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Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

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The true story of the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, the event which inspired Steven Spielberg’s feature film The Post

In 1971 former Cold War hard-liner Daniel Ellsberg made history by releasing the Pentagon Papers - a 7,000-page top-secret study of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam - to the New York Times and Washington Post . The document set in motion a chain of events that ended not only the Nixon presidency but the Vietnam War. In this remarkable memoir, Ellsberg describes in dramatic detail the two years he spent in Vietnam as a U.S. State Department observer, and how he came to risk his career and freedom to expose the deceptions and delusions that shaped three decades of American foreign policy. The story of one man's exploration of conscience, Secrets is also a portrait of America at a perilous crossroad.

"[Ellsberg's] well-told memoir sticks in the mind and will be a powerful testament for future students of a war that the United States should never have fought." - The Washington Post

"Ellsberg's deft critique of secrecy in government is an invaluable contribution to understanding one of our nation's darkest hours." -Theodore Roszak,  San Francisco Chronicle

528 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2002

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About the author

Daniel Ellsberg

30 books181 followers
Daniel Ellsberg was an American political activist and United States military analyst. While employed by the RAND Corporation, he precipitated a national political controversy in 1971 when he released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Pentagon study of U.S. government decision-making in relation to the Vietnam War, to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other newspapers.

In January 1973, he was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 along with other charges of theft and conspiracy, carrying a maximum sentence of 115 years. Because of governmental misconduct and illegal evidence-gathering, and his defense all charges were dismissed against Ellsberg in May 1973.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 152 reviews
Profile Image for Rachel.
24 reviews6 followers
March 5, 2008
I saw Daniel Ellsberg at a 2008 Great Conversations event at the University of Minnesota. He impressed me with his astonishing grasp of past and present events (he's either 76 or 78, depending on which source I'm relying on is correct), and his clear philosophy of right v. wrong. (Sounds simple I know, but I find it's rare in today's politics.) If you're interested, the audio is online: www.cce.umn.edu/conversations/audio.html

Back to the book...
Secrets at its best is a look into how the American government makes decisions. Daniel Ellsberg worked in Robert McNamara's Defense Department, and saw firsthand how staff members suppressed their own personal feelings or ideas about Vietnam so that they could "better" serve their superiors (essentially leading up to Johnson), whom they felt supported escalation. Rather than offer contrary opinions or highlight inconvenient facts, they toed the party line.

Ellsberg also talks about his decision to release the top-secret Pentagon Papers, in an effort to dispel the secrecy surrounding the government's decision. The essential impression I came away with is that the secrecy classification system in use in our government is hurtful to the country as a whole. Average citizens believe that the government (in Ellsberg's mind, mainly the President) must be making the right decision, because the government has access to information that citizens don't have. Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers so that citizens could see that, despite having all this top secret information, the government in fact made the wrong decisions--time and time again.

Moments in this book read like a political thriller; at other times it bogged down in details. Overall though it was an interesting and eye-opening read. For myself I thought it added a new perspective to my knowledge of the Vietnam War and government decision-making in general.
32 reviews2 followers
March 5, 2016
Long before the birth of Edward Snowden, America was rocked by the revelations of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. This autobiography provides insight into his life and motivations, while also meticulously detailing the government's efforts to arrest and silence him.

Labeled a hero by some and a traitor by others, Ellsberg's release of the notorious (and highly classified) Pentagon Papers, a study by the US Government and the Rand Corporation of America's struggle in Vietnam, would shake American politics to the core. Bringing into question just how soon American leaders had understood that the Vietnam War was a lost cause, the Pentagon Papers laid bare the lies told by politicians, the CIA, and military leaders, about the war.

Ellsberg was, at first glance, an unlikely whistleblower. A clean-cut ivy leaguer, with a degree in economics from Harvard, after studying at Cambridge, he returned to the US and joined the Marine Corps. He soon find himself employed as a nuclear strategist by the CIA affliatated Rand Corporation. By 1964, he was working in the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, quickly becoming embroiled in the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Under the command of General Edward Lansdale, he would spend two years working for the State Department in South Vietnam.

He returned home in 1967, tired and disillusioned, nominally employed by the Rand Corporation. He had long believed that the war was simply a mistake, that our leaders hubris was blinding them to the reality on the ground, but the Papers, which he first read in 1969, called this view into question. They suggested that American leaders understood, as early as 1965, that the war was unwinnable. He believed the American public deserved to know the truth. He risked everything to ensure that the Pentagon Papers were published.

What follows is a two year struggle to get them publicly released, days spent on the run, and his eventual arrest. The government might have successfully tried and imprisoned him for life, but Pres. Nixon's rampant paranoia and criminal activities proved to be a godsend for Ellsberg.

An engaging read for anyone interested in American history, politics, and the Vietnam War.

Profile Image for Oraynab Jwayyed.
Author 3 books5 followers
January 22, 2022
Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to expose the Pentagon Papers was brave beyond explanation. His memoir proves that the resistance against the draft and the Vietnam war was justified, because the public and the media were being misled. Worse, all five presidents that served during the war knew, without a doubt, that America’s involvement would cost the country needless human lives and suffering.

However, the book was difficult to read. Ellsberg is a military man, with technical training in economics and policy, who holds a Ph.D., and the writing reflects that. It’s just too detailed, and wrought with military and strategic jargon, it put me to sleep. Twice.

This does not dismiss Ellsberg’s actions, though. His decision to turn over the classified material to the New York Times and the Washington Post was a smart one. As he states from the onset, Ellsberg tried numerous times to warn his superiors that the war was a huge mistake, and that it would lead to a lose-lose outcome. He was right, because every underhanded, immoral strategy implemented by the five presidents that spanned the Vietnam war only succeeded in placing soldiers and civilians in harm’s way. So why the prolonged war? According to Ellsberg, he believes after reading tens of thousands of classified documents, that the president holds too much power. Pretty scary now that we’re living during the unstable Trump period.

