Of all the fine things written and said about Daniel Ellsberg since his death June 16, there is a thread running through them we ought not miss, a story Ellsberg himself told better than anyone else. It is a story from which we can all learn. As we consider this story, we can embrace Ellsberg as an exemplar as much as he was a courageous man of conscience. As he put it in an interview some years ago, “courage is contagious.” Ellsberg did not give the story I have in mind a name, a title, a headline, or any such designation, but he may as well have, and I take the liberty of drawing from his words to name it now, the process of Dan Ellsberg’s awakening.
Few people can say their actions helped to strengthen press freedom, end a war, and bring down a presidency. Daniel Ellsberg, who died today at the age of ninety-two, did just that. Ellsberg came to public prominence in 1971 when he photocopied a secret history of US involvement in the Vietnam War, what became known as the “Pentagon Papers,” and gave a copy to the New York Times. The New York Times’ decision to publish the papers set off a landmark press freedom battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Ellsberg became the first whistleblower indicted under the Espionage Act.
Bruce Gagnon explains how the Rand Corporation (Pentagon Papers) outlined very clearly that the end, the goal of US foreign policy, is to overextend and destabilize Russia resulting in regime change and then the rape and pillaging of Russia's vast natural resources.
My gut was tight as a knot. The oral arguments began before the Supreme Court on April 19, 1972. I fidgeted in my seat in the audience in the first row with my wife and two young kids. I could see our legal team sitting in front of me: Robert Reinstein and Chuck Fishman. A young Alan Dershowitz sat next to them, representing Beacon. Twenty-four Ionic columns of Italian marble surrounded us below white friezes encircling the chamber. I gazed up at the Justices arrayed in black high before me on their imposing, mahogany bench, under a 44-foot ceiling. Behind them were red satin curtains and four marble columns. A huge black and white clock hung from above. Two new Justices had joined the Court since the New York Times ruling: Hugo Black and John Harlan left in September 1971.
If the press wouldn’t continue publishing the Papers, I would. I sought a commercial publisher for the 4,100-page subcommittee record. Americans had to know the whole story about how government lies ultimately killed more than 58,000 Americans and three million Southeast Asians—just as we need today to expose all the lies about Iraq. I received many rejections that summer of 1971, including from Harvard University Press and MIT Press. Publishers knew the risk. But Gobin Stair, executive director of Beacon Press in Boston, didn’t care. Like me, he felt the press was letting the public down. He explained Beacon’s motive: “The public, we feel is entitled to reasonable public disclosure of the material rather than sketchy journalistic synopses. We are undertaking this vital project because we are concerned at how rapidly the American press lost interest in the Pentagon study once the Supreme Court confirmed the public’s right to this information.”
I propped myself up on an elbow as the announcer read the news: The Supreme Court ruled, 6-3, against Nixon. The government’s unprecedented move to stop the presses had failed. The Court agreed with two lower courts that the attempt to impose prior restraint on the press was unconstitutional. The ruling turned out to be more complex than at first glance, but it was an unequivocal call for Constitutional constraint on an out-of-control control executive. The Court challenged the executive’s misuse of “national security” as a mantra to undermine the Bill of Rights and accrue quasi-dictatorial powers. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black boldly took on Nixon’s nonsense: “To find that the President has ‘inherent power’ to halt the publication of news by resort to the courts would wipe out the First Amendment and destroy the fundamental liberty and security of the very people the Government hopes to make ‘secure.’
Some scholars believed that, had FDR lived, there may have been no Vietnam War for either French or American troops. But the Pentagon Papers revealed, through access to State Department, Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Department classified material, that though Roosevelt “vehemently advocated” a trusteeship and ultimate post-war independence for Vietnam, Britain, which occupied Indochina after the war, would not allow it. “Ultimately, U.S. policy was governed neither by the principles of the Atlantic Charter, nor by the President’s anti-colonialism but by the dictates of military strategy and by British intransigence on the colonial issue,” I read. I went on with the Truman years, reading how Harry had rebuffed Ho in a disastrously stupid foreign policy decision.
The 7,100-page study, which had been obtained and secretly given to me, detailed in 4,100 pages of analysis–I was missing as many as 3,000 pages of supporting documents–how the federal government had consistently lied to the American people about our military involvement in Vietnam. They revealed a detailed portrait of an arrogant, authoritarian and secretive leadership, spanning Democratic and Republican administrations from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson, irresponsibly leading the nation gradually into a war they knew they could not win. Among many deceptions exposed over three decades, the Papers showed, for instance, that despite President Lyndon B. Johnson’s public promise that he would not expand the war, he secretly did just that, with bombing raids on Laos and North Vietnam as well as the insertion of U.S. marine combat units, long before the public found out.
It was a fairly steamy, early summer afternoon in the drained swamp of a city that had become Washington, DC, as I struggled with the two black flight bags up the steps of the Capitol. I walked briskly past the police and some inquisitive tourists through the cool, marble hallways to my office. I feared the FBI might be after me. I had asked Vietnam Veterans Against the War to send me the most disabled soldiers they could find. When I got to my office they were there, arrayed in their wheelchairs, medals pinned on, ready to do battle. They would have thrown their broken bodies in the way if the FBI tried to get in. These crippled men guarded the heavy flight bags behind the door until I was ready to take them onto the floor of the Senate. It was June 29, 1971.
Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers 50 years ago this week represents one of the most dramatic — if not the most dramatic — nonviolent actions of the movement that helped end the Vietnam War. It was also one of the most impactful as it precipitated events that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. Less known is how the success of this action hinged on Ellsberg’s personal conversion to nonviolence. The media had a field day with the Pentagon Papers story. No wonder. It captured front-page headlines and network news for weeks: top secret documents revealed decades of governmental duplicity; a whistleblower eluded a massive FBI manhunt; the New York Times defied the president and published the papers; major newspapers joined in the defiance; a landmark Supreme Court decision vindicated the media; the whistleblower avoided a 100-plus year prison term because of governmental misconduct.
An online Zoom call will take place for members of the press this Wednesday, September 9 at 1:00 pm EST to address the United States attempt to extradite WikiLeaks’ publisher, Julian Assange. The call will feature Dan Ellsberg, the whistleblower whose release of the Pentagon Papers helped to bring the Viet Nam War to an end, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, and James Goodale, former Vice President of the New York Times. "If Julian Assange--the first journalist to be indicted in the US for doing journalism--is extradited and prosecuted, the First Amendment will be in a terminal state as protection for investigative reporting on "national security," said Dan Ellsberg.