Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg

a book review by Rich Moniak

It was the spring of 1969. Daniel Ellsberg was working for Rand, a political think tank with high level clearance to Department of Defense documents. The Pentagon Papers, a top secret study formally known as the "History of Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68", had been completed only a few months earlier. Ellsberg had drafted one volume of the study, and it gave him access to information few in Washington even knew existed. In his memoir Secrets, he recalls the origins of his decision to betray the American political establishment by leaking the Pentagon Papers:

"Later that evening a new thought began to emerge for me as I replayed in my mind what I had heard myself saying during the lecture. … What was the implication of saying the majority of South Vietnamese wanted the war to be over no matter who won? What did that say about the legitimacy of imposing our will to continue the war?

I pondered that question late that night. The next morning … I called Mort Halperin, who was working for Henry Kissinger in the White House on Vietnam [and asked] him "what would be your best guess on the proportion of Vietnamese … who would rather see the war over, no matter who won?"

He said … "I suppose about eighty or ninety percent."

I said … "Here's a question that's new for me. It's starting to bother me a lot. If it were true that most South Vietnamese wanted the war to be over, whether that was at the cost of either a Communist victory or a [Government of Vietnam] victory, how could we be justified in keeping the war going inside their country? Why would we have the right to keep it going even one more day?"

There was a long silence. Then Mort said. "That's a very good question. I don't have an answer. Let me think about it"

… afterward, my moral perceptions and feelings began to shift with something of the effect of a Zen koan. … For purposes of our own, involving both external and domestic policies, we were carrying on a war in someone else's country, a country in no way implicated in attacking our own or anyone else's. To continue to do that against the intense wishes of most of the inhabitants of that country began to seem to me morally wrong."

It would be two more years before Ellsberg would become a hero of the anti-war movement for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the America’s news media. What else would he discover between the powerful moral insight discovered those weeks in 1969 and his decision to risk a life of imprisonment? Secrets is the personal memoir of one man’s discovery of the power of truth and the underlying anxieties we all experience in the most difficult decisions facing us.

Secrets is also a historical narrative about the war in Vietnam, a tragic mistake that cost the lives of 58,000 American soldiers and more than million innocent Vietnamese civilians. The Pentagon Papers were a 7,000 page top secret study of the war. The conventional attraction to the story would be to read the big story, its glamour and controversies, heroes and villains, and follow the verifiable chronology of events.

This top heavy relativism dictates importance first to the hidden political history of America’s actions in Vietnam. Ellsberg would merely be the star of the plot formed around the greater injustice of the war itself. Imagining him as an agent of patriotism by leaking the Pentagon Papers focuses us on one citizen and the classified inner workings at the highest seats of our government.

This is exactly how the publisher lures us in. The first testimonial on the back of the book cover is a quote from Martin Sheen: "The most important exposé of Washington since the Pentagon Papers themselves, Secrets is essential reading for any American who wants to understand true patriotism." The Nation magazine tells us Secrets is "dramatic, fast paced and powerful … a compelling contribution to the literature that brings to life the human sacrifice required by every generation if it wishes to make the democratic process responsive and meaningful."

Yet before Secrets can be a dramatic political thriller, its plot must be rooted in the archetypal battle of truth and lies. Imagined this way Ellsberg’s journey becomes similar to our less sensational but true and trying experiences amid the tension between of honesty and secrets. As we see in his story, the strength of his character was molded by the dedication to self examination in the face those challenges. It becomes a calling for each of us to more deeply examine the role of truth in our own lives.