After finding this book quite by accident while browsing through the wonderful Concord bookstore the other day, I was astounded to find how relevant and interesting a story author Daniel Ellsberg manages to conjure up after all this time regarding his legendary experience leading up to and including the leaking, release and publication of the infamous "Pentagon Papers' by the New York Times. As he explains early in the long yet fascinating monologue, he fully expected to be sentenced to a long prison sentence for having secreted a copy of the highly classified Department of Defense's official history of the American Government's policy and involvement in Vietnam. The report was a damning confirmation of the worst fears of the anti-war movement, and provided overwhelming evidence of the cynical, manipulative, and deceitful character of our government and its deceit to its own people regarding its involvement.
What surprised Ellsberg most in all of this swirling excitement and activity was his own growing celebrity, and while he spent years fearing the worst for his own admitted culpability in defying criminal statues by stealing and leaking official government secrets, eventually the charges against him were dropped based, among other things, on the revelations of the Nixon's plumber's unit's illegal break-in at Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. Ellsberg was an unlikely hero, a graduate of the Harvard University economics doctoral program, a former marine officer turned defense issue intellectual, a frequent visitor to Vietnam who was rankled by the distinct difference between what he was seeing and experiencing during his visits, on the one hand, and what the official American government position regarding what the situation was on the ground on the other.
Based on this growing dissatisfaction and the discovery of the so-called Pentagon papers, a treasure trove of more than 7,000 pages of carefully documented details about the U.S. Government's involvement in Vietnam and its motives, considerations, and actions, Ellsberg tried to enlist the support of a number of Senators and Congressmen in an effort to use the evidence in the Pentagon Papers to undercut the Government's position and thereby end the war itself. Failing to do so, he finally surrendered the documents to the New York Times, which agreed to publish them through a series of daily excerpts (and also later in an abridged best-selling paperback version). The Government tried to stop publication, but was denied the right to do so by the Supreme Court. Of course, with the publication came an increase in public opposition to the war and a recognition of the degree to which the Executive branch and the military had intentionally misled the public regarding the conduct of the war and the situation on the ground for the moiré than 500,000 troops then stationed in-country. Still, it took more than five more years before the American involvement in Vietnam ended.
This is a wonderful book to experience, and in reading it one comes to recognize the formidable skills Ellsberg brings to bear in terms of his amazing recall, eye for details, and ability to successfully juggle a variety of interacting considerations at the same time. This guy is smarter than the average teddy bear, and it is easy to see how difficult a task it would have been for the Department of Defense and the nitwits over in the White House to try to outmaneuver him. I was a bit surprised at some of the personal revelations in the book, and while it is obvious that Mr. Ellsberg has a healthy ego, he manages for the most part to keep it at bay in retelling a story that could have easily have devolved in a retelling of the David against Goliath epic, but which he keeps objective and factual enough to keep the story rolling along as a recounting of the gripping events that transpired more than thirty years ago and helped to turn the tide of public opinion toward the war in Vietnam. I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in 20th century American history. Enjoy!
This extraordinary work comes at the perfect time, as an Administration is seeking to create new forms of secret operations invisible to Congress and the public, in pursuit of its war on Iraq and-one speculates-other targets of ideological but not public priority. The book covers seven areas I categorize as Background, History, Information Strategy, Pathology of Secrecy, Ethics, War Crimes, and Administrative.
By way of background, the book establishes that the author was not a peacenik per se, as some might perceive him, but rather a warrior, both in terms of Cold War ideology and from actual experience as a USMC infantry company commander and an on-the-ground observer traveling across Viet-Nam by jeep instead of helicopter, generally in the company of the top U.S. ground expert in Viet-Nam, John Paul Vann. The book establishes-as George Allen has also told us in NONE SO BLIND, that intelligence did not fail in Viet-Nam, that Presidents do get good advice from good men, but that the position of President, combined with executive secrecy as an enabling condition, permits very irrational and ineffective policies, conceived in private without public debate, to go forward at taxpayer expense and without Congressional oversight. The author is timely in emphasizing that the "spell of unanimity" is very dangerous and provides a very false image to the public-the stifling of dissent and debate at all levels leads to bad policy.
