The death of Daniel Ellsberg (1931-2023) on June 16 comes at a time when America is engaged in a grim public conversation about the unauthorized disclosure of top secret and classified government documents. In June 1971, Ellsberg engineered the most important leak of secret documents in American history. He died from complications of pancreatic cancer at his home in Kensington, Calif. He was 92 years old.
Ellsberg was one of the gigantic figures of the Vietnam era (1954-1975), along with JFK, LBJ, Robert McNamara, William Westmoreland, John Dean and Richard Nixon. It seems fitting somehow — ironic perhaps — that Dean is likely to be the last man standing. JFK died on Nov. 22, 1963; LBJ in 1973; Westmoreland in 2005; Nixon in 1994; McNamara in 2009.
Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Timesin 1971 was one of the most pivotal events of the past 50 years. It precipitated a chain of events that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon, damaged the American people’s trust in their federal government so severely that it has never recovered and brought on one of the most significant Supreme Court cases in American history. The U.K. Guardian’s Michael Carlson wrote in the paper’s obituary of Ellsberg, “It is not unreasonable to set Ellsberg’s leak alongside President John F. Kennedy’s assassination as the ground zero of today’s distrust of politics.”
Ellsberg was born in Chicago. He might have been a concert pianist had it not been for a car accident in 1946, in which his mother and sister were both killed and he was severely injured. He went to Harvard on a scholarship and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in economics. He studied for a year at King’s College, Cambridge, in England. He returned to Harvard in 1957, where he wrote an influential doctoral dissertation on decision theory.
In 1964, he went to work for the Department of Defense as a special assistant for international security. In 1967, he went to work for the RAND Corporation, where he served as an expert in nuclear strategy.
Ellsberg spent two years in Saigon working with Maj. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale, America’s counterinsurgency master. For 18 months, Ellsberg accompanied combat patrols into the jungle heart of South Vietnam. Among other things, he realized that America’s determination to win “the hearts and minds” of the people of South Vietnam was doomed to failure. He observed firsthand that the American pacification program included torture, the indiscriminate killing of women and children and the burning of whole villages to prevent the Viet Cong from using them as bases from which to conduct raids against America’s still-growing armed forces.
Even so, for many years Ellsberg continued to believe that America’s war in Vietnam was essential in preventing a Communist domination of Southeast Asia — and beyond.
Then Came the Pentagon Papers
In 1967, Secretary McNamara instructed Ellsberg and 35 others to compile a comprehensive history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. The final report ran to 47 volumes. Intended to be what McNamara called an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War,” the report examined America’s mission in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.
In essence, the report revealed more than two decades of mistakes, miscalculations, deception (including self-deception), systematic lying to Congress and the American people, fudged statistics, deliberately inflated death tolls, knowingly false assurances and a conspiracy to cover up atrocities and war crimes. Among other things, the study revealed the ways in which the Kennedy administration, and to a certain degree President Kennedy himself, acquiesced in the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.
The secret report was never intended to be released to the public. McNamara later said (perhaps disingenuously) that it was meant to serve as a “cautionary tale” to prevent similar policy errors in future administrations.
Ellsberg’s conversion experience occurred in August 1969, when he attended a War Resisters League gathering at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. There he listened as a man named Randy Kehler announced that he was going to join his fellow protesters in prison for refusing to be drafted by the U.S. Army. “I left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room. I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing. The only time in my life I’ve reacted to something like that,” Ellsberg remembered.
Soon Ellsberg began clandestinely making photocopies of the 7,000-page report. This alone was a Herculean task. Then he attempted to convince members of the U.S. Senate, including the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee William Fulbright, to release the papers on the floor of the Senate, where they would be immune from legal prosecution. When senators — among them George McGovern — declined to exhibit the necessary profiles in courage, Ellsberg turned to Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter he respected for his incisive reporting of the war. The Times published excerpts from the massive report in nine installments, beginning on June 13, 1971. The first installment revealed that the Gulf of Tonkin incident — President Johnson’s justification for escalating America’s intervention in the war — was a sham.
