Pentagon Papers Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg ’52 Remembered as Nuclear Nonproliferation Advocate, Film Buff

Daniel Ellsberg ’52, a military analyst turned antiwar whistleblower who exposed government lies about the Vietnam War in 1971 by leaking a top-secret 7,000-page study of the conflict known as the Pentagon Papers, died on June 16 at his home in Kensington, California. He was 92.
By Miles J. Herszenhorn

Daniel Ellsberg '52
Daniel Ellsberg '52 By Courtesy of Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg ’52 — a military analyst turned antiwar whistleblower who exposed government lies about the Vietnam War by leaking the Pentagon Papers — died on June 16 at his home in Kensington, California. He was 92.

The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, his family wrote in a statement. Ellsberg publicly announced that doctors diagnosed him with inoperable pancreatic cancer on Feb. 17, and estimated he had three to six months left to live.

Ellsberg decided to leak the Pentagon Papers after growing disillusioned with the war in Vietnam. The consequences of the disclosure, however, had a significant impact on domestic politics, leading to a landmark Supreme Court decision on press freedoms and the eventual downfall of former President Richard Nixon.

In an interview with The Crimson just five days after his diagnosis, Ellsberg cheerfully discussed the bright side of having terminal cancer: He no longer needed to adhere to his longtime salt-free diet.

“I’m going to have Thai food tonight, which I haven’t had for five years,” he said at the time. “I love it. And Indian food, Chinese food — I’ve had to go without all this pleasure from food for five years now, so I’m in very good spirits. Now I can really indulge myself.”

Ellsberg also cracked jokes throughout the interview, occasionally employing dark humor.

“You are very lucky,” Ellsberg told The Crimson, laughing, “that you requested to speak with me now and not in six months.”

‘One of My Warmest Associations’

Daniel Ellsberg was born on April 7, 1931, in Chicago. He was raised in Detroit, where his family moved in 1937. His parents, the children of Jewish immigrants from Russia, converted to Christian Science and raised Ellsberg and his younger sister in the religion.

But growing up, Ellsberg said he was always keenly aware of his Jewish background, with his father telling him that their family was Jewish, “but not in religion.”

Ellsberg went to high school on a full scholarship at Cranbrook Schools, a private preparatory school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. After graduating top of his class, Ellsberg received a four-year scholarship to attend Harvard College.

At Harvard, Ellsberg was actively involved in several campus publications. He became president of the Harvard Advocate, a literary magazine, in 1950 and served as a member of The Harvard Crimson’s Editorial Board.

In the February interview, Ellsberg said that he felt closer to The Crimson than he did to the Advocate, despite holding a senior position at the literary magazine.

“The Crimson is what I remember most in my life,” he said. “That was one of my warmest associations.”

“I spent all night writing the entire editorial page,” he added. “I was very proud of that.”

As the night editor, Ellsberg penned editorials, columns, and movie reviews for The Crimson. More than 70 years later, he could still recall the lede he wrote in a review of the 1951 film “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Ellsberg’s granddaughter, Catherine Ellsberg, described him in an interview as a “huge film buff” who went to the movies between two and three times a week. The pair bonded over a shared love for films, she said.

Following in her grandfather’s footsteps, Catherine Ellsberg served as the movie critic for her college newspaper.

“I always sent him my film reviews,” Catherine Ellsberg said. “Every time I published an essay about film he’d read it and that was our main way of connecting.”

But even as a grandfather, Ellsberg never lost his passion for discussing nuclear nonproliferation.

“He had a sense of humor, but he very earnestly — when I was really just a kid — would ask me what I thought of the effects of a nuclear holocaust or something,” she recalled.

‘Cold Warrior’ to Government Whistleblower

In college, Ellsberg met his classmate, Carol Cummings ’53, and they married in 1951. A year later, he graduated from Harvard summa cum laude with a degree in Economics. Ellsberg went abroad for one year on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study at Cambridge University’s King’s College.

When he returned to the U.S., Ellsberg enlisted in the Marine Corps where he served as a rifle platoon leader, operations officer, and rifle company commander.

After three years of service with the Marine Corps, including six months with the U.S. Navy during the Suez Crisis, Ellsberg returned to Harvard and served as a junior fellow in the University’s Society of Fellows between 1957 and 1959.

In the late 1950s, Cummings and Ellsberg had two children together, before the couple divorced in the mid-1960s. In 1970, he married Patricia Marx, an antiwar activist, and they had one child together.

While finishing a Ph.D. at Harvard, Ellsberg began working as a strategic analyst for the RAND Corporation, a research institute and think tank with close ties to the U.S. government.

Ellsberg said he was supportive of the U.S. government’s efforts during the Cold War at the start of his career.

“I was a cold warrior,” Ellsberg told The Crimson. “If we’d been able to beat the communists, I would have been glad to do it.”

At RAND, Ellsberg continued his research on decision theory with a focus on what Ellsberg once described as “the most fraught, and possibly final, such decision in human history”: whether to launch a full-scale nuclear war.

In 1967, Ellsberg was asked to work on a 7,000-page, 47-volume, top-secret report titled “U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68.” The study, now better known as the Pentagon Papers, took Ellsberg several years to read but after he finished, Ellsberg became only the third person to read it in its entirety.

Over that same time, Ellsberg was assigned to serve as a consultant to Henry Kissinger ’50, then a national security assistant to President-elect Richard Nixon. Ellsberg was tasked with studying the Vietnam War and providing his analysis on the war to Kissinger and Nixon.

