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Rest in peace, Daniel Ellsberg
The famous "Pentagon Papers" whistleblower, who helped bring down the Nixon presidency and end the Vietnam War, has passed away.
Daniel Ellsberg died yesterday. A former military analyst turned whistleblower, he set in motion a chain of events that brought down the Nixon administration and helped bring the Vietnam War to an end. Ellsberg continued to write and speak about politics throughout his life, publishing The Doomsday Machine in 2021 about his experiences in nuclear planning.
Other writers have done a good job honoring Ellsberg’s life. The New York Times traced his journey from war hawk to peace dove. Norman Solomon at The Intercept and Glenn Greenwald at Rolling Stone, both of whom had met Ellsberg, wrote about his relevance today. The Ellsberg family itself has published a statement on Ellsberg’s life and the interviews he would want people to read today.
I wrote about Ellsberg in the context of another obituary, that of Senator James Abourezk, a few months ago. (I also cited The Doomsday Machine in a recent article about nuclear weapons.) Ellsberg and Abourezk made their names as part of “Vietnam syndrome,” the national backlash against the Vietnam War that led to serious reforms in the U.S. political system.
Ellsberg had been an insider’s insider. He studied economics at Harvard University, joined the U.S. Army after World War II, and was asked to study nuclear war by the RAND Corporation, the U.S. Air Force’s think tank. (His economics thesis was on decision-making theory.) With a security clearance and a reputation for brains, Ellsberg continued to consult for the government, visiting South Vietnam on State Department and Defense Department missions.
Speaking to the journalist Mary McGrory years later, Ellsberg remembered justifying the Vietnam War the way many U.S. hawks justify today’s proxy wars: “I saw it was all very hard on those [Vietnamese] people. But I told myself that living under communism would be harder, and World War III, which I thought we were preventing, would be worse.”
In 1967, he was asked to help write an internal Defense Department history of the Vietnam War, now known as the “Pentagon Papers.” Ellsberg found that the United States had been involved longer and more deeply in Southeast Asia than the public understood. He also found that U.S. leaders knew the war was unwinnable — their best hope was a long, violent stalemate.
Ellsberg had a famous “epiphany” in 1970. He had begun attending antiwar conferences to hear from public critics of the war. At one event, a young man from the War Resisters League said he was proud to join his friends in prison for refusing military service. Ellsberg broke down crying.
A few months later, Ellsberg brought copies of the Pentagon Papers to Senator J. William Fulbright (whom the Fulbright program is named for) and other lawmakers. None of them did anything with the report, which was classified top-secret. So Ellsberg acted illegally, leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Ben Bagdikian, the Washington Post journalist to whom Ellsberg leaked, was a towering historical figure in his own right. He was born in the Ottoman Empire at the tail end of the Armenian genocide, escaped the siege of Maraş as a baby, fought for the U.S. Army during World War II, won a Peabody Award and Pulitzer Prize as a very young journalist, and reported from the front lines of the Israeli-Egyptian war — all before getting involved with the Pentagon Papers.
Bagdikian retired from the Washington Post in 1972, and then went into academia. Noam Chomsky cited Bagdikian’s media studies extensively in Manufacturing Consent. After Bagdikian died in 2017, the FBI revealed its 170 page file on him.
In any case, Ellsberg’s leak set off a political earthquake. Newspapers ran front-page coverage of how the government had lied to the public for decades about the war effort. The Justice Department threatened the New York Times with espionage charges, which only drew more attention to the case. The Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the newspapers.
President Richard Nixon initially welcomed the Pentagon Papers leak, because he believed that it would make past presidents look worse. But Nixon soon became convinced that Ellsberg was part of a vast conspiracy against the government. In private conversations, the President referred to Ellsberg as a “radical” and went on a racist rant that “you can’t let the Jew [Ellsberg] steal that stuff and get away with it.”
Nixon eventually cobbled together a secret intelligence unit known as “the Plumbers” to stop the alleged conspiracy. (They were “plumbing” for leaks.) The Plumbers broke into the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, and even encouraged Cuban anticommunist guerrillas to attack Ellsberg in the street. Ironically, the burglary helped keep Ellsberg out of jail; after the Plumbers’ snooping was revealed, a judge forced the government to drop its espionage charges against Ellsberg.
On 17 June 1972 — that’s today! — some of the Plumbers were arrested trying to break into the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Hotel. Nixon kept digging himself into a deeper and deeper hole. At one point, Nixon’s goons kidnapped Martha Mitchell, wife of his campaign manager, for speaking to journalists. Of course, the ham-fisted attempts at a coverup fell apart.
Nixon resigned in August 1974, the only U.S. president to do so. He never spent a day in jail over the Watergate scandal, because his successor Gerald Ford pardoned him. Ford pulled the U.S. military out of Vietnam in April 1975.
