A Tribute to Daniel Ellsberg

By Haig Hovaness, World BEYOND War, May 7, 2023

Presented during the May 4, 2023, Vietnam to Ukraine: Lessons for the US Peace Movement Remembering Kent State and Jackson State! Webinar hosted by the Green Party Peace Action Committee; Peoples Network for Planet, Justice & Peace; and Green Party of Ohio 

Today I will pay tribute to Daniel Ellsberg, a man who has been called one of the most significant whistleblowers in American history. He sacrificed his career and risked his freedom to bring to light the truth about the Vietnam War and spent subsequent years working for peace. In March Dan posted online a letter announcing that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is likely to die this year. This is a fitting time to appreciate his life’s work.

Daniel Ellsberg was born in 1931 in Chicago, Illinois. He attended Harvard University, where he graduated summa cum laude and later earned a PhD in economics. After leaving Harvard, he worked for the RAND Corporation, a think tank that was heavily involved in military research. It was during his time at RAND that Ellsberg became involved in the Vietnam War.

At first, Ellsberg supported the war. But as he began to study the conflict more closely, and after speaking with war resisters, he became increasingly disillusioned. He discovered that the government was lying to the American people about the progress of the war, and he became convinced that the war was unwinnable.

In 1969, Ellsberg made the decision to leak the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study of the Vietnam War that had been commissioned by the Department of Defense. The study showed that the government had lied to the American people about the progress of the war, and it revealed that the government had been involved in secret operations in Laos and Cambodia.

After fruitless attempts to interest members of Congress in the report, he provided the documents to the New York Times, which published excerpts in 1971. The revelations in the papers were significant and damaging to the US government, as they revealed that successive administrations had systematically lied to the American people about the progress and objectives of the war.

The Pentagon Papers showed that the US government had secretly escalated its military involvement in Vietnam without a clear strategy for victory. The papers also revealed that government officials had deliberately misled the public about the nature of the conflict, the extent of US military involvement, and the prospects for success.

The publication of the Pentagon Papers was a turning point in American history. It revealed the government’s lies about the war and shook the American people’s faith in their leaders. It also led to a Supreme Court ruling that upheld the right of the press to publish classified information.

Ellsberg’s actions had serious consequences. He was charged with theft and espionage, and he faced the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison. But in a stunning turn of events, the charges against him were dismissed when it was revealed that the government had engaged in illegal wiretapping and other forms of surveillance against him. The dropping of charges against Ellsberg was a significant victory for whistleblowers and the freedom of the press, and it underscored the importance of government transparency and accountability.

Ellsberg’s bravery and commitment to the truth made him a hero to peace activists and a prominent voice in the anti-war community. For decades He has continued to speak out on issues of war, peace, and government secrecy. He was a vocal critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he remains critical of U.S. militaristic foreign policy that is fomenting and sustaining armed conflict in many regions today.

The release of the Pentagon Papers overshadowed Ellsberg’s parallel efforts to expose the dangerous consequences of America’s nuclear weapons planning. In the 1970s, his attempts to release classified materials on the danger of nuclear war were frustrated by the accidental loss of a trove of classified documents related to the nuclear threat. Eventually he was able to reassemble this information and publish it in 2017 in the book, “The Doomsday Machine.”

“The Doomsday Machine,” is a detailed exposé of the US government’s nuclear war policy during the Cold War. Ellsberg reveals that the US had a policy of using nuclear weapons preemptively, including against non-nuclear countries, and that this policy remained in effect even after the end of the Cold War. He also revealed that the U.S. had regularly threatened adversaries with use of nuclear weapons. Ellsberg exposed a dangerous culture of secrecy and lack of accountability surrounding US nuclear policy, He revealed that the US had developed plans for a “first strike” nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, even in the absence of a Soviet attack, which he argues would have led to the deaths of millions of people. Ellsberg further revealed that the US government had delegated authority to use nuclear weapons far more widely than was known to the public, greatly increasing the danger of accidental nuclear war. He argued that the poorly managed nuclear arsenal of the United States constituted a “doomsday machine” that represented an existential threat to humanity. The book provides a stark warning about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the need for greater transparency and accountability in nuclear policy to prevent a catastrophic global disaster.

The work to which Dan Ellsberg has devoted most of his life remains unfinished. Little has changed in the belligerent foreign policy of the United States since the Vietnam era. The danger of nuclear war is greater than ever; A NATO proxy war is raging in Europe; and Washington is engaged in provocations aimed at starting a war with China over Taiwan. As in the Vietnam era, our government lies about its actions and conceals dangerous activities behind walls of secrecy and mass media propaganda.

Today, the U.S. government continues to prosecute whistleblowers aggressively. Many have been jailed and some, like Edward Snowden, have fled to avoid rigged trials. Julian Assange continues to languish in prison awaiting extradition and possible lifetime imprisonment. But, in the words of Assange, courage is contagious, and leaks will continue as government misdeeds are exposed by principled people. The voluminous information Ellsberg photocopied over many hours can be copied today in minutes and distributed worldwide immediately over the Internet. We have already seen such leaks in the form of classified U.S. information on the war in Ukraine contradicting optimistic U.S. public claims. The exemplary actions of Dan Ellsberg will inspire countless future acts of courage in the cause of peace.

I would like to conclude by reading a portion of the letter in which Dan announced his illness and terminal diagnosis.

Dear friends and supporters,

I have difficult news to impart. On February 17, without much warning, I was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer on the basis of a CT scan and an MRI. (As is usual with pancreatic cancer–which has no early symptoms–it was found while looking for something else, relatively minor). I’m sorry to report to you that my doctors have given me three to six months to live. Of course, they emphasize that everyone’s case is individual; it might be more, or less.

I feel lucky and grateful that I’ve had a wonderful life far beyond the proverbial three-score years and ten. ( I’ll be ninety-two on April 7th.) I feel the very same way about having a few months more to enjoy life with my wife and family, and in which to continue to pursue the urgent goal of working with others to avert nuclear war in Ukraine or Taiwan (or anywhere else).

When I copied the Pentagon Papers in 1969, I had every reason to think I would be spending the rest of my life behind bars. It was a fate I would gladly have accepted if it meant hastening the end of the Vietnam War, unlikely as that seemed (and was). Yet in the end, that action—in ways I could not have foreseen, due to Nixon’s illegal responses—did have an impact on shortening the war. In addition, thanks to Nixon’s crimes, I was spared the imprisonment I expected, and I was able to spend the last fifty years with Patricia and my family, and with you, my friends.

What’s more, I was able to devote those years to doing everything I could think of to alert the world to the perils of nuclear war and wrongful interventions: lobbying, lecturing, writing and joining with others in acts of protest and non-violent resistance.

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.

I’m enormously grateful to have had the privilege of knowing and working with such people, past and present. That’s among the most treasured aspects of my very privileged and very lucky life. I want to thank you all for the love and support you have given me in so many ways. Your dedication, courage, and determination to act have inspired and sustained my own efforts.

My wish for you is that at the end of your days you will feel as much joy and gratitude as I do now.

Signed, Daniel Ellsberg

Before one of the battles of the Civil War, a Union officer asked his soldiers, “If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry on?” Daniel Ellsberg courageously carried the flag of peace. I ask all of you to join me in lifting that flag and carrying on.

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