(Reader: Charles) Daniel Ellsberg’s “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers”

(Reader: Charles) Daniel Ellsberg’s “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers”

Reader Post | By Charles

Henry Kissinger (who served as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State under US President Richard Nixon) once called Daniel Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America” after Ellsberg released The Pentagon Papers (a top-secret Rand Corporation study of the war in Vietnam) in 1971.

I just completed Daniel Ellsberg’s 2003 memoir of his Vietnam war years, culminating in his trial for releasing the classified Pentagon Papers. There’s a book I wish I’d read many years ago. It was a long read. Despite that, I’ll certainly re-read certain chapters of this book. I especially recommend Chapter 29—Going Underground, which reads like a spy drama. Hell, it is a spy drama.I turned 13 in 1971. I wasn’t the least bit interested in what was happening outside my small world. I never understood why The Pentagon Papers was such a big deal. I’d seen the thick paperback in bookstores, which became a bestseller, but couldn’t imagine anyone actually buying and reading it. I was too young to understand why it was such a big deal, not because of what was inside The Pentagon Papers, but because when the New York Times attempted to publish them they were enjoined from doing so by a federal court. America’s government, in other words, tried to keep the American people from learning the truth about what it was doing. It was  the first time since the American Revolution that the presses of an American newspaper were stopped, by a federal court order, from printing a story.  People bought and read The Pentagon Papers because they were outraged that their government would go to almost any length to prevent them from knowing the truth. People bought The Pentagon Papers not simply to read the content, but to protect their right to know what was inside by actuallyusing that right. Today, Americans take it for granted that their government lies, flagrantly and contemptuously. And that’s the real problem … don’t blame Washington, blame a complacent American public.Imagine today’s pathetically weak US news organizations acting like this: When the New York Times was ordered on 13 June 1971 to cease publication of The Pentagon Papers, without hesitation, the Washington Post printed the next release of The Papers (on the 18th of June). And when the Post was also threatened with a court injunction, the Boston Globe began printing it, then the Chicago Sun-Times started printing it; then all 11 Knight Newspapers started printing it, along with the LA Times. In all, The Pentagon Papers was distributed to 17 national news organizations, most of whom planned to print it. On June 29th, only two weeks after its initial printing Senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska), during a filibuster against the selective service draft, entered 4,100 pages of The Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record.On June 26, 1971, again only two weeks after the initial publication of The Pentagon Papers, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear the government’s case for prohibiting that publication; the Court returned a decision only 4 days later, on June 30, 1971. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States of America upheld the 1st Amendment right of the New York Times and the Washington Post to publish the information. It was a huge blow to the government of Richard Nixon, and it was a clear victory for the American people and the American free press. It was huge. It marked a major change in the relationship between the government and the media.

The US media declared itself independent of the government, an independence they have since largely ceded. As the authors of a college textbook on free speech in America wrote, “the journalists of America pondered with grave concern the fact that for fifteen days the ‘free press’ of the nation had been prevented from publishing an important document.”

What a contrast between how immediately the American people and the American press reacted to The Pentagon Papers, and the lackadaisical response to what Edward Snowden revealed in June 2013. What Snowden made public was no less significant, no less shocking, and touched far more of us directly.  Edward Snowden had to defect from the US to release the information he provided us; he had to do it through foreign journalists and publications. A badly-weakened American press wouldn’t touch it.  Americans should be shamed by that; and, indeed, it indicates just how morally apathetic Americans have become. How little they value their freedom.

Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden are true American heroes.   Both men put their lives and careers squarely on the line for the values and the honor of their nation.  Both men expressed their greatest fear:  that their fellow Americans would not possess the backbone to do the same. I fear they might be right.


I gave up my job, my career, my clearance, and I staked my freedom on a gamble: if the American people knew the truth about how they had been lied to, about the myths that had led them to endorse this butchery for 25 years, that they would choose against it. And the risk that you take when you do that is that you’ll learn something, ultimately, about your fellow citizens that you won’t like to hear, and that is that they hear it, they learn from it, they understand it, and they proceed to ignore it.
– Daniel Ellsberg, Radio Interview, 1972

The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They’ll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.
– Edward Snowden, Hong Kong interview, June 6, 2013


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