Few people can say their actions helped to strengthen press freedom, end a war, and bring down a presidency. Daniel Ellsberg, who died today at the age of ninety-two, did just that.
Ellsberg came to public prominence in 1971 when he photocopied a secret history of US involvement in the Vietnam War, what became known as the “Pentagon Papers,” and gave a copy to the New York Times. The New York Times’ decision to publish the papers set off a landmark press freedom battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Ellsberg became the first whistleblower indicted under the Espionage Act. In addition to seeking an indictment, Richard Nixon also set up a “White House Plumbers” unit to gather dirt on Ellsberg. This unit would later be at the heart of the Watergate scandal that resulted in Nixon’s downfall.
For the next half a century, Ellsberg was a continuous campaigner for peace and disarmament, as well as an unflinching champion of those who faced the wrath of the same secrecy regime that had sought to imprison him.
While Ellsberg spent five decades as an antiwar activist, his career began in a very different way. In Ellsberg’s own recounting, he had once been an ardent cold warrior. But his experiences working for the war machine led to a change of heart.
He worked in a number of positions within the US national security state. He was in the Pentagon the day North Vietnamese forces allegedly attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. He quickly became aware of the fact that the government was lying about the incident.
He traveled to Vietnam twice — first in 1961 as part of a Pentagon fact-finding mission, then again in 1965 as part of a State Department mission, during which he was photographed in camouflage carrying a rifle.
In addition to being involved with the US war in Vietnam, Ellsberg was involved with US nuclear policy, something he described as being a “doomsday planner.” Eventually, Ellsberg would become horrified by the prospects of a nuclear doomsday and turn against the Vietnam War. While working at the Pentagon-connected RAND Corporation, Ellsberg went from defending the war to becoming actively involved in antiwar organizing.
He befriended Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, participating in demonstrations with them. Ellsberg led an affinity group during the 1971 May Day protest against the war that included both Zinn and Chomsky.
But the pivotal moment in Ellsberg’s life occurred in August 1969, when he attended an antiwar conference. He listened to the stories of draft resisters who would be jailed for their act of courage. After hearing them, Ellsberg went into the bathroom, lay down on the floor, and began to cry. At this point Ellsberg made his most fateful decision.
Ellsberg had first come to view the war as a mistake, but eventually came to realize it was a crime. While a mistake can be corrected, a crime must be resisted.
A Whistleblower Against the War
As a RAND employee, Ellsberg had access to a forty-seven-volume, seven thousand–page study on the Vietnam War. This study went all the way back to the Truman administration, when the United States had funded French attempts to recolonize the country. It proved that step-by-step, across two decades and multiple administrations, the US government had lied to the people about the war.
Ellsberg decided to release the top-secret history to the people.
Whistleblowers today are able to copy and transmit large amounts of data with ease, but at the time, there were no flash drives or email. The only way for Ellsberg to copy the documents was with a photocopier. The task took months.
Ellsberg initially attempted to give the Pentagon Papers to members of Congress, but they were reluctant to accept them. He then turned to the New York Times. After intense internal deliberation, the paper, guided by its general counsel James Goodale, decided that publishing them was in the public interest and that the First Amendment protected the right to do so.
The Nixon administration sought an injunction under the Espionage Act preventing the New York Times from continuing to publish the secret history. Temporarily silenced, Ellsberg took the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post. The Post published them before also being hit with an injunction. This began a process where, as one paper was enjoined, another would step up and publish the Pentagon Papers.
In addition to the press, Ellsberg arranged for the antiwar senator Mike Gravel to receive a copy. Gravel entered them into the congressional record. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could not prevent newspapers from publishing the Pentagon Papers. Yet the court left open the question of whether newspapers could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act after they had done so. As a result, Gravel struggled to find a publisher to print the Pentagon Papers, though eventually the Unitarian-Universalist Beacon Press stepped in.
While it remained an open question whether the Espionage Act could be used against a publisher, the Nixon administration brought Espionage Act charges against Ellsberg and Anthony Russo for liberating the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg had fully expected to spend the rest of his life in jail, but drawing on the experience of war resisters, he copied them anyway. As he would later tell a journalist when turning himself in, “Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end the war?”
The Nixon administration’s misconduct, however, had so soiled the case that a judge had to throw it out. Prior to this, the draconian nature of the Espionage Act had all but ensured Ellsberg’s and Russo’s convictions.
Ellsberg’s pursuit of a better world did not cease. He was a frequent fixture of protests against US wars, whether they be in Central America or Iraq. By 2018, Ellsberg had been arrested eighty-seven times in acts of civil disobedience.
