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.