If you’re into the tedious, technical writing, go ahead and read the book. It will honor a man who sacrificed everything to perform his duty as a military man: to protect the country and the people he swore to serve.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,135 reviews52 followers
October 24, 2022
A fascinating history about Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers on the Kennedy and Johnson Vietnam era, the lies and the Nixon administration's subsequent behavior. The Pentagon papers actually had more to do with bringing down the corrupt Nixon administration than Watergate itself.

Nixon was worried that Ellsberg had dirt on him about Laos and Cambodia, Nixon and Kissinger were directly managing the bombing in these countries with the Navy and others by bypassing the Secretary of Defense who did not approve of an illegal war. On the other hand Nixon was more than thrilled that the Pentagon Papers leaks were making the Kennedy administration look bad. Remember Nixon lost to Kennedy in 1960 on some suspicious vote gathering in Illinois that made Nixon even more aggrieved and paranoid. So Nixon formed the plumbers with Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy to leak portions of the Pentagon papers while at the same prosecuting Ellsberg for leaking so that he could make the Kennedys (John and Bobby) look bad. This is in 1971, long after both assassinations. But this leak also meant Nixon's main rival Teddy Kennedy would be damaged and Nixon would gain politically. At the same time Nixon also had the plumbers dig up dirt on Ellsberg and form a secret group within the CIA to plant false information in the press and other improprieties like raiding Ellsberg's psychiatrists office. The hush money Nixon paid to Hunt was to cover up this information not Watergate. Nixon also told the judge in Ellsberg case that had been ongoing for two years, that Nixon would consider him to be his Attorney General. The judge finally had to declare the case dismissed with prejudice because of the governments conduct.

You can't make the actions and depravity of Nixon up!

5 stars. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Pabgo.
123 reviews1 follower
November 16, 2015
Awesome memoir! Read like a thriller, a page turner. And it really happened!! All your favorite characters are there: Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, John Paul Vann, Neil Sheehan, and of course, Ellsberg himself. All the despots too, Mitchel, Erlichman, Kissinger, Hunt, Colson, Halderman, that psychopath Liddy, and the biggest scumbag of all, responsible for the needless deaths of thousands upon thousands (many young Americans), the war criminal Richard Nixon.
This is a detailed story of a true patriot. I always had a sketchy impression of the whole Ellsberg thing. I thought he just copied the papers, then walked into the NY Times and had them published. Wrong! This is the story of a man on the inside of the government, who believed in the cause, who's relentless thoroughness to do the best job he could, found the truth revealed to him, turned 180 degrees and became instrumental in bringing an end to the debacle that was Vietnam. His journey to try to do that WITHIN the system is amazing, showing that release of the documents through the press was really a last resort.
Why is this book relevant? It is now common knowledge that the Bush administration began planning the invasion of Iraq from day one. Reading this book illustrates that this abuse of executive power is nothing new, (and not just among the Republicans!). An enlightening filling in the blanks of history, in an engaging, and might I say, entertaining read.
64 reviews
February 20, 2019
I all ready considered Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers an heroic act, but something about his telling of the story was a bit off-putting at times. A little bit like as if Rosa Parks had written a book detailing how awesome her act of civil disobedience was. But, who else could tell the story, really? This was a definite page-turner, especially once the decision is made to start copying the papers. I did enjoy his anecdotes about the several times he nearly bungled the operation. If he were completely arrogant, he would have left those out. Ha!
Profile Image for Themistocles.
388 reviews14 followers
March 1, 2011
A great book that reads like an Oliver Stone movie: one part Vietnam war, one part political thriller. Not only does Ellsberg a fantastic story to tell, but he tells it well to boot.

Granted, there are a few points that go on slowly, where he discusses internal politics, and also the final part (the papers release and the trial period) is toned down compared to third-party accounts and documentaries, but perhaps it's to be expected, since he's talking about himself...
Profile Image for Cliff M.
221 reviews16 followers
March 29, 2023
An incredible book, in which the author describes with amazing recall his work in and on Vietnam, and his subsequent battle to reveal the lies told by successive US presidents and their administrations to perpetuate a war that was started originally by the French in 1946 (to stop the people of the country moving away from being a French colony and toward being a democracy).
This diary covers the period from when Ellsberg was posted to Vietnam as a US Marine; his government sponsored work for the Rand Corporation on the possibility of using nuclear weapons in IndoChina; his work on the Vietnam War in the Pentagon for the Secretary of Defense (as a government employee); his deployment to Vietnam as a civilian working for the State Department; and, his efforts to reveal the truth about how Americans had been lied to for decades about the war. This sort of book has the potential to be dry, but as it is written mostly in the present tense it became (for me, at least) a real page turner. Ironically, the thing that helped Ellsberg most when it came to revealing the lies of successive presidents is the arrival of Richard Nixon - a man so cartoonishly malevolent and crooked that suddenly everything Ellsberg had been saying all along started to ring true.
The only thing Ellsberg cared about was stopping Vietnamese people being killed. For him, bombing wasn’t an abstract concept or a number an internal Pentagon memo (and he saw thousands of those…), For him, bombing meant mutilated, dead children, stripped of their flesh. This was because (unlike many of his colleagues) he had been there and seen it with his own eyes. From that point on, their lives became more important than his own life. For that, he is a hero in my opinion.
2,285 reviews33 followers
April 28, 2021
“Twenty years of crime under four presidents. And every one of those presidents had a Harvard professor at his side, telling him how to do it and how to get away with it.”

Ellsberg was part of that golden era of whistle blowers and journalists from the late 60s and early 70s, people like Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who went to great personal risk to reveal the lies and deception baked into the very DNA of the strongest power structures in the land. Their sterling work shook up America and the rest of the world, showing just how far their own democratically elected leaders were willing to go in order to get what they wanted, we discover a culture of deception and legacy of lies, where personal gain and political ambition is consistently prioritised over human life.

