A well-crafted, windmill-tilting autobiography by the famed cold warrior turned antiwar activist.
A former Marine officer and civilian employee in Vietnam, Ellsberg knew early on that the war would lead to heartache for America; as early as the fall of 1961, he recalls, he believed “that nothing we were trying to do was working or was likely to get better.” Armed with “go-anywhere” clearance and allied with the likes of John Paul Vann (the subject of Neal Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie, 1988), Ellsberg had ample opportunities to prove himself right. What is more, he writes here, just about everyone in the American command knew full well that the Vietnam War was a senseless slaughter, the product of think-tankers’ fond wishes and blind faith in American might and technological prowess; still, the habitually blundering leadership ignored clear signs of disaster, and when it did, Ellsberg writes, “I foresaw very strong tendencies to try to recoup early failures and break out of a stalemate by expanding the war still further.” Determined to bring this folly to a conclusion, Ellsberg, by the late 1960s an analyst for the Rand Corporation, decided to expose more than 7,000 pages of secret material that provided “documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years, to conceal plans and actions of mass murder.” When portions of the so-called Pentagon Papers were released by the New York Times and other publications, he writes, sitting president Richard Nixon at first seemed happy to have support for his don’t-blame-me argument, then worried that secret documents from his own administration would be leaked to the media—which, Ellsberg writes, set in motion the chain of spying that ended in the Watergate affair and Nixon’s resignation. Throughout, Ellsberg is convinced of the justice of his cause—as will be many of his readers, on seeing the evidence amassed here of the criminality of our recent politics.
Thoughtful, full of righteous indignation—rightly so—and likely to be of great interest to students of the Vietnam War and domestic resistance thereto.