On the evening of October 1, 1969, Daniel Ellsberg smuggled a briefcase full of top secret documents past RAND Corporation security guards and was up all night duplicating parts of the seven-thousand-page Defense Department study subsequently known as the Pentagon Papers. He had crossed his private rubicon from loyalist to whistleblower, or worse (in the eyes of some), traitor. Five years and two months previously, on his first full day at the Pentagon, the Tonkin Gulf incident was unfolding in the South China Sea off the coast of North Vietnam. The thirty- three-year-old former marine, Harvard graduate, and think tank analyst soon became privy to the various deceptions and covert operations taking place within President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration that led inexorably to the Americanization of the Vietnam War. Like other bright, ambitious war planners, Ellsberg put doubts aside and accepted assignments that he later deeply regretted. Once he stayed at his post until dawn collecting reports of alleged Viet Cong atrocities for use as justification for the massive bombing missions code-named Rolling Thunder. “That night’s work was the worst thing I’ve ever done,” he confessed. Ellsberg’s boss, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John T. NcNaughton, warned Ellsberg not to open a binder of highly classified documents that were for McNaughton’s eyes only. One night Ellsberg unlocked the safe where the classified documents were stored and discovered cautionary memos from Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Under Secretary of State George Ball, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, and, most surprisingly, archconservative Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. Special Assistant McGeorge Bundy’s memo labeled the proposals of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara authorizing the use of ground troops “rash to the point of folly.” The following day, Ellsberg discovered, the safe’s combination had been changed. Somehow, McNaughton was on to him.
Soon afterward, Ellsberg went to South Vietnam as part of a “pacification” team put together by legendary Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent Edward Lansdale, who a decade earlier had facilitated South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem’s rise to power. Touring dangerous countryside with seasoned veterans such as Colonel John Paul Vann, Ellsberg became convinced that corruption was so widespread within the Saigon regime and upper echelons of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) as to make fruitless efforts to win the hearts and minds of Vietnamese peasants. One day, while exploring the inside of an enemy tunnel, he came across a pair of rubber “Ho Chi Minh sandals” with treaded soles cut from old truck tires. He showed them to his friend Colonel Tran Ngoc Chau, who noted wistfully that he’d worn similar footwear for four years while fighting the French. “They were the best years of my life,” Chau told Ellsberg, then added:
I say that I left the Vietminh and joined Emperor Bao Dai and then President Diem because the Communists were too harsh, they didn’t respect religion or traditions, their way of development would be too hard for us, we needed help from the West. But is that really the truth? Or did I change sides because I was tired of living in tunnels and the jungle, I wanted to wear leather shoes and a good uniform and sleep in a bed, in a house? I often ask myself that.
Upon his return stateside, Ellsberg became one of three dozen researchers assigned to analyze American policies toward Vietnam since World War II. Ordering the Pentagon study was Defense Secretary McNamara, who had become disillusioned over lack of progress in the war (as related in his own mea culpa In Retrospect, published in 1995). The documents confirmed Ellsberg’s suspicion that the United States had been anything but a reluctant belligerent simply responding to aggression. Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign seemed a way out of the morass. An unofficial foreign policy adviser to the New York senator, Ellsberg was in San Francisco working on a major speech scheduled for May 31. One morning, in an Ambassador Hotel hallway, he ran into the candidate, unshaven, hair tousled, and in his bathrobe. The absence of security surprised Ellsberg, but Kennedy had turned down Secret Service protection, fearing the agents would be White House spies. Four days later, learning that Kennedy had been assassinated by Palestinian nationalist Sirhan Sirhan, Ellsberg sobbed uncontrollably for almost half an hour. So much for working within the system.
During an informal talk that winter, Henry Kissinger confided to RAND Corporation staffers that president-elect Richard M. Nixon, who had promised during the campaign to bring an honorable resolution to the war, was...
(The entire section is 1950 words.)