The Man Who Knew Too Much

You’ve seen a lot of movies like this: It’s the new guy’s first day on the job, but before he’s even had time to find the coffee maker, an enormous crisis erupts, and he and his new colleagues are forced to work together to resolve it without really knowing each other yet. Can the old hands trust the new guy? Can he trust them? And we’re off.

As if to prove his life would make a great movie, Daniel Ellsberg opens his memoir, Secrets, with his first day at the Pentagon, where he worked under Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton. That day was August 4, 1964; his first 36-hour workday consisted of scanning cables from the Gulf of Tonkin, where U.S. destroyers were apparently under torpedo attack by the North Vietnamese.

The Tonkin Gulf incident turned out to be a plot engine with ramifications beyond even Hollywood’s imaginings. As President Lyndon Johnson described it to the country, it was simply an act of Communist aggression: North Vietnamese ships attacked U.S. ships for no reason other than that they were, well, Communist aggressors. For those closer to the source of the information, nothing was that clear: The officer who had reported the attacks had almost immediately recanted, saying that he might have been mistaken, and as Ellsberg himself found out later, U.S. advisers in Vietnam had been actively seeking to bring about just such an attack for some time, in order to justify further military involvement in the country. (Presidential adviser McGeorge Bundy commented that “it was like waiting for a streetcar.”) And years later, a New York Times editor named Tony Austin would determine that the attack had in fact never occurred.

But the incident, such as it was, gave Johnson the pretext he needed to secure a resolution from Congress giving him the power to retaliate, and he seized it. Democrats eager to shore up their president’s gunslinger foreign-policy credentials for the upcoming presidential campaign against hawkish Senator Barry Goldwater lined up for the resolution, thinking that by strengthening Johnson’s shot at the presidency they were avoiding the escalation of hostilities in Vietnam that Goldwater was openly proposing. The bitter irony of what followed under Johnson’s prosecution of the war was not lost on many of them.

For the next several years, Ellsberg’s life was inextricably intertwined with the war in Vietnam, as a policy analyst at the Defense Department and the Rand Corporation, as a State Department observer attached to ground troops in Vietnam (Ellsberg, a former Marine, had previously commanded a rifle brigade), as an increasingly vocal critic of the war, and–finally–as the most celebrated whistleblower of his time, when he leaked the Defense Department’s secret internal history of the war, known as the Pentagon Papers, to the press in 1971.

Ellsberg’s description of his transition from Cold War policy wonk to The Man Who Knew Too Much makes for a good deal of worthwhile material. For one thing, Ellsberg moved in elite circles, and the book details a number of entertaining encounters with the likes of Robert F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, and supersoldier John Paul Vann, the subject of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie and Ellsberg’ friend and mentor in Vietnam. For another, Ellsberg’s professional habit of critically analyzing anything and everything makes for an unusually detailed description–from the inside out–of the mindset of a certain type of high-ranking official in the executive branch.

One might expect someone who spent several years of his professional life abetting a war that he later came to believe was grotesquely criminal in nature to have some misgivings about how he has spent his life. But to Ellsberg’s credit as a writer, he doesn’t indulge in much hand-wringing, even when he describes gathering information on Vietcong atrocities that he knew would be used to convince Johnson of the need to begin bombing North Vietnam. Ellsberg considered this policy recommendation to be militarily and morally wrong, but still could not contain his excitement on hitting paydirt, in the form of reports that two American advisers had apparently been tortured and killed by the North Vietnamese:

This sounded like a first in the war. As far as I knew, there was not a single American prisoner of war at that point or one American who had been killed point-blank rather than by impersonal explosions or weapons at a distance. American bodies mutilated, either alive or dead, officers captured and murdered. This was what John had sent me down to get for [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara. I was exultant.

Ellsberg seems unable to explain fully–even to himself–why he stayed on at the Pentagon after bombing had become U.S. policy. But he is unflinching in accepting responsibility for his actions. “That night’s work,” he writes, “was the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

Ellsberg is a meticulous reporter, even when he is the subject, and spends a good deal of time writing about why he thought and acted as he did at any given time. This is not necessarily a fatal flaw: His painstaking self-searching will no doubt be invaluable to future historians, and it has the additional advantage of illustrating the habits of thought that drew the country into the war in the first place. That so many of the war’s worst depredations were carried out by people who believed that they were averting even worse options–Ellsberg, for example, was determined to avoid the consideration of nuclear weapons as a tactic–sheds new light on the era’s signature line: “It was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”

According to Ellsberg, surprisingly few people in the U.S. government really supported the war effort, even as they continued to pursue it. Ellsberg quotes his associate Mort Halperin as saying in April of 1968 that “There are exactly three people in this government who believe in what we’re doing: [assistant to the president for national security] Walt Rostow, [Secretary of State] Dean Rusk, and the president.” Notes Ellsberg: “This was an unusually precise estimate. Yet it had the ring of plausibility.”