The author does an effective job of bringing forward the lessons of history, not only from Truman and Eisenhower forward, but from the Japanese and French occupations of Indochina. We failed to learn from history, and even our own experts, such as Lansdale showing McNamara the rough equipment that the Vietnamese would defeat us with because of their "will to win," were sidelined.
As a public administration and public policy text this book offers real value as a primary source. The author provides valuable insights into how quickly "ground truth" can be established; on how the U.S. Government is not structured to learn; on how the best answers emerge when there is not a lead agency and multiple inputs are solicited simultaneously; and most importantly, on how private truths spoken in secrecy are not effective within any Administration. The author stresses that Americans must understand what Presidents are doing in their name, and not be accomplices to war crimes or other misdeeds. He does a brilliant job of demonstrating why we cannot let the Executive Branch dictate what we need to know.
Interwoven with the author's balanced discussion of how to get ground truth right is his searing and intimate discussion of the pathology of secrecy as an enabler for bad and sometimes criminal foreign policy, carried out without public debate or Congressional oversight. The author adds new insights, beyond those in Morton Halperin's superb primer on Bureaucracy and Foreign Policy, regarding the multiple levels of understanding created by multiple levels of classification; the falseness of many written records in an environment where truth may often only be spoken verbally, without witnesses; the fact that the Department of Defense created false records to conceal its illegal bombings in Laos and Cambodia, at the same time that the White House created false secret cables, used Acting Director of the FBI Patrick Gray to destroy evidence, and sought to bribe a judge with the offer of the FBI directorship. The author presents a compelling portrait of an Executive Branch-regardless of incumbent party-likely to make major foreign policy miscalculations because of the pathology of secret compartmentation, while also being able to conceal those miscalculations, and the cost to the public, because of Executive secrecy. He is especially strong on the weakness of secret information. As he lectured to Kissinger: "The danger is, you'll become like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours" [because of your blind faith in the value of your narrow and often incorrect secret information. P. 236]
On such a foundation, the author discusses the ethics of Presidential leadership. He is especially strong-and relevant today-in discussing how Presidential appointees regard loyalty to the President as a mandate for lying to Congress and the media and the public. The author excels at bringing forward how our corruption in permitting corruption is easily recognized and interpreted by indigenous personnel-just as how whom we support is quick evidence of how little we know about local politics.
From here the author segues into the ethics of collateral damage and the liability of the American people for war crimes and naked aggression against the Vietnamese because of our deliberate violation of the Geneva accords and our support for a corrupt series of dictatorships in South Viet-Nam. Much of what we did in Viet-Nam would appear to qualify for prosecution under the International Tribunal, and it may be that our bi-partisan history of war crimes in Viet-Nam is what keeps us from acknowledging the inherent wisdom of accepting the jurisdiction of the International Tribunal in future wars. Tellingly, at one point his wife reads the Pentagon Papers and her tearful reaction is: "this is the language of torturers."
Administratively we are reminded that the Pentagon Papers were 7,000 pages in total; that Neil Sheehan from The New York Times actually stole a set of the papers from Ellsberg before being given a set; that character assassination by the U.S. Government is a routine tactic in dealing with informed dissent; and that it is not illegal to leak classified information-only administrative sanctions apply, outside a narrow set of Congressionally-mandated exceptions.
This book is a "must read" for any American that thinks and votes.
on February 7, 2003
Like many others I was sucked into the Vietnam war against
my will. I paid for what I thought was LBJ's war with my
blood and sanity. What "SECRETS" does is to fill in the
blanks with the background of the political agendas of a
number of presidential administrations. "SECRETS" validates suspicions some of us have had for more than thirty years. "SECRETS" is the memoir of one person, Daniel
Ellsberg, who took a stand on the side of humanity and
morality in an effort to end the Vietnam war and topple
the corrupt and insatiable desire for ultimate power that
would have been Richard M. Nixon's had it not been for
the release of the Pentagon Papers.
