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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Most Dangerous

Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

Steve Sheinkin

Roaring Brook Press



WHAT COULD DANIEL ELLSBERG possibly have done to provoke such wrath-to be seen as such a threat? The story begins twenty-six years earlier, as World War II came to an end and the Cold War began. Ellsberg was just starting ninth grade at a prep school near Detroit, Michigan.

He did not, at that time, appear particularly dangerous.

"Kind of a nerd," is how one classmate described him.

"Very intense," another recalled. "Very studious and very interested in a lot of things."

A scrawny teen with dark curly hair, Dan was shy and quiet and had the unusual habit of walking around campus in a double-breasted suit, carrying his books and papers in a black briefcase. To classmates, he seemed obsessed with absorbing information and new ideas. But Dan did make an effort to branch out, landing the role of a wisecracking detective in the school play. He joined the bowling and rifle clubs. He gave soccer a try.

"I was terrible at soccer," he recalled.

Like many of his peers, Ellsberg was riveted by the rise of the Cold War. The global rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified quickly during Ellsberg's high school years, as Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin installed communist dictatorships in the countries of Eastern Europe, violently crushing calls for freedom in any land under his control. Ellsberg admired President Harry Truman's response-a commitment to supporting democracies and containing Soviet influence from spreading further.

"I had become," Ellsberg later said, "along with many other Americans, a cold warrior." In 1949 the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, using plans stolen by spies from American labs. That same year Communists took power in China, the world's most populous nation. Then, with Soviet and Chinese backing, communist North Korea invaded democratic South Korea in 1950. In the Korean War, U.S. forces helped push back the invasion, but at a cost of more than thirty-six thousand American lives. The Cold War was clearly going to be a long and bitter fight. Daniel Ellsberg wanted in.

After graduating third in his class from Harvard University, Ellsberg stunned friends and professors alike by applying for officer's training with the Marine Corps. "I didn't seem the type," he later conceded. "My interests were almost entirely intellectual, and I wasn't any kind of athlete." But those recruiting posters-the ones asking men if they were tough enough to be a Marine-called to him.

Ellsberg willed his way through a training course filled with jocks and tough guys, and he served with pride as a marine lieutenant. He then returned to Harvard and earned his PhD in economics. Questions of risk and decision making particularly intrigued him. "To act reasonably, one must judge actions by their consequences," Ellsberg wrote in his doctoral thesis. "But what if their consequences are uncertain?"

How should one act when consequences are uncertain? That question would become a major theme in Ellsberg's life.

* * *

In the summer of 1964, Daniel Ellsberg was thirty-three, lean and fit, with blue eyes and brown hair cut short. As an analyst for the Rand Corporation, a think tank focused on military and international issues, he had been granted permission to conduct research at the Pentagon, home of the United States Department of Defense. He spent his days in a borrowed office, working on a study of recent international crises that he hoped would be useful to government policymakers.

One day in mid-July, he was at his desk, reading and taking notes, when Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton dropped by. McNaughton knew Ellsberg's reputation as one of the brightest young thinkers in the field of crisis decision making. He wanted to discuss a trouble spot of increasing concern to the United States: a mountainous, heavily forested country winding more than a thousand miles along the coast of Southeast Asia. He wanted to discuss Vietnam.

Ellsberg was no expert, but on its surface the conflict there looked simple. There were two Vietnams in 1964. North Vietnam had a communist government, allied with the Soviet Union and China. North Vietnam's ruler, Ho Chi Minh, was waging war to unite the country under one government-his. The United States, committed to stopping the further spread of communism, backed the government of South Vietnam; it was corrupt and unpopular, but firmly non-communist. About twenty thousand American soldiers were stationed in South Vietnam, arming and training the military. This was a clear-cut Cold War showdown.

At that time, no one knew where events in Vietnam were headed. John McNaughton was the secretary of defense's main assistant on Vietnam policy. He needed help. He wanted Ellsberg on his staff.

Ellsberg was tempted, but hesitant. He liked working on projects of his own choosing, at his own pace. And he doubted he'd make a good aide to McNaughton, or anyone else for that matter. As he later confessed, "I'm not very organized."

McNaughton argued that Ellsberg could learn only so much from the study of historical cases. Here was a chance to see a real international crisis unfold as it happened-and from the inside.

"Vietnam is one crisis after another," McNaughton said. "It's one long crisis."

That clinched it. Ellsberg took the job.

And in the two weeks between that interview and Ellsberg's start date at the Pentagon, violence in Vietnam pushed the country closer to open war.

On the last night of July, South Vietnamese sailors on patrol boats fired missiles at radar stations in North Vietnam. On August 2, North Vietnamese forces spotted the American destroyer Maddox cruising in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam. Three North Vietnamese boats sped up and fired torpedoes at the Maddox. None hit the ship.

President Lyndon Johnson ordered the Maddox to continue patrolling in the Tonkin Gulf. He ordered a second American destroyer, the Turner Joy, to join the Maddox. If there was another attack, Johnson intended to respond with force.

On August 3, South Vietnamese boats again hit targets in the North.

As the sun set on August 4, Captain John Herrick continued cruising aboard the Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf. The night was stormy and "completely dark," Herrick recalled, "ink black." He expected to come under attack at any moment.

* * *

Night in the Gulf of Tonkin was morning on the east coast of the United States. Daniel Ellsberg parked his white Triumph Spitfire convertible in the sprawling parking lot of the Pentagon. He got out of his car and joined the streams of men and women walking toward the massive five-sided building. This was the first day of his new job.

Ellsberg climbed the stairs to the third floor and walked down the hall to John McNaughton's office. It was a large suite with windows looking out across the Potomac River to the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome. McNaughton's secretary kept watch from a desk just outside the boss's private room. Other assistants sat in cubicles. Ellsberg entered his tiny workspace-"a cubbyhole," he called it-barely big enough for a desk and chair, a bookcase, and two safes for classified files. There was a little window with a view of Washington. He sat down and began reading through a pile of papers.

He did not have long to wait for the crisis his boss had promised. "My very first day on the job," he later said, "all hell broke loose."

Text copyright © 2015 by Steve Sheinkin