Vietnam: Conscience and Conflict

Richard Nixon’s aides thought Daniel Ellsberg was nuts. Ellsberg’s fellow soldiers, too, thought he was nuts when he served in Vietnam. That’s not surprising considering a soldier was frequently threatened with ambush or booby traps and sniper fire in the dense jungles of Southeast Asia. Those who thought Ellsberg was nuts were probably a little unbalanced themselves due to the insanity of war.

Or maybe he saw a psychiatrist because of his divorce. That, too, is not surprising given such an upheaval in a young man’s life.

But Nixon, who didn’t even know Ellsberg, was onboard: he’s “nuts,” he’s “brilliant” and he’s “dangerous,” thus Steve Sheinkin writes in his book “Most Dangerous, Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War.”

Sheinkin, with his use of examples such as these, touches on the psychological aspect of Ellsberg, and how he was perceived by the most powerful people in the world.

But the book also shows how people in power behave when they are threatened.

To Nixon and his advisers Ellsberg was so much of a threat, the most dangerous man in America, that Nixon said about the plumbers, the men who conducted the break-in of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist initiating the Watergate scandal, “what those fellows did was no crime. They ought to get a medal for going after Ellsberg.”

Daniel Ellsberg represented to the American government a serious threat: he threatened to delegitimize the continued prosecution of the war, because Ellsberg, himself a government insider formerly hawkish on the war, was now one of its most staunch opponents.

He had been so hawkish as to participate in a vile technique that used gruesome battlefield accounts to sway authorities toward a particular course of action. Readers will be stunned by how this played out in the Lyndon Johnson presidency. Sheinkin has Ellsberg reason later that the night he spent gathering the information “was the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

One wonders if there was anyone higher in government than Ellsberg who was capable of coming to a similar self assessment. If readers of “Most Dangerous” didn’t know the history of Vietnam or that Daniel Ellsberg ever existed they might suspect they were reading fiction. It is astonishing that top officials would consider the success of a war as depending on “kill ratios;” or that they would consider it an option to underreport American troop level commitments so as not to alarm the public; or that they would consider it responsible behavior to keep secret documents from high government officials, even the president, under pain of career ending punishment, documents that showed the president and his closest aides had no solution to the war.

The world out of which Ellsberg emerged was one where an individual’s conscience was made subordinate to the morals, however distorted, of the state. Running like a thread throughout Sheinkin’s book is the conflict of conscience taking place among those at the highest levels of government. Men who knew what they supported was immoral lied first to themselves and second to the American people. Sheinkin’s account of Robert MacNamara’s return flight from Vietnam and what he had to say on his arrival home illustrates that point.

MacNamara, his colleagues and future administration officials faced a choice: hide behind bogus reasons for continuing the war or face the American public and acknowledge the War’s futility. The stakes were high. The consequences were enormous. On the one hand was Ellsberg with his personal issues: his divorce, his wartime service and subsequent anti-war convictions and his becoming the face of the anti-war movement in America; on the other hand are the men in power: Lyndon Johnson, Robert MacNamara, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and a host of others military and civilian, who were in survival mode, backed into a corner by the widening war and corresponding growth of the anti-war movement. And emanating from the secret meetings of hateful and threatening language of those in power, particularly in the Nixon administration, largely directed toward Daniel Ellsberg, were their own confused and murky notions of what is right and wrong.

“Most Dangerous” is a powerful book for adults and young adults alike who are interested in the Vietnam War and the key men and women embroiled in it.

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