From the Pentagon Papers and Vietnam to Snowden and the War on Terror:
Daniel Ellsberg’s 2002 book, Secrets, A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, offers a timely and chilling account of the nature of America’s war machine. For those who don’t know, Ellsberg famously leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other sources in 1971, exposing how the United States government systematically lied the country into the Vietnam War. President Nixon tried to prosecute Ellsberg and The Times, but lost. Many celebrate Ellsberg as an American hero who risked everything to inform the public about the true nature of America’s wars. Secrets is as important as ever, particularly in the wake of President Obama’s drone wars, our near-war with Syria and the Edward Snowden story. The parallels are striking: our leaders still welcome war, the empire continues to expand, and the state still prosecutes whistleblowers with a vengeance.
Ellsberg has an intimate understanding of the inner workings of America’s power structure. Prior to becoming a whistleblower, he was “a dedicated cold warrior” (4) who served in the Marine Corp. He then went on to become a defense consultant for the Rand Corporation slated with deterring nuclear war with the Soviet Union. And during the Vietnam War he became a personal assistant to John T. McNaughton, who was special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
Ellsberg watched the Vietnam War unfold from his perch at the Pentagon first as an unquestioning supporter and ultimately as a horrified opponent of empire. Throughout, he witnessed how the government systematically lied to the public about the justification for war and prospects for victory.
Although most Americans have some conception that the Vietnam War was based on lies, it is important to understand just how brazen and calculated the deception was. In a dramatic opening chapter, Ellsberg dissects President Johnson’s August 4, 1964 announcement justifying war. He writes that the president
informed the American public that the North Vietnamese, for the second time in two days, had attacked U.S. warships “on routine patrol in international waters”; that this was clearly a “deliberate” pattern of “naked aggression”; that the evidence for the second attack, like the first, was “unequivocal”; that the attack had been “unprovoked”; and that the United States, by responding in order to deter any repetition, intended no wider war (12).
Ellsberg explains that, rather than “unequivocal,” the truth is that “in the minds of various experienced navy operators and intelligence analysts at the time of our retaliation, as well as earlier and later, doubt adhered to every single piece of evidence that an attack had occurred at all on August 4” (12). With his insider’s perspective at the Pentagon, Ellsberg “knew that each one of [the president’s] assurances was false,” as no second attack occurred. Read the rest of this entry