Every leaker of information has an agenda. The leaker can be an honest whistleblower, a spinner, a junior Machiavelli, a nut job, a misinformed flunky or a combination of several of the above. But with every trickle of privileged information, the leaker invites other interested parties to leak their side of the story, setting institutions against institutions and publications against publications.
An extraordinarily well documented account of battling leaks appears in Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam, a new book by George Washington University history professor James G. Hershberg. Professor Hershberg’s exhaustive book – and by exhaustive I mean 936 pages long – draws on declassified diplomatic cables, foreign archives, countless interviews, and reporters’ private notes to recount the breakdown of secret Polish-Italian efforts in 1966 – code-named “Marigold” – that hoped to coax the United States and North Vietnam into direct peace negotiations.
Like all history lessons, Marigold charges a high price for admission. If you’re not already a student of the Vietnam War or weren’t reading newspapers in the 1960s, the players will sound sketchy and the dispute ephemeral. But I promise a payoff: Marigold etches a template that can provide relief for today’s news consumers who find themselves perplexed by dueling accounts in competing publications. It teaches that sometimes the real news is often who is leaking, and that’s news that can’t often be found in newspapers.
Hershberg explained the importance of “Marigold” in a recent conversation with me.
“Marigold seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough to open direct talks between the U.S. and North Vietnam in December 1966, when about 6,250 Americans had been killed in Vietnam as opposed to the more than 58,000 who would be killed by the end of the war,” he said. But the talks collapsed spectacularly in the middle of that month. The Poles (and implicitly the North Vietnamese) blamed the resumption of U.S. bombing of Hanoi for Marigold’s end. The Americans disputed this, saying that no pledge not to bomb had been made.