Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers


Reading a book is to be transformed; reviewing it, an attempt to describe this transformation. Words and expressions will be missed, since change happens in recondite, subtle ways.  

I don’t choose books; they find me, and I allow myself to be chosen by them. That’s what happened to Secrets. It was not planned, but welcome.

A text as dense as the topic it touches, combined with an exhaustive, busy professional life, made me spend three months on it; winter months, in an estranged land; three difficult, cold, dark, hopeless months. 

It would be an overstatement to say that this book saved me, but it definitely compensated me. Compensation is the word, in its original sense of balancing.

Living a war, myself, knowing it is not the first, nor the last, nor the longest, nor the sorest. 

We will see how this book is greatly generous.

Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers – Ellsberg, Daniel. – Penguin Books, 2003.

The scourge of war

Twenty years of a stalemated conflict with a legitimate national movement of independence against colonial rule as background; driven by the cold war mentality of ideological and geopolitical disputes of influence; and magnified by the destructive power of a proxy warfare. Twenty years of an unsolvable ‘tussle’ that divided a country and devastated its surroundings.

The Vietnam war, paradoxically called ‘the American war’ by the Vietnamese, killed more than 3 million people, most of them Indochinese civilians, and deeply affected, traumatized, a whole generation of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and American citizens.

American soldier in Vietnam

The inexistence of a real military threat against the American territory, people and sovereignty; the release of a massive, extensive, long lasting set of air strikes over North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, associated with the use of chemical weapons (white phosphorus and napalm bombs as well as defoliation and herbicide agents sprayed on the countryside of South Vietnam) resulted in a bitter ‘war of aggression’ scenario with high human and environmental costs.

The second wave of combat helicopters of the 1st Air Cavalry Division fly over an RTO and his commander on an isolated landing zone during Operation Pershing, a search and destroy mission on the Bong Son Plain and An Lao Valley of South Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. The two American soldiers are waiting for the second wave to come in. (Photo by Patrick Christain/Getty Images)

Since at least the late 1940s there had probably never been a year when political violence in Vietnam would have reached or stayed at the scale of a ‘war’ had not the U.S. president, Congress, and citizens fuelled it with money, weapons, and ultimately manpower: first through the French, the funnelled to wholly owned client regimes, and at last directly. Indeed, there would have been no war after 1954 if the United States and its Vietnamese collaborators, wholly financed by the United States, had not been determined to frustrate and overturn the process of political resolution by election negotiated at Geneva.

It was no more a ‘civil war’ after 1955 or 1960 than it had been during the U.S.-supported French attempt at colonial reconquest. A war in which one side was entirely equipped and paid by a foreign power – which dictated the nature of the local regime in its own interest – was not a civil war. To say that we had ‘interfered’ in what is ‘really a civil war’, as most American academic writers and even liberal critics of the war do to this day, simply screened a more painful reality and was as much a myth as the earlier official one of ‘aggression from the North.’ In terms of the UN Charter and of our own avowed ideals, it was a war of foreign aggression, American aggression.

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

The human tragedy of the Vietnam war. The next few years would bring even more carnage, including the horrifying revelation that U.S. soldiers had mercilessly slaughtered more than 400 unarmed civilians in the village of My Lai in March 1968.

The Pentagon Papers

On the evening of October 1, 1969, I walked out past the guards’ desk at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, carrying a briefcase filled with top secret documents, which I planned to photocopy that night. The documents were part of a 7.000-page (forty-seven-volume) top secret study of U.S. decision making in Vietnam from 1945 to 1968, later known as the Pentagon Papers.

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

The Pentagon Papers.

The great importance of the Pentagon Papers was to identify that, throughout four American administrations, the steps of the decision making process for Vietnam and its breakneck pace of escalation to a ‘wide war’ were poorly based on the analysis of facts, data, results, prospects or professional advising and counseling, but predominantly on the executive branch’s will and caprice, held undisclosed and unknown to the public opinion and completely disassociated from other instances of political decision and democratic validation.

That wasn’t all. Along with their implications of the illegitimacy of our policy and thus the urgency of changing it, the early volumes of the Pentagon Papers confirmed for me what I had begun to suspect with my reading of the subsequent volumes over the last two years: The president was part of the problem. This was clearly a matter of his role, not of his personality or party. As I was beginning to see it, the concentration of power within the executive branch since World War II had focused nearly all responsibility for policy ‘failure’ upon one man, the president. At the same time, it gave him enormous capability to avert or postpone or conceal such personal failure by means of force or fraud. Confronted by resolute external resistance, as in Vietnam, that power could not fail to corrupt the human who held it.

The only way to change the president’s course was to bring pressure on him from outside, from Congress and the public.

