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Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

Book review by
Michael Berry, Common Sense Media
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War Book Poster Image
Gripping nonfiction account of Vietnam-era whistle-blowing.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

A clear, carefully researched overview of the Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsberg's protest against it, and the final days of the Nixon presidency. It offers opportunities for discussion of the merits of the First Amendment, government transparency, and the need for whistle-blowers in times of crisis.

Positive Messages

The Fifth Amendment is a powerful tool in defense of democracy. Even the president is not exempt from following the rule of law. One person can make a huge difference by exposing the truth about an unjust situation.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Daniel Ellsberg began his career as a supporter of the war in Vietnam, but he grew disillusioned after learning how the government was hiding the truth about what was happening there. He leaked top-secret documents to the national media and was willing to go to prison in defense of his principles. Most Dangerous portrays him as a person of great intelligence, fortitude, and integrity.

Violence

Most Dangerous describes the reality of the war in Vietnam, including the killing of civilians and the torture of American POWs at the "Hanoi Hilton" prison. In general, though, violent scenes are handled with restraint and few graphic details.

Sex
Language

Salty dialogue accompanies some scenes, including multiple uses and variations of "damn," "hell," "bastard," "prick," "ass," and "bitch."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

G. Gordon Liddy concocts a plan to lace one of Ellsberg's meals with LSD, but the mission is a failure.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Most Dangerous is a nonfiction account of Daniel Ellsberg's plan to leak secret documents, known as the Pentagon Papers, to the national media. Written by National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin, author of The Port Chicago 50 and Bomb, the book follows Ellsberg from his days as a Pentagon insider to an impassioned whistle-blower who helped topple President Richard Nixon. Kids interested in military history or journalism will be drawn in by Sheinkin's straightforward yet lively approach to the material. Accounts of warfare include descriptions of violence, especially the suffering endured by Vietnamese civilians and American prisoners of war, but with few graphic details. There's salty dialogue in some scenes, including multiple uses and variations of "damn," "hell," "bastard," "prick," "ass," and "bitch."

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What's the story?

In 1964, Daniel Ellsberg helped plan the war in Vietnam as a Pentagon insider. But after journeying to the embattled country, he saw firsthand that what the U.S. government was telling the American public did not match what was happening on the ground in Southeast Asia. Ellsberg changed his mind about the war and decided to leak to the national media top-secret documents that detailed years of misinformation. In doing so, he put himself at risk for a lengthy prison sentence and earned the title "The Most Dangerous Man in America."

Is it any good?

Meticulously researched and clearly presented, this history of the Pentagon Papers shows how one man helped topple an American president by insisting the truth be told to the American people. The issues are extremely complicated, but author Steve Sheinkin takes care to present Daniel Ellsberg's story with clarity, compassion, and an insistence on the facts. Kids interested in military history or journalism will be drawn in by Sheinkin's straightforward yet lively approach to the material. MOST DANGEROUS presents a concise and gripping account of the Vietnam War and offers detailed portraits of some of the most influential men of the later 20th century, from Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. The book even has its own brand of comic relief, in the form of G. Gordon Liddy and his notorious band of "Plumbers," who couldn't seem to get the simplest illegal mission right.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the history of the Vietnam War. How did it shape American politics and culture?

  • If government officials willfully mislead the public, is it right to leak classified information to the press and expose the truth? Do you know of any more recent examples?

  • What other figures in American history have been willing to go to jail rather than betray their principles?

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