peteg's blog - noise - books - 2011 06 06 Ellsberg Secrets

Daniel Ellsberg: Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

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I read this on the strength of the movie The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, and my general interest in Ellsberg as a technocrat during the American/Vietnam war.

Ellsberg's game is probably not so different to McNamara's, viz to defend his position in conflicts that have mostly faded from memory. While he is not exactly a whizz kid, nor the best and brightest, being born a decade or so late, he admired, and to an extent emulated, defence secretary Robert S. McNamara and others whose cold war values were forged in the moral clarity of World War II. Thus this text often makes it seem that that he is a handmaiden to history, where he is aware of the problems (the inability of the U.S. Government as an institution to learn about the Vietnam situation and translate that learning into (in)action) but the mathematical techniques he mastered and furthered at Harvard are of not much help. It is the time when M.A.D. rules and no-one can see past it.

The late 1950s and 1960s were a time of realpolitik, of breaking a lot of eggs and not being too picky about the omlette. In some ways Ellsberg's point of view is not so far from Kissinger's, who gets a remarkably even-handed writeup here; apparently Ellsberg held Kissinger in high regard, and maybe still does, perhaps up to his time as Nixon's National Security Adviser; certainly not after the bombing of Cambodia and Watergate. I found it strange that Ellsberg does not weigh in on Kissinger's October surprise in 1968, where he reputedly encouraged the North Vietnamese delegation to delay negotiations until after the Presidential elections, promising better outcomes from a yet-to-be-elected Nixon administration. It was a potentially pivotal moment that is clearly related to Ellsberg's central concern of shortening the war.

The most vibrant parts of this book are when Ellsberg is in the south of Vietnam, from 1965 to 1967, talking about his friendship with John Paul Vann, who incidentally got written up by the Neil Sheehan, the bloke Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to; I guess in the period between then and now Ellsberg self-identifies as an iconoclast and Vann was a powerful model for that. Ellsberg's stories about being out on patrol, of semi-suicidal driving on roads encroached by jungle, and the links he draws with his later thinking about the futility of this war are a composite of poignancy and triteness, a need to test his manhood while leaving his brain in first gear. His conversion from hawk to leaking dove is done on the road to Damascus, and his account of this critical juncture in his life is irritatingly oblique; just what are his parameters for violence? How should the U.S. use its hegemony, then and now? Were there any worthwhile outcomes from the war at all? (It is clear to me that nothing could justify the war, but some make the case that it did scare the dominoes into falling other ways, or something like that.)

The late-1960s peacenikery gets a solid treatment, as does the trial. Both could have been spun out a bit longer, with more detail; it is intriguing that there was no U.S. equivalent of the Official Secrets Act — meaning that a U.S. citizen cannot betray the republic by revealing information to the U.S. public. I wonder if that still holds.

Ellsberg alludes to a lot of people and things that were going on at the time, sometimes too briefly, with not enough background. I grant that it is tough to communicate all the context in a tale like this one, and I guess you just have to chase up many sources. I'm sure someone somewhere has stitched together a list of books about Vietnam and Watergate and a good order to read them in; here's a start:

... but yeah, the list is endless; I barely know where to start if one wishes to get to grips with the mathematics of the day or more formal/academic histories.

Overall the book reeks of technocracy, and is strangely impersonal. Why did he choose to undergo psychoanalysis at that particular time? He does allude to his sex life, but nowhere close to where this biography apparently goes. (I can't be arsed reading it now.) This is not mere prurience on my part, for I would like to know if he got seduced into the peace movement; that would be a far more convincing reason than any Ellsberg himself stumps up here. For all of this, I got sucked in and read it over a couple of days, after a moderately slow start. The approximately 450 pages was sometimes a slog, with some sections that seem to have escaped editing, and a bit too much flabby repetitiveness.

Ellsberg casts a long shadow through the media, as it was they who actually communicated the Pentagon Papers to the public — a role currently filled by wikileaks — and in doing so, scored a major First Amendment victory over government claims of "national security". Thus the broad interest in the official release of the papers, forty years later:

What is the take away story here? Get yourself into a position of trust and then violate it? Avoid being a morally compromised/vacuous technocrat? Ultimately Ellsberg fares better than McNamara, if only because he does recognise how bankrupt the whole gig was.