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

Cam Ranh, South Vietnam. December 1967. President Lyndon B. Johnson pins medals on US. troops in recognition of deeds performed in battle in Vietnam.

How was it possible, to maintain the American people, the Congress and the Senate ignorant and alienated from the real intent, the movements, the details and the aftermath of such a crucial matter in America’s foreign policy, for so long?

It all started with the Tonkin Gulf incident, when two referred North Vietnamese attacks to U.S. patrol vessels in international waters were used as justification to pass a resolution in Congress that backed the president’s initiative in stepping up the military offensive.

Shortly, the first attack was not unprovoked and the second was false and misleading.

On August 7 Congress approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which reads: “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression…The United States is prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defence Treaty requesting assistance in defence of its freedom.

There was some unease expressed regarding the unusually vague and open-ended scope of the resolution drafted by the administration, but it was assumed that there was no consideration in the administration of using the resolution as an authorization for changing the American role in the war and that the president would consult with Congress in case a major change in present policy became necessary.

It proved to be a completely wrong assumption regarding not only one, but five administrations.

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

It was also possible through a culture of government secrecy that established a rigid, hermetic, not infrequently blind, deaf and dumb system of information classification; that made executive staffers accomplices and perpetrators, not by faith, but by fear; and an extensive, pervasive network of lies, disinformation and omission, at every level, from bottom to top.

I realized something crucial: that the president’s ability to escalate, his entire strategy throughout the war, had depended on secrecy and lying and thus on his ability to deter unauthorized disclosures – truth telling – by officials.

What I saw as a major lesson of Vietnam was the impact on policy failures of internal practices of lying to superiors, tacitly encouraged by those superiors, but resulting in a cognitive failure at the presidential level to recognize realities. This was part of a broader cognitive failure of the bureaucracy I had come to suspect. There were situations – Vietnam was an example – in which the U.S. government, starting ignorant, did not, would not learn. There was in Vietnam a whole set of what amounted to institutional ‘antilearning’ mechanisms working to preserve and guarantee unadaptive and unsuccessful behaviour. There was the fast turnover in personnel and the lack of institutional memory at any level.

There was a general failure to study history or to analyse or even to record operational experience, especially mistakes. Above all, effective pressures for optimistically false reporting at every level, for describing ‘progress’ rather than problems or failure, concealed the very need for change in approach or for learning.

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

The study was completed and left untouched. It could not bring light to minds already numbed by the system, disinterested of their everyday doing, their practices and the results of their decisions; except for a few and, particularly, one man.


From a president’s man to “the most dangerous man in America”, Daniel Ellsberg’s trajectory is hard to envision without the mythological approach.

It shows the shift of consciousness that determined an insider to become a whistle-blower.

It is about the struggle of a man, one man, to stop, to interrupt the course of what he realized to be pointless, wrong, illegitimate, senseless, inhumane.

For me as an American to read, in our own official secret documents, about the origins of the conflict and of our participation in it was to see our involvement – and the killing we had done and were still doing – naked of any shred of legitimacy from the beginning.

Now I had realized that it was not just the continuation of the locally devastating, hopelessly stalemated war that was unjustified; it had been wrong from the start. In that light, our prolongation of it seemed to me a wrong the highest degree imaginable. A crime. An evil.

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

Daniel Ellsberg.

He is Heracles, archetypically. Any meaningful amelioration of the humankind can only be born at the individual, personal level, from fear to love.

A shift of consciousness comes primarily from the refinement of sensitivity and the sharpness of perception. There is no shortcut through brutality nor through technicity. We need to face pain, misery, death and to get in contact with the human in us.

White phosphorus explodes like a blossom. It spreads out brilliant white petals, whiter than anything else, with crimson tips. It’s a gorgeous sight. When white phosphorus touches flesh, however, it burns down to the bone; you can’t put it out with water. In Vietnamese civilian hospitals Vann and I visited, I’d seen children who had been burned by it and others who had been burned by napalm, which leaves a different kind of scar. You can’t put napalm out with water either.

I’d seen both of these in the Marines, in demonstration exercises, and I know they are very effective weapons. We think of them as saving the lives of our troops, especially when we are the only side using them, as in Vietnam, but when I was a marine, I didn’t want to be saved by them, any more than I wanted to be saved by nuclear weapons. And that was before I’d seen first-hand what they did to humans.

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc had third-degree napalm burns covering 30 percent of her body.

Also, placing the greater good above one’s own instinct of preservation is something that requires some kind of mystical appeal, at least for our society’s common sense.

I wasn’t wrong about the personal risks. Shortly thereafter I was indicted in a federal court, with Russo later joining me in a second, superseding indictment. Eventually I faced twelve felony charges totalling a possible 115-year prison, with the prospect of several further trials for me beyond that first one. But I was not wrong, either, to hope that exposing secrets five presidents had withheld and the lies they told might have benefits for our democracy that were worthy of the risks.

