Sunday, August 24, 2003

Book on Tape: Secrets

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers; Daniel Ellsberg, Read by Daniel Ellsberg and Dan Cashman. 2002 HighBridge Company, 10 hours on 6 cassettes.

Memoirs differ from biographies in that they are allowed to present “The good stuff” without having to slog through the subject’s 4th grade geography class. Memoirs are allowed to sway more from factual recounting into personal memory, into anecdote, and into opinion and justification. Biographies are school reports – Memoirs are sitting around after dinner listening to what really happened.

I was all of twelve when the Pentagon Papers went down, so my view of the entire operation was played out through the media, watching the great behemoth of public opinion shift from support for America;s foreign involvement to open questioning and protest about our policies. In 8th grade, I was part of a debate in Communications class about Vietnam – I supported US involvement, but I found very little to justify our actions other than “well, we’re here, we really should finish the job”. At the time I felt I had not done my homework well enough. Now, years later, I realize there was not a lot there to argue in favor of, and my young conclusions were shared that those actually making the decisions.

The story of Daniel Ellsberg’s switch from cold warrior Rand analyst to anti-war speaker is similar. His background was military (he was a US Marine company commander) and his greatest concern and area of study was avoiding nuclear war. As an analyst, he felt that, when all the numbers were spread out and analyzed, the best solution would present itself.

Of course, when the best solution proved to be that we should not have been in Vietnam in the first place, that created a personal conflict. Ellsberg was in Veitnam as an advisor, and quickly twigged to the fact that our very organization and reporting structure worked against us. Scenarios were made rosy, and in places misreported entirely, corruption was rife, and we had so thoroughly ticked off the local population that they were willing to work with the Communists because, well, the Communists were among them, not trying to blow them up from a distance. (Any similarities to our current situation are unfortunately accurate).

The memoirs show both his journey to the decision to release the Pentagon Papers (some of which he had worked on himself), and why it took so long. The people involved in what became the Vietnam quagmire were not stupid – they believed that they were doing the best thing, in fact, the only right thing possible. Those moments of troop escalation and increased bombing came not when we were believing that everything was under control, but when long hard looks convinced people that we would lose, and lose big, unless something was done. And even then American response was always to take the easy way, the lesser of multiple evils, either through insufficient support, or through the wrong type of support. It was easiest to threaten to bomb the enemy if they did not surrender, and then it was easiest to carry through the threat (because otherwise we would have looked weak).

Ellsberg gives the most cogent report on the Gulf of Tonkin I have yet read, framing it both within his personal experiences (he was at the Pentagon getting the message-relays as live-as-they could) and from his digging, framing the incident both within US provocations (CIA-supported ships were shelling Vietnamese islands earlier in the week) and with military fears (it seems likely now that the attacks from the Vietnamese for the second Tonkin incident were nothing more than the US radar picking up the wakes of their own ships (there were two Gulf of Tonkins, by the way, the first a real (if minor) response to the shelling, and the second, phantom one that helped create the Gulf of Tonkin resolution)).

Ellsberg also reports well on his ground experience in Vietnam, where he and his military mentor were the only officers to drive between installations (most used choppers, abandoning the land in between the firebases). He tells of his turning to the anti-war camp, and his decision to publish the papers in his possession. It came down to this – unless he did so, this would just keep on going – the easiest decisions would continue to lead them deeper into an insoluble quagmire.

Ellsberg also provides information he did not have at the time, mirroring his own activities with those of the presidency through the released tapes. Far from being alarmed, the Nixon administration appreciated the early Pentagon Paper releases – most of Ellsberg’s data was on the previous administration, and Nixon liked the fact that it made Johnson and Kennedy look bad (In fact, he had G Gordon Liddy arrange to leak more Kennedy dirt, and when it didn’t look sufficient, had him sex it up with a few false memos). The fear that crept into White House thinking was that Ellsberg had stuff on Nixon’s decisions, and that led to both Ellsberg’s prosecution and the break-in at his psychiatrist’s office for his personal papers.

The story is well-told and rings true, but as memoir, Ellsberg leaves a few pieces unsaid (this is an abridged version of his book, so they may be within there in the cold print). His personal life seems detached, with his early divorce and remarriage appearing as a sideshow to his actions as officer, analyst, and activist. While he is indignant over the duplicity of our government, he is more forgiving of the media, in particular his contacts at the NYTimes, who had pirated a copy of the papers out of his house without his knowledge as they were pressing him to “officially” release the works. And while he provides an excellent feel for being in Vietnam during the era, he skimps on the organization (or lack thereof) of the anti-war movement – he mentions safe houses and midnight moves, but provides very few details. And finally, his psychiatrist shows up in the narration only to have his office burgled, leaving me with the question – how long was Ellsbergs seeing a psychiatrist, and was it personal, professional, or national matters that were troubling him?

All in all, this was an excellent volume, Cashman reads the bulk of it in a solid, assured voice, while Ellsberg himself takes on the truly meaty parts, when he gets to explaining his own choices and decisions. If you’re doing the books-on-tape thing (and remember, I have a half-hour drive each way, so they’re ideal for me), I recommend it.