Goodbye to Daniel Ellsberg, seeker of truth

BOSTON – It is rare in life that you get to know one of your heroes.

Daniel Ellsberg gave me that opportunity, and for the last four years I have had the great privilege to get to know Dan and his wife Patricia and to tell their story in our podcast, “The Whistleblower: Truth, Dissent and the Legacy of Daniel Ellsberg.”

Ellsberg passed away today in his home in Kensington, California at the age of 92 after being diagnosed with an inoperable form of pancreatic cancer. In February, he announced to the world that he did not have long to live. Sadly, he was right. But his legacy and the example he set with his exceptional life dedicated to social justice and peace continue to live on.

This week we are rebooting our 2021 season of the GroundTruth podcast which features five episodes that tell the life and times of Ellsberg and how he released 7,000 pages of classified documents that came to be known as The Pentagon Papers. The documents chronicled the lies and deceptions about Vietnam that were fed to the American public by four successive administrations from presidents Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson, and which served to plunge the United States into a war that government officials knew from the very beginning was a war that was immoral and not-winnable.

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For a half century, long before our first recorded interview in 2019, I had been in awe of Dan’s ability to speak truth to power, his willingness to risk everything to reveal highly classified documents that he felt, at the end of the day, belonged to the American people. The whole world deserved to see these papers, he felt, and what they would reveal: a history of lies and deceit about America’s ill-fated involvement in Vietnam.

“Daniel was a seeker of truth and a patriotic truth-teller, an antiwar activist, a beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, a dear friend to many, and an inspiration to countless more,” his wife Patricia, 85, said.

He will be dearly missed by all of us. Thank you, Daniel, for sharing your wisdom, your heart and your conscience with the world. We will keep your flame alive,” she added in a letter sent out to friends and family today at 2 pm ET confirming his death and signed along with Dan’s three children, Mary, Robert and Michael.

A Harvard graduate and U.S. Marine who served in the Suez in 1956, Dan took a job in the Pentagon and then at the Rand Corporation as a defense analyst and an adamant Cold Warrior. He went to Vietnam and volunteered to serve on the frontlines with a unit so he could experience the ‘ground truth’ of the war, believing it would inform all the briefings back in DC.

He steadily grew disillusioned as he observed from the inside that the highest levels of government were lying to the American people about the progress of the war.  So he photocopied 7,000 pages of documents, The Pentagon Papers. First, he brought them to Congress and the Foreign Affairs Committee sat on them. Then he handed them over to the New York Times to be published, and he hoped their wide distribution might finally put an end to the war. The stories ran on June 13, 1971. Soon after, the Washington Post got ahold of the papers, and then more than a dozen newspapers, including my alma mater The Boston Globe, all published excerpts and defied a Supreme Court order that sought to block publication. It was a collective act of civil disobedience by the fourth estate and it resulted in an epic ruling by the highest court. The government had failed to prove that the documents threatened national security and that there could be no censorship of a free press, and so the presses rolled.

That summer of 1971, I was a kid, more focused on Little League than the war in Vietnam. But I followed the news avidly during the period in which Dan went into hiding around Boston and Western Massachusetts before turning himself in on the steps of the Federal Courthouse in Boston on June 28th, 1971. He was facing 115  years in prison for treason for leaking the highly classified papers.

Then President Richard Nixon fumed about Ellsberg’s release of the documents and he set out to discredit him, famously being captured on tapes from the Oval Office saying, “We’re going to get that son of a bitch!”  Ironically, it was the hateful obsession that Nixon seemed to have in getting Ellsberg that would entangle him in a strange tale of using his own political operatives, known as “the plumbers,” to plug the leaks coming out of the Pentagon. He ordered these henchmen to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to try to find dirt on him. Nixon’s vengeful scheme all backfired and he ultimately was caught ordering the break in. Most observers of the Nixon downfall believe that this act was decisive in Nixon realizing he would not survive impeachment proceedings and deciding to step down in August of 1974.

Years later in the early 1980s, I had a chance to see Dan Ellsberg speak on campus when I was an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He came as a leader of the Nuclear Freeze Movement and I recorded the talk for a news and public affairs program on the college radio station and was riveted by the history he shared and the sense of his commitment to social justice and peace.

Daniel Ellsberg and his wife Patricia after he testified in Los Angeles during the Pentagon Papers trial. (Photo by Associated Press)

In 2019, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst acquired Ellsberg’s papers for its library, and I was asked to moderate a talk with Dan at GBH in Boston. We connected. And we decided to work together on a year-long public history project that would include a conference and a seminar and a podcast. It was an extraordinary year with Dan and with our academic advisor at UMass, the historian and author, Christian Appy. The students in the class were the very first researchers to have access to Dan’s papers and their outstanding work is featured in the podcast.

Due to COVID-19, my interviews with Dan were mostly done over Zoom. I did have one occasion to visit him and his wife Patricia at their home in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was December 30th, 2019 and a morning fog was lifting up from the hills that their home looked out on. Dan drank tea and read the New York Times which carried headlines of the impeachment proceedings against another president; the latest on the fateful end of the war in Afghanistan and a story about the release of new documents about that war which were titled “The Afghanistan Papers.” The story, which had just been broken in the Washington Post, revealed the lies and deceptions of a whole new set of leaders about a war that they knew was unwinnable.

“Reading the paper, I feel like I am reliving many moments of my past life, and not in reassuring ways,” he said.

Dan was not one to talk about his legacy and in many ways downplayed the impact that the Pentagon Papers had on the Vietnam war. Afterall, as he would point out, the war actually escalated under Nixon with the bombing of Cambodia for years after the papers were released. But Dan also understood that his actions set in motion a sequence of events that would topple Nixon and that would ultimately help to end the war.

As Ellsberg told me in an interview in 2021, “Although the Pentagon Papers themselves did not affect Nixon’s policy and the war actually expanded, the criminal actions that the White House took against me were extraordinarily revealed in ways that no one foresaw… My wife and I think of ourselves as part of a chain of events that led to the absolutely unforeseeable downfall of a president which made the war endable… It showed that truth telling could be effective.”

That last sentence is classic Dan Ellsberg. Precise, humble and calibrated for accuracy. His courage to tell the truth, and to risk 115 years of his life in doing so, was indeed effective. And Ellsberg’s act of dissent is profoundly relevant today, a time when truth is being trampled on every day through misinformation and disinformation. We live in a time when we all need to be reminded of American heroes who had the courage to tell the truth no matter what, if it might help end a war. Rest in peace, Dan Ellsberg.