“The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg.” What a marvelous subject! Does any other person’s life express more intensely the contradictions of American experience during the past fifty years?
Daniel Ellsberg. That young man with boundless promise who graduated third in his Harvard class of 1,147 in 1952, when America too seemed boundlessly promising. Ardent patriot and anticommunist, Ellsberg marched off in 1954 to become a model officer in the Marines. He next became a superstar theoretician of cold war tactics and strategy for the Pentagon, attaining the ultimate civil service grade of GS-18, equivalent to a major general, by age 33. Not content with planning wars for others to fight and defending the Vietnam War on college campuses, Ellsberg volunteered in 1965 to go to Vietnam, where he served almost two years on the team of Gen. Edward Lansdale, who had initiated US covert warfare there in 1954. In Vietnam, Ellsberg displayed such personal bravery in combat that some, like his present biographer, claim he must have been suicidal.
Daniel Ellsberg. The man who in 1971 revealed to the world the secret government that ruled by conspiracy and who thus lit the fuse that exploded the Nixon presidency. Pacifist and apostle of New Age lifestyle. Impassioned activist during seven national administrations, with dozens of arrests for civil disobedience against nuclearism and the American warfare state.
Daniel Ellsberg became 70 years old on April 7. As a birthday surprise, his son Michael unveiled a website containing celebration messages from hundreds of well-wishers. Many told how Ellsberg had inspired them, touching and transforming their lives. Almost all spoke of his “integrity,” “courage” or “passion,” and many used the word “hero,” in phrases like “a true American hero” and “THE hero of the 20th century.” Benedictine sister Joan Chittister wrote:
You don’t know me. You never will. But you have had a great deal to do with the shape of my life. I like to think that I have always believed in justice, honesty, and integrity the way you do. But it was you who showed me what it looked like, up close and dangerous.
When you released the Pentagon Papers, that very action ripped away the last bit of pseudo patriotism clouding my mind that made it impossible for me to recognize real patriotism, real faith, real integrity. I saw in you what it meant to live beyond self-interest. It was a turning point in my life that I’m still learning to honor.
Thank you for that act of genuine humanity. It raised the humanity of us all. Your life has been a gift to my own.
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Is there anything more that any of us would wish to have said about us? Eloquent tributes came from Richard Falk, Noam Chomsky, John Dean, Jeffrey Masson, Randy Kehler, Barbara Dane, Max Frankel, Howard Zinn, Gar Alperovitz, Michael Lerner, Paul Krassner, Peter Dale Scott, David McReynolds, Senator Mike Gravel, Tom Schelling, Donna Haraway, many Vietnam veterans including Horace Coleman and Ron Kovic (author of Born on the Fourth of July), and Ellsberg’s commanding officer in the Marines, who called him “the best platoon leader I had.” Other veterans told of powerful emotional experiences reading the Pentagon Papers in Vietnam. Bruce Gagnon (now a key figure in the movement to prevent the militarization of space) described how Ellsberg’s action converted him–a “Young Republican for Nixon,” son of a military family and a 1971 Air Force enlistee–into a peace activist.
Besides all the messages centered on Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers, many paid tribute to his selfless activism for peace and justice in the subsequent three decades. Some said how proud they were to be arrested with him at demonstrations or to spend many frigid nights with him sitting in on the railroad tracks at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.
Thirty years ago now exactly, when Ellsberg shook the nation by releasing copies of the 7,000-page top-secret Pentagon history of the Vietnam War, millions of Americans, Vietnamese and other people around the world responded with the same emotions. But of course many others reacted with fury, labeling him a traitor, a betrayer, a freak, a madman.
Nowhere did the fury rage hotter than in the Nixon White House. Although Richard Nixon himself at first did not seem especially alarmed on learning that the New York Times had begun publishing excerpts from a history ordered by former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, he was quickly thrown into a desk-pounding frenzy by Henry Kissinger, whose own wild tirade characterized Ellsberg as a fanatical drug-crazed sexual pervert, “the most dangerous man in America,” who “must be stopped at all costs.” After moving on the legal front, first in failed attempts to block the Times and other newspapers from continuing to print excerpts from the Pentagon Papers and then initiating criminal proceedings against Ellsberg and his confederate Tony Russo, Nixon and his gang began to explore other ways to “neutralize” Ellsberg. Perhaps thinking it somewhat impractical to implement Kissinger’s exhortations to “kill” Ellsberg, Nixon decided that the most effective way to “destroy” him would be to ruin his public image with “nasty stories” and “dirt” that could be smeared on his motivation. So he recruited the FBI, the CIA and a ruthless gang of thugs to construct Ellsberg’s “psychological profile” and investigate his motivations.
