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.
It is difficult to capture the magnitude of Ellsberg’s transformation. At one end of the spectrum he was a Marine, a high-level assistant in the Pentagon, a government official working in Vietnam, the consummate insider preparing a national security memorandum for Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s newly appointed National Security Adviser. At the other end of the spectrum, Ellsberg concluded that America’s warmaking in Vietnam was a “crime” and an “evil,” and that he was willing to go to prison to help stop it. Between these extremes, Ellsberg had to pass through several frames of mind. He first had to question the war policy, and then he had to lose confidence in it; he had to decide to oppose the war and try to change policy while being an insider; he had to reach the point where he believed that his efforts were fruitless and that he might have to leave the government to work against the war; finally, he had to convince himself that he was willing to risk imprisonment by photocopying the Pentagon Papers, giving them to Senator William Fulbright and making them available to the New York Times and others.
Ellsberg’s own explanation of his transformation is gripping. He came to understand the failure of America’s policy not just in strategic terms but in moral ones, and he became deeply moved by the violence, horror and immorality of the war. He mapped out in his own mind the disconnection between what the Administration said of its intentions and its projections for the future, and what top officials told themselves in strict confidence. He was agitated by the profound difficulties in influencing government policy and conduct. He was singularly affected by the young men who accepted prison as a consequence of their refusal to submit to the draft.
Yet, for all of the admirable strengths of Ellsberg’s memoir, some limitations should be noted. His perceptions, especially his understandings of his relations with others, are at least open to question, and the warning signs that this may be true come from Ellsberg himself. Consider the following example: In 1969, shortly after Nixon was elected President, Henry Kissinger asked Harry Rowen, president of the RAND Corporation, to prepare a study of Vietnam “options.” Rowen proposed that Ellsberg head the project and Kissinger approved, but Kissinger noted that he had one worry about Ellsberg, and that was his “discretion.” Ellsberg writes that he was “astonished” when he learned this. “No one had ever raised such a question before, over the last decade. My whole career was based on a well-founded trust in my discretion.”
What is odd about Ellsberg’s astonishment is that his own memoirs belie it. In 1964, while Ellsberg was a special assistant to John McNaughton, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security, he told an official in the State Department of a highly restricted cable. Within hours, an agitated McNaughton saw Ellsberg and asked: “Did you have anything to do with telling Mike Forrestal about the new series from the embassy?” Ellsberg answered: “Certainly. He didn’t seem to know about it, and it was obvious he needed to see these.” Ellsberg then writes: “John looked at me for a long time and said, ‘I don’t know if I can keep you in this job. I’ve been told to fire you. I’m in real trouble on this.’… Finally John said, ‘Well, you’re new on the job. My father used to say, “Every dog gets one bite.” You’ve had yours. Really, Dan, watch out after this.'” The next year, while still an assistant to McNaughton, Ellsberg opened a binder marked “Vietnam, McNaughton Eyes Only” even though McNaughton had specifically told Ellsberg not to. As Ellsberg recalls, the temptation was “too much.” The result was that McNaughton had Ellsberg immediately transferred to another office.
Ellsberg’s memoir also leaves two complicated ethical questions largely unexplored. He reaches the conclusion that “telling the truth, revealing wrongly kept secrets, can have a surprisingly strong, unforeseeable power to help end a wrong and save lives.” But in so doing, Ellsberg does not maintain that the government is not entitled to maintain secrets altogether, nor does he argue that government officials have a legal right or moral duty to disclose any and all secrets. Instead, Ellsberg is focused on the revelation of “wrongly kept secrets” that he believes may end a wrong or save a life. But what is a “wrongly kept secret”? Although Ellsberg obviously believes that the information contained in the Pentagon Papers study constituted a wrongly kept secret, he makes no effort to sketch out a broader and more general position that might begin to embody an ethical or philosophical approach to thinking about this knotty set of issues.
With regard to a more personal set of ethical concerns, Ellsberg reflects little on the consequences of his actions for those within the government who trusted him and who ultimately made it possible for him to gain access to the Pentagon study. For example, the trust that Harry Rowen, Morton Halperin and Leslie Gelb placed in Ellsberg made it possible for him to do what he did. Rowen, as president of RAND, pressed Ellsberg’s request for access to the Pentagon Papers study, and Halperin and Gelb ultimately gave him access to a copy they controlled. As a result, Ellsberg’s disclosure of the study put the judgment of these men into question. And yet, Ellsberg reflects little on the ethical dilemma he encountered when he betrayed the trust of his colleagues for what he considered an overwhelming and demanding greater good.
In the end, Ellsberg’s experience reflects a democratic lesson. After fruitlessly trying all other routes to bring about a change in policy that he thought common sense, international law and morality required, Ellsberg was left with only one open avenue: an appeal to the people through the press. It was in many ways a peculiar posture for Ellsberg, in that his entire career had been premised on entrusting important foreign policy and national security questions to a small elite–individuals with security clearances whose names were themselves classified–within the government who had generally demonstrated scant regard for the democratic process. But there he was, in the spring of 1971, turning to a New York Times reporter, Neil Sheehan, and asking him to help make the secret Pentagon study public in the hope that its release would influence public opinion and shorten, if not end, the fighting.
For the people to fulfill their promise in a democratic order, they must be profoundly interested in public affairs and they must be adequately informed. Ellsberg made a notable contribution to American democracy when he put his liberty at risk to inform the public about vital matters in the hope that they in turn would restrain the executive and end the war. It was a brave act, and his memoir is a compelling contribution to the literature that brings to life the human sacrifices required by every generation if it wishes to make the democratic process responsive and meaningful.