"SECRETS" is a story of patriotism at its finest, where
one man risked everything in an effort to disclose the
truth about power and war conducted by the United States Government. Reading "SECRETS" exposes war for what it
really is, a manipulative tool of big business and
If more Americans would read this book they would become
aware enough to argue whether or not we should ever
engage in the brutality and ignorance of war again.
"SECRETS" should be required reading for anyone in
America who believes him/herself to be a patriot.
on January 8, 2005
"Ellsberg is the most dangerous man in the world and must be stopped at all costs," Henry Kissinger proclaimed in the Oval Office on March 2, 1971. President Richard Nixon was equally fearful of Daniel Ellsberg because the highly regarded government insider had copied 7,000 pages of Top Secret documents about U.S. involvement in Vietnam and released it to the New York Times for publication.
Ellsberg, a former U.S. Marine infantry officer, Vietnam expert and dedicated cold-war warrior witnessed how the war was eating our young and decided to expose dark White House policy. On that note, "Secrets; A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers," is a startling exposure of how the White House often conducted destructive policy behind closed doors and lied to Congress and the American public about it. The author aptly summed up the situation he found when he finished researching years of Top Secret historical reports on Vietnam..."you don't have to be an ichthyologist to know when a fish stinks."
Ellsberg discloses (among many other things) that in March of 1969 William Beecher of the New York Times reported the Top Secret bombing of Cambodia. Beecher's story had been particularly embarrassing to Nixon and Kissinger because it revealed details on the operation that the White House had meant to keep from Secretary of Defense Mel Laird and Secretary of State William Rogers. Ellsberg also demonstrates how Nixon and Kissinger orchestrated a strong government denial that forced the quiet death of Beecher's New York Times report.
The author concludes that, "it appeared that only if power were brought to bear on the executive from outside," would the situation change. He realized just like many other Americans that the Vietnam War was a endless, hopeless bloody stalemate. Ellsberg also understood that we were supporting a corrupt South Vietnam government that primarily wanted to enrich themselves and who consistently ignored the needs of its suffering population.
As background...I myself am a former cold-war warrior, having spent two tours in Vietnam with an elite USMC intelligence unit. Moreover, I am well aware of the legendary work of USMC Lt. Colonel William Corson, who Ellsberg visits while in Vietnam and astutely observes (pgs. 173-175) the promise of his daring pacification program. As a long time admirer of William Corson I agree with Ellsberg that the Colonel deserves "rare praise." To this end, I applaud how Daniel Ellsberg has conducted himself. Those who critized the failures of the war from the inside were ignored. Ellsberg figured this out and bravely exposed the failures to the American people. Highly recommended.
on March 19, 2003
I will start with a quote:
A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.
James Madison, drafter of the first amendment
Once a self-described cold warrior, Daniel Ellsberg, a published expert in game theory who holds Harvard Ph.D. in Economics, has also been an analyst for the government and the Rand Corporation and, most significantly, the man who released the Pentagon Papers, which ultimately brought down the Nixon administration and forced the US out of Vietnam. In Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg finally tells his story of one of the most important periods in US History and the central role he played in it.
Starting with his analysis of the Tonkin Gulf incidents, which led to the increased involvement of the US in Vietnam in 1961, Ellsberg leads the reader through an insider's tour of the intelligence community, the upper echelons of the administration and even the in-country conditions of Vietnam during the war . He does this on his way to explaining how he went from supporting the war as a way to prevent nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union to risking life in prison to leak the 7,000 pages of Top Secret documents that came to be known at the Pentagon Papers in a desperate attempt to stop the destruction both of US soldiers and the people and country of Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers themselves reveal the systematic deception of the American people about the scope of our actual and intended involvement in the Vietnam war, a history of deception which actually predates formal US involvement. Secrets reveals far more.