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

This book is very beautiful and generous in its human perception and consideration. Surprisingly, it verges on the philosophical and the poetical. And it all starts with Daniel.

Daniel Ellsberg, and wife Patricia, talks to media outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles on April 28, 1973.

…Americans must look past options, briefings, pros and cons, to see what is being done in their name, and to refuse to be accomplices. They must recognize and force the Congress and the President to act upon, the moral proposition that the U.S. must stop killing people in Indochina: that neither the lives we have lost, nor the lives we have taken, give the U.S. any right to determine by fire and airpower who shall govern or who shall die in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos.

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

The press gagged

For the first time since the Revolution, the presses of an American newspaper were stopped from printing a scheduled story by federal court order. The First Amendment, saying “Congress shall pass no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” had always been held above all to forbid “prior restraint” of newspaper or book publication by federal or state government, including courts and the executive branch. The Nixon Justice Department was making a pioneering experiment, asking federal courts to violate or ignore the Constitution or in effect to abrogate the First Amendment. It was the boldest assertion during the cold war that “national security” overrode the constitutional guarantees of the Bill of Rights.

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

The New York Times, Sunday edition, 13th June, 1972.

The Papers were first leaked to the New York Times, then Washington Post, and by consequence an injunction was granted by the Justice Department to deter the press from publishing further material, based on the allegation that these were classified documents and their divulgation could possibly represent a threat to America’s national security.

As a matter of fact, there was no information related to the latest or any future war plans and military operations or even to Nixon’s foreign policy in Vietnam. What the study revealed was a past, repeated pattern of withholding facts, impartial analysis and the possibility of authoritative judgment from the Congress and the public by the executive branch; what led to an escalation and a magnitude of the conflict that would never be feasible without secrets and lies. It also showed that the American dream of victory or supremacy in Vietnam, neutering the communist influence in the region, had been no more than a chimera.

Nixon’s fall

Richard Nixon was elected president with 43.4 percent of the vote. Not much of a mandate for anything specific. Still, it was clear that most voters – not just those who had voted for him – expected him to end the war. He had promised an ending “with honour. Many Americans liked the sound of that. But how did he intend to get there? And what did “with honour” mean to him? The answer, as I learned nearly a year later, was that it meant more to him than almost anyone else guessed. It meant that the war would not end in his first term, or if he had had his way, in his second.

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

Nixon and the double V of victory after being elected the 37th U.S. President.

Nixon continued the war, in an unprecedent way. He reduced U.S. troops on the ground to minimize American casualties and temporarily ceased air strikes on North Vietnam to divert the public’s attention from the conflict, but secretly planned a policy of threatening and escalation that surpassed his predecessors’, shifting targets to South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, while dropping a higher total tonnage than before.

The bombing of Cambodia was a tactic to force negotiations with the North Vietnamese resistance.

On April 25, 1972, these exchanges were taking place in the Oval Office:

President Nixon: We’ve got to quit thinking in terms of a three-day strike [in the Hanoi-Haiphong area]. We’ve got to be thinking in terms of an all-out bombing attack – which will continue until they – Now by all-out bombing attack, I am thinking about things that go far beyond…I’m thinking of the dikes, I’m thinking of the railroad, I’m thinking, of course, the docks…

Kissinger:…I agree with you.

President Nixon:…we’ve got to use massive force…

Two hours later, at noon, H. R. Haldeman and Ron Ziegler joined Kissinger and Nixon.

President: How many did we kill in Laos?

Ziegler: Maybe ten thousand – fifteen?

Kissinger: In the Laotian thing, we killed about ten, fifteen…

President: See, the attack in the North that we have in mind…power plants, whatever’s left – POL [petroleum], the docks…And, I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?

Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.

President: No, no, no…I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?

Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.

President: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you?… I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ’s sake.

In a later exchange, Nixon observed to Kissinger: “The only place where you and I disagree… is with regard to the bombing. You’re so goddamned concerned about the civilians and I don’t give a damn. I don’t care.

Kissinger responded: “I am concerned about the civilians because I don’t want the world to be mobilized against you as a butcher…”

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

As a matter of fact, Nixon was erratic, impulsive, ruthless and prone to believe in conspiracies, as well as to use them to manipulate, blackmail or threaten his enemies. He wanted them to believe he was a mad man who could go further and use full power to force negotiation.

Richard Nixon in a press conference.

It was hard to believe that campaign promises, public announcements and official statements could be laid so far from Nixon’s real foreign policy. One man not only predicted it, anticipated him, but stood up to his madness.

Daniel was only one, but in his delirium Nixon started to believe that a lone wolf was a horde, plotting a conspiracy. He lost track of his opponent and started to see him everywhere.

