Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg

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9780312177195: Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg

In March 1971, Daniel Ellsberg gave The New York Times access to a classified government report revealing the secret history of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg, a former Vietnam Marine, said he violated national security to protest an illegal war. The release of the Pentagon Papers exploded in controversy. Ellsberg was indicted for espionage; charges were dropped when it was revealed that Nixon operatives burglarized the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in order to discredit him. Wild Man is the first biography of the man at center stage in one of the most remarkable periods in American history. What drove this cold war intellectual to break the law? A richly detailed tale of the times, this indelible portrait of the hawk-turned-dove who tried single-handedly to end the war will stand as one of the great American stories.

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Review:

No wonder Daniel Ellsberg withdrew from participation in this biography. Although the author declares himself "sympathetic politically" to the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, Tom Wells bluntly depicts a very flawed personality. Almost from his birth in 1931, according to Wells, Ellsberg was shaped by his domineering mother into a brilliant narcissist, arrogant about his unquestionable intellectual gifts but so unfocused that he never really fulfilled his early promise. At the time he passed along the top-secret study of America's involvement in Vietnam, which revealed that the government had frequently misled its citizens about a war many of its own experts felt could not be won, Ellsberg was certainly and commendably convinced that the truth must be told. But he was also frustrated by his failure to achieve the prominence he felt he deserved at the RAND Institute think tank and eager for public recognition. Wells traces the trajectory of Ellsberg's life fairly but unsparingly, drawing on the many interviews Ellsberg gave him before their break in 1995 and extensive (often directly contradictory) comments by his friends and colleagues to portray someone who habitually exaggerated his importance and overstated his role in various projects. (Wells concludes, for example, that Ellsberg's claim that he prompted Robert McNamara to order the Pentagon Papers study "is almost certainly untrue.") It's not a pretty picture, and the author doesn't gloss over Ellsberg's compulsive womanizing or his carelessness about security classifications. Nonetheless, he also paints a nuanced portrait of a man who began his career as a convinced cold-war hawk but was prompted by both research and his firsthand observations to conclude that the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake. --Wendy Smith

From the Back Cover:

"Tom Wells has done the nearly impossible in his comprehensive biography of Daniel Ellsberg--captured the enigmatic and erratic brilliance of a gung-ho war-lover who sought the opportunity to 'kill Communists' in Vietnam, then risked prison to give the Pentagon Papers to the press in the single most effective blow of the anti-war effort he once had scorned."

Tom Wicker, former columnist for the New York Times

"By releasing the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, the enigmatic Daniel Ellsberg forever etched his name in the annals of American history. But until Tom Wells wrote "Wild Man," the strange and twisted life of Ellsberg was largely unknown. Now, in this brilliantly researched biography, we finally understand the demons that drove the eccentric Ellsberg to perform a daring act of patriotism aimed at extracting the United States from the Vietnam War."

Douglas Brinkley, historian

"Tom Wells has written a fascinating biography about the bizarre career of Daniel Ellsberg before he became famous as the man who turned the Pentagon Papers over to the New York Times. He has also retold, in breathtaking prose, portions of the dastardly and inept deeds of the 'Plumbers' unit within the White House for a generation of Americans who have long since forgotten (if they ever knew of) Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg may not be happy with this revealing account of his life and career, but Wells' s biography will save him from becoming a mere footnote to history."

Joan Hoff, author of "Nixon Reconsidered"

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