Secrets reads like a Tom Clancy novel in some respects: while the Nixon administration is ordering G. Gordon Liddy and the Watergate Plumbers to steal confidential records from Ellsberg's psychoanalyst in California and to mount a physically debilitating attack on Ellsberg at a public appearance in Washington, Ellsberg and his friends are providing the New York Times and other newspapers with the Pentagon Papers. As subsequent newspapers are blocked by Justice Department injunctions from publishing what Ellsberg has provided them, Ellsberg and others courageously provide copies of the Top Secret documents to other media outlets.
One of the most disturbing revelations of Secrets is the lengths to which the US Government went to try to in trying silence Ellsberg and to continue its known-to-be-futile efforts in Vietnam. John Mitchell, Nixon's Attorney General, even tried to override the 1st Amendment for the first time in history, filing an injunction against the New York Times and three other papers for printing the Pentagon Papers at all.
Aside from being an important historical document, Secrets is a nearly confessional look into the heart and soul of a man who risked all he had for the sake of the country he believed in. It is a tale of integrity and responsibility, in the face of overwhelming resistance and power and the threat of up to 115 years in federal prison, and a tale about a man who has indirectly affected the lives of every person in the country and our understanding of our own government.
Since I opened this review with a quote, it is fitting I should close with one. Hugo Black, writing for the majority of the Supreme Court, wrote these words, which apply to Daniel Ellsberg as surely as they apply to the newspaper who bought the lawsuit:
And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly.
Hugo Black, New York Times Co. v United States
on January 23, 2003
With this memoir (much like the Pentagon Papers themselves), Ellsberg offers to every citizen something that is deeply informative--an insider's look at those in powerful positions. And with this startling insight comes a warning.
Unlike others such as Chomsky or Vidal--who are reflexively dismissed by some as disconnected, ivory tower radicals--Ellsberg's account of government malfeasance gets its inescapable weight from its personnel nature. Ellsberg was there on the front lines of the cold war through most of the 50's and 60's. As a Marine, a Harvard educated analyst for The Rand Corporation and then the Pentagon, Ellsberg was part of the establishment that pursued an unjust war in Vietnam and lied about it to the American people.
This full reality was not completely apparent to him in his early years and like other dedicated "Cold Warriors" he kept his head down and rationalized that it was all for the best. He hoped that by making the government's decision-making abilities more effective, a more appropriate foreign policy would emerge. What he didn't realize was that for the men making the decisions, the process was as effective as they wanted it to be. He came to discover that these men were fully aware of the consequences of their policies. The problem was not that their decisions were corrupted by lack of information, but instead they were corrupted themselves by the institutions that bore them. The culture of these bodies fostered an arrogant belief that government needed to lie to the ignorant masses. Internal dissent was minimized and punished by an ardent allegiance to the hierarchy. The distance between the comfortable, safe offices where decisions were made and the far off countryside where those decisions spilled the blood of hundreds of thousands made human suffering peripheral to what they conceived to be the greater good. And this detachment ultimately lead to a top down decision-making process where desire and wishful thinking drove policies instead of facts from the ground below. All of these factors contributed to what Ellsberg identified as immoral policies that could only be corrected from outside the institutions that created them.
His super top-secret "Pentagon Papers" showed the folly of four consecutive administrations as they pursued a path that virtually all on the ground said was certain to fail. And despite Nixon's public claims to the contrary, Ellsberg knew that Nixon intended to continue on that path and in fact escalate the War further. Knowing that he was destroying his career and quite possibly giving up his freedom, Ellsberg published the Pentagon Papers in an attempt to put pressure on these institutions from the outside. If anyone can tell us why government must be always questioned and monitored, Ellsberg can and does in this book.
