Denying Mistakes

Book cover
Secretsby By Daniel EllsbergViking. 480p $29.95.

There are not many memoirs available from people who work beneath the surface of the executive branch of the federal government. Usually presidents, vice presidents, cabinet secretaries and White House staffers publish such accounts. Daniel Ellsberg’s reflections, however, illuminate the tasks of those bureaucrats who provide harried top-ranked officials with the information and recommendations upon which they base their decisions. We know far too little about such advisors, their ways of working and how they relate to their superiors. Ellsberg no doubt attracted a publisher because of the celebrity he earned by leaking the Pentagon Papers, a secret study of how American involvement in the Vietnam War began, to the press in 1971. The greater historical value of his story, however, lies in Ellsberg’s account of how the odd culture of the modern presidency cultivated an institutional determination to deny mistakes.

Ellsberg operated as a defense consultant, alternating direct employment by the Defense Department with stints in private industry. His description of this career within the military-corporate complex of the cold war adds greatly to the many studies of the effect of that complex upon the country. Ellsberg began with a naïve faith in the objectivity of the presidency. Presidents would invariably make wise decisions so long as rational advisors provided them with accurate information. If disagreement arose, the president’s wisdom would resolve it for the best. Analysis of mistakes could be handled within the executive branch with no need of public debate. This last assumption explains why ThePentagon Papers, analyses of old decisions rather than chartings of new policy, were kept secret.


When Ellsberg first dissented from the Vietnam War, he tried to advocate his opposition within the discretion of this system. However, what he regards as the essential delusion of the modern presidency, a conviction that the public must always be made to feel that the president can handle ably any foreign policy crisis that presented itself, overwhelmed any suggestion of admitting error. Only then did Ellsberg belatedly discover the value of submitting public policy to the basic openness of American society, as embodied by Congress and the press.

What sparked the conversion? Ellsberg demonstrates that it was his association with people willing to endure imprisonment because of their opposition to the war. Indeed, a recurring horror of jail was a lifelong motif that Ellsberg had to overcome before he could leak the papers. Only his introduction to people who had endured prison for the sake of their opposition to the war led him through that fear.

One reason Ellsberg processed this fear so slowly was that so little time for reflection is built into the daily life of American governmental officials. They are rewarded for their skill in crisis management, but their positions provide little structural opportunity to anticipate and avert trouble. Ellsberg is skillful at presenting this unfortunate aspect of everyday life in the executive branch.

The legislative branch also receives Ellsberg’s scrutiny, especially antiwar senators. George McGovern, for example, considered conveying the papers to the Senate but grew anxious about what effect that gesture might have on his presidential hopes. Other senators demurred, too, and some traditional heroes of the antiwar movement lose some glitter in this book. Eventually Ellsberg gave up and went directly to the news media. His reconstruction of his Senate negotiations are presented as a reminder that a free press is the indispensable check on the self-centeredness of the professional politician. Over 30 years later, however, Ellsberg’s moral fervor survives, and the memoir suffers from an inability to understand elected officials who may have been merely trying to explore politically possible ways of ending a war that still had considerable public support in 1971.

Ellsberg’s moral journey was a curious one. He tells us he was drawn to defense consulting out of a desire to avoid nuclear war. As a youth, he felt horror at the civilian casualties of precision and atomic bombing during World War II. In his early career, however, he joined other defense consultants in focusing his objections to the Vietnamese conflict on the rationalistic calculus that it involved greater costs than benefits for the United States. Gradually, however, once again largely through listening to the testimony of the antiwar movement, Ellsberg saw the human suffering involved for both the Vietnamese and the American people with the pointless prolonging of a lost conflict.

Yet one comes away from this memoir wondering why Ellsberg’s moral sense was so uneven over the course of his career. He came late to the founders’ deep conviction that allhuman nature is flawed. The Constitution’s checks and balances, its divisions of power and its provision for an intrinsic tension between government and press are all based upon this principle. That is why it was profoundly unconstitutional for the presidency to have been granted such free and secretive rein over foreign policy.

A disappointment of this book, therefore, is that Ellsberg neglects his education. Was his humanistic training of quality? A better grounding in the liberal arts might have fostered moral maturation sooner, before he faced the ethical choices of the cold warrior. As his nation copes with new international conflicts, it is good to ask two questions. Is the presidency still in the unfortunate plight that Ellsberg experienced in the 1960’s? More importantly, is it still staffed by the same earnest but flawed sort of advisors that Ellsberg himself once was?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

“People who have never heard of Weegee can describe him,” Bonanos writes, because he created Hollywood’s idea of the newspaper photographer.”
Eve TushnetOctober 10, 2018
The major foci of Foucault's work were the histories of madness, the social sciences, penitentiaries and sexuality.
José DueñoOctober 10, 2018
Karen J. Johnson focuses on the minority of white Catholics who felt that racial equality was a moral and religious, not merely political, issue.
Benjamin IvryOctober 05, 2018
The Catholic Church needs to recognize that moved from a secular public sphere—marked by separate and specialized spheres of economy, science, faith and so forth that manage their own concerns in an insular way—to a postsecular public sphere, in which a multiplicity of voices and expertise are
Maureen K. DayOctober 05, 2018