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

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Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War is New York Times bestselling author Steve Sheinkin's award-winning nonfiction account of an ordinary man who wielded the most dangerous weapon: the truth.

“Easily the best study of the Vietnam War available for teen readers.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

A YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award winner
A National Book Award finalist
A Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Blue Ribbon book
A Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature finalist

Selected for the Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People List

In 1964, Daniel Ellsberg was a U.S. government analyst, helping to plan a war in Vietnam. It was the height of the Cold War, and the government would do anything to stop the spread of communism—with or without the consent of the American people.

As the fighting in Vietnam escalated, Ellsberg turned against the war. He had access a top-secret government report known as the Pentagon Papers, and he knew it could blow the lid off of years of government lies. But did he have the right to expose decades of presidential secrets? And what would happen to him if he did it?

A lively book that interrogates the meanings of patriotism, freedom, and integrity, the National Book Award finalist Most Dangerous further establishes Steve Sheinkin—author of Newbery Honor book Bomb as a leader in children's nonfiction.

This thoroughly-researched and documented book can be worked into multiple aspects of the common core curriculum.

“Gripping.”—New York Times Book Review

“A master of fast-paced histories...[this] is Sheinkin’s most compelling one yet. ”—Washington Post

Also by Steve Sheinkin:

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon
The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
Which Way to the Wild West?: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About Westward Expansion
King George: What Was His Problem?: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About the American Revolution
Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About the Civil War
Born to Fly: The First Women's Air Race Across America

ISBN-13: 9781250180834

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Square Fish

Publication Date: 09-24-2019

Pages: 400

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

Steve Sheinkin is the award-winning author of fast-paced, cinematic nonfiction histories for young readers. The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights, was a National Book Award finalist and received the 2014 Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Nonfiction. The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery, won both the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and the YALSA award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the World's Most Dangerous Weapon was a Newbery Honor Book, a National Book Award Finalist, and winner of the Sibert Award and YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War was a National Book Award finalist, a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award winner, and a Boston Globe/Horn Book Nonfiction Award winner. Sheinkin lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, with his wife and two children.

Read an Excerpt

Most Dangerous

Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

By Steve Sheinkin

Roaring Brook Press

Copyright © 2015 Steve Sheinkin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59643-953-5



WHAT COULD DANIEL ELLSBERG possibly have done to provoke such wrath — to be seen as such a threat? The story begins twenty-six years earlier, as World War II came to an end and the Cold War began. Ellsberg was just starting ninth grade at a prep school near Detroit, Michigan.

He did not, at that time, appear particularly dangerous.

"Kind of a nerd," is how one classmate described him.

"Very intense," another recalled. "Very studious and very interested in a lot of things."

A scrawny teen with dark curly hair, Dan was shy and quiet and had the unusual habit of walking around campus in a double-breasted suit, carrying his books and papers in a black briefcase. To classmates, he seemed obsessed with absorbing information and new ideas. But Dan did make an effort to branch out, landing the role of a wisecracking detective in the school play. He joined the bowling and rifle clubs. He gave soccer a try.

"I was terrible at soccer," he recalled.

Like many of his peers, Ellsberg was riveted by the rise of the Cold War. The global rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified quickly during Ellsberg's high school years, as Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin installed communist dictatorships in the countries of Eastern Europe, violently crushing calls for freedom in any land under his control. Ellsberg admired President Harry Truman's response — a commitment to supporting democracies and containing Soviet influence from spreading further.

"I had become," Ellsberg later said, "along with many other Americans, a cold warrior." In 1949 the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, using plans stolen by spies from American labs. That same year Communists took power in China, the world's most populous nation. Then, with Soviet and Chinese backing, communist North Korea invaded democratic South Korea in 1950. In the Korean War, U.S. forces helped push back the invasion, but at a cost of more than thirty-six thousand American lives. The Cold War was clearly going to be a long and bitter fight. Daniel Ellsberg wanted in.