This is a very engaging read because it is well written and clearly laid out by Ellsberg. One can see the mind of a top Pentagon analyst in the proficient examination of the relevant issues. If you like foreign affairs and politics this is a very good book for you. If not, you may find it dry and drawn out because as memoirs go, this one is rather unemotional. Ellsberg brings in some emotion at times (when himself and others are brought to tears by anguish over the war), but it seemed to me that the surrounding book did not explain that emotion. Although the emotional landscape of those times is not adequately explored, this observation is not a criticism since that is not the book's purpose. However, if the purpose of this book is to warn all citizens--in and out of government--of the corruptive force inherent in power, it is a success.
on April 18, 2003
"Secrets" is Daniel Ellsberg's superb memoir detailing the period of his life from childhood to his acquittal of criminal charges for releasing the now famous Pentagon Papers. This book is a superb read on several levels. It is fascinating and important historical source, since Ellsberg participated in defense planning as a Rand researcher and as a Pentagon deputy during the critical period when the United States decided to occupy Vietnam. Equally as important is the ethical dilemma Ellsberg chronicles of having to choose between the safety and comfort of maintaining his bureaucratic sense of loyalty or making dangerous personal sacrifices for the greater good of his country and his conscience. And contrary to most political memoirs that are often tediously written and sprinkled with excessive namedropping, this book reads like a novel.
Dan Ellsberg began his career as a self-described cold warrior. Prior to obtaining a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard, Ellsberg served in the Marines as a peacetime company commander. After completing his graduate education he worked as a researcher in the Rand Institute where one of his projects involved estimating the total number of global casualties resulting from a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia (hundreds of millions of people within the first twenty-four hours). Ellsberg undertook this work because since childhood he found the practice of civilian terror bombing, as he understood it, to be morally repellant. Thus it should come as no surprise that when called to work in the Pentagon as the assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton, Ellsberg already brought a strong sense of moral purpose to the job, a situation that ultimately resulted in profound consequences both for him and for the government he served.
While serving in the Pentagon, Ellsberg witnessed the immediate confusion of the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the Johnson Administration's subsequent decision to falsify the particulars of that incident as a pretext for invading Vietnam. Readers will probably be struck with the same sense of amazement that Ellsberg was about how America's military bureaucracy actually functions. From one perspective, Ellsberg was stunned by the sheer volume of crises that top officials including his boss and the president's cabinet, had to deal with in rapid succession. While Ellsberg admired his colleagues and superiors he often wondered if it was really possible to run a government by crisis hopping in this manner.
From another perspective, Ellsberg was deeply disturbed by the standard policy of lying within the military bureaucracy. It may surprise readers to know that the military never had any illusions about the possibility of winning the Vietnam War. In 1964, according to Ellsberg, top military officials briefed the president and his cabinet with astonishing accuracy on the precise number soldiers required (1.5 million), for a specific duration of time (8 years), and a large number of resulting casualties (50,000) and no guarantee of victory. Despite such dire warnings, a sanguine and poorly defined policy was implemented, and when it quickly began to yield disastrous results the president and his top officials lied to each other and to the American people about what was really happening. While Ellsberg correctly concedes that there are many instances when it is practical for the highest levels of government to conceal information from the American people, he also observes a kind of bureaucratic pathology at work. Top officials including McNamara often provided favorable reports to the president, which they personally did not believe in and which they knew would result in disaster but which their positions and careers compelled them to do. As a result Ellsberg notes, the highest levels of government were not able learn from their mistakes in Vietnam and to adjust accordingly. Instead top officials developed what Ellsberg terms a process of systematic "anti-learning" which in layman's terms means that they saw what they wanted to see instead of what was actually happening.
Ellsberg's observation of the Pentagon and Executive Branch's process of systematic anti-learning was powerfully reinforced by his subsequent personal experience when he served as a State Department official in Vietnam. Ellsberg was brave enough and fortunate enough to traverse unsecured roads in hostile territory with the legendary civilian general, John Paul Vann. He witnessed both the plight of bogged down American soldiers and the resourcefulness of the determined Vietnamese guerillas and concluded that even if nuclear weapons were introduced, the war was ultimately unwinable. Ellsberg quickly concluded that America was faced with a war that its leaders had always known they could not win, that it was currently in the process of losing, and which the highest levels of the military and government refused to view in realistic terms.