Ellsberg’s psychological profile and “motivations for releasing the Pentagon Papers” are also, in author Tom Wells’s words, “central to this book.” Wells opens with a scathing depiction of the White House Special Investigations Unit, who called themselves the Plumbers (their job was to stop leaks)–ex-CIA operative E. Howard Hunt, ex-FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy, former Batista-regime secret policeman Bernard Barker and other Cuban-exile gangsters–as they carry out their infamous burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. Ellsberg is then introduced, through the perspective of the conspirators, as “the traitor.”
Then comes a long, strange paragraph that characterizes “the traitor” and spells out his motives. Starting off as the conspirators’ grotesque view of Ellsberg, the paragraph imperceptibly segues into and merges with Wells’s view. Was this, I wondered, just a rhetorical blunder? The answer comes in the following 600-plus pages, which, despite well-researched and sometimes powerful accounts of Ellsberg’s achievements, constitute what amounts to an extended character assassination.
In 1971 Richard Nixon and his accomplices failed in their attempts to destroy Ellsberg’s “public image,” and their bizarre machinations led ultimately to the downfall of the President and prison for some of his gang. Now, three decades on, Wells seems to be trying to finish their botched job. It’s easy to understand the motives of Nixon and his henchmen. Wells’s motives are less obvious and of no particular interest. If we accept his avowal that he approves of Ellsberg’s act, we might speculate that for some reason Wells simply has a visceral distaste for the man who carried it out.
The Wild Man of the title is a disorganized and undisciplined “egomaniac” and “narcissist” with a voracious sexual appetite, overweening ambition and an overpowering craving for adulation and public attention. He is incapable of completing work or maintaining personal loyalties. Wells never misses an opportunity to disparage Ellsberg’s character. He even unearths evidence that he didn’t bring any means of paying when he invited one couple out to dinner and that another couple living below his apartment called him a noisy neighbor. Finally, Wells skims over Ellsberg’s last three decades as an activist, suggesting that this role was forced upon him because he couldn’t hold down a job and is constitutionally incapable of completing books.
This last issue is central to Wells’s account of his main question, Ellsberg’s motives in leaking the Pentagon Papers. Although while working at the RAND Corporation, the Air Force’s favorite think tank, Ellsberg in 1959 had been appalled to discover the Dr. Strangelove scenarios that defined US nuclear policy, he remained a committed and esteemed cold war theorist. In 1967, after returning from Vietnam, he was one of the first analysts recruited by the Pentagon to research its own history of US involvement there from 1945 on. Armed with security clearances so high that their very existence was buried in secrecy, Ellsberg burrowed deep into Pentagon archives. What he found helped initiate a metamorphosis in his view of the war. As a principal contributor to this Pentagon history, Ellsberg, once again at RAND, was later commissioned to write his own study of the war. RAND possessed two copies of the Pentagon Papers, logged in so covertly they bypassed the corporation’s own document control system. Ellsberg was given permission to have one of these sets in his own office safe and thus became evidently the first person to read the entire report.
Like millions of other Americans stunned by the strength of the Tet Offensive in early 1968, Ellsberg had come to the conclusion that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and therefore ipso facto immoral. In the fall of 1969, he took the fateful step that was to prove the defining act of his life and a crucial event in the life of the nation. Aided by Russo, a former RAND analyst and committed radical, Ellsberg spent months making and secreting multiple photocopies of the Pentagon Papers, followed by more than a year of efforts to get them to the American people.
Why? Although Wells gives obligatory nods to Ellsberg’s moral anguish about the genocide being perpetrated in Vietnam and the sordid history revealed in the Pentagon Papers as well as his increasing personal contacts with the antiwar movement, his main explanation comes in hundreds of pages of pop-psych deconstruction of Ellsberg’s character. A central thesis, which he buttresses by printing reports from the CIA psychiatrists and to which he returns again and again, is that Ellsberg “couldn’t finish his own Vietnam study” because of his “narcissistic” and “undisciplined” personality, and therefore his “egomania” prompted him to release the Pentagon Papers to attain the fame and adulation he craved. “Copying the Papers,” Wells argues, would “afford Ellsberg a way out of his study.”
