Saturday, December 12, 2015

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

Steven Sheinkin is one of my favorite history writers for young readers. His narrative style creates characters with distinct voices along with brilliant craft at revealing plot elements that resemble a thriller. No dry history facts here, folks. This guy knows how to take the pertinent information in history and pull the reader into the story. Like "Bomb," this is more difficult to read than your ordinary elementary-book-fare but students in my Newbery book club that have read it really like it.

Four presidents didn't want to be the first person in history to lose a war and their resulting poor decisions were rooted in this fear. Daniel Ellsberg was an analyst for Rand Corporation, a think tank that studied international crises and helped government policymakers with decisions. He was extremely bright and brought on staff at the Pentagon to work for Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, in the 60s helping with the conflict in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh wanted to unite Vietnam but because he was Communist the United States backed the unpopular non-communist South Vietnam leader. War broke out on Ellsberg's first day on the job.

Sheinkin shows from the get-go all the errors made by leaders in the U.S. government as they went to war with Vietnam. Ellsberg was supportive of the government and believed in the war until it became obvious over twenty-three years that there was never a plan to win the war or end it but just continue to sacrifice lives so that the president in power could win the next election. Ellsberg decision to exercise civil disobedience was extremely difficult and Sheinkin shows his struggle with deciding if the people of the United States had a right to know about cover-ups or if he should maintain secrecy for the sake of national security. Ellsberg changed from thinking the Vietnam war was "noble" to one that was wrong from the start as he observed president-after-president lying to the people.

Ellsberg understood that he could not challenge policies in public - it was the code of an insider. Most leaders surround themselves with people that agree with them. He knew disagreeing publicly was not done and feared the consequences of taking action against the government. He knew he'd end up in jail. This made me think of the book, "Team of Rivals," and Abraham Lincoln's unusual cabinet where he let those close to him in government publicly disagree with him. Wouldn't it be awesome if Sheinkin wrote a book for young readers on Abe?

The second part of the story shows the Watergate scandal and comedy of errors that happened as a result of Nixon's actions. Sheinkin's novels are always sprinkled with tidbits I didn't know. Did you know they dropped three times the amount of bombs on Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam than they did in World War II? And that an estimated 2 million people died? Sheinkin doesn't give answers but asks important questions such as when is a person justified in leaking classified government information to expose wrongdoing? He ties it in with the more recent leak by Edward Snowden on the United States national security surveillance. He doesn't give his opinion, but lets the reader decide. The questions have no easy answers. A great nonfiction book.

5 Smileys

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