A Government Insider Who Got the Story Out

Writing his memoirs three decades later, Ellsberg says Pentagon Papers hold lessons for today's world

The Pentagon Papers
Courtesy DANIEL Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg '52

Two weeks ago, Daniel Ellsberg ’52 pulled another all-nighter.

“I am living on caffeine. These deadlines never end,” Ellsberg laughs, comparing the frantic process of writing the footnotes for his 705-page memoir to his work as an undergraduate on The Crimson’s editorial board.

“One night I wrote the entire ed page that way,” he remembers. “And here I am, doing the same thing 50 years later.”

Now, once again, after a career that took him from service in the Marine Corps to the front page of every newspaper in America as the government insider who leaked the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg finds himself a writer, racing to finish a story at the last minute.

He yearned to write from the moment he first set foot in Harvard Yard. During his first undergraduate year, he joined the staff of the Advocate, climbing the administrative ranks to become president by his junior year.

The next year he comped The Crimson’s editorial board and regularly wrote editorials, features and arts reviews.

More than 50 years later, Ellsberg takes only a few seconds to recall his description of Marlon Brando as “a cannon rolling loose on the deck of a frigate” in the opening sentence of a review of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Stanley A. Zemon ’52, who met Ellsberg in high school, describes him as a “very precocious” student.

“He was far and away the best student” in high school, Zemon remembers. “He was just in a plain by himself and he continued that at Harvard.”

By the time Ellsberg and his College classmates celebrated their 25th reunion, his recent political adventures made for an usual entry in the anniversary class report. Under the awards heading, among a number of official prizes, he added: for publication of the Pentagon Papers, “indictment.”

And his personal statement consisted of thanking classmates who had contributed to his legal defense fund.

Just four years earlier, Ellsberg faced up to 115 years in prison after giving The New York Times a copy of the so-called Pentagon Papers, a top-secret U.S. government study of policy in Vietnam that detailed several large-scale deceptions.

As a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, Ellsberg had helped to compile the extensive study, which revealed that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—in which Congress permitted increased U.S. military involvement in Vietnam—had been drafted months before the North Vietnamese attacked U.S. naval vessels in the gulf. It also revealed that, while President Lyndon B. Johnson had publicly described the war as a short-term battle, he oversaw a massive commitment of infantry to Vietnam.

And as the government attempted to prevent the Times and the Washington Post from publishing articles about the 7,000-page document, Ellsberg, too, began to appear on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. The government charged him with 12 federal felony counts.

Though he had lost touch with his classmate, a student who got to know Ellsberg when they lived on the same floor in Weld Hall says the news came as little surprise.

Though Ellsberg’s situation seemed dire on the printed page, Gordon E. Beyer ’52 says he knew his former classmate would pull through.

“There was no need to worry about Dan,” he says. “He could take care of himself, and he did.”

The case against Ellsberg was dismissed in 1973, after it was revealed that Nixon aides had broken into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an effort to discredit him.

Rather than retreating from public view, Ellsberg used the event as the beginning of a lifetime of political activism.

Ellsberg wanted to tell his side of the story—and he did in interviews at the time. But the longer memoir that he envisioned would have to wait.

The story that will finally be published this fall extends far beyond the length of an article or even his recently published Harvard Ph.D. dissertation about the philosophical implications of rational decision-making.

Writing the memoir took the cooperation of his entire family, Ellsberg says, including rapid-fire e-mail editing exchanges with his sons.

To him the process brought to mind one night in 1969 when he was copying parts of the Pentagon Papers—one 13-year-old son worked the copy machine and a 10-year-old daughter cut the “top secret” stamp markings off the pages.

Ellsberg waited three decades to begin writing Secrets: Revealing the Pentagon Papers, as the memoir will be called. In the intervening years, Ellsberg felt other causes deserved his immediate attention.

After the Vietnam War ended, Ellsberg demanded that Congress cut off funding for the nuclear arms race and atomic testing.

“I really set out to try to help pull together a movement against nuclear weapons that would be comparable to the anti-war movement,” he says.

The crusade took him from Capitol Hill to German nuclear testing sites to anti-nuclear rallies in Central Park. Ellsberg estimates he was arrested between 60 and 70 times in acts of civil disobedience in the late 1970s and 1980s.

A three-year stint on Capitol Hill with the Physicians for Social Responsibility, a lobbying group advocating the end of nuclear proliferation, ended in the mid-1990s. And Ellsberg finally began to work on his long-anticipated memoirs of the Vietnam and Pentagon Papers years.

Even now, as he prepares for an upcoming book tour in conjunction with the release of his memoir, Ellsberg says the current political situation takes precedence.

“I think I’ll probably be talking more about that than the book,” he says.

For Ellsberg, President Bush’s policies bear a “frightening” resemblance to those of the Nixon administration. In many ways, he says, it makes the publication of his memoir and continued study of Vietnam increasingly relevant.

“This has some very strong analogies to Vietnam in a way that disturbs me very much,” he says. “It’s as though we haven’t learned very much.”

He points to recent Bush administration discussions of potential attacks on Iraq as “catastrophically risky” and “extremely unwise.”

“I’m very disturbed to see Congress going along with an attitude in the White House that the president has a right to decide by himself whether we go to war or not and who we go to war against,” he says. “I worked for a president who lied us into war in 1965. He manipulated Congress into the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.”

And he criticizes the resolution of support passed by Congress last September, which authorized Bush to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—calling it “Tonkin Gulf II.”

“They were totally irresponsible to sign a blank check,” he says.

The solution, too, according to Ellsberg, resembles his own approach.

Current government officials who believe Bush is on a “disaster course,” he says, have an obligation to leak secret information that would derail the administration’s policies.

“They should take the documents that would reveal that to the public. They should copy them and put them on the Internet,” he says. “They should take a file drawer of documents and take them over to Capitol Hill, the New York Times and the Associated Press.”

In this case, Ellsberg argues that going public with secret information would be in the best interest of national security—as it was when he leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

“I wish I had done what I did years earlier,” he says. “Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until the bombs are falling. Think of it now.”

—Staff writer Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at shoichet@fas.harvard.edu.