Vietnam Revisited : Pentagon Papers & Antiwar Vets

The Nation, September 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

Vietnam Revisited : Pentagon Papers & Antiwar Vets


Boulder, Colo.

DANIEL ELLSBERG--VIETNAM'S 'MYTH'?

* Early in his review of my book Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg ["Pentagon Papers Chase," July 9], H. Bruce Franklin quotes words of praise and admiration for Ellsberg from a website designed explicitly to solicit tributes to Ellsberg. Franklin counterposes those tributes to my critical portrayal of Ellsberg, as if to imply that my portrayal doesn't jibe with reality. But as Franklin must know, people will often say very different things about a person when asked to pay tribute than in other circumstances--such as when talking to a biographer. That was true for a number of people in this case.

Franklin appears to believe that none of the criticisms of Ellsberg expressed in my book have merit, and he suggests that Ellsberg deserves to be portrayed as a great man and a hero. He disparages my view that one of the main reasons Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers was to achieve greater recognition. He claims that Ellsberg's efforts to get the papers out through a member of Congress contradict my view. Has Franklin never heard of Senate hearings, televised ones at that, at which witnesses testify? Does he seriously believe Ellsberg wished to act anonymously? Franklin questions my "motives" for writing critically of Ellsberg. How about this one: a desire to get it right. I believe strongly that my portrait of Ellsberg is accurate. (It may surprise Franklin that I am perhaps to the left of Ellsberg politically.)

Franklin finds fault with my use of sources who had reason to dislike Ellsberg but fails to note that many who applauded Ellsberg's release of the papers also speak critically of him in the book. Franklin repeats myths about Ellsberg's career that my book shows to be myths (e.g., that Ellsberg was "a principal contributor" to the papers). Franklin also misrepresents some of my views, as when he claims that I "continually belittle" the political impact of the papers. Actually, what I criticize several times is Ellsberg's belief that releasing the papers would end the war. If I did not think the papers were politically important, I would never have chosen to write about Ellsberg. Franklin also says that I don't understand what the papers were. That is nonsense, and I used them liberally in a book I wrote earlier on Vietnam (one Franklin may even have read). Curiously, Franklin deprecates me for calling the papers a "study." But aren't all histories studies? This one was called a study by those who participated in it. Tom Wells

Suffolk, Va.

* Tom Wells's biography of Daniel Ellsberg is a solid piece of work even if it's not very concise and has an error or two: For example, he has my attorney in the Pentagon Papers case getting some things terribly wrong but doesn't explain how that was typical of him throughout the case, the poor devil.

More important, Wells presents the data that make the case that Ellsberg is a mythomaniac and a poseur. I know he is right, because I was there throughout: Ellsberg and I were joined at the hip for at least the seventeen-month indictment period and throughout the Ellsberg-Russo Pentagon Papers trial, a trial that materialized in response to my civil disobedience of 1971. If anything, Wells's work is an understatement, because Ellsberg is beyond mythomania. The story of the Pentagon Papers affair has only been partially told, with crucial parts having been covered up. Wells pulls back the curtain by an important amount but certainly not all the way.

H. Bruce Franklin, in his review of Wells's book, makes a series of helpful small critical observations, but in the end he is wrong, terribly wrong, in dismissing the work as "an extended character assassination." In thus characterizing Wells's work Franklin himself is attempting to assassinate Wells's character. But let us dispense with that ugly word and get to the facts.

Franklin makes a statement very similar to one made by John Dean in his Salon review of Wells's book when he says, "Nixon and his accomplices failed. …

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