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. "I didn't seem the type," he later conceded. "My interests were almost entirely intellectual, and I wasn't any kind of athlete." But those recruiting posters — the ones asking men if they were tough enough to be a Marine — called to him.

Ellsberg willed his way through a training course filled with jocks and tough guys, and he served with pride as a marine lieutenant. He then returned to Harvard and earned his PhD in economics. Questions of risk and decision making particularly intrigued him. "To act reasonably, one must judge actions by their consequences," Ellsberg wrote in his doctoral thesis. "But what if their consequences are uncertain?"

How should one act when consequences are uncertain? That question would become a major theme in Ellsberg's life.

* * *

In the summer of 1964, Daniel Ellsberg was thirty-three, lean and fit, with blue eyes and brown hair cut short. As an analyst for the Rand Corporation, a think tank focused on military and international issues, he had been granted permission to conduct research at the Pentagon, home of the United States Department of Defense. He spent his days in a borrowed office, working on a study of recent international crises that he hoped would be useful to government policymakers.

One day in mid-July, he was at his desk, reading and taking notes, when Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton dropped by. McNaughton knew Ellsberg's reputation as one of the brightest young thinkers in the field of crisis decision making. He wanted to discuss a trouble spot of increasing concern to the United States: a mountainous, heavily forested country winding more than a thousand miles along the coast of Southeast Asia. He wanted to discuss Vietnam.

Ellsberg was no expert, but on its surface the conflict there looked simple. There were two Vietnams in 1964. North Vietnam had a communist government, allied with the Soviet Union and China. North Vietnam's ruler, Ho Chi Minh, was waging war to unite the country under one government — his. The United States, committed to stopping the further spread of communism, backed the government of South Vietnam; it was corrupt and unpopular, but firmly non-communist. About twenty thousand American soldiers were stationed in South Vietnam, arming and training the military. This was a clear-cut Cold War showdown.

At that time, no one knew where events in Vietnam were headed. John McNaughton was the secretary of defense's main assistant on Vietnam policy. He needed help. He wanted Ellsberg on his staff.

Ellsberg was tempted, but hesitant. He liked working on projects of his own choosing, at his own pace. And he doubted he'd make a good aide to McNaughton, or anyone else for that matter. As he later confessed, "I'm not very organized."

McNaughton argued that Ellsberg could learn only so much from the study of historical cases. Here was a chance to see a real international crisis unfold as it happened — and from the inside.

"Vietnam is one crisis after another," McNaughton said. "It's one long crisis."

That clinched it. Ellsberg took the job.

And in the two weeks between that interview and Ellsberg's start date at the Pentagon, violence in Vietnam pushed the country closer to open war.

On the last night of July, South Vietnamese sailors on patrol boats fired missiles at radar stations in North Vietnam. On August 2, North Vietnamese forces spotted the American destroyer Maddox cruising in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam. Three North Vietnamese boats sped up and fired torpedoes at the Maddox. None hit the ship.

President Lyndon Johnson ordered the Maddox to continue patrolling in the Tonkin Gulf. He ordered a second American destroyer, the Turner Joy, to join the Maddox. If there was another attack, Johnson intended to respond with force.

On August 3, South Vietnamese boats again hit targets in the North.

As the sun set on August 4, Captain John Herrick continued cruising aboard the Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf. The night was stormy and "completely dark," Herrick recalled, "ink black." He expected to come under attack at any moment.

* * *

Night in the Gulf of Tonkin was morning on the east coast of the United States. Daniel Ellsberg parked his white Triumph Spitfire convertible in the sprawling parking lot of the Pentagon. He got out of his car and joined the streams of men and women walking toward the massive five-sided building. This was the first day of his new job.

Ellsberg climbed the stairs to the third floor and walked down the hall to John McNaughton's office. It was a large suite with windows looking out across the Potomac River to the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome. McNaughton's secretary kept watch from a desk just outside the boss's private room. Other assistants sat in cubicles. Ellsberg entered his tiny workspace — "a cubbyhole," he called it — barely big enough for a desk and chair, a bookcase, and two safes for classified files. There was a little window with a view of Washington. He sat down and began reading through a pile of papers.