13’000 arrested in one afternoon, most of them peaceful and unarmed, but yet many were beaten and Maced, for daring to protest against their government’s murdering innocent men, women and children…no this isn’t contemporary China or Myanmar, this was the Washington DC in 1971.

A succession of American governments weren’t smart or sagacious enough to see what lay ahead of them, they made the exact same mistake as the French in Vietnam, except it cost the Americans a lot more, but then fast forward to the 21st century and we see that they fell into the same trap again, unable to learn from other the Russians they blindly stumbled into Afghanistan and again they refused to acknowledge defeat and stayed there far too long as the bodies piled up and everyone wondered what they were fighting for?...

One of the more disturbing aspects to this story was the amount of Americans who came out and attacked Ellsberg for speaking up. Not just the guilty parties within the government and the military, but elsewhere in the media too, RAND and people on the street, which reminds you that there is never any shortage of ignorance or people willing to turn a blind eye to large scale slaughter.

It’s worth remembering who won and lost overall, Richard Nixon, like every other criminally negligent US president, was never meaningfully punished, not only that but he was later pardoned by Gerald Ford, another US president, thus showing the true colours of American justice. A man guilty for so many atrocious war crimes as well as Watergate doesn’t even have to spend a night in jail let alone be made an example of.

One of the most revealing aspects to the Pentagon Papers was the lack of interest or action from the majority of those in positions of power, especially in the early stages. We should be asking why so many in power were so reluctant to speak out against the obvious and long-term criminality ?...Might it be that it also said much about them too?... and that this was just a little too close to home. After all if we start denouncing and god forbid, punishing those in government or in the military, what if we started to look elsewhere?...What other lies and criminal behaviour might we uncover?...It reminds you that those controlling those systems of power have close and shared interests with others in those systems and so they will routinely do everything in their power, legal or otherwise, to protect them, as they understand that one day it could be their turn and face some difficult truths and awkward questions of their own.

“I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?”

This is just a snippet of the appalling detail in the transcripts, freewheeling talk of nuclear bombs, casualty lists, death rates between the President of the USA and Kissinger. “This is the language of torturers” so said the tearful wife of the author after first reading an excerpt of the Pentagon Papers. The American public responded to the Pentagon Papers and the escalating war by voting Nixon back into power with the second largest landslide in American history.

We should be wary of buying into the myth that things have improved a lot since these events. After all remember all of those who voted for the illegal invasion of Iraq?...a sorry list, which includes the current leader of the free world and liberal darling Hillary Clinton, and then there is the horror show that is Afghanistan and also keep in mind that Americans still practice torture to this very day, not least in Guantanamo Bay.

We should also remember how Obama and again Clinton et al reacted to the new generation of whistle blowers like Assange, Snowden and Manning, after they had exposed yet another government’s legacy of lies and deception on its own people and just like Nixon half a century ago, the emphasis is on ridiculing and punishing those who have risked everything to expose the greater and wider crimes of those in power. Never to punish those in power.

This book does have its dull and slower moments that can drag in spells, and I think this would have benefited from some more judicial editing in some place, but without doubt this is hugely significant account of a phenomenally important event of the 20th Century and reminds us just what those in power are capable of and the many ways they can and do exploit the privileges of their power for the darkest and most selfish aims imaginable.

It is worth remembering that Nixon and Kissinger were also responsible for lying and killing elsewhere in the world too, as in the case of Chile in the early 70s which led to the death of the democratically elected Allende, and they helped install the military dictator Pinochet, to reform the nation as a laboratory for their US friendly neo-liberalist policies, whilst the people of Chile suffered and died for decades.

In the city of Vientiane in Laos there is a little museum you can visit, and one of the exhibits consists of a full length mirror and in front of it there is a crude prosthetic leg, there is a spot where you can insert you knee in it and look at your reflection to see what you would look like if you were one of the many thousands of peasants who were unfortunate enough to stand on one of the UXOs dropped by the Americans, during a campaign so relentless and horrendous that it gave Laos the undesirable title as the most over bombed country on earth. That is the real price paid and as ever it is the poorest and neediest that pick up the tab. The ordinance clearing still continues today, around half a century after the bombs were dropped. That is the true legacy of American post-war foreign policy.
Profile Image for Keith MacKinnon.
16 reviews4 followers
February 24, 2011
Words of James Madison, drafter of the First Amendment:

“A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."

Words of H. R. Haldeman spoken to President Nixon, Oval Office tapes, June 14, 1971, on the impact of the Pentagon Papers:

"To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: you can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgement. And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.”

Ellsberg’s story of his deed is well told. Here is a man who risked his life for his country and then threw away his career and potentially his freedom to end a fruitless and murderous war. Score a point for the good guys.
Profile Image for Eric_W.
1,924 reviews369 followers
February 26, 2020
Ellsberg certainly likes himself in this revealing memoir, although I didn't care for the way the audiobook shifted back and forth between a narrator and Ellsberg himself. That being said, it's clear that Ellsberg, however laudable his motives, revels in rationalization for his actions. I was surprised by the role Neil Sheehan (author of the excellent https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4...) played in spiriting off with a complete set of the documents he swiped from the apartment where Ellsberg was hiding the copies. Sheehan delivered them to the Times where they spent weeks going over everything in preparation for their publication. Ellsberg found this out only during the depositions for his trial when the infamous Howard Hunt's safe was found to contain evidence showing what Sheehan had been up to.

Once the Times had hold of the documents and had begun publishing, the Nixon administration went to court to get an injunction against publishing, the first time the press had been subject to prior restraint according to Ellsberg. I seem to remember the case of Near v Minnesota in which the Supreme Court had ruled prior restraint unconstitutional, but perhaps the erroneous clarion call of "national security" made the difference. In any case the Supreme Court in New York Times v United States ruled they could publish. One result was an awakening of the somnolent newspaper industry which had been mostly regurgitating government handouts with regard to foreign policy. A longer term effect was the steady erosion of unquestioning support for not just the war, but government itself.

