I have learned more from Dan Ellsberg than from any other person in Vietnam.
-- Henry Kissinger
...the most dangerous man in America. He must be stopped at all costs.
-- Henry Kissinger to Richard Nixon on Daniel Ellsberg
Early on in life Daniel Ellsberg
was recognized as being gifted. Born in Chicago, Ellsberg went on to receive a B.S. from Columbia University
(1952) and a PhD. from Harvard
(1959). Between his degrees he spent three years as a Marine Corps
officer. He became a respected researcher for the Rand Corporation
and a senior government policy analyst specializing in governmental decision-making as a branch of game theory
. His major contribution to the field was the Ellsberg Paradox
. But Daniel Ellsberg will always be remembered as the man who helped end a war and bring down an American president. He did this by shedding the cold light of truth on American policy vis a vis Vietnam
through the release of the government's own secret history, the Pentagon Papers
Like most Americans who grew up during World War II, Daniel Ellsberg was an ardent patriot and a staunch anticommunist. Through his work at Rand he became a superstar theoretician of Cold War tactics and strategy. Upon joining the Kennedy/Johnson administration, Ellsberg attained the ultimate civil service grade of GS-18, equivalent to a major general, at the age of just 33. Even though Rand was an Air Force think-tank, before joining the government there was one area of policy Ellsberg tried to avoid - Vietnam.
In 1961, 1962, and 1963 I really avoided knowing anything about Vietnam, getting into discussions of Vietnam. I didn't want to be drawn into it. I thought being tarred with that, essentially, would be like being associated with the Bay of Pigs, that perfect failure which had ruined the careers of nearly anybody who had touched it.
-- Daniel Ellsberg
Ellsberg formed this opinion during his first stint in government during the Kennedy years
- where he analyzed the effects of nuclear war. He returned to Rand, but in 1964 he was asked by the Johnson Adminstration
to serve as a special assistant to the Under-Secretary of Defense. Despite his aversion to the asian conflict, Daniel Ellsberg would find the next few years of his life consumed by Vietnam. Eventually it would become the basis for the defining act of his life.
Ellsberg's reintroduction to government service started off with a bang - on his first day the Gulf of Tonkin incident took place. Initially, U.S. ships off the North Vietnamese coast reported they were under attack. They never visually sighted the enemy, but had them on radar and sonar. The Americans returned fire and reported that they had sunk several enemy vessels. All of this occurred in the Vietnamese night. Even as President Johnson was preparing to go public and ask for an equivalent to a declaration of war, reports from the scene began to shift. Suddenly it seemed the radar and sonar images were merely 'ghosts' kicked up by the sea. No wreckage of any enemy vessels could be found. One ship's Captain cabled back, "Hold everything."
Too late. The President had decided; the governmental decision was already made. Lyndon Johnson asked the congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It was passed with almost no dissent. The President was given the power to wage war and escalate manpower to fight the North Vietnamese - even though Johnson knew the information all this was based on to be false.
Daniel Ellsberg witnessed this firsthand; governmental decision-making in the midst of uncertain information - precisely his specialty. He watched as the President lied to the congress and the American people. He watched as others in the Administration lied as well. To his critics, Daniel Ellsberg was a naive academic, a man squeamish in the world of real politik. If they were right, then Ellsberg would have stepped forward in 1964 - right after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. But at this point he still believed in the cause.
I had seen a lot of classified material by this time, I mean tens of thousands of pages, and had been in a position to compare it with what was being said to the public. The public is lied to every day by the president, by his spokespeople, by his officers ... If you can't live with the idea that presidents lie, you can't work for presidents... The fact is, presidents rarely say the whole truth, essentially never say the whole truth of what they expect and what they're doing and what they believe, or why they're doing it.
- Daniel Ellsberg
Shortly thereafter, Ellsberg volunteered to go to Vietnam. Despite his role as a civilian analyst he traipsed all over the country. He became friends with John Paul Vann
and, like so many others, he became completely disenchanted with the American war effort. As a game theorist, Ellsberg concluded that we could not win, that we could not even achieve an "acceptable" defeat. The communists
were going to rule the country and the only matter left to decide was how many American and Vietnamese lives must be destroyed before an American President recognized that fact and cut bait
After two years in Vietnam, Ellsberg returned to the states and was recruited to participate in a vast undertaking - the military's own history of American policy and involvement in Vietnam; officially titled History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Viet Nam Policy, this classified, 47-volume secret history would become popularly known as the Pentagon Papers.