The Overreaction That Brought Down Nixon
The Pentagon Papers had little to say about President Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War, beginning in 1969. From a purely political perspective, he came out looking pretty good in the report, which focused on the failures and deceptions of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Nixon could have left the report alone and stood by to enjoy the discomfiture of the Democrats. But whipped into paranoia and rage by Henry Kissinger, Nixon ordered his henchmen to find a way to prevent future leaks from the highest echelons of the American government. The result was the creation of “The White House Plumbers,” — as in, leak fixers — which came to include G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, Egil Krogh, James McCord and Charles Colson. It was the Plumbers who broke into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972.
“White House Plumbers” is the 2023 HBO satirical political drama television miniseries. The miniseries goes behind the scenes of the Watergate scandal as Nixon’s political saboteurs, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, accidentally topple the presidency they were zealously trying to protect.
After the initial publication on June 13, 1971, President Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell warned the Times that it had already jeopardized American national security and threatened ruinous legal action if the projected series continued. Mitchell’s Justice Department obtained a federal court injunction that halted further publication. Meanwhile, Ellsberg leaked the documents to more than a dozen other national newspapers, including the Washington Post. After receiving a copy of the Papers in a midnight curbside handoff in the District of Columbia, Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel read 4,100 pages of the report into the Congressional Record. There was no containing the leak.
The U.S. Supreme Court lifted the injunction June 30, 1971, in the landmark case The New York Times Co. v. the United States. Concurring with the 6:3 decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote that in crafting the First Amendment, the framers intended that “the press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.” The decision is regarded as one of the most important endorsements of freedom of the press in American history and a decisive blow to any “prior restraint” of press publication.
Surrender and Trial
On June 28, 1971, two days before the Supreme Court decision, Ellsberg surrendered himself to the U.S. Attorney in Boston. When he was asked by a reporter if he was prepared to go to prison for his convictions, he said, “Wouldn’t you go to prison to end this war?”
Ellsberg was tried under the 1917 Espionage Act. He knew that if he were convicted that he would spend many years in federal prison. He was prepared to accept that outcome.
The trial commenced in Los Angeles on Jan. 3, 1973, U.S. District Court Judge William Matthew Byrne Jr. presiding. At the trial, Ellsberg attempted to make the case that the papers were “illegally classified” and that in leaking them to the press and the American people he served a “higher law” in a democratic society. Judge Byrne refused to hear Ellsberg’s defense. The only question, he ruled, was whether Ellsberg had violated the Espionage Act by leaking classified documents.
It seems clear that Ellsberg would have been found guilty had the Nixon administration’s serial misconduct not been revealed during the trial. In an effort to obtain private files that might discredit Ellsberg, the White House Plumbers had broken into the Los Angeles office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist Lewis Fielding on Sept. 3, 1971. In retrospect, the bungled break-in seems like a hapless piece of political theater worthy of its mastermind G. Gordon Liddy. More serious were the revelations that the FBI had illegally wiretapped Ellsberg’s conversations and that during the trial one of Nixon’s top aides, John Ehrlichman, attempted to bribe the judge by offering him the directorship of the FBI. We now know that Nixon himself authorized the Los Angeles break-in. On May 11, 1973, Judge Byrne dismissed all charges.
In the four decades that followed the release of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg was arrested approximately 50 times at anti-war protests for every subsequent American military intervention. He was an outspoken critic of American foreign policy, but he never again rose to national notoriety. As late as 2021, Ellsberg released secret U.S. government memos dating back to 1958, indicating that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had prepared a plan to use a nuclear first strike against the People’s Republic of China if the PRC attempted to take Taiwan. Ellsberg explained that he would not have released the 1958 memos had the question of Taiwan not again become a grave international concern.
American disillusionment about key national institutions is now so pervasive as to be nearly universal. We know that our government not only lied to us about Vietnam but lied systematically for several decades, when it knew (as the Papers reveal) that the war could not be won using any of the methods we were employing.
The great majority of the American people supported the war at least until 1967 (and for many much longer) because their government and their president told them we were doing the right and necessary thing in Southeast Asia. Before it was over, 58,220 Americans died fighting that war and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of the people of Vietnam.
Daniel Ellsberg was one of those few individuals who changed the course of history. Just ask the ghost of Richard Nixon.
You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing email@example.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.