Celebrating an Extraordinary American Life: Daniel Ellsberg
Points of Departure
Daniel Ellsberg’s death like his life occurred with flair and purpose. Dan (a cherished fried for more than 65 years) had taken the unusual step of sharing with the world the deeply personal news that he had only a few months to live, and even less to be active, as he was diagnosed as suffering from inoperable pancreatic cancer. It was clear that Dan was not seeking pity or adulation by the release of this sad news. His obvious purpose of such a public message was to let be known to all who care that he would continue to devote his energy as long as he could to the struggle to make the world less prone to nuclear mega-catastrophes. Dan firmly believed that we humans are living at a unique time of ominous global danger, and he felt the urgency of action. This inspirational message personified Daniel Ellsberg’s special human qualities of belief, courage, and commitment that made him a heroic figure for so many of us. And Dan’s love of life and people made him far more humanly lovable than if he had confined himself to being an austere political crusader.
I had the opportunity to have two long phone conversations at that fragile interface between Dan’s intense engagement with world history and the ravages of the disease, and found that Dan had lost none of his cerebral brilliance or weakened in his resolve to warn humanity of an increasingly imminent nuclear danger if geopolitics as usual continued on the path taken since the outbreak of the Ukraine War. Besides the warning, Dan also believed there many things of a political and technical nature could and should be done to reduce immediate risks. Yet his fundamental vision was to realize the imperative of safely achieving a denuncearized and demilitarized world.
In our talks, Dan’s was preoccupied, in his relentlessly exhausting probing mental style to depict root causes, with an anguished awareness that the threat extinction was now present on the horizon of likely human futures. Dan wondered aloud as to whether the disasters he feared, would in fact result in the literal end of our species. He seemed to believe rather that unprecedented global catastrophes, such as ’nuclear winter’ would be devastating on a civilizational level and yet still leave as survivors a remnant of humanity. Dan was never content with vague generalities, but to get to the concrete bottom of things. In this spirit he went on to speculate as I recollect, ‘that likely 8 or 10% of humanity would survive, and that’s still a lot of people.’ Not that he envied the survivors, but he wanted to stress that dire as the situation was it should not be assumed to be an extinction event. It was through ‘the glass darkly’ of these grim reflections that he viewed the situation confronting humanity. These dark shadows, more than anything else, led Dan to lament the utter recklessness of Biden’s seeming resolve to engage in a geopolitical war with Russia and to teach Moscow and Putin a lesson in the aftermath of its aggressive, if provoked, attack against Ukraine.
With news of Ellsberg’s imminent demise broadcast widely the mainstream media was finally awakened to write and interview him extensively, and generally sympathetically, about Dan’s life, focusing quite naturally on the drama and legacy of the 1971 release for publication in the NY Times and Washington Post of the Pentagon Papers, and how this ‘invention’ of whistleblowing left behind a precedent seized upon, whether knowingly or not, by others. Yet unlike these subsequent notable whistleblowers, Dan’s work did not cease with the disclosure of specific official dirty deeds hidden from the citizenry by secrecy regulations and dragnet espionage laws, but barely began. In the course of the next half century Dan distinguished himself as both a tireless activist and as an author producing two pedagogical memoirs of lasting value. [Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2003); The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, 2017].
Dan deserves all the praise he is receiving, and even more, yet I find that two major elements of his strikingly original mental and humanistic qualities have been so far largely missing in the many recent valuable assessments of his life and death. At most Dan’s unusual career journey from being a star consultant to the Pentagon and RAND on the Vietnam War and nuclear war plans to becoming a world renowned anti-nuclear activist who was arrested and imprisoned numerous times over the years, but little commentary on what made personal trajectory so remarkable, taking such courage, insight, persistence, and a truth-telling sense of mission. From my vantage point I will do my best to fill in this gap.
Daniel Ellsberg’s Trajectory
I first encountered Dan during 1957-58, a year we both at Harvard, he was already a rising star, making his name as a strategic wizard who even while a student was doing pioneering work in exploring the use of nuclear weapons as a potent weapon by which to threaten and blackmail adversaries, aside from its roles in preventing or fighting war.