When the project was finished, fewer than 50 copies were made. Ellsberg - once again working for Rand - had a copy. Reading the elaborately documented, in-depth analysis made him realize that not only was the war unwinnable, but that it was unjust and had been from the very beginning.
The Pentagon Papers led to the completion of Ellsberg's own personal journey - from gung-ho, patriotic, Marine Corps platoon leader to morality-questioning, antiwar, peacenik.
Daniel Ellsberg concluded that President Richard Nixon - like presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson before him - would not accept defeat and end the war. Yet Ellsberg, privy to all the classified information, also knew that the congress and the public had been lied to nearly every step of the way. He believed that if congress and the public were made aware of the truth, Americans would force an end to the war. Daniel Ellsberg set out to reveal that truth - he started making copies of the Pentagon Papers.
Still, Ellsberg was not convinced that giving the classified information to the press was the right move. Instead he spent months pleading with antiwar senators and representatives - such as William Fulbright and George McGovern - to release the papers, but they weren't interested. Fulbright's main aide dismissed the papers as "dull and boring," and McGovern told him to go to The New York Times. Eventually Ellsberg provided a full set to Neal Sheehan, who in turn managed to get them published in The New York Times. The first excerpts appeared on June 13, 1971.
Even though the Pentagon Papers only covered American policy through the Johnson Administration, President Richard Nixon was livid. Nixon had his own secrets he wanted kept hidden - the Pentagon Papers were just the tip of the iceberg to Nixon. Immediately the government sought an injunction to prevent further publication. On June 15, the government got a temporary injunction that stopped the Times, but Ellsberg had anticipated this outcome. His genius for tactics and strategy kept him one step ahead of the government. Working underground and on the run from a nationwide FBI manhunt, Ellsberg began distributing more copies. On June 18, the Washington Post began publishing excerpts. As soon as the Post was enjoined, excerpts began appearing in the Boston Globe. And then the Chicago Sun-Times. Next the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. As soon as one paper was enjoined, another would start publishing until 17 newspapers were involved. Finally, Ellsberg smuggled a copy to Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, who promptly put it in the Congressional Record, thus making it forever an open public document.
Richard Nixon was out of control. He created an extra-legal, clandestine Special Investigations Unit to retaliate - aka The Plumbers. On June 28, 1971 Ellsberg surrendered to face criminal charges under the Espionage Act. Just two days later the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn all the injunctions preventing publication of the Pentagon Papers. In a sense, Ellsberg had already won, but still he was facing a trial and possible long prison sentence.
I thought it very likely that I would go to prison for life.
After much legal maneuvering, the trial began in January 1973. Ironically, this was the same month that the U.S. officially ended its involvement with the war in Vietnam
. By this time, the Plumbers had burglarized the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, tried to physically attack Ellsberg at a demonstration, developed plans to firebomb the Brookings Institute
, and burglarized the Democratic National Party office in the Watergate
Hotel during the 1972 election campaign. During the trial, Nixon's aide John Ehrlichman
twice tried to bribe
the presiding judge with the possibility of being chosen to head the FBI. These facts were all introduced at trial, which was taking place at the same time as the Watergate hearings. Finally, when evidence of illegal White House wiretaps
of Ellsberg's phone calls to his lawyer was introduced, the judge was forced to dismiss all charges against Daniel Ellsberg.
Only one of the three impeachment counts against Nixon involve the Watergate break-in - the other two counts centered on Nixon's attempts to 'get' Daniel Ellsberg. Instead, Richard Nixon would resign in disgrace.
We live in a country, thank God, where telling the truth to Congress is not treason even though the president is determined to deceive Congress and the public. Of course, that's that marvelous difference between our country and not only the Soviet Union, but most countries in the world. I was not of course charged with treason or espionage, although Nixon and his Justice Department would have loved to bring those charges if our Constitution had even faintly permitted it. But they did not dare come right out and say that giving information to Congress and the public was giving it to the enemy, even though that is undoubtedly what they privately thought. In other words, all executive branch officials in all administrations see their opponents in the U.S. Congress and the public as the enemy.
Though never again to be center stage in the national spotlight, Daniel Ellsberg became a leading activist for peace. He has lectured on, and participated in, many non-violent direct actions. What is often called civil disobedience
. He's been arrested between 60-70 times in that regard - mostly in protests against the nuclear arms race
, but also against U.S. interventions in Nicaragua
and elsewhere. He also spent three years (1992-95) in Washington with the Physicians for Social Responsibility
, lobbying for policies to end nuclear proliferation