In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg was one of the most famous people in America. He was a former Washington insider who had leaked a top-secret government report known as the Pentagon Papers to the press. Today most Americans have never heard of him.
He is the perfect subject for Steve Sheinkin’s latest history book for young readers, “Most Dangerous” (Roaring Brook Press, 384 pages, $19.99), which was just nominated for a National Book Award.
Sheinkin, who lives in Saratoga Springs, has written seven books for young people, including two other National Book Award nominees: “The Port Chicago 50” and “Bomb.”
AUTHOR: Steve Sheinkin
PUBLISHED BY: Roaring Brook Press (384 pages)
HOW MUCH: $19.99
This new book covers some of the most important historical events of the last century from the Vietnam War and its origins to the Kent State shootings, the Watergate break-in, and the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
The story begins by showing how Ellsberg as a young boy and teenager was riveted by the Cold War. “After graduating third in his class from Harvard University, Ellsberg stunned friends and professors alike by applying for officer’s training with the Marine Corps.”
Although he never felt he truly fit in as a Marine, he still served with pride as a lieutenant, and when his service was over he returned to Harvard to work on his PhD, eventually becoming an analyst for the Rand Corporation, a think tank focused on military and international issues.
Ellsberg was new to Washington, but he was not naïve. He knew that secrecy was an important element of military operations. “In his final analysis, only one point truly mattered — this was the Cold War. Ellsberg’s job was to help win it.”
One of his duties was to go around to college campuses and defend the Vietnam War. It was around this time that he first came upon a thick binder labeled “Vietnam: McNaughton Eyes Only,” a reference to his boss, John McNaughton.
Eventually the temptation became too great, and Ellsberg began reading from the binder: memos and cables from Vietnam he hadn’t seen, minutes from meetings he hadn’t known had taken place.
As he read he also became aware that the American public had been misled about this war. “What bothered him was that American policy in Vietnam was failing and the public was being lied to,” Sheinkin writes.
Over a summer, Ellsberg secretly read the entire binder, which detailed a pattern of deception toward the American public with regard to Vietnam, coming to this conclusion: “What I had discovered was seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years. It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side. We were the wrong side.”
Ellsberg at that time had also been reading Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and about the life of Gandhi. He knew there were times when a person seeking justice might need to take action that could land them in jail, and he began to wonder what he could do to help end this war.
Sheinkin has written a riveting book that reads like a thriller. It’s informative without being dull, and he has the ability to never write down to his audience. The book captures the moral dilemma of standing up against those in power, and it’s sure to be a popular read in classrooms throughout the country.
Adults will also enjoy the book, and Sheinkin has done an excellent job at presenting Daniel Ellsberg not as a martyr but as a man who is forced to stand up for his ideals. It also perfectly captures the time period of 1960-1975.
This topic is timely today as Sheinkin writes near the end of the book, “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? Should that person be dragged into court or hailed as a hero?”
Read this book and decide for yourself.
Sheinkin will sign copies of his new book on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Northshire Bookstore, 424 Broadway, Saratoga Springs.
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