Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (A Review)

Most Dangerous CoverLast week I posted a review of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Because O’Briens’ book haunted me so much, I felt the need to pick up others also dealing with the same topic—the Vietnam war. One of my favorite non-fiction authors is Steve Sheinkin, and his most recent book, Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War gives the non-fiction and political side of the Vietnam war that The Things They Carried did not, making it an excellent companion to O’Brien’s book. Together, the two books provide well-rounded insight into the politics and experience of the time period—both in Vietnam and at home in the United States.

The Things They Carried illustrates the experiences of ground soldiers during and after the war. Though Most Dangerous contains one chapter describing the ground war in Vienam, for the most part, it gives the truths that were missing in The Things They Carried—statistics, public sentiment about the war, and the political decision making that caused the Vietnam war to begin, continue for so long, and then what finally ended it.

I’ve read all but one of Sheinkin’s books. One of the things I love about this author is that, though his books definitely deliver on the details, they read like novels. With Sheinkin, a reader can hear numbers—in this case numbers of soldiers who are deployed and public approval ratings of presidents—and yet be so engaged in the meat of the story there is a constant desire to keep reading. This story begins with a presidentially sanctioned crime, complete with disguises and cameras inside tobacco pouches.

While the book teaches the political maneuvering surrounding US involvement in Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg is the central figure that holds the story together so that it reads like a political thriller. Daniel Ellsberg is a man who began his professional life as a supporter of US involvement in Vietnam with access to top secret information from the pentagon. Eventually Ellsberg serves in Vietnam himself and understands the consequences of US actions in Vietnam. When he returns to the US, he is in a unique position—he has seen the effects of the war and experienced what it is like to be a soldier, and he also has insider knowledge of the reasons behind US presidential choices (“I don’t want to be the first American president to lose a war”) and the lies told to the American people (making a public announcement claiming plans to de-escalate involvement immediately after having approved more troops).

Ellsberg was not the only government insider in the book to experience disillusionment with leadership and US military support in Vietnam. The top US officials knew from the very beginning that America could not win in Vietnam. Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense for a portion of the Vietnam war) ordered a study to be done. The study asked the question, “What lessons could be drawn from [their] experiences that would enable others to avoid similar failures?” This was a massive study which collected “classified documents for future use by government officials and scholars” (124). These papers would become the Pentagon Papers that Ellsberg would later leak to the press.

As with most of Sheinkin’s books, readers are encouraged to apply history to contemporary life. In this case the book closed by asking the readers to question the ethics of leaking information:

“Governments must keep some information secret in order to function—but how much secrecy is too much? When, if ever, are citizens justified in leaking information the government has deemed secret? Suppose a citizen leaks information that exposes government wrongdoing, but breaks the law in doing so. Should that person be dragged into court or hailed as a hero?” (320).

In the final pages, Sheinkin makes a connection to Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked information about the government collecting and storing information on citizens not accused of any crimes.

Overall, like all of Sheinkin’s books, this one is a fascinating read. It is engaging and full of information that added a lot to my reading experience of Vietnam. It is a great read in its own right, but also an excellent companion to The Things They Carried.

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