DANIEL ELLSBERG'S just-published memoir, "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and
the Pentagon Papers" is a page-turner. The Vietnam War shaped and shadowed both
of our lives for more than a decade. I, however, was a young nobody. He was the
consummate insider, a brilliant military policy analyst, who enjoyed access to
top-secret information, as well as to high government officials.
Why, then, I kept asking myself, did it take him so long to openly oppose the
Vietnam War? Ellsberg answers my question by brilliantly recreating the mind of
the insider, the person who observes discrepancies but then doesn't expose official
deception. In a memorable scene, he warns Henry Kissinger, the man who will run
Richard Nixon's foreign policy, that access to top-secret information breeds a
dangerous arrogance; you come to believe that only you know the truth.
Ellsberg had seen such arrogance up close. On Aug. 4, 1964, his first day at
a new Pentagon job, he discovered the deception that surrounded the so- called
bombing of American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. He then spent two years in Vietnam,
where he witnessed the chaotic failure of the American military effort, but heard
senior government officials boast about the success of the war.
It wasn't until September 1969, after he had read the entire top-secret "History
of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68," later dubbed the Pentagon Papers,
that Ellsberg finally grasped that every American president since Eisenhower had
lied to the American people about the conflict in Vietnam.
"I'm not going to be part of this lying machine, this coverup, this murder,
anymore," he decided, shedding his insider status. He then copied and released
the Pentagon Papers to the press, which H.R. Haldeman, one of Nixon's close advisers,
accurately characterized as an irrevocable attack on "the implicit infallibility
of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America.'' A crazed Nixon then
targeted Ellsberg for destruction, which ultimately led to his own resignation.
As I read Ellsberg's mesmerizing memoir, I recalled an all-night bus ride to
the first anti-war march in Washington, D.C., in April, 1965. By then, I knew
LBJ had lied about limiting the war and I believed immediate withdrawal was in
the best interests of my country. Now I wonder: How on earth did I know in 1965
what Ellsberg read in 1969 in a classified history of the war? I was, after all,
a child of conservative Republicans who had voted for Barry Goldwater.
My skepticism grew in fits and starts. In 1963, a friend introduced me to I.
F. Stone's Weekly, which used public documents to disclose official lies. At a
1965 teach-in, I learned an accurate history of Southeast Asia and realized that
the United States had violated the 1954 Geneva Accords, which guaranteed a fair
election in Vietnam. I also read a slew of books published that year -- most memorably,
Robert Scheer's prescient pamphlet, "How the United States Got Involved in Vietnam."
As the Bush administration prepares for war with Iraq, Ellsberg's chilling
description of government deception reminds us that secrecy is the greatest threat
to democracy. He has, in fact, issued an urgent call for government insiders to
reveal the truth to Congress and the American people.
For me, there is another lesson. Ellsberg writes, "You don't have to be an
ichthyologist to know when a fish stinks." In other words, you don't need to be
a government insider to detect official deception and hypocrisy. He's right.
All around us are former weapons inspectors, foreign policy experts and CIA
analysts who daily challenge this administration's official deceptions. It's up
to all of us to discover and speak the truth.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle