The Pentagon Papers for a new generation
by Laura Stevenson
Mar 17, 2016 | 1335 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Gulf of Tonkin. Watergate. They were household words fifty years ago; now they’re “identification” words in short-answer high school history quizzes. Consciousness of Vietnam is part of young readers’ culture – books like Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” and dozens of movies make it likely that when they mention “the war,” they mean the Vietnam War, not World War II or the wars in which America has been engaged ever since they were born. Even so, their reaction to Henry Kissinger’s remark, “Daniel Ellsberg is the most dangerous man in America,” is likely to be “Who is Daniel Ellsberg?” or even “Who is Henry Kissinger?” Half a century is a long time.

The task award-winning historian Steve Sheinkin has set himself is to bring Daniel Ellsberg out of short-answer-land and make the political side of the Vietnam War live for teens whose parents were in preschool in the 1960’s and 1970’s. As its title suggests, the book is not so much a biography of the man himself (it slides over the first 33 years of Ellsberg’s life in three pages) as of his relationship with the “secret history of the Vietnam War” – now called the Pentagon Papers.

Sheinkin uses a variety of techniques to make his study interesting. He opens the book with two sentences that could be from a thriller: “They came to California to ruin a man. Not to kill him, not literally. But the next best thing.” He’s describing the Plumbers’ break-in to Ellsberg’s psychiatrists’ office. Cloak-and-dagger writing continues throughout the book, especially as Ellsberg and his wife go into hiding from the FBI as the Pentagon Papers get published in different newspapers across America. Sheinkin also juxtaposes events – he demonstrates, for example, that the news of the “attack” on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin occurred on Ellsberg’s first day of work for the assistant secretary of defense. The result is a book that gradually exposes the untruths and cover-ups that plagued the politics of the Vietnam era by using the material that Ellsberg uncovered, and goes on to show how the clumsiness of the Nixon administration’s efforts to ruin the most dangerous man ended by ruining President Nixon.

Sheinkin doesn’t make Ellsberg a hero; he presents him as a man who, as he ceases to be a true believer in the Cold War politics, becomes a fugitive as he tries to expose the truth. As he points out in the book’s final chapter, the difficulties and dangers of whistle-blowing are considerable, and not just a matter for history quizzes.

The clarity of the book and its excellent writing make this “YA” book an excellent review for adults whose interest in whistleblowing has been aroused by the recent career of Edward Snowden.

“Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War” is available through Wilmington’s Pettee Memorial Library, Dover Free Library, Whitingham Free Public Library, or Bartleby’s Books in Wilmington.

Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington, and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar From Vermont,” are both set in Wilmington.
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