Bob Haldeman had predicted as much in a conversation with Nixon: 
To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing.... You can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say; and you can't rely on their judgment; and the – the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because It shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it's wrong, and the president can be wrong.

The recent publication by the Post of the Afghanistan Papers reveals a similar pattern of mendacity and prevarication on the part of the government and military; the "we have just turned the corner," syndrome.

By that time it was all really moot anyway, as Ellsberg had, with the help of many friends who helped hide him and his wife while the FBI was looking for him, distributed sets to more than a dozen other papers. In fact, for a while Ellsberg must have felt he was living in a spy novel. He was hidden by friends who communicated in codes and talked only on pay phones (I wonder how that would go today -- I suppose the equivalent would be burner phones.)

Among the secrets revealed was that the president and his men kept two sets of books. Often even the pilots were unaware they were bombing in areas they had been told were off limits like Laos and North Vietnam. It got so bad that a lowly sergeant reported to his senator that everyone was lying. He was assuming the president didn't know, but it was the president who was orchestrating the whole thing. 

By this time Ellsberg had been arrested and charged. Ironically, the U.S. did not have an Official Secrets Act. In fact Congress had specifically excluded whistle-blowers when it was debating what to do about leakers,  although neither Ellsberg nor his attorneys knew that at the time. 

I have to admit that Ellsberg probably should have gotten a medal simply for the fortitude in standing over an early Xerox machine to make copies of 7,000 pages. That, in itself, was punishment.
Profile Image for Randall Wallace.
543 reviews417 followers
November 9, 2014
I love in this book when Daniel in Vietnam comes across Japanese pillboxes and mounds of old stones of a Chinese fort and realized through interpreters that the Vietnamese believe they removed the Chinese after 1,000 years and the Japanese left much faster, so what hope does the US have to be successful? Arthur Schlesinger discusses the Vietnam policy of “one more step” – each step would be framed as one more step to victory while the outcome was that every step deepened US involvement in a quagmire. 1961 documents show that no one believed in short run success. JFK knew if he sent ground troops to Vietnam he would be trapped like the French were. The French had learned colonies where dying out because of increasingly effective native resistance, a lesson not appreciated by American policy makers anymore than realizing that while trying to take over South Vietnam meant fighting only part of the populace, fighting North Vietnam, would mean fighting the entire populace. Wow. We dropped an overwhelming tonnage of bombs in Indochina (1.7 million tons in three years), even though American policy makers including Clark Clifford on down “believed it served no national purpose whatsoever”. Not true. The carnage contributed to GNP! ☺ Why is there no more American diplomacy? Because top policy makers enjoy immunity to the golden rule even with comments like this one of Kissinger’s: “How can you conduct diplomacy without a threat of escalation? Without that there is no basis for negotiations.” Yum. But if, as Richard Barnett says, America’s 1st purpose is “to win” then there goes the golden rule and any moral standing of which we can be proud. The burning unanswered question at the time was: If 80 to 90% of South Vietnam wants the war over no matter who wins then what right do we still have to be in their country let alone continue this war one more minute? In 1945, Vietnam becomes independent, two years later the French try to “change that”. In that period, Truman ignores Ho Chi Minh’s pleas (contradicting the American tradition of anti-colonialism) for help for Vietnam so it won’t have to go communist. In ten years, millions of people will begin pay dearly for Truman’s short- sighted expensive mistake of turning away Ho. The British learned you couldn’t stop guerilla warfare in our revolutionary war with them and again in Burma. However, once the U.S brought in their PR move - the “falling domino theory” to help fight commies, reason took a back seat for US planners to the brilliance shutting the door (allowing no communist states) after the only animal of any value (China) in the barn escapes. Whatever tries to get through the door after China’s exit must be made an example of (to save face after losing China) and the first thing was - the state Truman personally turned away from democracy and capitalism, Vietnam.

In this book Ellsberg brilliantly shows how from 1946 on, each president lied to the American people about what they were doing in Vietnam and what the prospects of “success” were. To Ellsberg, in his high role of advisor, it became clear that the failure in Vietnam was the failure of each president – they all knew why Vietnam was a totally unrealistic policy and yet each time they gave in to it. There is a bureaucratic tradition of mute service but the counterculture re-introduced public protest and Ellsberg was seduced and he breached the bureaucratic wall of mute service with his Rand letter and the subsequent Pentagon Papers. He realized it had become very American to think that violence is needed to show seriousness and be effective – however in Vietnam that narrative had now died and it’s death was being covered up. In the end this book is about the dangers of the US postwar secrecy system, making sure no president has too much power (good luck with that) and about each one of us at some point having an Ellsberg moment and refusing to be an accomplice to what is being done daily in our name. Daniel says from “ratchet” to “one more turn of the screw” as a nation we still unthinkingly collectively use the language of torturers. He also reminds us of the depressing thought that every president involved with the Vietnam War had a Harvard professor at his side telling him not only how to commit a morally wrong action, but how to get away with it.
Profile Image for Art.
551 reviews15 followers
August 9, 2018
The Post, the historical political thriller that released in December, drew on this book and The Pentagon Papers as sources for the story. I read the Papers as that series first published then again before seeing the film. But, for the film, I also read Daniel Ellsberg’s memoir, expecting to read only the relevant parts. But his interesting story kept me glued from cover to cover.

This memoir focuses on Ellsberg’s extensive background and how he took the documents. The book also explores the war on Vietnam and why it took so long to end.

Sixty-eight became a pivotal year of the war. The Tet Offensive in January made a big impact on Congress and the American public because of the scale and coordination of the attacks throughout Vietnam.

In March, Ellsberg, for the first time, gave classified reports to Neil Sheehan of The New York Times. The documents revealed troop strength and requests for more amid General Westmoreland’s deceptive claim that enemy strength declined. The resulting article raised serious questions about Westmoreland’s accounts, eroding confidence.

The documents that would become known as the Pentagon Papers began as The History of U S Decision-Making in Vietnam, 1945-68. The study took two years.

Ellsberg, who began as a hawk, came to see the war as a wrongful prolonging against the wishes of most Vietnamese. He drew inspiration from Henry David Thoreau’s essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, which urged a nonviolent withdrawal of cooperation. Speaking truth to power, a Quaker phrase from the mid-fifties, also appeal to Ellsberg. These two concepts gave him the moral underpinnings for his biggest project.

Almost fifty years ago, Ellsberg left work and walked past guards at Rand with a briefcase of secret documents that he would photocopy that night. A scene in the film brings that moment to life. Over its ten installments in the paper, the Pentagon Papers filled fifty pages in The New York Times. Ellsberg believed that the impact of the story played out by revealing the deceit, recklessness and cynicism of the leaders.

Sheehan, the journalist, knew that authorities lied to him but did not know the extent until he read the study. The Times published its first article three months after Ellsberg shared with Sheehan.

Walter Cronkite, the most trusted person in America as the CBS News anchor, described Vietnam as a stalemate after he returned from a trip to the country. My Dad stopped supporting the war around this time but kindly did not reveal his change of heart until I returned home from Nam.

Thanks to The Post, I read this intriguing book, which fleshed out my background on Daniel Ellsberg.
17 reviews
August 12, 2016
An incredibly important read for any American who believes that our foreign policy should be determined democratically. This book reveals the extent to which U.S. presidents can (and have) deceived the American public and the congress. It describes a culture (that likely still exists) in the executive branch that dismisses the opinions of a "common citizen" as uninformed, and therefore, not worth consideration. It begins to explain how a war so unpopular with the American public could last for twenty years, presenting a history of repeated secrecy and flawed policy--both ethically and strategically--that really should be taught in high school classrooms. Perhaps most importantly though, it makes me wonder how to cast my "whole vote"--how, as an American citizen, I can hold my government accountable, whether through truth-telling (as in Ellsberg's case), activism, or other means, because evidently, elections alone do not create effective democracy.

And a side note, for all of us engaged in deciding who will be our next commander-in-chief: read this book for an understanding how much control that person will have over our foreign policy, and to think about the qualifcations that he or she should have. Do they have the understanding of history and international relations to make smart, ethical choices? The stakes are too high to choose lightly.
Profile Image for Phil.
94 reviews5 followers
August 29, 2007
This book was incredible. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in learning something about the Vietnam War and the lies and atrocities committed by our government. Ellsberg tells the story of his experience working for the Pentagon at the time and his travels in Vietnam. He risks his career and his life to release top secret Pentagon documents that expose the abuses of our government. It's a shame this book isn't more popular and that more people don't know who Ellsberg is and what he did for our country.
Profile Image for Eric Layton.
259 reviews
June 7, 2019
As many of you know from reading my reviews, I have an affinity for historical books from the Vietnam War era. This is because this was "my" war. This was the terrifying event that was happening on the evening news when I was a kid. This is because of the fear my parents had regarding my draft-age brother in 1969. It was these and many other things that make it "my" war; including the excellent music from that era. Rock & Roll had something to say. It said it LOUDLY! What it was saying was that this war SUCKED. It was WRONG. I agreed then and I still do.

As I've aged and gained that experience and wisdom that you usually don't manage to get till you're too old to use it, I've learned just how wrong and insanely stupid this war really was. I've also learned how government run amok can get a country into a wasted effort such as this and continue to maintain that country's presence on the battlefields along with all the useless death that entails.

The man who wrote this book I'm reviewing here is nothing less than a National Hero. I hope history is kind to him and convinces everyone that what I state is true. This man decided that he had to stop this inane war even if it caused harm to his family, friends, future job prospects; even if it put him behind bars for life. He realized just how wrong this war was and how terribly wrong those in the government were for using all means legal or not to continue the useless killing of U.S. soldiers, airmen, marines, sailors, etc.; how wrong it was to continue the killing of many innocent civilians in South and North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

If you're the least bit curious how government works behind closed doors, or the least bit curious how Donald Trump's White House may be handling foreign affairs and even domestic ones, then you should read this book. Ellsberg was a deep insider for many years as a consultant with the Rand Corp. and as an actual government employee at times. He knows how government works; particularly how the Executive Branch of this government (the U.S.) lies, manipulates, threatens, and sucks up in order to get its agenda pushed through to fruition.

You'll learn about how the Eisenhower administration did it. You see how the Kennedy administration continued down the same paths. You'll see how Johnson was just a further continuation of the previous two administrations. You'll see how an opposing president (Nixon - Republican) did everything in what he assumed was his vast kingly powers to continue down the same road the three previous Democratic administrations had trod. You'll be amazed at all these administrations' lack of compassion or regrets regarding all the dead, wounded, and maimed (physically and mentally) that they created by pursuing their goals in this unbelievably complex war in a small Southeast Asian country.

Ellsberg did not feel that presidents should have unlimited powers to engage a country in wars such as this without the knowledge of that country's own elected officials (Congress) or, more importantly, it's own citizens. Yet, this is exactly what happened during that era; through four separate administrations. The deceit and secretiveness of those pursuing these goals was criminal. And sadly, I believe this still goes on today, 50 years later.

Read this book. It's as pertinent to current times as it was for the Vietnam War era. It will make you think. This is its purpose. It may also make you think about others who've tried to raise the alarm in recent years... WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. I believe their day of vindication is coming.

