Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers is Daniel Ellsberg’s story of his personal journey from being in the early 1960s a “dedicated cold warrior” who supported America’s ends in Vietnam to being in the early 1970s a hero of the antiwar movement who thought America was committing mass murder in an unjust war. It is a dramatic, fast-paced and powerful tale, tracing Ellsberg’s experience with America’s involvement in Vietnam. And its publication at this time is important, in that it tells the story–in addition to Ellsberg’s personal one–of a headstrong government, armed with a profoundly flawed conception of national security and international affairs, that initiated a tragic, aggressive war in the name of American ideals that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans (not to mention Vietnamese), created misery and horror for a people in a far-off land and sliced through the American polity with the sharpness of a razor’s edge, leaving wounds not yet fully healed.
The bulk of Ellsberg’s memoir, which contains no important surprises, chronicles his experience up to the fall of 1969, when he decided to photocopy a 7,000-page, top-secret Pentagon history of America’s involvement in Vietnam from the end of World War II until the end of the Johnson presidency. As a result, Ellsberg discusses only briefly the legal action commenced by the Nixon Administration against the New York Times and the Washington Post to stop those newspapers from publishing the secret report, and the criminal prosecution brought by the Nixon Administration against Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, who assisted Ellsberg in photocopying the Pentagon’s secret history.
Ellsberg made the Pentagon history available to the Times in 1971. The study, which eventually became known as the Pentagon Papers, had been authorized in 1967 by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and was completed during the last days of the Johnson Administration. The Times took three months to prepare its multi-part series, and when the study was published, it was considered by many to constitute the smoking-gun evidence proving that four successive presidential administrations–those of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson–had deceived the public about US ambitions and intentions with regard to Vietnam as well as the risks, dangers and prospects of achieving publicly stated goals.
If the Nixon Administration had not sued to stop the Times from further publication of its Pentagon Papers series, Ellsberg, as well as the secret history, might well have largely faded into the undifferentiated chorus line of American history. But once the Administration broke with tradition and sued the paper, asking for prior restraint on national security grounds; once Ellsberg managed to stay a step ahead of the fit-to-be-tied sheriff by making the Papers available to one newspaper after another across the nation; and once Ellsberg embarrassed the FBI sleuths by eluding their arrest squads for days (during those days he even thumbed his nose at them by appearing on the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite), he and the Pentagon Papers took center stage, grabbing national attention around the throat and not letting go for weeks. Ellsberg became an antiwar celebrity known for courage, daring, imagination and the cleverness to make the powerful American government look ineffectual. In the end, the government lost its suit to restrain the newspapers, and its criminal prosecution of Ellsberg and Russo was thrown out in 1973 because of government misconduct.
Although the Pentagon Papers episode dominated the news for more than two weeks, the release of the study did not lead to the consequences Ellsberg had hoped for. Thus, the disclosure did not revitalize the antiwar movement, and it did not persuade leading members of Congress to cut off funding for the war. (In other words, while the Pentagon Papers did strengthen public distrust of the government, it did not stir the general public into political action against the war.) Nonetheless, as Ellsberg describes, his actions did help set in motion events that contributed to the unraveling of the Nixon presidency and Nixon’s eventual resignation, which in turn helped set the stage for the final act of America’s war in Vietnam the following year.