Ending the Vietnam War was not Ellsberg’s only goal. According to The Doomsday Machine, most of the documents Ellsberg had taken were not related to the Vietnam War, but to U.S. nuclear planning: “notes and studies on classified nuclear war planning, the command and control of nuclear weapons, and studies of nuclear crises. They included verbatim extracts or copies of critical documents, past war plans (none of which were, at the time, current), cables, and studies by me and by others, including some on nuclear policy by Kissinger’s National Security Council staff.”
Ellsberg had played an active role in U.S. policy during the Cuban missile crisis, and believed that he was one of the few Americans who truly understood “the breadth and intensity” of U.S.-Soviet nuclear tensions. He was especially alarmed by the prospect of a nuclear first strike — in other words, a surprise attack — that the U.S. military planned for and U.S. presidents implicitly threatened the Soviet Union with.
Staring at a top-secret chart of the predicted death toll, Ellsberg thought: “This piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere, ever. It depicted evil beyond any human project ever. There should be nothing on earth, nothing real, that it referred to.”
Ellsberg decided to release the Pentagon Papers first, because “Vietnam is where the bombs are falling right now,” he recalled in The Doomsday Machine. The idea was to release the rest of the files once the press was paying attention. A stroke of bad luck ruined the plan. A rainstorm washed out the hiding place where Ellsberg’s brother had stashed the nuclear files, and they were lost forever.
A few of the documents survived, including a paper showing that U.S. generals had come close to dropping nuclear weapons on China during a crisis over Taiwan in 1958. Ellsberg leaked it in 2021.
Nixon knew about some of the nuclear documents Ellsberg had taken. The Doomsday Machine claims that the fear of Ellsberg leaking that information, which included the Nixon administration’s secret threats to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, is what drove Nixon to activate the Plumbers.
Much of the information was declassified and studied by historians in the following decades. The Doomsday Machine was published in 2017, when Ellsberg felt that the publicly-known facts were enough to corroborate his own memories, and when the threat of nuclear war with North Korea was bringing renewed public interest to the nuclear issue.
In the decades after leaving government, Ellsberg protested against the Iraq War, and called for anyone with knowledge about a planned U.S. attack on Iran to leak it. (Ironically, former president Donald Trump is on trial for doing exactly that, although with less noble reasons.) And, of course, Ellsberg continued to defend the rights of other whistleblowers.
In 2010, the website WikiLeaks published a stash of diplomatic cables and other sensitive data smuggled out by U.S. Army private Chelsea Manning, including a video of U.S. attack helicopters gunning down two Iraqi journalists and other bystanders. Manning was arrested soon after and remained in military prison until President Barack Obama ordered her release in 2017.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange fled into the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after facing sexual assault allegations in Sweden in 2012. The Swedish investigation was later dropped. He was expelled by Ecuador in 2019, and now faces extradition to the United States for espionage.
Ellsberg spoke out publicly on Manning and Assange’s behalf, showing up at numerous demonstrations and giving interviews comparing their situation to his own. However, Ellsberg said that he sees himself most in another famous leaker, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
“He’s older, he had higher access, he had a better salary than Manning. [Snowden’s] life was like mine. It’s very easy for me to identify with his choice, his decision, his performance,” Ellsberg wrote for The Daily Beast.
Snowden leaked information about a secret surveillance program — which the agency had lied to Congress about — after fleeing the United States in 2013. Some journalists compared Snowden unfavorably to Ellsberg, since Ellsberg had tried to blow the whistle to Congress before going to the media, and stayed in the country to face criminal charges.
“The country I stayed in was a different America, a long time ago,” Ellsberg wrote in the Washington Post, responding to Snowden’s critics. “There is no chance that [my] experience could be reproduced today, let alone that a trial could be terminated by the revelation of White House actions against a defendant that were clearly criminal in Richard Nixon’s era…but are today all regarded as legal.”
Indeed, the CIA considered assassinating or kidnapping Assange in 2017, according to a Yahoo News investigative report. The revelation did not set off any political repercussions or official inquiries. British courts went ahead with Assange’s extradition process.
In the last interview of his life, Ellsberg said that he was frightened about Russian threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Despite the grim subject matter, he did emphasize that he felt “joy and gratitude” about his life’s work, and said that his cancer diagnosis was “an opportunity to encourage [others] to continue the work for peace and care for the planet.”
And he told a story:
In my office, an assistant of mine once put up little labels to show parts of the bookshelves and especially the drawers in my files. And my wife came down and saw “genocide,” “torture,” “massacre,” “terrorism,” you know, “bombing civilians,” and she said, how can I be married to somebody who has files like this in the office? And so this is California, this is Berkeley, so a bunch of her friends came down with burning sage and exorcised my office. But that has been my life since I started work at the RAND Corporation in 1958. I think about nuclear war not because I find it fascinating but because I want to prevent it, to make it unthinkable, because I care about the world that it would destroy.
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