The point that Ellsberg drives home repeatedly–and which was borne out by the Pentagon Papers–is that there was no shortage of pessismistic (and, in retrospect, accurate) assessments of the war’s chances for success available to the various presidents and their advisers. The problem was that they weren’t taken seriously enough. Ellsberg recounts that John Paul Vann found himself abruptly 86ed from Johnson’s appointment calendar when he got too clever with Rostow during their interview beforehand, after the Tet Offensive in 1968:

John at the time was expressing a lot more optimism than a lot of people, including me, but he wasn’t talking about victory; he was talking about our ability to avoid defeat. He told me that very quickly Rostow began to get restive. Finally Walt said, “Look, I think the war will be over by the end of the year.”

Feeling flippant, John said with a straight face, “Oh, no, I think we can hold out longer than that.”

Readers who never had any doubt about the wrongness of U.S. involvement in Vietnam may find themselves squirming a little at the leisurely pace of Ellsberg’s conversion experience. Although he offers a convincing argument for why it took him so long to stop offering his counsel to an immoral enterprise–essentially, he thought he would have more influence inside the tent than out–he apparently had to think his way through the problem fully before committing himself.

But Ellsberg’s experience as a high-level presidential adviser and as a former Marine who had also been on the ground with troops in Vietnam also lent him an authority and a breadth of judgment that was sometimes in short supply in the anti-war movement. In one passage, he addresses a group of students cheering the destruction of the campus ROTC building:

I very well understood, and shared, the frustration of the students at their inability to stop the war. But it seemed to have a lot in common with the frustration of the troops in Vietnam, who were the same age as the students in this audience, at their inability to win the war. And the response I had seen in Vietnam was very similar. . . . I told them of the soldiers in Rach Kien, burning down every hut they came to, for no real reason other than to leave some mark they’d passed that way, that they were not just plowing the sea. . . . I couldn’t tell them that I believed that burning down ROTC buildings would be any more productive for ending the war than burning villages in Vietnam.

One interesting aspect of the book is the extent to which the world outside Ellsberg’s immediate view is absent. This makes sense, given the amount of material he has to cover, but it also has the curious effect of making the antiwar movement more or less invisible until Ellsberg himself becomes involved in it. But this may in fact be an accurate reflection of the worldview that he and his colleagues shared at the time.

It was only after Ellsberg began to question the insiders’ code of secrecy and conformity that he could fully commit to public activism against the war. Rand Corporation analysts were not supposed to openly second-guess the actions of clients, which included the U. S. military, but once Ellsberg had decided that to stay silent was morally wrong, he began applying his considerable energies to finding a way to stop the war by whatever means were at his disposal.

A lot of people were doing the same thing, of course, but he was the only one in possession of an illicit copy of a 7,000-page classified government document that detailed the extent to which the American people had been lied to since the war’s inception. And once it occurred to him that making it public might hasten the end of the war, he began to move toward that end.

By his own admission, Ellsberg became somewhat obsessed during this period, and it shows. He vividly depicts his frantic attempts to make multiple copies of the papers to hide in various places–no small feat, since cheap, fast copiers were not yet available, and he could hardly risk using a copy shop to make copies of a document on which every single page was stamped “TOP SECRET.”

Ellsberg finally found a taker in Neil Sheehan of The New York Times, and the rest, as they say, is history. After injunctions against the Times and the other papers that printed the documents were slapped down, the government set about prosecuting Ellsberg on a dozen federal felony charges, which could have resulted in a 115-year prison sentence. But the Nixon White House, fearful that Ellsberg had material on the current administration as well, derailed the case by sending the “plumbers’ unit” of Watergate infamy to burglarize the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, and when that fact became known in the wake of the Watergate break-in, Ellsberg’s case was dismissed. The Pentagon Papers may or may not have hastened the end of the war, but they hastened the fall of Richard Nixon, which Ellsberg argues may have had the same net effect.

Reading Ellsberg’s memoir is a satisfying and often thrilling experience, but it’s chilling in more ways than one. For one thing, he didn’t win his case; it was dismissed because of Nixon’s overreaching. If Nixon had been less paranoid, Ellsberg might still be in jail.

Even more sobering is Ellsberg’s depiction of what war planning looks like from the inside–a depiction that he suspects hasn’t changed much. In a recent interview with Editor and Publisher magazine, Ellsberg summed up the relevance of his experience to the present day:

This government, like in Vietnam, is lying us into a war. Like Vietnam, it’s a reckless, unnecessary war, where the risks greatly outweigh any possible benefits. I’d make this argument to insiders: Don’t do what I did. Don’t keep your mouth shut when you know people are being lied to. Tell the truth before the bombs are falling, while there’s still a chance to do something about it.

John Ratliff is a writer in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST