Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers
by Daniel Ellsberg
Viking. 480 pp. $29.95
Of the members of the American foreign-policy establishment who disowned the Vietnam war, Daniel Ellsberg was the most unusual and perhaps also the most influential. A bureaucratic adviser but never a high-profile official, he shot to prominence in 1971 for leaking the classified “Pentagon Papers,” a 7,000-page government study of American involvement in Vietnam that created a sensation when it appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
In Papers on the War (1972), a book he wrote immediately after his role in the expose became public, Ellsberg set out the grounds of his opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam, but he did not provide much in the way of a personal reckoning. Thirty years later, in Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, he seeks to fill that gap, providing both an insider’s view of policy-making during the war and an account of his own unlikely odyssey from ardent anti-Communist to hero of the radical Left.
Born in Chicago in 1931, Ellsberg had become a cold-war liberal by his late teens, admiring Harry Truman’s willingness to stand up to Soviet aggression. “As I followed the news . . . about the  Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, the Stalinist regimes and political trials in Russia and Eastern Europe,” he writes, “I came gradually to accept all the cold-war premises and attitudes.” A gifted student, Ellsberg graduated from Harvard, where he studied economics, and then took a one-year fellowship at Cambridge University. Hoping to fight in the Korean war, he came home to join the Marines, only to have the war end before he could see action.
In 1956, Ellsberg returned to Harvard, quickly earning a Ph.D. in game theory, a field of mathematics dealing with questions of strategy. Convinced that nuclear deterrence could be understood better—and strengthened—by the precise modeling of potential conflicts, Ellsberg soon found a home at the RAND Corporation, the government-affiliated think tank that was then the center of such work.
Harry Rowen, a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Kennedy administration, was impressed enough with Ellsberg’s work at RAND to bring the young analyst to Washington as an adviser during the Cuban missile crisis. Three years later, in 1964, John T. McNaughton, another senior Pentagon official, invited Ellsberg to be his special assistant, his “alter ego.” Jumping at the chance to leave behind his quiet research, Ellsberg threw himself into his prime duty: screening all the information available on Vietnam and deciding what McNaughton should see—and what others should not see. He had assumed a key role, he writes, in “an apparatus of secrecy . . . that permitted the President to arrive at and execute a secret foreign policy.”
Even at this early stage, Ellsberg was not convinced that the U.S. could win the war, but he dutifully followed the policies laid down by his superiors. At the request of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, he collected material on atrocities being committed by the Communist Vietcong (VC) forces controlled by North Vietnam that President Johnson could use to bolster public support for the bombing campaign he initiated in March 1965. “Before long,” Ellsberg writes, “I had more statistics and vivid details of VC atrocities in my files and even in my head than almost anyone else around, which colored my thinking about the war, to some degree permanently.”
For all his interest in game theory and high strategy, Ellsberg hankered to get into the field. In Washington, he met General Edward Lansdale, a legendary counterinsurgency figure who had been appointed by Johnson to work with the South Vietnamese government. Ellsberg joined his team and explored the country for two years, traveling by jeep to some of the most remote and dangerous areas. What he saw disgusted him: a corrupt and incompetent South Vietnamese military, and American troops utterly lacking discipline and training.
Though he now viewed the war as hopeless, Ellsberg was still an insider, and hoped to persuade his higher-ups in the foreign-policy establishment that it was futile to continue fighting. To that end, he returned to RAND and began working with Pentagon officials Morton Halperin and Leslie Gelb on an analysis, commissioned by McNamara, of the decisions that had led to the Vietnam morass.
Sifting through the material that would become the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg had a crisis of conscience. He came to believe that Vietnam was not an accident, but rather the logical culmination of American cold-war imperialism. Though every President from Truman on down had had abundant information showing that a war was unwinnable, after the defeat and departure of the French in the mid-1950’s each had persisted in deepening the American presence. As he saw it, an obsession with anti-Communism and military power had infected the presidency.
Having observed the heated public debate that followed the leak by one Pentagon official of a forthcoming request for more troops, Ellsberg decided that he might be able to stop the war altogether by releasing classified materials. In his words:
[I]t was as if clouds had suddenly opened. I realized something crucial: that the President’s ability to escalate, his entire strategy throughout the war, had depended on secrecy and lying and thus on his ability to deter unauthorized disclosures—truth-telling—by officials.
One source of Ellsberg’s readiness to divulge such information, he acknowledges, was his own growing involvement with the antiwar movement. By 1969, even as he worked on the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg found himself attending a conference at Haverford College of War Resisters’ International. By 1971, he was leading something of a double life. He recounts one particularly jarring day in which, after getting tear-gassed at an antiwar demonstration in downtown Washington, he hopped to the Council on Foreign Relations to hear McGeorge Bundy, who had been Lyndon Johnson’s assistant for national security, retrospectively defend the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. As Ellsberg writes, “It was a surreal experience, after a morning of mobile tactics on Fourteenth Street, to be sitting in a room surrounded by my fellow war criminals, listening to [Bundy] tell lies about the war.” Given these views, the surprising thing is not that he released the Pentagon Papers, but that he did not do so even sooner.
To hear Daniel Ellsberg tell it, the release of the Pentagon Papers was a decisive victory for American democracy. But he grossly exaggerates their significance. Though they contained documents that have proved valuable to historians, they hardly conveyed one singular stark truth about the Vietnam war. Like every other sort of historical material, they were subject to interpretation and dispute. Nor did they contain much information that was really new at the time.
The Pentagon Papers generated controversy because they had been composed in secret, and revealed government officials saying one thing publicly and another privately. But there was nothing especially remarkable in this, either: officials have always shaded the reality behind foreign-policy decisions. The notion that this pointed to a deliberate conspiracy was nonsense. Officials of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations were hardly wrong to view the Vietcong as a dangerous force. Ellsberg may now believe that his own view of the Vietcong was unfortunately “colored”—that is, distorted—by the atrocities they committed, but the coloration, as a series of Presidents and the American people themselves recognized, was of the essence of Communism in theory and practice.
What this memoir does make plain is that Ellsberg liked playing to two galleries at once, reveling in his insider status at the Pentagon while seeking the approbation of the antiwar movement and its Left-liberal sympathizers in the media. He was hardly alone among the foreign-policy elite in believing that the U.S., not Soviet and Communist expansionism, had become the bad guy on the international scene; indeed, long before our disastrous rout from Saigon and our abandonment of our South Vietnamese allies to their fate, the idea that anti-Communism had crippled American foreign policy had become the governing nostrum of the Democratic party. Ellsberg simply went further than most, trading the worthy tradition of cold-war liberalism for the chic radicalism of his own day. Thirty years on, the truth still eludes him.