Non-fiction Weekend - Secrets

Secrets by Daniel Ellsberg

Steve Taylor-Bryant gets involved in the Vietnam War as he reads Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers...

“This is the system I have been working for, the system I have been part of, for a dozen years – fifteen, including the Marine Corps. It’s a system that lies automatically, at every level from bottom to top – from sergeant to commander in chief – to conceal murder.”

Concealing murder? That’s quite the statement and certainly one I didn’t come across in my history studies all those years ago. That’s the beauty of reading something written by the person involved, it goes beyond a teachers soundbite and directly to the heart of the matter. My history teacher was great and the man she called “the father of modern day leaking” got about three weeks of study, all the curriculum would allow, but those three weeks of lessons stuck with me all these years later. I knew the basics, as I am sure many of you do, A man called Daniel Ellsberg leaked Top Secret papers about the Vietnam war to the newspapers and managed to escape prison because President Nixon was a bit corrupt and messed things up for himself. But The Pentagon Papers as a document was much more than that and Daniel Ellsberg as a man is a lot more fascinating than school history lessons allow you to think.

The Pentagon Papers or "Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defence Vietnam Task Force" which is its official title, is 7000 pages and 47 volumes long and is a report written by various people at all levels of government, Ellsberg included, that pretty much shows that FIVE President’s, FIVE administrations, handled Vietnam very badly indeed, lied to the electorate and picked a winless war over surrender which cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Ellsberg writes for a large part of the book of his time in government, working for John McNaughton the Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs, and the time he spent observing, and seeing action, in Vietnam. It’s a large part of the memoir but an important part as it shows that Ellsberg was at first for the war, he was instrumental in decisions to prolong the war, and it wasn’t until later in his career, whilst back as an analyst at Rand Corp, that Ellsberg decided the report he had been part of needed to be seen. Ellsberg didn’t want to release Top Secret documents to the press initially and tried in vain to get Senators and Congressmen to take a look and try and wind back further escalation. It was only when he couldn’t get anyone to help that he turned to first The New York Times, and then The Washington Post and others, to get word out to people that they were being blatantly lied to and people, both American and Vietnamese, were being killed needlessly.

The act of preparing 47 volumes of secret documents was no easy task. This was the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. There was no writable CD’s, there was no USB sticks where you could store 7000 pages in a number of minutes. This was an arduous task of working in the day job and then spending every night for about a year and a half cutting off Top Secret stamps and photocopying one page at a time. This was risky, the police often turned up at the office he was borrowing from a friend, as well as sneaking out the documents a volume at a time and then sneaking them back into place.

The Papers revealed that the presidential administrations of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had all misled the public about the degree of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. President Truman’s decision to give military aid to France during its struggle against the communist-led Viet Minh to President Johnson’s development of plans to escalate the war in Vietnam as early as 1964, even as he claimed he wouldn’t during that year’s presidential election get great coverage. Politically no President comes out of The Pentagon Papers looking good, but President Nixon takes a large share of the story for his criminal acts in the aftermath of the leak not just his illegal bombing campaigns in Indochina. Never before had a President got an injunction out on a newspaper and when The New York Times were stopped from publishing it was the first reported case of the presses stopping. As one newspaper was being heard in the Court of Appeal another would publish part of the report, all the while Ellsberg was in hiding until he turned himself in and faced trial on charges of espionage, conspiracy, and theft. Whilst on trial Nixon was adamant he would end Ellsberg and used his “plumbers” (the men responsible for the break in at the Watergate Complex that effectively did for Nixon’s term in office) to break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist office to get dirt on him, but the judge in Ellsberg’s case was informed and all charges were dropped shortly afterwards.

What I learned the most reading Secrets was that opinions can change in a single moment, in the case of Ellsberg a speech by Randy Kehler about preparing for prison rather than going to fight in a war he deemed criminal, and that when faced with overwhelming evidence against something you believe to be right it is okay to take a moment, admit you were wrong, and change your mind. Whether you have an opinion on whistleblowing and leaking of information or not is beside the point here. Secrets isn’t Ellsberg asking you to agree with his actions it is the very human story of a man who had no other option but to risk his own safety and freedom to make a change in the world, and he has made a change in mine.

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