We had initially been brought together for a dinner by an engaging apolitical journalist who convinced me that I should meet Dan because we were in her judgment soulmates. How wrong, or at any rate, premature she was, as we sparred throughout the evening about Cold War issues and I regarded Dan as a gifted, but dangerous, ‘defense intellectual’ of the sort I would be later surrounded by in my early years at Princeton. Yet looking back on that mutually unpleasant evening, I now realize there was one element of Dan’s hawkishness that set him apart from his likeminded cohort, a quality that would a decade later be the bedrock of his highly congenial progressive behavior. He was already in 1958 as he was after he switched sides, someone who deeply enjoyed both friendship and comradery, based on consistent solidarity, believing deeply that he was doing the right thing. Later at Princeton when I had antagonistic contact with several leading defense intellectuals, I noted their careerist motivations and amoral, often cynically playful intellectuality that contrasted with Dan’s intense moral convictions that were his lifelong anchor, making him always a person driven by responsiveness to the dictates of conscience rather than of naked ambition or indulging a cavalier attitude of many leading ‘war thinkers’ toward the menace of nuclear war, perhaps to hide from the horror of it all.
Endowed with an amazingly gifted, quirky mind and astonishing energy, Dan was further animated by an ardent passion to make a difference in all that he undertook. This lineage starts with his outstanding academic record from high school (and maybe earlier) through graduate school, reinforced ever after by performative excellence in whatever he chose to do.
Even taking account of his mainstream Cold War outlook as a young man it was rather unusual for someone with his background, interests, and professional opportunities to seek enlistment in the U.S. Marines as Dan did in 1954, serving as a junior officer for several years including an overseas assignment in the Middle East during the Suez Operation, earning him a promotion by the time he de-enlisted. This military service was followed by a period as an influential consultant to Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, who sent Dan to Vietnam in 1964 to evaluate U.S. so-called ‘civilian pacification programs’ (really killing machines at the village level) in order to advise him on the conduct of the war. This stint was followed by working for 18 months alongside Major Gen. Edward Lansdale, the most famous counterinsurgency specialist. Dan’s role included going on extremely risky combat patrols in Vietnamese jungles and remote villages. He would later talk about his growing doubts about the way the war was being fought and the suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese people, but was not ready to break with the U.S. policies in the Vietnam War. Yet again, Dan was motivated by doing the right thing. He reasoned, during his advising years, that even if the war was not going well or proved unwinnable, the U.S. campaign was benevolent, aiming at giving the Vietnamese a better life than they could expect under communism and being a justifiable part of an American military effort to prevent World War III by containing Sino-Soviet expansion in Asia. These were views that I never shared, and Dan would soon himself reject.
Then came the remarkable change from his posture as an expert trying to figure out a winning strategy in Vietnam to a rejection of the whole undertaking, and thus in harmony with various strands of the growing Vietnamese peace movement. His disillusionment with the Vietnam War that intensified over time after he returned to the U.S. during a period when he continued working as a top consultant at the RAND corporation, then the prime venue of ‘war thinkers.’ In collaboration with my former Princeton graduate student, Tony Russo, another convert to radical anti-war activism due to what he experienced in Vietnam, especially in working on RAND’s prisoner interrogation program. It was in that alien militarist atmosphere at RAND that the pair spent their evenings copying the Pentagon Papers.
Of course, copying itself was a daring act, given the highly classified character of many documents comprising the 3,000 pages of Pentagon material brought together in a classified study entitled “U.S. Decision Making in Vietnam Policy, 1945-68” on which Ellsberg had himself worked on briefly while an employee at the Department of Defense. The drama of arranging publication and the post-publication pushback by the Nixon presidency has received much commentary and is widely treated as the highlight of Dan’s turn toward activism.
Dan became utterly convinced that the American people deserved to know that they had been lied to by their elected leaders for years about the progress in the war, as the war went on year after year and the casualty figures for Americans and Vietnamese rose higher and higher, but he had no appetite for martyrdom. The keystone of his initial effort was to make the copied documents discreetly available to anti-war Congressmen and trusted media platforms whom he felt had a constitutional duty to make public use of the Pentagon study in furtherance of the public interest. At first, he imposed a strict condition on those he handed the documents, including myself, that his identity as source not be disclosed. This condition was notoriously breached by Neal Sheehan of the NY Times, but Dan’s role was already known by the FBI in any event. I was visited by two agents at my home a few days after I received the Papers, before newspaper publishing began. Needless to say, I refused to cooperate.
