When I was a little girl, my older brother enlisted in the army during the Vietnam War. I remember my parents anxiously watching the news each night, appalled and afraid of the massive casualties being inflicted on U.S. troops. The numbers we see in a year now could be killed in one day in that brutal slaughter. However, because my brother had already had experience with radio work, he was sent into intelligence and did not have to go to the front lines.
A few years later, I remember watching the resignation of Richard Nixon with my family in a hotel room in Williamsburg, Virginia, while we were on vacation. It was one of those moments in history that stays locked in one’s mind. My parents were staunch Democrats and were relieved that he was leaving.
And that is about it for my knowledge of the Vietnam War, which had become swirled in my mind with the Korean War as portrayed by the TV show M*A*S*H. The name of Daniel Ellsberg was vaguely familiar, but when I decided to read this book by Steve Sheinkin, I only did so because, 1) it is getting rave reviews, and 2) I know that Steve Sheinkin is a fantastic author, and I loved his book, Bomb, a couple of years ago. Happily for me—and for all of his readers—Most Dangerous reads like a spy thriller, but also makes the controversies and protests of the times understandable and immediate.
Daniel Ellsberg was a low-level analyst for the Pentagon, working under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. When he started, Ellsberg was a Cold Warrior like everyone else he knew, believing that his government was doing what was best for the people of the United States. After some time working in the government, as well as spending time in Vietnam, he began to think differently. The unending, brutal bloodshed, both on the American and Vietnamese sides, revealed itself to be politically motivated and pointless. Eventually, he found some secret files—the Pentagon Papers—and he felt obligated to bring them to the attention of the wider world. Although his freedom and even his life were threatened, Ellsberg remained so committed to his plan that Henry Kissinger called him “the most dangerous man in America.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book that may be astounding to teens is that documents were entirely made of paper at this time. For Ellsberg to get these papers to other people, he had to sneak them out of buildings, go to copy shops at night and manually copy them, then sneak them back in. There were also no cell phones, and land lines were often tapped. Ellsberg had to develop elaborate plans to get himself and the recipient of calls to pay phones to communicate. (What’s a pay phone?) These laborious maneuvers form some of the most nerve-wracking scenes in the book. Teens will be incredulous that it could take months to accomplish a task that now takes just the click of a mouse.
Sheinkin does a superb job of spinning a true story that not only informs, but also raises so many issues that are glaringly relevant today. What does it mean to be a patriot? Is it moral to continue to wage a war without a plan to actually win said war? Where is the crucial line between a government’s duty to keep the country safe and its lust for power afforded by the deception of those very same people? The epilogue tells the story of Edward Snowden. Sheinkin leaves room for discussion on both sides.
Although the publisher says that this book is written for 10- to 14-year-olds, I cannot imagine a ten-year-old enjoying it. Furthermore, the language can be quite salty; for example, some of the Nixon Tape transcripts are written out, and you probably know what they contain. Fourteen-year-olds, however, will devour it, as will adults. I read some aloud to my husband, and he picked it up when I was done. I am really hoping for at least a Printz Honor for this book, which was a National Book Award finalist.
Very highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.