What Wells reveals here is his own failure to understand what the Pentagon Papers were (which he never adequately explains) and their effects (which he continually belittles). Indeed, nowhere is there evidence that Wells has actually read extensively in the Pentagon Papers, which he refers to as merely a “study.” Only 3,000 of the 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers consisted of history and analysis. Unlike Wells, Ellsberg knew that no study, neither his own nor even those 3,000 pages, could possibly have an impact comparable to the explosive package he released to the world. True, those 3,000 pages revealed that the government itself knew that its public version of the Vietnam War and its history was a concoction of outrageous lies, but many other published studies had already made the same revelations. The real bomb that not only blew open the true history of the war but exposed to full view the hideous nature of every post-World War II US government was the other 4,000 pages: the classified documents reproduced as sources for the study.
Wells acts as though the only measure of the Pentagon Papers’ effects is whether they shortened the Vietnam War, and he makes it seem as though they didn’t. “Only a modest 51 percent of Americans were even aware of the Papers’ publication,” he argues. Modest? Isn’t that a majority? Has the majority of Americans ever been aware of the publication of any other papers or book in the twentieth century? The paperback edition of the excerpts published by the Times sold 1.5 million copies, “though,” Wells argues, “few people actually read it.” But the impact, especially of the documents, was astonishing.
Nobody has described this more potently than W.D. Ehrhart, the wounded Marine who has since become one of the great poets and writers of nonfiction produced by the war, in a whole chapter of his memoir Passing Time devoted to his reading of the Pentagon Papers: “Page after page after endless page of it. Vile. Immoral. Despicable. Obscene…. I’d been a fool, ignorant and naive. A sucker. For such men, I had become a murderer. For such men, I had forfeited my honor, my self-respect, and my humanity. For such men, I had been willing to lay down my life.”
Like Ehrhart and unlike Wells, millions recognize that the Pentagon Papers remain relevant today because they allow us to see what we were never meant to see, because they offer a priceless chance to eavesdrop on how our leaders talk when they think we will never be able to hear.
Take a single example. Many of us knew, before the Pentagon Papers proved, that President Kennedy was lying when he disclaimed any responsibility for the conspiracy to overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem, the man he and his father had helped choose to be Washington’s puppet ruler of the fictitious state of “South Vietnam.” But what we could only infer was the ideology underlying the conspiracy, as expressed by Henry Cabot Lodge, our ambassador to Diem, in a top-secret cablegram to Washington included in the Pentagon Papers:
We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: the overthrow of the Diem government…. there is no turning back because there is no possibility, in my view, that the war can be won under a Diem administration, still less that Diem or any member of the family can govern the country in a way to gain the support of the people who count, i.e., the educated class in and out of government service, civil and military–not to mention the American people.
If one of Ellsberg’s main goals in copying the Pentagon Papers was fame and adulation–as the CIA’s psychiatrists, the Plumbers and Wells would have it–then how can one explain what he did next? Although Russo, who had fewer illusions about politicians, was urging him to make immediate and dramatic disclosure, Ellsberg instead spent months pleading with antiwar senators and representatives–such as J. William Fulbright, George McGovern and Paul (Pete) McCloskey–to release the papers, only to be brushed off. Fulbright’s main aide dismissed the papers as “dull and boring,” and McGovern told him to go to the Times.
Which is what he finally did. With intricate intrigue, Ellsberg provided a full set to Neil Sheehan, who in turn orchestrated a byzantine operation within the Times, which published the first excerpts on June 13, 1971. At this point, as Ellsberg enters what Wells calls his “battle mode,” Wild Man becomes truly exciting and hints of the book it might have been.
On June 15, the government got a temporary injunction that stopped the Times. Now Ellsberg’s genius for tactics came into play, as he began to deploy the multiple copies he had stashed in secret locations. On June 17 he and his wife, Pat, went underground. While eluding a major nationwide FBI manhunt, they kept outmaneuvering the White House. On June 18 the Washington Post began publishing excerpts from a copy Ellsberg had smuggled to them. As soon as the Post was enjoined, excerpts began appearing in the Boston Globe. And then the Chicago Sun-Times. Next the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. As soon as one paper was enjoined, another would start publishing until seventeen newspapers got into the action. The White House’s attempts at damage control were no match for Ellsberg’s cloak-and-dagger operations. While ABC and NBC were broadcasting news about the nationwide dragnet for Ellsberg, Walter Cronkite was interviewing him on CBS in a seedy clandestine apartment. Ellsberg’s most decisive stratagem was smuggling a copy to Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, who promptly got it into the Congressional Record, thus making it forever an open public document.