Again, Dan was determined to do the right thing, but prudently. Subsequently, this resolve was always centermost and without further second thoughts. Contrary to his earlier beliefs Dan grew convinced that the U.S. government definitely could not be counted on to do the right thing, and in fact was doing the wrong thing. At the same time, Dan steadfastly refrained from releasing material that would expose intelligence sources or impart inflammatory material to foreign adversaries.
Special Qualities of Mind, Spirit, Dramatization, and Obsessive Dedication
Moral Compass: What I mainly want to impart is through it all Dan impressively never lost trust in his moral compass or his political identity. He wanted to do the right thing always, and was willing, although not eager, to pay heavy costs for doing so, earning him high profile defamatory attacks from the likes of Kissinger and Nixon. Yet he remained an American patriot throughout his life, who drew vivid no-go lines in his mind when it came to anti-government activism and civil disobedience. Unlike many radical activists Dan knew the difference between civil disobedience (to the law) and espionage (against his country, as typified by those documents in among the Pentagon Papers he refused to release).
Mastery reinforcing brilliance. Another notable feature in Dan’s way of taking political stands was his refusal to commit his illuminating energy until he had mastered a subject with penetrating, memorable precision. He spent his activist life on opposing the Vietnam War by every non-violent means at his disposal including insider knowledge and extensive field experience in combat zones. During the last several decades his concern mainly focused multi-faceted opposition to the way the U.S, government addressed risks of nuclear war with both the knowledge of a brilliant insider and someone who penetrated below the surface to uncover the terrifying nature of nuclear war plans.
Dramatization of Knowledge and Action And finally, Dan had a natural disposition to dramatize knowledge and action that had the effect of maximizing the impact of whatever he undertook, whether in public or private. Without doubt, the saga of the Pentagon Papers is the most publicized drama of his life, but throughout, no other public intellectual was so publicly articulate and poised about why he was doing what he did. He once told me during the media frenzy after the Papers were finally released, “I wish I could always be the way I am on television.” For me, a scary prospect, for him, not a matter of vanity, but of an infection passion to make a difference by what he did, especially when his reputation or life were at risk.
Love and Politics Well Mixed. As the outpouring of grief exhibits, Dan will be as remembered for his loving modes of relating to family, friends, and co-activists as for his political engagements, exploits, and achievements. Unlike many in the peace movement who were personally detached or narrowly focused on daunting political challenges, working with Dan was a warm, emotionally satisfying experience of someone that lived daily a belief in the transformative power of love whether for peace, justice, a good time, and a fulfilled life.
Completing the Thoreau legacy
Dan will be rightly long remembered for his seminal role in enriching the legacy of the anti-slave, anti-war civil disobedience associated with the work and life of the New England transandentalist, Henry David Thoreau (who exerted a major influence on Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Tolstoy). It was this courtly writer, poet, and wilderness seeker who by choosing jail over paying taxes funding government policies that struck him as deeply immoral gave to democratic governance an added vitality. As a private person Thoreau chose conscience over obedience to law as the most essential quality of citizenship, which is the golden thread that runs through the fabric of Dan’s rich and varied life.
The release of the Pentagon Papers could be seen as Ellsberg’s dramatic enactment of Thoreau’s imperative, but taking the crucial and more dangerous form of whistleblowing about systemic governmental abuse of its unrestricted control of information by permissively classifying it as ‘secret.’ Dan never disputed the need for legitimate state secrets, but he acted to expose the misuse of secrecy by elected leaders to lie and mislead citizens on vital matters of war and peace in Vietnam and with respect to Pentagon planning for nuclear war. Balancing the governmental right to keep secrets against the rights of the citizenry to know the truth, especially on matters of life and death pertaining to the nation’s future.
I think it not an overstatement to conclude that if democracy survives the digital age, it will be thanks to brave whistleblowers, starting with Ellsberg, and continuing with such heroic followers as Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Jack Teixeira, individuals currently hounded as criminals by the U.S. government. Whistleblowing being honored the world over by progressive forces in civil society, and shamefully marginalized by the mainstream media that waited until Ellsberg was dying before belatedly and grudgingly acknowledging his greatness.