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5 stars
War from the inside of the American empire

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to 19 newspapers. Comprising 7,000 pages, they are an internal history of the Vietnam War compiled by the US government. By doing so, Ellsberg made himself a target of the Nixon administration. The first operation of Nixon’s infamous “White House Plumbers” was the burglary of the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in order to find materials that could be used to discredit him. Later, members of the group would break into the Watergate hotel, bringing down Nixon’s presidency.

Secrets, first published in 2002, is Ellsberg’s memoir. It focuses on his work for the RAND Corporation and the Pentagon, including the time Ellsberg spent in South Vietnam, and the influences on his thinking that ultimately moved him to become a whistleblower.

A Harvard-educated intellectual, Ellsberg was quickly drawn into the upper echelon of US policymaking. In the early part of his memoir, he describes how, at the Pentagon, secrecy was used not just to conceal information from the public, but also to wage turf wars between departments, with new classifications being invented just to prevent rivals from seeing a certain memo or document.

He is not shy to admit the seductive and addictive nature of access to secrets, and how it breeds contempt from political insiders for the outside world. The public, after all, never knows the true reasons why a political decision was made, so how could the judgment of any member of the public be trusted? Lying to the public in official statements is so common that when lies are used to justify war — as was the case after the Gulf of Tonkin incident — it hardly seems notable to those on the inside.

From skeptic to cynic, from cynic to activist

Yet, Ellsberg was not a critic of this system at the time; he was a willing participant. When he was offered his role at the Pentagon with a specific focus on Vietnam policy, he was at first reluctant not because he questioned US motives in the war — as a Cold Warrior, he shared a desire to limit the spread of communist influence — but because he was skeptical that the war was winnable.

During his two years in South Vietnam, Ellsberg’s skepticism turned into cynicism, as he observed how, with all the unspeakable brutality of the war, there was no strategy or tactic that promised real gains against North Vietnam, short of the total destruction of the country. Moreover, forces on the ground even fabricated entire operations to pretend that “pacification” was around the corner at any moment.

Upon his return to the US, Ellsberg struggled to understand how successive presidencies could push forward a war that was going nowhere and costing hundreds of thousands of lives. Had these presidents simply been victims of their own propaganda? To find out, he participated in the creation of the report known as the Pentagon Papers. And it was his inside knowledge of the report, combined with his exposure to the peace movement, that ultimately caused him to become a whistleblower.

The Pentagon Papers showed that, far from cluelessly bumbling into war, the United States had recklessly escalated a war of aggression against a country that, to begin with, had sought independence from a colonial power, much as America had once done. But here, America had chosen the side of the colonizers.

Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had willingly signed off on escalation after escalation, even as advisers were telling them that far greater efforts were needed to “win” the war. And it was the Nixon administration that would take the war to levels that can only be described as state terrorism, as Nixon himself promised privately: “We are not going to let this country be defeated by this little shit-ass country.” And he made it clear to Henry Kissinger: “You’re so goddamned concerned about the civilians—and I don’t give a damn. I don’t care.”

While Ellsberg would only learn about these statements when the Nixon White House tapes became public, he did know from insiders that Nixon was lying about pursuing peace in Vietnam, and that he was instead prepared to again escalate the war’s brutality in hopes of forcing North Vietnam to “negotiate” with the United States.

This threat of escalation motivated Ellsberg to try various venues to get the Pentagon Papers out, ultimately releasing them to many newspapers as a dramatic man-hunt against him got underway. The Pentagon Papers didn’t cover the Nixon period, and they mostly reflected poorly on previous Democratic administrations. Nevertheless, Ellsberg felt that making visible how administration after administration had made the same mistakes in Vietnam — and lied about it to the public — would at least help hold Nixon to account.

Nixon, for his part, privately welcomed the leak. It was only when he feared that Ellsberg had more material pertinent to his administration that he fully escalated an effort to silence Ellsberg. Aside from the break-in at his psychiatrist’s office, the Plumbers planned a physical attack against Ellsberg at a rally. In his own autobiography, Gordon Liddy confessed that the Plumbers even considered lacing Ellsberg’s soup with LSD before a public speech, to make him appear like a nutjob.

This criminal campaign failed, and as it was exposed, so did the indictment against Daniel Ellsberg. To this day, Ellsberg remains an outspoken activist against war and secrecy, and in defense of whistleblowers like himself.

The verdict

Secrets is an essential account of how secrecy can turn a republic into an empire, at least where foreign policy and “national security” are concerned. As a book about the Vietnam War, it cannot begin to scratch the surface of the horrors inflicted upon the Vietnamese. But to understand how we can prevent history from repeating itself — how we can undermine the secrecy machine by supporting whistleblowers, and how we must demand transparency whenever our government kills on our behalf — Secrets is as timely and necessary as ever.

Disclosure: I work for Freedom of the Press Foundation, where Ellsberg is a Board member.