On June 28 Ellsberg surrendered to face criminal charges under the Espionage Act. On June 30 the Supreme Court overturned all the injunctions against publishing. After many months of legal maneuvers–and illegal government maneuvers–the trial of Ellsberg and Russo finally opened in January 1973, the same month the United States officially ended its war in Vietnam (a fact that escapes Wells’s notice). By that time, the Plumbers had burglarized the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, tried to attack Ellsberg physically at a demonstration, developed plans to firebomb the Brookings Institution (because Nixon thought Ellsberg had hidden documents in its vault) and burglarized the Democratic Party’s national office in the Watergate Hotel during the 1972 election campaign. During the trial, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, John Ehrlichman, twice tried to bribe the presiding judge with the possibility of being chosen to head the FBI. These facts were brought into the trial, which was now taking place during the Watergate hearings. Finally, when evidence of previously undisclosed White House wiretaps of Ellsberg was introduced, the judge was forced to dismiss all charges. As David Rudenstine pointed out in his 1996 The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case (a more informative and helpful book), the Plumbers’ machinations against Ellsberg “helped form the basis for two of the three impeachment articles adopted against President Nixon” the following year. So Nixon’s attempts to destroy Ellsberg led to his own destruction.
In telling the story of Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Wild Man breaks little new ground not already tilled by Rudenstine and Peter Schrag in his 1974 Test of Loyalty: Daniel Ellsberg and the Rituals of Secret Government. He also fails to contextualize Ellsberg’s life historically, almost forgetting the “Times” of his title. Without some sense of what it was like to grow to adult consciousness during the late 1940s and 1950s, one cannot understand either the utter normality of Ellsberg’s militant anticommunism and profound faith in American democracy or the effect of discovering the secret truth.
Nor does Wells probe that arcane realm of the government-contract think tanks, where civilians answerable to no elected official formulate policies and concoct plans that can shake the world. This think-tank sphere was the immediate matrix that both formed Ellsberg the cold-war theorist and inspired him to expose its dark secrets. Wells’s methodology is to interpolate into the story a pastiche of pieces of the 236 interviews he conducted, many with people who have strong motives to discredit Ellsberg, like his former associates at RAND who consider him, as Wells acknowledges, “a loathsome traitor.”
So the main value of Wild Man depends on the usefulness of Wells’s analysis of Ellsberg’s psychology and motivation. But this raises what may be the most important issue, one never articulated in Wild Man: How should we compare Ellsberg’s psychology and motivation with the psychology and motivation of all those who kept the secrets he revealed? When Ellsberg tries to explain to Wells in an interview the psychological power of possessing secrets, Wells interprets this as a damaging personal confession rather than an explanation of the cult of secrecy endemic to the secret government. Why did Kissinger call Ellsberg the most dangerous man in America? Because unlike himself and the other insiders of the secret government, Ellsberg was violating their most basic code.
Wells presents Ellsberg as an example of unhealthy psychology, implicitly suggesting that the Strangeloves at RAND happily grinding out their plans for the destruction of Vietnam, not to mention global thermonuclear war, are healthy. If Ellsberg had not released the Pentagon Papers and dedicated the rest of his life to peace and justice activism but instead had stayed inside the secret government, would Wells then consider him a normal person? Much of the book consists of the opinions of Ellsberg’s character, motives and psychology expressed by the war planners and war makers. If Ellsberg is a “wild man,” what are they?
And what were Ellsberg’s motives? They were not fundamentally different from those of other betrayers of the secret government, like Philip Agee in his Inside the Company and Ralph McGehee in his Deadly Deceits. Nor were they very different from those of the soldiers who fragged officers who ordered them out on search-and-destroy missions, the sailors who sabotaged every major aircraft carrier engaged in bombing Vietnam or the supersecret Air Force unit court-martialed for going on strike and refusing to provide in-flight intelligence to the B-52s during the Christmas bombing of Hanoi on the eve of the trial of Ellsberg and Russo.
The psychological issue as posed by Wild Man reminds me of the case of Lieut. Steven Gifford, a missile-launch officer in training, who was shocked to learn that he would be expected to carry out first-strike nuclear annihilation of cities. Told that firing missiles should be a “Pavlovian reaction” and that he “should salivate at the very thought of turning the missile ignition key,” Gifford said he might have to think about it first. Therefore the Air Force sent him to a psychiatrist and gave him a less than honorable discharge. His “only problem,” according to the psychiatrist’s testimony, “was an active conscience.”