History and its facsimiles

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In public life, how do you tell the difference between substance and fluff? Edward Snowden is someone the public didn’t know before he ran off to foreign territory. Is he a man from the world of civil disobedience, as some say? Let’s go back to that world and see.

In the spring of 1971, as a student journalist at Harvard, I was working on a story about a little-known national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, when I got to know a former official, Daniel Ellsberg, who had quit the government over the Vietnam War. Ellsberg had a research position at MIT; but his real vocation, which he followed obsessively, was to work against the war. When in June 1971 The New York Times ran the first of its stories about a massive, secret Pentagon archive detailing U.S. policy in the war, I knew for a certainty — even though he’d never told me — that Ellsberg was the source of the story.

Ellsberg in 1971 was a man of the utmost rigor and sincerity. He also had the feel of a tragic hero; of someone who gave everything for a cause. Despite the fact that I was an editor of the campus newspaper, I did not consider going public about Ellsberg. But someone else quickly did; and Ellsberg, with his wife Patricia, disappeared from view.

Those were savage times. The Nixon administration was big, and it was formidable. It was also determined to shut down the story and to swallow Ellsberg. At the administration’s behest, a federal court enjoined The Times to cease its publishing about the Pentagon study.

Nowadays, we have a public drama around respect for the media. Back then, we had something of another dimension — a major newspaper ordered away from a major story. Almost immediately, The Washington Post got its hands on the Pentagon study. After an installment or two, it was likewise enjoined. Then, as if by magic, the story turned up in The Boston Globe.

The hunt for Ellsberg was unbelievably intense. It seemed as if he would be crushed by a giant machine. I wondered whether he even had a lawyer. On an impulse, I betook myself to Harvard Law School with the aim of finding him one.

I encountered Professor Alan Dershowitz and took him into my confidence, telling him that Ellsberg was certainly the source of the stories and might not have a lawyer. Dershowitz returned the favor, telling me that Ellsberg had already retained his colleague, a visiting professor named Leonard Boudin. That was an immense relief.

Shortly afterward I received a call from Stuart Loory, the White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Loory knew me from my work on Kissinger; he wondered whether I might know Ellsberg. From my cautious replies, Loory could tell how well I did. He asked: Do you think I could get some of that story? On Loory’s behalf I called Boudin, who was encouraging. Some days later, using the Pentagon study, the Los Angeles Times broke the story that the United States had backed the overthrow of its own ally, South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem, in November 1963.

The coup that destroyed Diem’s regime is now five decades old. It might have been a mistake, but it was intrepid. Nowadays, we do not overthrow bad regimes. We “lead from behind.”

Fifteen days after the first appearance of the so-called Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg surrendered himself at the Boston federal courthouse, in answer to an arrest warrant. He had not fled overseas. If his goal had been to protect himself, he could have taken refuge in Cuba, which offered safe haven to American radicals in 1971 exactly as it does now. But Ellsberg’s goal was not to protect himself. His goal was to make an impact on the public consciousness. As history would show, he succeeded to a striking degree.

Karl Marx’s writings are not good for much anymore, but they do include one indestructible statement: History occurs as a tragedy and repeats itself as a farce. The destruction of Indochina and the fall of Nixon’s administration were full-blown tragedies. The air around those events was thick with foreboding. By comparison, the air around our current controversy feels like a postprandial TV show.

What has happened? In the age of Facebook and Twitter, a computer worker at the CIA is shocked — shocked — to find that everyone is being spied upon. To keep counsel with his integrity, he flies the coop on a tour of the communist (or ex-communist) world, releasing information as he goes, while official Washington and the media get their drawers in bunches.

The age of heroes is past. The age of the farce is firmly in place. And it seems that Karl Marx has taken the palm after all.

David Landau, a novelist, has just finished writing “Cavalier,” a drama for stage about the Civil War.