Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg, by Tom Wells, New York: Palgrave, 692 pages, $32.50
In 1973, as his world began falling apart, Richard Nixon demonstrated his rhetorical prowess to his press secretary, Ron Ziegler. The topic was a break-in at the office of Lewis Fielding, Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist. Ellsberg was a former consultant at the RAND Corporation who had leaked the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Defense Department history of the Vietnam War.
Nixon wanted dirt on Ellsberg, so his men dispatched a ham-fisted outfit to Los Angeles to see what Fielding had. When the White House came under suspicion, Nixon complained to Ziegler, "The president knows a hell of a lot of things, but does he know what the Christ some dumb assholes are going to do?—.Goddamn to hell, I didn't tell them to go fuck up the goddamn Ellsberg place." As Tom Wells notes in Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg, the president not only knew about the Fielding break-in but was probably the one who ordered it in the first place.
It was arguably Ellsberg's greatest triumph: He had roused the self-destructive impulses of a president and an administration that he felt had betrayed the American people by allowing the war in Vietnam to continue. Some would nominate Ellsberg's role in exposing the Pentagon Papers as his finest moment, but despite the furor that their release provoked they largely disappeared into the sludge of post-Vietnam skepticism in the U.S. They were a valuable confirmation of the worst fears of those opposed to the war, but they were too bulky and intricate a collection of documents to affect most of the public. Indeed, the difficulty of Wells' book is that he describes a man and an event that, while interesting, have left virtually no enduring impact on American society.
What's more, he does so in a book that goes on forever. Wells strives to emulate the epic quality of other Vietnam-period biography-cum-Zeitgeist-accounts, such as Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie or David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, but Wells has neither author's talent, nor does he much care for the man at the center of his research.
Besides, Ellsberg does not rate a 600-page book, particularly from an author who tends to confuse perspiration and inspiration: Wild Man is overloaded with other people's quotes, doggedly hunted down, so that one is never sure whether Wells' discomfort with Ellsberg springs from his own misgivings or from those of the myriad sources he cites.
There was a time when biography produced art, not phone books. Uncertainty was part of the bargain, so that the great biographers were—are—those tolerant of their subject's complexities and flaws. Wells is not, which leads him into a stifling form of deconstruction as he vainly hunts for clarity in Ellsberg through an unfiltered inventory of detail. To see how biography should be done, one might read René Grousset, the great French historian, whose description of Pompey in his Figures de Proue (1949) is both a tribute to brevity and a remarkably apt description of Daniel Ellsberg: "What was it his ambition to attain in the Republic? A sort of moral presidency to which, after the services he had rendered, he had some right? To rule, with or without a formal title? Especially to accumulate honors, many honors, which would have satisfied his vanity and his irresolution, but which his secret mediocrity would have prevented him from turning into something redoubtable?"
This is more or less the Ellsberg of Wild Man. Wells describes someone who is an egotist and a megalomaniac, with writer's block and a taste for sex. But that description fits many people. What makes Ellsberg relevant is that he is an archetype of a particular era—the late 1960s—whose values have aged badly in America's collective memory. The motives that led to the release of the Pentagon Papers would be ridiculed in this post-September 11 climate, where compliant loyalty to the state is commonly regarded as an obligation.
Daniel Ellsberg was born in Chicago in 1931, to Jewish parents with a passion for Christian Science. The young Daniel was acknowledged as brilliant, a quality his mother, Adele, sought to exploit by channeling the boy into piano playing. Harry, the father, was an aloof engineer, disliked by Adele's family and apparently indifferent to the piano. Wells follows a hackneyed route in recording the psychological influences on Ellsberg: an ambitious mother who "was not, it seems, a nurturing sort," and a detached father who would interrupt this convenient Freudian tableau by having a car accident that killed Adele and their daughter. Afterward, the young Daniel, no longer manacled to the keyboard, would feel a sense of release. Though he plainly loved his mother, he later said that he never cried at her death.
Ellsberg's reserve showed, if nothing else, that he was policy analyst material. In 1958 he was invited to join the RAND Corporation, the private, nonprofit research institution in Southern California founded after World War II by the Air Force to advise the government on military issues. This came after a dazzling romp through Harvard, where Ellsberg was invited to join the university's select Society of Fellows. He later earned a doctorate on the subject of decision making under uncertainty, at a time when game theory was all the rage. Revealingly, Ellsberg had earlier enlisted in the Marine Corps, a move that would raise eyebrows from acquaintances in academe. He would describe himself as being "a liberal on domestic matters and, on foreign policy, a tough guy."
