This book begins with a crime commissioned directly by President Richard Nixon.
They came to California to ruin a man. Not to kill him, not literally. But the next best thing.
The man was Daniel Ellsberg. “They” were Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, aka the Plumbers, surveiling Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office so they can burgle his records for dirt on Ellsberg, who had just released the Pentagon Papers to the press. The Pentagon Papers was a study commissioned in 1967 by Robert McNamara, a clear, irrefutable paper trail 7,000 pages long of every bad decision the US made in the Vietnam War, including beginning it in the first place. Enter our hero, no sarcasm intended.
Polls showed that a large majority of Americans wanted no part of a war in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson told them what they wanted hear. Again and again he declared, “We seek no wider war.”
Daniel Ellsberg did not vote in the presidential election of 1964. He was too busy planning a wider war.
Ellsberg was a defense analyst, an ex-marine who truly believed in the righteousness of the US’s cause in Vietnam. He believed absolutely that the US war on Communism was just and necessary. He believed absolutely in the dominoes. Until, that is, he spent two years in Vietnam at our embassy there, going all over the countryside and going in country with the troops and taking and returning enemy fire. He returns to Washington, D.C., convinced that the war is unwinnable, and where
[h]is hope was to use his position as an insider to influence key decision makers. It did not go as planned…What really struck Ellsberg was that government leaders [in the LBJ administration] seemed to have learned nothing from three years of failure in Vietnam. Even more maddening was the lack of any sense of urgency to change course.
Ellsberg knew about the Pentagon Papers and he talked a friend into giving Rand, where he was working, a copy. He spent the summer of 1969 reading them, and his conclusions were bitter indeed.
What struck him was the pattern of deception–and how clearly it was documented…”So we opposed elections,” Ellsberg concluded as he read, “while pretending to support democracy.”…”What I had in my safe at Rand,” Ellsberg would later recall, “was seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years.”
[McNamara himself knew this full well. “You know,” McNamara said [in 1967], referring to the growing pile of papers, “they could hang people for what’s in there.” If only we had. Maybe George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld might have had second thoughts about waltzing so blithely into Iraq.]
Ellsberg talks to Walt Rostow, to Henry Kissinger, he gives a copy of the Pentagon Papers to Senator J. William Fulbright, but everyone is afraid of losing the next election. So Ellsberg starts talking to the New York Times, who eventually publish them, all of them only after the Supreme Court gives Nixon a class in First Amendment 101. Ellsberg makes more copies and gives them to more newspapers, his stepmother-in-law rats him out to the FBI and pretty soon he’s on trial, but by then the Nixon presidency is crumbling beneath the accumulated revelations about Watergate and the aforementioned Plumbers, who were the biggest bunch of clowns ever seen outside of Barnum and Bailey. The night they got busted by the security guard? Was their fourth attempt to burgle the Democrats’ offices.
It never seems to have occurred to Nixon that the Pentagon Papers revelations might be cause for reflection, for review of US policy in the Vietnam conflict. No, all he can think about is destroying Daniel Ellsberg, the man who revealed them to the American public. (Who I would point out were against the war from the beginning, which only goes to show how much smarter we are than the people we elect). Most damning of all:
“No American president, Republican or Democrat, wanted to be the president who lost the war or who lost Saigon,” Ellsberg realized. “They were willing to send men and women to death to avoid being called losers. They would rather keep going, no matter how many people died, to save face. In Vietnam, the crucial thing was, don’t lose.”
Sheinkin’s prose is workmanlike in a reportorial way, just the facts, ma’am, but all the facts are here (including the appalling information that Nixon undermined LBJ’s attempts make peace with Ho Chi Minh so he could win the 1968 election, and this while American soldiers were dying in Vietnam), and so is what everyone was thinking (or later said they were).
The saddest part of this story isn’t the 58,000+ American dead, the 300,000+ American wounded, and the (only an estimation) 2 million Vietnamese dead in this totally unwarranted and completely unjustifiable conflict. No, the saddest part is that once the Pentagon Papers revealed how determined the White House, the Pentagon, the Defense Department and the Department of State were to hide the truth from the American people, the fictionalized attacks in the Tonkin Gulf, the body counts, the secret bombings? US citizens just flat stopped believing anything anyone in government said.
Most terrifying of all is the epilogue, which deals with Edward Snowdon.
Was Snowdon a hero for blowing the whistle on a perilous threat to the basic liberties guaranteed to all Americans?…President Barack Obama’s position was clear: he considered Snowden a dangerous criminal. “If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information,” Obama charged, “then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.”…
To many Americans, this was starting to sound very familiar.[emphasis mine]
I read this book in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down. I’ve been saying for a while now that some of the best writing going on is happening in YA literature. Here is a perfect example. Highly, highly recommended.