The U.S. Constitution starts by saying,

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Notice first three words in bold type. It does NOT say we the Executive Branch or we the Congress or we the Justice Department. It says We the People. The insidious creeping that has robbed the People of their government and country should be reversed and forever erased. Only We the People can make this happen. Wake up!
Profile Image for Robert.
223 reviews9 followers
December 12, 2019
Daniel Ellsberg is the man behind the release of what became known as the "Pentagon Papers" in 1971. The Pentagon Papers was a study of the Vietnam war from 1945 to the then present 1968, The study was originally started by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who was having his own misgivings about the war. Ellsberg was a military analyst who seemed to be everywhere in the 50's and 60's. Highly intelligent he attended Harvard, twice. In between stints at Harvard he attended Kings College in Cambridge, England. In the midst of this he also volunteered for the Marine Corp and was a rifle Platoon Leader. After this he became an analyst for RAND Corporation which did analytical work for the military. The book roughly begins around the time he became a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton which was coincidentally the day of the controversial second attack on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam in August of 1964.

Then working for the State Department he went to Vietnam and spent a lot of time on the front lines in uniform with American and Vietnamese forces. He witnessed a lot of corruption and witnessed the real war that was going on which was different than was being told to the public at the time. One of the most memorable moments is when I compared war to the American Revolution to where the American’s were the Redcoats. “By any chance, do you feel like the Redcoat’s?” he asks (Page 160). It wasn’t necessarily a comparison of who was right or wrong but of a larger foreign well equipped army essentially fighting to a stalemate with a smaller, elusive and determined foe fighting for their homeland. Anyone who knows anything about the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 can easily see the likeness of the scrappy ragtag American’s defending their homes against what was the largest and best equipped army at the time. It’s hard to tell but I think this was when Ellsberg started having misgivings about the war.

He later returns to working for Rand and then starts working what would later be called “The Pentagon Papers” which was initiated by Robert McNamara which studied almost everything the government did in Vietnam since the end of World War 2. After which he decides he wants to what he can to end the war and one of which is releasing (aka: leaking) the Pentagon Papers which is no small feat being over 7000 pages long and also being quite illegal. After help from his family and close friends he eventually does. Then it was who to leak it too. He first tried some members of Congress even future Presidential candidate Senator McGovern but to no avail. Then he went to the New York Times and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

It’s difficult to measure the full impact of the release of the ‘Pentagon Papers”. The war continued for another year and a half after the release of them. It could be argued that Nixon’s obsession with discrediting Ellsberg lead to him creating "The Plumbers" which the Watergate break-in followed and leads to his eventual resignation. It does seem the revelation of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate combined to help feed the massive mistrust of our government which pervades to this day.

I did enjoy the book and learned a lot about the Vietnam era and the inner workings of government and its inner workings and how decisions are made. It does get a little mired in details at times but not too much. It does have relevance today given the focus on government whistle-blowers in the current political climate. I do recommend it if you’re interested in the genre.
Profile Image for David Szatkowski.
950 reviews
August 17, 2022
The book explains the author's experience with various administration's policy toward the Vietnam war and why he eventually decided to leak the Pentagon Papers. The importance of that accountability of the government to the people was an important event in US history. For that reason, other whistle blowers should also be thought about in light of current politics.
11 reviews1 follower
June 25, 2023
Daniel Ellsberg, RIP, had a charmed yet somewhat bizarre life. He was a Harvard graduate, USMC infantry officer, nuclear war planning and strategist turned pacifist;arrested 90+ times as a nuclear war protester in the previous 50 years. And he copied 7000 pages of classified, top secret documents that were to become known as the Pentagon Papers. The book covers his arc of understanding policy and execution of our involvement in Indochina- Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia.I Was a teenager at that time, oblivious to it all. It was significant at the time but largely forgotten by now. The collective amnesia of the American people and its government regime of foreign incursions with severe military involvement is astonishing. Atrocities to include genocide were then the norm and have continued into our current history. Ellsberg’s moment of significance has largely been forgotten, and the truth of Vietnam lost to the corners of our minds.
The book is good. The writing alright. It’s a long book and took me awhile to plow through it. A worthwhile study of our recent past.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
59 reviews2 followers
August 13, 2018
Interesting but a tendency to be a bit turgid
stick with it, it's okay. The story is important though and I'm pleased it's been told
Profile Image for Steve.
82 reviews3 followers
May 19, 2014
"Secrets" is the memoir of Daniel Ellsberg, the patriotic whistleblower who leaked a top-secret history of the Vietnam War (later called the "Pentagon Papers") in order to help end it, by revealing to the American people that the case for the war had been built on decades of lies and deception -- and that the war was not only unjust, but also fundamentally unwinnable.

Ellsberg was a high-level analyst who spent considerable time in Vietnam and advising policy-makers; he was, in fact, a Cold Warrior (though one always focused on averting nuclear war) and Vietnam war planner. But as he learned more about the history of the war -- and especially when he became only the third person to read a classified, 7,000-page history of the planning and execution of U.S. involvement in Vietnam under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson -- he became increasingly opposed to it. And when he learned that the pattern of threats and deception was continuing under a fifth President, Nixon, he decided to do whatever he could to stop it, including civil disobedience, inspired by his reading of Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Ellsberg's disobedience was to inform policy-makers and the public about the truth behind the war, by leaking the classified study. This book is the long story of his involvement with the war, including significant detail on his time "on the ground" in Vietnam, his growing disillusionment, his decision to release the Pentagon Papers, and the consequences of that decision -- which included a landmark First Amendment Supreme Court ruling, the resignation of President Nixon due, in part, to his attempts to discredit Ellsberg, and finally an end to the Vietnam War. Ellsberg certainly doesn't deserve all the credit for ending the war -- but he deserves all the credit in the world for risking his livelihood and his freedom to tell the public the truth, and end an immoral war being conducted by his government.

