Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook, 2015
Steve Sheinkin (Bomb, Flashpoint, 2012) is a master of narrative nonfiction for teens, and he’s done it again with Most Dangerous – the story of Washington insider turned Vietnam war whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.
When Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, asked his team to put together a report called ‘History of U. S. Decision-Making in Vietnam’, he intended it as a document for future scholars and government officials to be able to draw lessons from.
Instead, this dossier, which became better known as the Pentagon Papers, came into the hands of Ellsberg, and “what struck him was the pattern of deception – and how clearly it was documented”. Ellsberg believed vehemently that this record of Presidential secrets and lies should be public knowledge, and he leaked it to the media. However, as Sheinkin makes clear, in the 1970’s, copying and distributing a 7000-page document was not quite as easy as it would be in these digitized days.
Sheinkin uses his superlative research and writing skills to weave a truly compelling story, tracing Ellsberg’s stance on the war, first as a committed hawk and then as a passionate opponent: His belief in the nobility of fighting Communism turns to opposition as he witnesses first-hand in Vietnam the unwinnable nature of the war, and comes to realize from the Pentagon Papers that a succession of Presidents were not prepared to commit the resources to win the war, but none of them wanted to lose it. Also, and fascinating for me as a not very knowledgeable Brit, the book gives a thorough overview of the roots, causes and path of the war in Vietnam and responses to it in the U. S.
The author has some fun with the incompetent team of ‘Plumbers’ (they fixed leaks) set up under Nixon’s auspices to dig up dirt on Ellsberg, and who went on to become infamous as the blunderers behind the Watergate scandal. More seriously, he shows the sheer weight of Nixon’s vengefulness as he pursues the prosecution of Ellsberg.
Most Dangerous becomes more than just a fascinating historical drama when drawing the parallels with a contemporary whistleblower, Edward Snowden. The author clearly has a point of view on the need for freedom of information, so there is no significant opposing viewpoint on the ethics of leaking Government documents.
As we’ve come to expect, Sheinkin draws on many primary sources, including conducting his own interviews with some of the major players, and extensive secondary sources, and he meticulously source-notes them and lists them in the bibliography. There is a dauntingly long cast of characters at the beginning, but I found I didn’t really need to consult it as the author does such a good job of establishing the individuals and their connection to the narrative.
Overall, this is an exciting story, grounded in substantive research, and perfect for teens who like intrigue, real-life history – I’m pretty sure it will be among the award winners for 2015.
Reviewed from an ARC.