but a pastiche of recollections and anecdotes culled for the most part from Nicosia's many interviews. At best it aspires to the realm of oral history--would that it were!--a branch of historical discourse I in no way undervalue. Second, the accumulated experiences of Vietnam veterans, during our thirty-plus years of postwar readjustment and still counting, do not constitute a "movement." There was a movement, an antiwar movement, in which many vets were briefly active; the rest is Vet Cult, as I have attempted to show.
Nicosia accuses me of a writing a "scathing" "ad hominem" "attack." My review is hardly favorable, but there's nothing personal about it. Except for the eyewitness digressions to tidy up the record, it's almost scrupulously academic. It was quite by accident that Home to War provided an occasion for suggesting a range of contexts in the evolution of US social policy and the culture and readjustment of US veterans of war in which the Vietnam veteran experience, spread over three decades, might be examined. "That saga," to quote the final line of Jan Barry's review, "has yet to be fully told."
But as we linger near the subject of personal attacks, I am informed on good authority that Nicosia, upon reading my review, expressed an explosive urge to "blow up" my house. Now that's, at least potentially, "scathing," and certainly personal.