Ellsberg also took on renewed prominence during the Obama years. Army private Chelsea Manning gave secret documents about US wars to WikiLeaks. Manning, like Ellsberg, was indicted under the Espionage Act. In the midst of her court martial, the Guardian began publishing a series of revelations about the National Security Agency’s global surveillance programs. This information came from whistleblower Edward Snowden. Soon, Snowden would also be indicted under the Espionage Act. A new war on whistleblowers was under way. And the Espionage Act was the government’s main weapon against them.
Ellsberg was vilified by the political establishment when he released the Pentagon Papers. Henry Kissinger, who recently marked his hundredth birthday, dubbed him the “most dangerous man in America.” Yet as the decades have passed, history has proven that Ellsberg’s acts were heroic. When new whistleblowers like Manning popped up, some commentators perversely tried to contrast them to Ellsberg: he was a good whistleblower, they were not. Ellsberg never stood for that, as he recognized himself in their actions. He told journalists:
I was willing to go to prison. I never thought, for the rest of my life, I would ever hear anyone willing to do that, to risk their life, so that horrible, awful secrets could be known. Then I read those logs and learned [Chelsea Manning] was willing to go to prison. I can’t tell you how much that affected me.
Ellsberg not only spoke out on behalf of Manning but attended her court martial. It was through his campaigning against the Espionage Act that I got to know him. I saw him speak in person for the first time at a rally outside Fort Meade on behalf of Manning. Years later, as policy director of Defending Rights & Dissent, I spoke to him, as Ellsberg supported our work to reform the Espionage Act, halt the extradition of Julian Assange, and secure a pardon for Daniel Hale.
Ellsberg’s commitment and compassion were incredibly clear to me. When it came to whistleblowers persecuted and tortured by the US government, the stakes weighed heavily on his mind. In December 2022, when Hale supporters organized a virtual press conference calling for a commutation of Hale’s sentence, we asked Ellsberg to speak. It was clear he was not feeling well, and none of us thought that he would actually make it. Yet to the surprise of all of the organizers, Ellsberg appeared, wearing a full suit and tie. Such was his dedication to freeing his fellow whistleblower.
In recent years, Ellsberg became increasingly focused on abolishing nuclear weapons. In 2017, he published his second memoir, revealing for the first time his role as a “doomsday planner.” He also made another revelation. At the same time that he copied the Pentagon Papers, he also copied a study of the US response to the 1958 Taiwan Straits crisis. According to the study, US generals pushed for a nuclear strike.
By publishing this study, Ellsberg had again violated the Espionage Act. In doing so, he had two aims. First, with tensions heating up between the United States and China over Taiwan (again), Ellsberg wanted to warn the world how perilously close it had come to nuclear war in the past. Also, he challenged the US government to charge him so that he could fight the constitutionality of the Espionage Act.
This was not Ellsberg’s final battle with official secrecy. Two months before his cancer diagnosis, Ellsberg revealed that in 2010, WikiLeaks had given him copies of the materials provided by Chelsea Manning. Ellsberg had held onto the materials as a backup. Although he never published them, the Espionage Act equally criminalizes retaining “national defense information” as it does publishing it. Ellsberg urged the US government to indict him along with Assange. Again, he made his motives clear: he wished to stage a constitutional challenge to the Espionage Act.
“I Will Continue, as Long as I’m Able”
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Ellsberg noted the similarities between the Vietnam War and the current war in Ukraine. Both wars were obviously stalemated, but respective governments denied it. “I’m reliving a part of history I had no desire to live again. And I hoped I wouldn’t. And by the way, that makes it easier to leave — this is where I came in,” Ellsberg told his interviewer.
In his email announcing his terminal cancer, the threat of nuclear war was clearly weighing heavily on Ellsberg’s mind. Stating that the world risked nuclear war over Ukraine or Taiwan, Ellsberg wrote, “It is long past time — but not too late! — for the world’s publics at last to challenge and resist the willed moral blindness of their past and current leaders. I will continue, as long as I’m able, to help these efforts.”
While he viewed the world as close to catastrophe as ever, he noted, “I’m happy to know that millions of people — including all those friends and comrades to whom I address this message! — have the wisdom, the dedication and the moral courage to carry on with these causes, and to work unceasingly for the survival of our planet and its creatures.”
When I interviewed him for the fiftieth anniversary of the Pentagon Papers’ release, it was clear that he was far less interested in reminiscing about the past than carrying forward his urgent work to avert nuclear war and reform the Espionage Act. Honoring Ellsberg requires not just recalling him as a historic figure, but carrying on his work and legacy to dismantle the machinery of war that has claimed far too many lives and end its accompanying regime of secrecy that crushes truth-tellers while granting impunity to war criminals.