He did not have long to wait for the crisis his boss had promised. "My very first day on the job," he later said, "all hell broke loose."



A FEW MINUTES AFTER eleven in the morning, a courier charged into John McNaughton's suite with a Flash priority cable for McNaughton. The secretary said her boss was down the hall, meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. She told the courier to give the top priority cable to the new assistant. Ellsberg stepped out of his office and took the paper.

With one glance he knew why the courier had been running.

The cable was from Captain Herrick, commodore of the Maddox and Turner Joy. The American destroyers were under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. Enemy speedboats had fired two torpedoes, both misses. The Americans were blasting back at the smaller craft.

Ten minutes later, the courier hurried in again with a second cable.

"Am under continuous torpedo attack," Herrick reported.

Then, a few minutes later: "Torpedoes missed. Another fired at us. Four torpedoes in water."

The battle was taking place on the other side of the world, in the dark. But Herrick's Flash messages made Ellsberg feel almost as if he were watching the action unfold.

His instinct was to hit back, and hit hard.

"We're going to really strike these guys," Ellsberg said, slamming fist into palm. "You can't attack an American ship on the high seas, and anybody that does has to pay for it."

* * *

Down the hall, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was reading the same cables. Given the rising tensions in the Gulf of Tonkin, McNamara had been anticipating trouble. He knew he could handle it.

With his deep, decisive voice, slicked-back hair, and round rimless glasses, McNamara strode the halls of the Pentagon exuding confidence. President John Kennedy, who had appointed him secretary of defense in 1961, called McNamara the smartest man he'd ever met. Formerly a Harvard Business School professor and president of the Ford Motor Company, McNamara had a passion for statistics and organizational charts, and firm faith that no problem was too complex to be solved by the skillful application of logic, intelligence, and American firepower.

He picked up the phone and dialed the president.

"Yes, Bob," Lyndon Johnson answered.

"Mr. President, we just had word," McNamara began. "The destroyer is under torpedo attack."

"Where are these torpedoes coming from?"

"Well, we don't know, presumably from these unidentified craft," the secretary explained, referring to the enemy boats in Herrick's cable.

Johnson wanted to know if American planes from nearby aircraft carriers were in the air supporting the ships.

"Presumably," McNamara replied. He hadn't had time to find out. McNamara suggested that he, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy head over to the White House.

"Okay, you get them," Johnson agreed, "then you come over here."

* * *

While McNamara crossed the Potomac into Washington, the action in the Gulf of Tonkin continued. As Johnson had hoped, several American planes were already in the air above the Gulf. First on the scene was one of the most experienced fighter pilots in the Navy, forty-year-old Commander James Stockdale.

It was a lousy night for flying, with low clouds and driving rain. Stockdale nosed his Crusader down to just a thousand feet above the water. Lightning flashes lit momentary glimpses of the two American destroyers. Between flashes, the churning white water of the ships' wakes was clearly visible against the black sea. Stockdale watched the ships swerving to avoid torpedoes. He saw the orange blasts of gunfire from the American ships.

But he couldn't see any enemy boats.

Stockdale was flying in and out of rain clouds, but he knew his view was much better than the one from the decks of the destroyers, where sailors were looking through rain and the spray from crashing waves. "I had the best seat in the house from which to detect boats," he later explained, "if there were any."

And yet the panicky radio reports from the Maddox kept coming. "We think there is a boat closing on us from astern."

"I have to press in," Stockdale shouted aloud in the cockpit. "I've got to see him, I've got to see him!"

He dove even lower, arcing behind the ships and squinting through his gun sight. He fired a rocket at the spot the enemy boats were reported to have been seen. The rocket disappeared into the sea. He was so low now that saltwater spray was splattering his windshield.