In addition to telling his personal story, Ellsberg's book reads to me like an extended discourse on the proper relationship between the people and the government in a democracy. In an era in which the Director of National Intelligence (James Clapper) can blatantly lie to the Congress and the public by claiming that the government does not collect data on millions of Americans, while a low-level analyst (Edward Snowden) is charged with espionage for telling the public the TRUTH about government programs that DO collect data on millions of Americans, we ALL should be meditating on what Ellsberg writes about -- and then ACTING on it, as he did.

Henry Kissinger called Daniel Ellsberg "the most dangerous man in America." At the ACLU of Massachusetts Bill of Rights Dinner on May 12, 2014, at which Ellsberg received the ACLU's Roger Baldwin Award, ACLU attorney Ben Wizner (who represents Snowden) said "the most dangerous man in government is the one with a conscience." Kissinger was wrong (in this and many other instances); Wizner is right -- Daniel Ellsberg is a patriot and a true American hero. If you've been interested enough to read to this point of my review, I strongly encourage you to read Ellsberg's book!
Profile Image for Frederick Bingham.
1,062 reviews
January 1, 2012
This is a memoir of Daniel Ellsberg. He was a mid-level analyst who worked at the Pentagon, State Department, Rand Corp. and other government and private jobs. He became famous in 1971 with the release of the Pentagon Papers, a classified study of the history of the war in Vietnam. The study showed a consistent pattern of lies and misinformation put out by the government over a period of 25 years between the late 1940's and mid 1960's.He discusses the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the lies put out to justify it. He talks about the 18 months he himself spent in Vietnam in 1964-1966. He realized then that the war was unwinnable and that the efforts put forth by the americans were a pointless waste of life and treasure.After he got back from Vietnam, he came to see the war as not only futile, but immoral and unjust. He got involved with the antiwar movement. His conclusions about the war were as follows: 1) Rather than there being an early 'french war' and a later 'american war' there was one war, continuous for 30 years from 1945-1975. 2) In the early years, the french did most of the fighting, but the americans provided funds and logistical support. Thus, the war was almost entirely an american action from the beginning. 3) The war was fought not because of bad advice that presidents had, but in spite of good advice. A series of 5 presidents had very smart people telling them that the best course of action was to simply withdraw. Every one ignored that advice. 4) The war was being fought not on behalf of a democratic South Vietnamese regime, but was a war of aggression against a popular movement in the countryside aided from the north. 5) At every turn, the US government lied about its intentions in Vietnam, stating that they did not wish a larger war, meanwhile formulating plans to escalate. Lyndon Johnson was especially guilty of this. 6) The Americans signed peace accords, but did everything in their power to undermine them.There are two main conclusions from the war that I draw. 1) The government can and usually does lie about its aims with regards to wars. Nothing the government says should be believed on its face. This is an especially important lesson in the wake of the Iraq war. 2) America is not always on the side of right and good. Sometimes we support the bad guys.After leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, Ellsberg went into hiding. He was indicted for the act of leaking them. He finally came out and became a target of Richard Nixon and was prosecuted by the Justice Department. The last part of the book details Ellsberg's trial, and the way it folded into the Watergate scandal. Nixon, trying to get Ellsberg, ordered his thugs to burglarize the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist. It is thought that much of the Watergate coverup was trying to keep anyone from finding this out. The trial is the most dramatic part of the book, and in the end, the judge throws the case out because of prosecutorial misconduct. The story is complicated but fascinating.We find out almost nothing about what Ellsberg has done since his acquittal. It would have been nice to hear a few pages about that.
Profile Image for Susan.
69 reviews3 followers
September 4, 2014
This meticulously detailed book details Daniel Ellsburg at first supporting the war in Vietnam to exposing the lies of three decades of American foreign policy decisions made during the Vietnam War. His work at the Pentagon provided the springboard of exposing the lies because he had total access to confidential documents and secret files that covered up secret maneuvers and other operations that put our government and our soldiers in jeopardy.

After his volunteer tour in Vietnam as a State Department official, he saw firsthand the disastrous American military strategy to win the war at any cost and was convinced that President Johnson's policies were hopeless. He began to see his pessimism that was shared not only with the American public but even some government officials. Despite Johnson lying to the American people and other high officials that we were winning the war it was quite apparent by the up front news coverage that we weren't.

Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 with the promise of peace and the end to the war but the war escalated even further. Ellsburg had gone beyond a critical belief in U.S. foreign policy and he describes so eloquently in dramatic fashion how he risk his career, his freedom from the deceptions of the entire American involvement in Vietnam. Five presidents knew that Vietnam was unwinnable war but we fought anyway. Was it to show that we were the number one superpower in the world?

Ellsburg blows the cover that the Johnson and Nixon Administration covered up the failure in the Vietnam War by exposing their deceitful deceptions to keep the American people in the dark and to use the war for their own political gains.

This riveting memoir is a great historical book to learn about how the logic of our leaders were off kilter and the manipulation they use to cover up their secrets from government officials as well as the American people.

Ellsburg took it up himself to expose these leaders by copying 7,000 pages of documents to reveal the real reasons why we were in Vietnam. He risked his life, his career and his freedom but Ellsburg did it not do it for fame or notoriety but to reveal the truth. His revealing these documents became the down fall for Nixon in the Watergate scandal.

This is a must read book, its riveting, unbelievable, it will even make you angry that our government officials use their powers to manipulate the law to suit their needs. The truth will set you free and I know that is what Daniel Ellsburg was thinking when he wanted the American people to know what really were the motives behind our involvement in the Vietnam War.
Profile Image for Behrooz Parhami.
Author 12 books11 followers
May 5, 2022
I listened to the unabridged 10-hour audio version of this title (read by the author and Dan Cashman, HighBridge Audio, 2004).