While reading the study and working with Kissinger, Ellsberg grew increasingly dismayed with the U.S. government’s handling of the Vietnam War. By that time, the conflict had killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and about 45,000 Americans.

Later in life, Ellsberg would describe the Pentagon Papers as revealing a “continuous record of governmental deception and fatally unwise decision-making.”

So in October 1969, with help from a colleague at RAND, Ellsberg began photocopying.

‘Wouldn’t You Go to Prison to Help End This War?’

Ellsberg first leaked the Pentagon Papers in November 1969 to former Sen. William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, hoping Fulbright would reveal the study during committee hearings.

Fulbright, however, refrained from publicizing the Pentagon Papers. He sought to obtain the documents officially, but U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird Jr. denied Fulbright’s request, and the study remained hidden from the public.

After the U.S. invasion of Laos in February 1971, Ellsberg felt a renewed obligation to quickly release the Pentagon Papers to the general public. A month later, he reached out to Neil Sheehan ’58, a New York Times journalist Ellsberg had first met several years prior in Vietnam.

Ellsberg initially agreed to let Sheehan copy the Pentagon Papers, but he changed his mind after Sheehan arrived at Ellsberg’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Instead, Ellsberg said Sheehan could only read the study and take notes.

But when Ellsberg went on a brief vacation and left Sheehan a key to his apartment to continue reading the Pentagon Papers, Sheehan used the opportunity to secretly copy the documents and bring them to his editors at the New York Times.

In an article published after his death, Sheehan said he justified his decision to copy the Pentagon Papers without Ellsberg’s permission because they were “the property of the people of the United States.”

Despite Sheehan’s actions, months passed as the Times’ reporters read through the 7,000-page study and the paper’s lawyers debated whether to publish top secret government documents.

During that time, Ellsberg said he “seriously considered” using The Harvard Crimson’s private printing press to distribute the Pentagon Papers more widely. In the February interview, Ellsberg said he went as far as to visit the building and ask whether it would be possible to rent out the printing press for the night.

In the end, he opted not to use his college newspaper to leak the study.

“I relied on Xerox shops,” Ellsberg said. “About four of them in the Harvard Square area.”

In June 1971, the New York Times published its first article about the Pentagon Papers and faced swift backlash from top officials in the U.S. government. After the Times published its third of nine installments about the Pentagon Papers, the Justice Department obtained an injunction and prevented the Times from publishing further installments.

With the Times unable to continue printing, Ellsberg distributed copies of the study to 18 other newspapers, including the Washington Post. The government’s actions led to a landmark Supreme Court case that ruled in favor of the newspapers and reaffirmed that the Constitution protected the right of the press to publish the classified documents.

But while media outlets were allowed to continue printing the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg faced federal charges for revealing top secret government documents.

While surrendering to federal authorities on June 28, 1971, Ellsberg said to a group of reporters that he leaked the Pentagon Papers because he could “no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public.”

“I am prepared to answer for all the consequences of these decisions,” he said. “That includes the personal consequences to me and my family, whatever these may be, and after all, be more serious than the ones that I and millions of other Americans have risked before this in the service of our country.”

When asked by a reporter whether he was concerned about going to prison, Ellsberg responded with a question of his own: “Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?”

‘The Most Dangerous Man in America’

The publication of the Pentagon Papers outraged the Nixon administration.

In the immediate aftermath, John D. Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic affairs adviser, assembled a secret group dubbed the “Plumbers” to prevent additional leaks about the Nixon administration to the media.

Ellsberg, who was once described by Kissinger as “the most dangerous man in America,” was one of the group’s first targets.

The Plumbers broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an attempt to find evidence that could be used to discredit Ellsberg or tarnish his reputation. The operation, however, was unsuccessful as they failed to discover anything damaging.

The group later staged the botched burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate office building. The burglary and ensuing cover-up turned out to be Nixon’s downfall and resulted in his 1974 resignation.

The crimes committed by the Plumbers allowed Ellsberg to avoid charges carrying up to 115 years in prison for leaking the Pentagon Papers. The federal judge presiding over Ellsberg’s trial said the government’s misconduct was so severe as to “offend a sense of justice” and declared a mistrial in the case.

Ellsberg spent the rest of his life as a prominent antiwar activist and a staunch advocate for nuclear nonproliferation. He was arrested nearly 70 times over the years for protesting nuclear weapons and U.S. foreign policy, according to Ellsberg’s own figures.

He is survived by his wife, three children, five grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.

Ellsberg also sought to inspire the generations of antiwar activists who followed him. He authored four books and served as a strong supporter of fellow whistleblowers Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

In the less than four months between the time of his cancer diagnosis and his death, Ellsberg gave more than 12 interviews to the press, including to The Crimson, in which he sounded the alarm about the possibility of a catastrophic nuclear conflict due to the war in Ukraine.

Ellsberg warned in February that if Russian President Vladimir Putin is confronted with the possibility of losing, he might decide to use nuclear weapons to convince Ukraine into negotiating on Russia’s terms.

“That may end the war with a negotiation,” he said. “Probably it will escalate to nuclear winter.”

“Some people should be going to jail for that situation right now, but none will,” Ellsberg added. “And some may spill the beans and say, ‘Look, where we’re going, look what’s happening! We’re about to have a nuclear war.’ They’ll go to prison.”

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mherszenhorn.

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