At RAND, Ellsberg tasted the malicious nectar of high secrecy. He rubbed elbows with the institution's nuclear strategy gurus—Herman Kahn, Albert Wohlstetter, Bernard Brodie—and gained access to confidential U.S. war plans in order to study nuclear command and control issues. Ellsberg found the plans dangerously rigid, though Wells goes to some length to prove that Ellsberg overstated his importance in formulating an alternative policy. Wells cannot abide Ellsberg's hyperbole, but throughout the Kennedy and Johnson years this self-promoter was involved in very important government projects, always propelled by friendly patrons and a reputation for being a genius. His Washington career began in 1964, when Ellsberg landed at Robert McNamara's Pentagon as special assistant to John McNaughton, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. There he would start working on Vietnam.
Vietnam would come to inhabit Ellsberg, transforming him completely. Ellsberg left the Pentagon for Saigon to join a team led by Gen. Edward Lansdale, who had become a counterinsurgency sage after defeating the Huk rebellion in the Philippines in the 1950s. Ellsberg's exposure to the conflict—in particular, his forays into distant districts where few
Americans traveled—convinced him that the U.S. pacification campaign was failing. It would take time for him to turn against the war—too much time, some argue—but at least he did so, in contrast to, say, his more experienced friend John Paul Vann, a former Army officer who acted as a U.S. adviser during the war and who until the very end believed the conflict to be winnable.
After returning to RAND, Ellsberg began copying the Pentagon Papers, hoping that their exposure of a decade of official dissembling on how the war in Vietnam was conducted would force the government to pull out of the conflict. As Wells persuasively argues, Ellsberg's delay in leaking the papers was motivated by an enduring desire to be part of the Establishment. Harvard men such as McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger pursued the kinds of careers that Ellsberg thought should be his by right, although they had a ruthless discipline he lacked. By the time the papers were published, Ellsberg had largely undermined his chances of becoming a senior policy official. The reason was that his recognized brilliance was overtaken by a reputation for being inefficient and unable to write—a fatal liability in a world where power is measured by one's aptitude to generate timely papers and memoranda.
Though Ellsberg copied and privately circulated the Pentagon Papers, his involvement in their publication by The New York Times in June 1971 was less simple than is often believed. He had initially tried to leak the papers through members of Congress, whose immunity would have allowed Ellsberg to protect himself legally, but he was rebuffed. He also allowed scholars at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) to copy part of his set. Finally, after much dithering, Ellsberg met with Neil Sheehan of the Times. After reneging on a publication agreement with Sheehan, he allowed him to see some of the documents but told him not to copy them. Sheehan ignored the request, combined his duplicates with those he had received from the IPS, and published them, giving the Times an exceptional scoop.
The Nixon administration took the matter personally. This may seem odd, since the papers described the duplicity of the previous Democratic administrations. But at the time, Nixon and Kissinger were attempting to secure an "honorable peace" to cover a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, which meant that the war had to drag on. The Pentagon Papers created an uncomfortable context for this strategy by highlighting the fact that the lies about Vietnam were continuing under the Republicans.
Small wonder, then, that Nixon personally targeted Ellsberg. The president's plan was to do to the leaker what he had done to Alger Hiss: to gather information that would sully him in the public eye.
Henry Kissinger was especially discomfited. In 1968 he had hired Ellsberg to help prepare National Security Study Memorandum 1, which outlined options for withdrawing from Vietnam. Kissinger's bureaucratic instincts told him he should be among the shrillest of Ellsberg's detractors. Soon he was spreading word that Ellsberg had shot at peasants from helicopters in Vietnam, a peculiar—and false—accusation from someone whose widening of the war led to the deaths of almost 1 million Cambodians and Laotians.
When that was not enough, Kissinger accused Ellsberg, again falsely, of being homosexual. One is reminded of the spiteful, throwaway remark Kissinger directed at Christopher Hitchens recently, when he accused the journalist of being a Holocaust denier, words he was subsequently made to eat.
The criminal charges against Ellsberg for releasing the Pentagon Papers were dismissed because of government tampering with the evidence against him, and his star began waning almost immediately afterward. Ellsberg tried to expand on the moral presidency he had been led to believe was his, but his secret mediocrity got the better of him. His historical purpose served, he became an afterthought. Though he continued to play a part on the '70s protest circuit, particularly against nuclear proliferation, by 1981, when a conservative Republican returned to the White House, Ellsberg had become a vague memory. Under Ronald Reagan, illegal concealment would again be fashionable, and there were no Ellsbergs to give the game away. Instead, the person best personifying the spirit of the day was Oliver North.
Yet it was not Reagan but Bill Clinton who would symbolically inter what Ellsberg (who still hits the lecture circuit) represented. The first baby boomer president had all the generational ambiguities that Ellsberg once had (though he was considerably younger), but he cast them aside for the sake of power. Clinton's jovial abandonment of principle, and America's willingness to play along, created a setting where someone like Ellsberg, though no moral paragon himself, appeared obsolete. The line of confrontation in the 1990s was no longer between a potentially corrupt state and a civil society defending its liberties. What Ellsberg lost in the process the republic did, too, and to its detriment.