Ellsberg's opposition to the war took place gradually and culminated in the realization that America was in the process of destroying a generation of young men by sending them to war or imprisoning them for opposing the war. Shortly afterward, Ellsberg decided to risk a life sentence in prison by releasing the Pentagon papers to congress. The Pentagon papers are an astounding collection of documents both in their volume (several thousand papers) and in the frankness with which they make record the official process of lying to the American public. Many well-meaning congressional officials at first offered to produce the Pentagon papers to their colleagues on Ellsberg's behalf but ultimately declined for career reasons. Consequently Ellsberg released them to the media who subsequently disseminated them to the public.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a first hand view of how the highest levels of American government work. Be warned, however, that while Ellsberg's story is ultimately worth knowing, his revelations about the government are frightening and depressing. It is interesting to note that in several public speeches ...Dan Ellsberg has frequently drawn parallels to his own experiences chronicled in this book, and to America's current foreign policy with respect to Iraq. Obviously this is an issue that readers must decide on their own, but if anything else, it makes "Secrets" a highly relevant book to read.
on October 17, 2002
Daniel Ellsberg offers critical insights into how men in power can lead the United States into tragic war with unexpected and catastrophic consequences. A must read for every American as Bush pushes us to war in Iraq.
on September 25, 2003
Moves fast with lots of detail. I wish all authors and editors put as much time as Ellsberg obviously has into writing and organizing his book. Not only is this book packed with information but it's put together in such a way that you can barely put it down - I've found this to be very rare in any non-fiction book. Some highlights:
- In 1961 Ellsberg reads a new National Intelligence Estimate that reveals that "the missle gap favoring the Soviets was a fantasy". Which should have had far more impact on our arms buildup than it appeared to.
- Ellsberg asks: "If existing general [nuclear] war plans were carried out as planned how many people would be killed in the Soviet Union and China alone?" Answer from the JCS (1961): between 275 and 325 million in just the USSR and China with 100 million or so more in Eastern Europe. Neutral nations (particularly Finland who would be virtually exterminated) would be decimated just from fallout. Total deaths from our attack would be from five to six hundred million. NATO and the US (in areas outside NATO) continue to maintain a first-use nuclear strike policy (i.e. if an enemy attacks with conventional weapons US/NATO policy allows us to be the first to go Nuclear).
- Ellsberg mentions how LBJ's closest advisors (particularly McGeorge Bundy, George Ball and Clark Clifford) told him that the US could not win the Vietnam war as early as 1965. Clifford (with suprisingly common prescience) foresaw nothing but "catastrophe".
Perhaps the most interesting revelation I came away with is how routine it was for Presidents and top members of their administrations - to lie. Ellsberg writes about the commonly held idea that increased public knowledge of a president's policies only creates problems. He mentions a time when he was asked to draft 4 or 5 possible lies that McNamara could give the press to redirect them away from the truth. At one point during the Nixon administration someone leaked information about what was actually going on (to the fury of the White House) but it was subsequently denied by the Pentagon and received little attention.
The pattern of lies is almost amusing given the outcry over former President Clinton's lie about having sex with Monica Lewinsky. Seems very minor compared with the continual and systematic lying over the course of 5 administrations about the Vietnam War. If nothing else I will never again be among those who assume that just because it comes from the President it must be the truth.
This book should be read by everyone who responds to those polls saying that they support the current administration's efforts to involve our nation in another war with Iraq. Daniel Ellsberg laid his liberty on the line to disclose the government's deceit that got us into and kept us in the Vietnam quagmire. Only time will tell whether the government's efforts to deceive the public in the 1960's are currently being repeated, but it certainly makes you wonder when the current administration claims to have facts to justify a war, but is unwilling to disclose those facts for fear of putting certain operative's lives in danger. Unfortunately history repeats itself and the arrogance and disdain shown by our nation's leaders for the public in the 1960's is most likely being repeated in our own times. Where is the Daniel Ellsberg of today?