The seams of history can be hard to see. Especially certain pivotal moments that may not be recognized in real time for reshaping the world and our individual lives. That’s not the case with Daniel Ellsberg, who passed away from pancreatic cancer last week at the age of 92. Dan, whom I knew, altered the trajectory of human events with a single brave action that flowed from the passion and intensity rooted in his soul. He also changed my life.
Dan was the infamous leaker of the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page collection of top-secret reports compiled for the Defense Department in the late 1960s that showed that the Vietnam War was a huge con job. He disclosed that military experts and analysts had known for years that the Vietnam policies of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations were unlikely to succeed, and the documents made clear that the government had repeatedly lied to the citizenry about this misguided and horrific endeavor that was consuming the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians. (The ultimate civilian death count in Vietnam would be 2 million—this out of a prewar population of 18.7 million.)
Dan was a US Marine in the 1950s who became a Harvard-educated defense intellectual. After a stint at the RAND Corporation, he served as an adviser to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1964. He subsequently spent a year and a half in South Vietnam assessing US efforts to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population. He returned questioning the war’s purpose and upset by the civilian body count and the brutality of American operations, which included torture and the torching of villages.
Back at RAND—where he worked on the Pentagon Papers project—his skepticism became known within the circle of defense eggheads. In 1969, a senior US official in Vietnam asked Ellsberg to come back to the country to assist a South Vietnamese opposition figure who had criticized the corrupt Saigon regime and had urged emphasizing political and economic programs over military operations. The Saigon government falsely accused this politician of being a communist and threatened to arrest him. A small group of Americans were trying to keep him out of jail, and they thought the well-connected Ellsberg could help. But William Colby, the future CIA director who was heading the US pacification program in Vietnam, and another US embassy official blocked Dan’s trip because of his developing opposition to Washington’s Vietnamese policies.
In a 1992 interview for my book Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA’s Crusades, Dan told me that he stayed put in America and soon began making secret copies of the Pentagon Papers. “Had I gone over then, I probably would not have done anything so drastic,” he recounted. If Colby had permitted Dan to fly to Vietnam, what might have happened—or not? (The Vietnamese politician Dan wanted to help was tried in a military court, judged guilty of associating with a North Vietnamese spy, and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.)
In other accounts, Dan described having been moved to take action by listening to antiwar activist Randy Kehler announce in a speech that he would refuse the draft and accept a prison sentence. When Kehler had finished, Dan found a deserted bathroom and “sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing.”
After having copied the 47-volumes of the Pentagon Papers—with the help of his RAND colleague Anthony Russo Jr.—Dan first tried to interest members of Congress in the documents. When no one expressed any interest, he made them available to the New York Times. (The intrigue of his dealings with the Times reporter Neil Sheehan is quite the story.) The impact of the publication by the Times of the first installment of the papers on June 13, 1971, was explosive. Here was evidence the government had lied repeatedly about Vietnam, sending American soldiers to their deaths for an enterprise that was rotten at its core and held no promise of anything that resembled victory. It cemented what had become known as the credibility gap, providing fuel for the antiwar movement and profoundly undermining faith in the government.
Dan revealed one of the biggest and most consequential secrets in US history: The nation’s leaders had purposefully misled the country into a war and hid the truth from the public. Few Americans ever have performed such a vital service. But, unintentionally, Ellsberg would reveal much more about American power.
The Pentagon Papers were compiled before Richard Nixon became president, so their release did not directly indict Nixon and his aides in the policy disaster and lies of Vietnam. But Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger viewed this leak as a direct threat to the US government and White House authority. The pair had another worry: During the 1968 race, Nixon, who feared that a Vietnam War peace deal would sink his candidacy, had schemed to block the Paris peace talks from succeeding, using an intermediary to inform the South Vietnamese government that it would get a better deal if Nixon reached the White House. The diabolical plot appeared to have worked. (I wrote about it here.) When the Pentagon Papers hit, Nixon and Kissinger fretted that further leaks might disclose this betrayal. They decided they had to strike back and their efforts included trying to block the Times and the Washington Post from publishing the documents. They eventually lost in the Supreme Court. But their effort at exacting revenge went further.
Enraged by Dan’s action and convinced it was part of a larger anti-Nixon conspiracy run by leftists and commies, the ever-paranoid president pressed his White House aides to uncover this subversive cabal and stop all the damn leaks. This prompted the creation of the so-called Special Investigations Unit in the White House, which included former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt Jr. and onetime FBI agent and failed GOP congressional candidate G. Gordon Liddy. They and their crew of black-bag operators would become better known as the White House Plumbers. One of their first assignments was to break into the Los Angeles office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, Dan’s psychiatrist, to collect dirt on him. The operation ended up a bust—and eventually became one reason why a federal judge threw out the case that had been brought against Dan by Nixon’s Justice Department. (Two weeks after the Times’ publication of the papers, Dan had turned himself in to the feds, admitting he had handed the classified documents to the media.)
But the botched Fielding job led to other Plumber projects, including, most notably, the Watergate caper. Dan’s brave deed can be seen as having provoked Nixon and his henchmen to mount criminal endeavors that resulted in their downfall and that showed their mendacity to the entire nation. Dan did much more than reveal the falsehood of Vietnam; he helped bring these ratfuckers into the public light.
Without Dan and the Pentagon Papers leak, there may not have been Watergate. Without Watergate, there may not have been the fall of Nixon. You can extrapolate from there. But I know without Watergate, my life would have been very different.
I was a Watergate baby, fascinated, as a teen, by the scandal and much impressed by how journalists could counter the corruptions of power by excavating the truth. Watching the Watergate hearings in 1973 and reading about this sleazy affair in the newspapers—witnessing how the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were intrepidly exposing the dirty truths of Nixon’s devious and dishonorable squad—I embraced journalism as not just a profession but a cause. At my high school newspaper, I declared myself an investigative reporter and pursued enterprise stories on how the local drug dealers in my school obtained their wares and on the rising influence of the Unification Church in the region.
I was hooked.
Years later, when I was covering the nuclear arms debates of the 1980s, I was jazzed to meet Dan and get to know him. This was when he was pursing a new crusade, trying to draw public attention to the insanity of the arms race. I was fascinated with his Marine-to-games-theorist-to-peacenik tale. For years, I urged him to write his memoirs. He said he wasn’t interested. At one point, I threatened to write his story if he would not do so. I don’t know if my nudges had any impact. But in 2002, he published Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. Its arrival was timely, appearing when the Bush-Cheney administration was employing lies and falsehoods to steer the country into a disastrous war in Iraq. The searing lessons of the Pentagon Papers were painfully still relevant.
Dan changed the world—and my world—in so many ways. He contributed to the ending of an unjust and catastrophic war. His courage forced the antidemocratic and criminal elements at the top of American society—the phony patriots—to show us their true nature. Perhaps most of all, Dan gave us a role model for what conscientious action looks like. If ever we confront such a pivotal moment as he did, may we all be as strong, fierce, and consequential.
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