I first heard of the Pentagon Papers when I was a graduate student at UCLA. The 1971 release of Top-Secret documents, officially entitled "Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force" and covering the US political & military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, upended the public confidence in government's truthfulness. The Johnson administration systematically lied not only to the people of the United States but also to US Congress, hiding its secret expansion of the war in Vietnam and much of the ensuing consequences.

For disclosing the Top-Secret document, Ellsberg was charged with conspiracy, espionage, and theft of government property, but the charges were officially dropped when the Watergate scandal revealed unlawful efforts to discredit Ellsberg. The 47-volume, 7000-page encyclopedic report, containing both historical analyses and original government documents, was eventually declassified and released to the public in 2011. The Pentagon Papers are discussed in multiple film and TV adaptations, including "The Post" (2017) and "The Pentagon Papers" (2003).

Ellsberg wasn't just an ordinary think-tank employee. He had deep knowledge of Vietnam, obtained through fighting there, a direct hand in decisions during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, and close relationships with key players in the Vietnam Task Force. Most everyone involved in policy-making about our engagement in Vietnam knew that the US could not win that war. Yet, they collectively decided that admitting defeat wasn't an option and helped in, or at least did not object to, building a facade that showed everything was going well.

In this book, Ellsberg moves effortlessly between describing his observations in Vietnam, during his 2-year stint as a US State Department observer, and commenting on secretive decisions, always accompanied by deceptive actions to mislead Americans about what was actually going on in Southeast Asia. Descriptions of his movements inside Vietnam under Viet Cong fire and atrocities committed by US and South Vietnamese armed forces are detailed and gripping.

Incidentally, Secrets was first published in 2002, as the Bush administration prepared for invading Iraq, under very similar false pretenses and deceptions. If you are looking for a convincing argument that government secrecy, particularly in war time, is poisonous for our country's democratic aspirations, then look no further than this monumental book.
Profile Image for Iain.
646 reviews5 followers
December 6, 2017
Daniel Ellsberg was in 1971 a former Cold War hard-liner Daniel Ellsberg who after years of working for the government advising its military policy made history by releasing the Pentagon Papers – a 7,000-page top-secret study of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam – to the New York Times and Washington Post. It was a journalistic bombshell that shook Washington DC, the White House, and the military to its core. The behind the scenes studies and decision making of 5 presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon) out for public display. It was the Nixon era that sparked Daniel Ellsberg's conscience as the lying became too much about a war he though was unjust and not winnable. In this remarkable memoir, Ellsberg describes in dramatic detail the two years he spent in Vietnam as a U.S. State Department observer, and how he came to risk his career and freedom to expose the deceptions and delusions that shaped three decades of American foreign policy. Considered at the time "the most dangerous man in America" by Nixon and Kissinger who would make every attempt to discredit and lock him up only to have Ellsberg become an essential part in the unraveling of the Nixon administration and eventual resignation to avoid impeachment.

“The public is lied to every day by the President, by his spokespeople, by his officers. If you can't handle the thought that the President lies to the public for all kinds of reasons, you couldn't stay in the government at that level, or you're made aware of it, a week. ... The fact is Presidents rarely say the whole truth—essentially, never say the whole truth—of what they expect and what they're doing and what they believe and why they're doing it and rarely refrain from lying, actually, about these matters.”
Daniel Ellsberg's summation here is just as if not more relevant today as it was then. Presidents lie and brave individuals sometimes have to risk it all so we the public can get the wool pulled out from our eyes.
Profile Image for Peter Staadecker.
Author 5 books15 followers
June 15, 2017
Ellsberg was a patriot turned patriot and whistle-blower during the Vietnam war. His book outlines his trajectory from Harvard graduate, marine corps lieutenant, state department staffer to courageous whistle-blower. Ellsberg had discovered that successive governments, starting under the Johnson presidency, had systematically lied to the American public and congress about key aspects of the US rationale for and involvement in the Vietnam war. Ellsberg released this information to several newspapers, initially the New York Times. President Nixon's administration brought suit against The Times to block publication. This was the first time in modern history that the US federal government had successfully blocked publication at a major newspaper. Nixon's administration also put together a dirty tricks team (that later became the Watergate plumbers) to illegally and covertly gather information to discredit Ellsberg. Ellsberg was brought to trial under the espionage act. The charges were dismissed when the judge learned of the government's illegal evidence gathering.

Anyone interested in this period of history, or more generally how governments are tempted systematically lie to their electorate about major issues, will be fascinated by this book. It's a wonderful and courageous case study.
Profile Image for Steve Van Slyke.
Author 1 book40 followers
April 23, 2010
Both an entertaining suspense thriller, as Ellsberg goes underground to avoid being nabbed by the FBI before he can release the Pentagon Papers, as well as a major piece of the history of how and why five US administrations led their country deeper and deeper into the abyss of Viet Nam. I'm currently reading Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly, which also addresses the latter. Whether or not you agree with what Ellsberg did, you have to admire him for being willing to give up everything meaningful in his life in order to get the truth out to the American people. The US learned that when an indigenous citizenry wants to throw off the yoke of colonialism (France) and foreign intervention (US) they they will ultimately prevail even if it takes one hundred years or more, as it did in Viet Nam. The British learned it 1776. Is the US learning it once again now in Afghanistan?
Profile Image for Dan Cohen.
420 reviews15 followers
October 11, 2015
I really enjoyed this excellent book. The story of Ellsberg's career leading up to his leaking of what came to be known as the Pentagon papers is well told and very interesting. But the book really distinguishes itself in the sections where Ellsberg considers whether he was right to do what he did in leaking the material, and, more to the point, whether he should have done it sooner and whether he should have been so acquiescent in his earlier career.

Apparently Ellsberg has written articles about the more recent cases of Chelsea Manning and Ed Snowden - I can't think that anybody would have more insight onto their cases so I shall try to dig out the articles. Really, if you thought that they were the trailblazers you should read this book.
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