How Dan Ellsberg changed my life?

A circle had been squared. And I came away from Ellsberg with my much needed so-what ending.

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Daniel Ellsberg speaking to an unofficial House of Representatives panel investigating the significance of the Pentagon Papers, July 28, 1971.[ Photo credit: AP/Shutterstock.com ]

It was one of those life-changing moments

that you never forget. In June 1971, I was working as a daytime bartender at the Ritz Hotel off Boston Common, having a cup of coffee before the start of my shift. I unfolded the Boston Globe. And there in big black letters screamed a story about a massive leak at the Pentagon that had exposed decades worth of lies, dirty tricks and mistakes by the U.S. in Vietnam.

As a recently discharged former Army intelligence operative in Vietnam, I’d known of some nasty things going on there, like the CIA’s Phoenix assassination program, which by the war’s end in 1975 would total up the number of suspected communists killed at over 20,000. The “Pentagon Papers,” as they were dubbed, had been leaked by a former war hawk and U.S. Marine, Daniel Ellsberg. To me, they merely confirmed the worst of what I had long suspected: No matter that the U.S. might’ve once had noble, if lofty, aspirations for Vietnam, the effort had gone horribly off the rails and evolved into a criminal exercise. 

And I wasn’t alone. The Pentagon Papers were an international sensation. Their exposure moved untold thousands from apathy to activism. They provided much needed fuel for antiwar forces in Congress.

The same for me. Ellsberg’s exposé, preceded a year earlier by the misbegotten, bloody U.S. invasion of Cambodia, galvanized my growing anger about the endless war and its swelling body counts. Where, 18 months before, I’d just wanted to put Vietnam behind me and get on with my life, now I knew I had to get involved somehow in helping stop it.

Days later I walked into the Harvard Square office of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and introduced myself to its leader, former Navy lieutenant John Kerry. I told him of my intelligence service in Vietnam. He assigned his sidekick, Chris Herter, son of a former secretary of state in the Eisenhower administration, to debrief me.

My rage now had a channel.

“An entire generation of Vietnam-era insiders had become just as disillusioned as I with a war they saw as hopeless and interminable,” Ellsberg wrote in his 2002 memoir, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. “By 1968, if not earlier, they all wanted, as I did, to see us out of this war.”

I was late to the game. I went on to study modern China at U.C. Berkeley, with a particular interest how the outcome of its mid-century civil war led to Joe McCarthy’s anticommunist witch hunt in the State Department, which ended up purging its leading experts on China. The resulting institutional lobotomy had a cost: Asked to explain a few years later why we were deepening our involvement Vietnam, Dean Rusk, secretary of state under JFK and LBJ, said it was to stop China from taking over the country.

It was a profoundly ignorant statement. China and Vietnam had been bitter enemies for thousands of years. No matter their mutual embrace of communism, North Vietnam, not to mention anticommunist South Vietnam, would never countenance a Chinese occupation. (Indeed, in 1979 they would throw back a Chinese invasion.)

Moving Along

By the time I got my masters degree, I was driven to expose such mortal governmental sins and coverups. I ended up in journalism—which eventually led to a second life-altering encounter with Ellsberg.

It was early 1992. I was desperately seeking an appropriate ending for a book I was writing about a 1969 murder case in Vietnam, in which the Army charged a group of top Green Beret officers with homicide for their unauthorized execution of a suspected Vietnamese double agent. CIA Director Richard Helms rightly feared a trial would expose the agency’s Phoenix program and strenuously lobbied President Nixon to intervene.

I needed a strong closing chapter to explain why, all these years later, readers should care. For weeks I was stumped. Then the phone rang one day with a tip: Dan Ellsberg’s final motivation for leaking the Pentagon Papers, my tipster said, was the government’s handling of the Green Beret case. I called Ellsberg and asked him about  it.

Yes, he told me, it was true. That the Green Berets had literally gotten away with murder disturbed him greatly—it was a metaphor for the whole war. It was the straw that broke his back. After reading about it in the L.A. Times one morning, he made the final decision to leak the papers.

“This is amazing,” I remember saying. I told him how his leak of The Pentagon Papers had been a major factor in moving me from my post-Vietnam malaise onto a path toward investigative reporting in the national security sphere. And now, here I am, I fairly exclaimed, interviewing about the Green Beret case—an event that moved you to leak the papers.

A circle had been squared. And I came away from Ellsberg with my much needed so-what ending.

The subtitle of my book, A Murder in Wartime, became: “The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War.”

Thank you, Dan. Rest in peace.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the editor-in-chief of SpyTalk, a newsletter covering U.S. intelligence, defense and foreign policy, on the Substack platform. Previously, he was the SpyTalk columnist (and national security correspondent) at Newsweek, and before that, the SpyTalk blogger at The Washington Post.

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