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Inside the War Machine

The Man Who Leaked the Pentagon Papers Reveals How Wars No One Wants Get Started

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

Author:Daniel Ellsberg

By John Barry | Posted 11/6/2002

Here's a plot for you. The U.S. government decides that a regime on the other side of the world is a threat to peace. The president puts burning domestic issues on hold to focus on this so-called threat. Military brass and experts from around the country warn him that the cost of such a war will far outweigh the benefits. But the president's inner circle decides that full-scale war is the only solution. The White House prepares for a massive bombing while concealing its projected costs in time, men, and money from a nervous American public. Congresspeople from both sides of the aisle, skeptical but fearful of losing votes, grant him this full power to wage war. Sound familiar? That was 1964, the year of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Daniel Ellsberg's memoir begins in 1964, when he joined the Defense Department as an analyst for the Vietnam War effort, and ends in 1973, on the day the federal case against him for leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times was dismissed. Although Ellsberg's name made headlines after his famous leak, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers tells a less dramatic story: that of a midlevel analyst who finds himself participating in the massive disinformation campaign that led to U.S. escalation in Vietnam. Secrets is an extended--and sometimes plodding--narrative of his journey from the Rand Corp. to the Department of Defense to the Rash Kien region of Vietnam and, finally, to the public spotlight. But in the process of narrating this journey, he gives us a chilling, painstakingly detailed account of what might be called the bureaucracy of war.

Ellsberg's world is the middle of the administrative totem pole, where the actors are neither decision-makers nor foot soldiers. They know what's going on in the inner sanctum, but they don't have the power to do much about it. They have the information on the war in Vietnam--and they know it's a dangerous venture at best--but they have few listeners in the upper echelons. That's where the simple bureaucratic mantra prevails: You're not going to get the ear of your higher-up by telling him what he can't do. So tell him what he can do, and then maybe you'll be able to help him see the light. Despite misgivings, then, Ellsberg and his immediate superiors went with the flow. As he is well aware, that current took the American people where they didn't want to go: to full-scale military involvement in a country 10,000 miles away.

If anything, Ellsberg sets out to demolish the mythical image of Lyndon Johnson as the victim of circumstance in the Vietnam imbroglio. The best-kept secret of the war, he says, is that when Johnson brought U.S. troops to Vietnam, he knew exactly what he was getting into. Generals and chiefs of staff were projecting costs of up to 1 million men and seven or eight years of fighting. Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey, McGeorge Bundy, Cyrus Vance, Clark Clifford, and hawks and doves alike were warning that South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse, and still Johnson decided to make the jump. The operative question: How did he get the rest of the country to jump with him?

To find an answer, Ellsberg maps out Johnson's campaign for public acceptance of his Vietnam policy. First, he looked for an unprovoked attack. The Gulf of Tonkin attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on a U.S. destroyer--which Ellsberg describes as having been largely fictionalized--provided him with that. Then he started fudging numbers in public statements, cutting projected troop increases in half. Finally, he was supported by an executive branch staff that, even when skeptical of Johnson's aims, felt obliged to carry those aims out.

"It was our understanding that it was the president's job to make foreign policy, with the advice of our bosses, not, in any serious sense, with the advice of Congress," Ellsberg writes. "It didn't matter that much to us what the public thought."

And so, if there were doubts about the war--or hard evidence that the war couldn't possibly be won--they were stamped top secret and stuffed in the safes. Ellsberg, after years of frustration, decided to open those safes, exposing the executive decision-making process to the world. As he admits, it was too late to do much good.

Ellsberg gives us plenty of dirt on the nut cases in the Oval Office, Richard Nixon in particular, but in the end he tells us that the fault is in the system. It has become the status quo to leave questions of war and peace in the hands of a small coterie of individuals who are not accountable to Congress, the judiciary, or the American people, he argues. And the motives they have for engaging in wars are neither economic (as people suspect) or moral (as they claim). Johnson was motivated by his conviction that his place in history would be "determined by the resolution of the Vietnam conflict." Nixon, meanwhile, had "become publicly committed to the course [of increased bombing of Vietnam] once he saw his own credibility and honor at stake." U.S. presidents had access to the greatest military and intelligence operations in the Free World--or the world itself--but when it came to shoring up their reputation, presidents of both parties proved themselves to be as contemptuous of the advice of the military as they were of Congress.

To all those who feel that Vietnam was a coming-of-age story, Ellsberg reminds in stark but laborious prose that we killed a shitload of people in the process. And lest we forget, the death toll wasn't 50,000; it was in the hundreds of thousands. Those who led us into the war were not held accountable; those who fought in it didn't know what they were getting into. And as long as the executive is given the power to get us into wars without congressional authorization, the buck doesn't stop anywhere. Ordinary Americans aren't above trashing their presidents. And as long as the Oval Office has the sanction for declaring war, presidents aren't above returning the favor.

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