Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. .

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. . – book review

Richard Halloran

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. By Daniel

Ellsberg. New York: Viking Press, 2002. 498 pages. $29.95. Reviewed

Whether the reader admires or despises him, this book by Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times 30 years ago, belongs on any short shelf of volumes about Vietnam. The author has provided what is certain to be an epic firsthand account of a critical episode in that acutely divisive era.

Ellsberg, who fought as a Marine in Vietnam and was then a researcher at the RAND think tank, tells an intriguing tale of smuggling copies of the 7,000-page secret study out of his office, surreptitiously copying them, and flogging them to several Senators before they saw the light of day in The Times. It is a suspense story that could have come from the pen of John Le Carre.

In doing so, Ellsberg triggered a controversy that shook the land. President Nixon and his senior aides contended that Ellsberg had committed treason and got an injunction that forced The Times to stop the presses. The Supreme Court voted (6-3) that publication of the papers had not caused a clear and present danger and permitted The Times and other newspapers to resume publishing.

Once that happened, the Federal Bureau of Investigation started an intensive search for Ellsberg, who eluded capture by flitting from hotel to hotel and homes of friends. After more than two weeks, he surrendered and was put on trial in an effort to discredit him and to deter others who might be tempted to leak government secrets. After 80 days, the judge threw the case out on grounds of serious government misconduct, including breaking into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to filch his medical records.

For years, critics of Ellsberg have argued that he was a traitor, and admirers have asserted he was a patriot, and this book is not likely to settle the argument as it gives ammunition to both sides. Much of it is a good read, but it suffers from a lack of editing as the author is allowed to wander off into theories of nuclear war, passages about Vietnam that are not pertinent, and self-serving ruminations about his motives. Nonetheless, any serious student of the agonizing experience of Vietnam should read this apologia, in the classic sense of justification.

The Pentagon study, which had been ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, comprised 47 volumes of memoranda, intelligence analyses, cables between Washington and Saigon, marching orders, and other raw materials. To Ellsberg, they proved that several administrations, especially that of President Lyndon Johnson, had repeatedly lied to the American people.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ellsberg’s narrative is his friendship with an Indian woman named Janaki Natarajan, a fervent devotee to the nonviolent principles of Mahatma Gandhi. They met during an antiwar conference at Princeton University in April 1968; eventually, Ellsberg says, she became one of four people who had the greatest “intellectual and moral influence” on him as he journeyed toward his catalytic role in opposing the war. The others were Randy Kehler, head of the War Resisters League; Morton Halperin, who served in the Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton Administrations in national security positions; and Tran Ngoc Chau, a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese army.

At Princeton, Ellsberg overheard Janaki say, “I come from a culture in which there is no concept of enemy.” Ellsberg swung his attention to her: “What do you mean by that?” She replied briefly, and they made a date for breakfast the next morning. For two days, they skipped most of the conference as Janaki expounded on Gandhi’s teachings.

Janaki gave Ellsberg a list of books about resistance to the war, which he read over the next year. She visited him in California, where he worked for RAND, and they spent a few days together in London. “She had made a profound impression on Ellsberg writes. “I could say she was a hero of mine.”

Even so, Ellsberg was not immediately converted. Then, in August 1969, Janaki invited him to an antiwar conference at Haverford College, the Quaker school outside of Philadelphia, where Ellsberg appears to have had an epiphany. At the end of the four-day meeting, he says, “I realized I had the power and the freedom to act the same way” as the antiwar activists.

A month later, Ellsberg began stuffing several volumes into his briefcase and walking past the guards at RAND’s doorway who gave him a cheery, “Good night, Dan.” He drove to a small advertising agency where he began to copy what would become the Pentagon Papers. Over the ensuing months, Ellsberg was nearly discovered by cops responding to burglar alarms, copy-shop people who might have seen the “Top Secret” markings, and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who had heard rumors of his activities.

Contrary to a widespread assumption, Ellsberg did not give the papers to The Times at first. Rather, besought to have them released by critics of the war such as Senators J. William Fulbright, Gaylord Nelson, George McGovern, and Charles McC. Mathias, Jr. All turned him down because, as Fulbright told him, they feared retribution by the Administration.

Finally, Ellsberg approached Neil Sheehan of The Times, and in June 1971 The Times published extensive excerpts and commentaries on the documents. The rest, as the cliche would have it, is history.

Richard Halloran, formerly with The New York Times as a foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington, D.C.

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