Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

By Hagan, Ken | Naval War College Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers


Hagan, Ken, Naval War College Review


Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. New York: Viking Penguin, 2002. 498pp. $29.95

For Americans who were adults during the Vietnam War, the name Daniel Ellsberg is portentous; it either suggests a whiff of treason or connotes heroic patriotism. Ellsberg is a Marine Corps veteran, Harvard Ph.D., former senior official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a highly regarded analyst for the RAND Corporation, and a civilian observer of platoon-level combat in Vietnam who defiantly chose to "walk point" with the troops he was observing. In March 1971, Ellsberg released to the New York Times a seven-thousand-page, highly classified Department of Defense history of American involvement in Vietnam. Covering the war from the Truman administration through the Tet offensive of early 1968, this study became known as "The Pentagon Papers" when the New York Times began publishing it on 13 June.

Ellsberg's action earned him federal felony indictments and a protracted criminal trial. On 11 May 1973 the judge abruptly dismissed the government's case, because in the last few weeks evidence had materialized showing that agents of the Richard M. Nixon administration had denied Ellsberg his right to a fair trial by burglarizing his psychiatrist's office in search of material with which to blackmail him into not releasing more documents. This revelation became part of the unfolding drama of the Watergate scandal, the surreptitious forced nighttime entry into the Democratic Party headquarters by the same agents of the administration. President Nixon attempted to buy the silence of one of the burglars, E. Howard Hunt, with a seventy-five-thousand-dollar bribe. Facing impeachment for attempting to cover up the break-in, Nixon wailed about Ellsberg: "The sonofabitching thief is made a national hero. , . . And the New York Times gets a Pulitzer for stealing documents."

Secrets is a book that must be read by anyone seeking to understand how the United States formulates its strategy and policy. Ellsberg demolishes the "quagmire" thesis favored by such influential liberal interpreters as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. By that interpretation, beginning with Harry S. Truman up to the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, each president made a deeper commitment of American military power and clandestine activity, under the conviction that his actions would achieve a South Vietnamese victory over the invaders from the communist North.

From Ellsberg's perspective, there was no quagmire, only endless presidential deception of Congress and the public, who were led to believe decade after decade that surely the next step would result in the successful establishment of a permanently independent South Vietnam. …

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