Secrets:  A Memoir Of Vietnam And The Pentagon Papers

Original Publication Date
Author of Book
Daniel Ellsberg
Author of Review
Terri Emerick

In Secrets, an historical analysis of the events that led to his decision to release the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, The Washington Post, and other news organizations, Daniel Ellsberg gives an insider's perspective on communications among government agencies (including information that was withheld or ignored). Communications such as that contained in the 47 volume, 7000-page study documenting the actions of the United States regarding Indo-China from 1945-1967 that is commonly referred to as the Pentagon Papers. The book also details Ellsberg's experiences as a Cold Warrior, first as a military analyst at RAND, then at the Pentagon, working under former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Ellsberg also recounts experiences with the State Department while in Vietnam, and as a researcher/analyst at RAND. These experiences resulted in changes in his views, which he summarizes in the Preface of Secrets:

When I saw the conflict as a problem, I tried to help solve it; when I saw it as a stalemate, to help us extricate ourselves, without harm to our national interests; when I saw it as a crime, to expose and resist it, to end it immediately."

When describing Ellsberg's initial work at RAND, Secrets demonstrates his recognition of a policy that is doomed to failure and shows his subsequent recommendations to his colleagues at RAND. Following that is the story of his first day at the Pentagon in August 1964, reading the flash cables communicating the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Next are his experiences in Vietnam, include staff meetings, communication with the Vietnamese people who were directly affected by US presence, appreciation of the culture and country, "walking point," recognizing failings within the military system itself, and growing understanding of the futility of continued American presence in Vietnam. This marked his increasing disenchantment with previous convictions as a Cold Warrior, including the realization things need to change. After Ellsberg's departure from Vietnam, he returned to RAND, began to recognize the differences between the reality of public perception, the perception of elected and appointed officials, the increasing anti-war movement, and the importance of a free press. Also included in the book are candid conversations with former elected officials, conversations resulting in his decision to photocopy and release the Pentagon Papers. Historical and philosophical writings read by Ellsberg also influenced his decision. The New York Times began publication of the Pentagon Papers on July 13, 1971. The Nixon administration obtained an injunction and the Times had to cease publication and appeal the decision of the court. However, Ellsberg made additional copies and continued to leak them to other newspapers while the injunction was in effect. A 6-3 decision by the United States Supreme Court held that the injunction was a violation of the First Amendment, as the injunction itself constituted prior restraint (or censorship). As stated in The Economist:

"...he came to believe that leaking could be a patriotic act, as he puts it, even at the risk of a long prison sentence." Mr. Ellsberg describes first handing over secret memos to Neil Sheehan of the New York Times, to whom he later gave most of the Pentagon Papers. As if to test the system again, Ellsberg discusses in this book a little-known Canadian intervention during the long Vietnam peace negotiations, details of which he assures us are still classified to this day. Secrets will be of value to readers interested in recent history for the light it sheds on America's engagement in Vietnam. But it bears also on the present. It reminds us of the importance of dissent within democracies in time of war--a test that, with regard to Vietnam at least, America can claim to have passed, thanks in the end to its press, its courts and the courage of troublemakers like Mr. Ellsberg.

For photocopying and releasing the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg was tried, convicted, and faced a sentence 115 years in prison. Eventually, citing government misconduct, the judge in the case declared a mistrial, dismissing all charges with prejudice in 1973: Ellsberg, as a result, could not be re-tried. Since then Ellsberg has continued on his new course, as a writer, lecturer and anti-war activist. In a recent article in Editor and Publisher, Ellsberg is critical of coverage of the war in Iraq and claims coverage in foreign newspapers to be superior. He also mentions the role that oil reserves had relating to the war, the need for accurate numbers of casualties (both military and civilian), and stressed the importance of any possibility that this administration would use nuclear weapons.

Since the dismissal of charges (1973), Daniel Ellsberg has been a writer, lecturer and anti-war activist, opposing the use of nuclear weapons.   In a speech on  September 7 2006, he stated,

"I'd been in Vietnam; I'd seen people in combat there. Maybe people here have had that experience. In combat it's very common to see people risking their lives—giving their lives, giving their bodies, becoming paraplegic like my friend Ron Kovic—for a lie. Bravery and a bad cause are not uncommon—you see it on both sides. Very often, both sides are bad causes, in fact. Doesn't take a good cause for people in combat to risk their lives for the other people in the squad and for what they have been told is a good cause."

"What's needed at home of course is people who will change their lives and risk their careers and their jobs and their relationships with their families, their bosses, with their church groups, whoever—by taking a stronger stand than those people are ready to take. And by saying truths that those people don't want to hear. Without that courage, policies like this can't be changed."

In a subsequesnt article in Editor and Publisher Ellsberg was critical of coverage of the war in Iraq and claimed coverage in foreign newspapers were superior.  He also mentioned the public the role that oil reserves had, the need for accurate numbers of casualties, (both military and  civilian) and stressed the importance of any possibility this administration would use nuclear weapons, including if  any targets that may have been decided.

On September 28, 2006, it was announced that Daniel Ellsberg  will receive the Right Livelihood Award which strengthens ... 

the positive social forces that its recipients represent and to provide the support and inspiration needed to make them a model for the future. It has been said that if the Nobel Prizes reflected world concerns of the 20th century, the Right Livelihood Award should reflect those of the 21st.

This is in addition to his earlier receipt of the Ron Ridenhour Award for Courage for the release of the Pentagon Papers with the full knowledge of the consequences for doing so and continuing activism

ePluribus Contributors: Aaron Barlow, roxy, gles and standingup

Photo Credit: Jock McDonald