Daniel Ellsberg once believed in the need to contain Communism, in America’s military supremacy, and in the sanctity of those who governed America’s democratic institutions, yet decades of American involvement in Vietnam changed these beliefs for him. The nature of the Vietnam War forced Ellsberg to revise his earlier faith in America’s ability to win any war and his faith in the trustworthiness of America’s leaders. By 1971, this former Defense Department official had so completely altered his thinking that he leaked classified documents to the press in order to encourage public scrutiny of American foreign policy decisions in Vietnam and of the integrity of those who made such decisions. Although Ellsberg is an extreme example, he illustrates the way the Vietnam War called into question many widely accepted beliefs that were shaped by American experience in World War II and in the Cold War.
The reassessment of these World War II and Cold War assumptions, however, was not universal within the nation nor within the government elite. As some leaders revised their thinking because of Vietnam, and others held tightly to their initial assumptions despite contradictory evidence, dissent and confusion increased in the higher echelons of government. This high-level dissension mirrored the differences of opinion in the nation and was often responsible for ambiguous, inconsistent policies in Vietnam. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried reveals how the lack of government consensus and clear purpose in policy, as indicated by an analysis of Ellsberg’s intellectual conversion, translated into confusion, purposelessness, and futility for those who a...
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...for reconsideration. It seems that if any consensus was left intact after the Vietnam War, it was one of cynical distrust, critical questioning, and ideological confusion.
Chafe, William H. The Unfinished Journey 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Ellsberg, Daniel. Papers on the War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.
Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: the United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.
Hodgson, Godfrey. “The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus” in History of Our Time. Ed. William H. Chafe and Harvard Sitkoff. 4th edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Schrag, Peter. Test of Loyalty: Daniel Ellsberg and the Rituals of the Secret Government. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974.
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