So here we go again, I knew this would happen, I finish a book review and then finish reading another book a day later. Well let’s see just how far I can push this New Year’s resolution.
The book I just finished was Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin. I came to this book two ways, just like Death by Toilet Paper, those two ways were vastly different though. First I had read a few other works by Sheinkin, Bomb and his submission to the nonfiction Guys Read anthology. Both these works I really enjoyed, so when I heard that Sheinkin would be book touring for Most Dangerous and stopping by my local indie bookshop I had to pick up his latest.
If you ever get the chance to hear Sheinkin speak, I suggest you jump at it. He is so intelligent and interesting and fun to listen to, I could have listened a lot longer than he was able to talk.
Most Dangerous tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg, a studious young man that finds himself knee deep in the politics surrounding the Vietnam War. Ellsberg was an interesting teen, he was said to wear suits to high school and carry his books and papers around campus in a briefcase. Can you imagine that kid walking around your school? No surprise he went to Harvard for college, big surprise, he enlisted in the Marines upon his graduation. From his military service he finished a PhD in economics and began working for the Rand Corporation in Washington DC. The Rand Corporation worked closely with the Pentagon. It was on his first day of work at Rand that hostilities in Vietnam escalated. Ellsberg’s life then slowly morphed from an analyst working to further the war effort to an anti-war advocate and President Nixon’s biggest target. Why was this simple analyst such a big target? It all comes down to an ancient photocopy machine. You see Daniel Ellsberg had access to Top Secret Pentagon documents including what would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers, a huge document detailing American involvement in South East Asia over the tenure of four or five presidents. Much of the Pentagon Papers proved lying and deceit on the part of the American Government and Daniel Ellsberg took it on himself to “borrow” the document and photocopy it. He then released the copies to journalist around the country and boy did it get him into some hot water. At this point Daniel Ellsberg was firmly against the Vietnam War and saw what he was doing as his patriotic duty. Nixon and his team saw Ellsberg’s actions as treason. Ellsberg then becomes the target of some pretty elaborate schemes to smear and discredit him. In one ploy the government agents thought about slipping LSD into Ellsberg’s soup at a dinner lecture he was giving, and then then letting the hallucinogenic drug disrupt Ellsberg’s train of thought. The government could then point to the speech as proof that Ellsberg was a drugged up loon. Luckily the timing didn’t work out and the plan was never acted on. This all lead to Ellsberg going on trial in California and Nixon on ‘trial” in DC. Ellsberg case was thrown out and Nixon resigned the presidency. Crazy Times!
Now to my feelings on Most Dangerous. For this review I will need to look at the story through two different lenses. First the social studies teacher, history buff and general lover of building new knowledge. For me, in that lens, I loved Most Dangerous. I knew some of the highlights from this time in American history, but many of the details were unknown to me. For that I thank Mr. Sheinkin for taking me on such an interesting journey through the tangled web of the Vietnam War.
From the teacher of middle school children, the book poses a bit of a challenge. I found it difficult, as a 40 something teacher, to keep all of the names and details strait, I can only imagine a 7th grader’s eyes just glazing over at times. Unless I knew the student was a huge history, or nonfiction lover, I would steer them toward Bomb and away from Most Dangerous. It didn’t read with the pace or the excitement of Bomb, but it does end with a very interesting comparison to our modern day. What Ellsberg did at that photocopy machine in the early 70’s is generally seen today as a heroic act. Sheinkin compares Ellsberg’s act to the leaking of classified information about government surveillance by Edward Snowden. That question of right and wrong could be a very tasty dilemma for a 7th or 8th grade social studies classroom to chew on.
So in the end Most Dangerous is a good read and will not disappoint, if you are looking for a detailed account of government shenanigans and dangerous photocopying action.
ps. This morning Most Dangerous was awarded the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.