Nixon created a White House Special Investigations Unit, aka The Plumbers, and used the U.S. Intelligence Community, namely the FBI and CIA, to chase, harass and silence Ellsberg, other political dissidents and inhibit any potential data leakage related to his administration. This illegal executive machinery was also used to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., on 17th June, 1972.

The Plumbers – whose main missions were to discredit Ellsberg and avoid information leakages.

The Watergate scandal was not a minor incident; it was the first time that blatant abuse of power, criminal obstructions of justice by the executive branch and their menace to democracy were shown in full colours to the American public.

A tangled web of wrongdoing of almost unfathomable scale and complexity, implicating the highest levels of the White House, up to and including the president”.

Dylan Matthews in 9 questions about Watergate you were too embarrassed to ask.

Nixon fell, and the war fell with him.

Nixon resigned on 9th August, 1974.


Secrets brings up many important lessons; obviously, I will not be able to summarize all of them; also, because I want you to read this book; it is so actual and compassionate; it is poetical and inspiring. It would not have been possible without the brave saga of a hero, who paved his path of humanity, from a warrior to a peace maker.

  • Wars are painful, destructive, unpredictable, scarcely fair and weakly reasonable. Estimates are generally poor, biased, not comprehensive and the economic, human and environmental costs are incalculable. Wars must be avoided; if not possible, they must be confined to clear, precise objectives, through structured windows of time and space.

  • Proxy wars are the most devastating, since nations and populations directly involved become puppets in the hands of international super-powers. These wars do not bring local benefits or social development, they have a false libertarian aim and nurture empty promises of self-determination. The public opinion must fiercely take a critical stance on them.   

  • There is no way to eradicate conflicts, but disregard and disrespect of human rights, intentional targeting of civilians, massacres and expulsions of ethnic minorities must not be tolerated. Leaders who are willing to incite, fund, order or execute them must be indicted, punished, and barred from holding future office. Sanctions and embargoes may be put in place as consequences of severe violations.  

  • Abuses of power can only be prevented through checks and balances. It was not by chance that nearly three hundred years ago Montesquieu enunciated the theory of separation of powers as something essential to the good governance in republics. The executive branch needs to be checked by the legislative and the judiciary, moderated by the press and the news media (the fourth power), and legitimized by the people.

  • The culture of government secrecy and a rigid structure of data classification tend to be harmful to democracy, distorting to the decision-making process and unnecessary in most national security issues. They foster a network of lies, excuses, omission and disinformation that favours misdemeanours, abuses and impunity.

  • Honesty, transparency, accountability and humanistic view are fundamental to an ethical government and an efficient administration.

I have fallen in love with the children of Vietnam. I have never seen any, anywhere in the world, so gay, so friendly and funny. They all remind me of my own. “It is funny,” says an American, “you worry about people being anti-American; but when you walk through the villages, the way these kids come on with you…it’s hard to believe that their parents could hate us, when they’re so friendly”. Again and again, a crowd of kids sees us approaching, on foot or in a car, and explodes into a chant, almost in unison: “Okay! Okay! Hallo! Hallo! Number one.” They hush out with hysterical grins – and I remember Robert and Mary running out to climb over me at the end of the day, and my heart turns over.

In the hamlets, they want to hold your wrist, pluck the hair on your arms [they weren’t used to seeing hairy arms]; if you try to catch them to lift them up, they dart just out of reach, till a brave one tries it, then they all want to be swung. “Chao em” (Hello…to a child) brings thrilled looks, giggling consultation; “Chao ba” to an old lady splinters her old-apple face in a big grin, lips and teeth stained with betel nut. In a village, a province capital, or a hamlet, the children don’t leave; they follow you around like a cloud of birds; as you walk, talking to someone, little hands slip into yours from behind; another hand may slap you imprudently on the butt. They seem so pleased by your existence, by your own friendliness – it’s head spinning. I love them, and I don’t want to leave them.

Daniel, in a heartfelt letter to his family and friends while in Vietnam.

Daniel Ellsberg in Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

Vietnamese children photographed by an American soldier in Vietnam.

The author

Daniel Ellsberg grew up in Detroit and graduated from Harvard. He served as a company commander in the Marine Corps, then completed a doctorate in economics at Harvard. In 1959 he joined the Rand Corporation’s Economic Department as an analyst, and in 1964 he was recruited to serve in the Pentagon under Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. Following two years in Vietnam for the State Department, Ellsberg eventually returned to Rand. In 1971 he made headlines around the world when he released the Pentagon Papers.

Now a prominent speaker, writer, and activist, Daniel lives in California and Washington, D.C.

For further information, visit

Daniel Ellsberg.

Bibliographical reference:

  • Secrets: a memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers – Ellsberg, Daniel. – Penguin Books, 2003.

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