"Now calm down and think, Jim," he told himself. "There's something wrong out here. Those destroyers are talking about hits, but where are the metal-to-metal sparks? And the boat wakes — where are they? And boat gun flashes?"

Running low on fuel, Stockdale headed back to his carrier, the Ticonderoga.

The moment he walked into the pilot's ready room on the ship, a group of intelligence officers began firing questions.

The first was: "What in the hell has been going on out there?"

"Damned if I know," Stockdale said.

"Did you see any boats?"

"Not a one. No boat, no boat wakes, no ricochets off boats, no boat gunfire, no torpedo wakes."

"Have a look at this," an officer said, handing him copies of Captain Herrick's cables to Washington. They contained a lot of the same things he'd been hearing over his cockpit radio. But after the first few reports, Herrick's cables began expressing hints of doubt about whether he was really under attack. The noise his crew was interpreting as that of enemy torpedoes, Herrick suggested, could actually be coming from the American ship's own propeller. And then, on the last page, Herrick spelled it out:

"Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken."

Stockdale handed back the paper, walked to his stateroom, and hung his flight gear in his locker. After washing his face he looked at himself in the mirror.

"Boy, you look tired," he thought. "At least you didn't fly into that water. And at least there's a commodore up there in the Gulf who has the guts to blow the whistle on a screwup, and take the heat to set the record straight."

He lay down and switched off his lamp.

"I would have never guessed," Stockdale would say many years later, "that commodores in charge on the scene of action are sometimes not allowed to blow the whistle on a screwup."

* * *

It was lunchtime in Washington, D.C. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and CIA Director John McCone gathered with President Johnson in the second floor dining room of the White House.

The men spread maps and reconnaissance photos of North Vietnam on the table. While Johnson leaned over the table to look, McNamara pointed out potential targets for an American air strike, mainly North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases along the coast.

Johnson approved. He wanted the strike launched as soon as possible. McNamara said it could be under way within a few hours.

"All right," Johnson said. "Let's go."

The White House press officer alerted television networks that President Johnson wanted air time that night to make an important statement on Vietnam. McNamara rushed back to the Pentagon, where he was handed Herrick's "Suggest complete evaluation" cable.

"I wish the hell we had more information about what's going on out there," he said.

He hoped to get conclusive answers from Admiral Ulysses Sharp, commander of the Pacific fleet, who was monitoring the situation from his base in Hawaii.

"The latest dope we have, sir, indicates a little doubt on just exactly what went on," Sharp told McNamara. He thought it possible that mistakes by inexperienced sonar operators could account for the reports of enemy torpedoes.

"There isn't any possibility there was no attack, is there?" McNamara asked.

"Yes," Sharp said, "I would say that there is a slight possibility."

Later that afternoon McNamara drove back to the White House for a National Security Council meeting.

"Do we know for a fact that the North Vietnamese provocation took place?" one advisor asked.

"We will know definitely in the morning," McNamara replied.

No one suggested waiting.

Retaliation had been ordered, and President Johnson saw no reason to postpone. Privately, he had his doubts about what had really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin. "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there," he later confided in an aide.

But on the night of August 4, Johnson expressed no hesitation.

* * *

In the South China Sea, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation, twenty-six-year-old Navy Lieutenant Everett Alvarez zipped up his flight suit. The night before, Alvarez had been one of the pilots looking down on the confusing scene in the Tonkin Gulf. Like Stockdale, he'd come away unconvinced the American destroyers were under attack.

Now, after a few hours of sleep, he was back in his plane. The president's orders for an air strike on North Vietnam had reached the Constellation. Alvarez was assigned one of the targets.

Pulling on his flight gloves, he noticed he was still wearing his wedding ring. A stark warning issued by survival school instructors flashed through his mind — never wear wedding rings into combat. If a pilot were ever taken prisoner, his captors could use the knowledge that he was married to torment him by inventing stories about his wife.


Excerpted from Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin. Copyright © 2015 Steve Sheinkin. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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