Daniel Ellsberg: “The Most Dangerous Man in America” and Heroic Whistleblower

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Ellsberg with Howard Zinn (left) and Noam Chomsky (right) at 1971 May Day anti-war protest. Courtesy of University of Massachusetts Archives

“Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?” Daniel Ellsberg, 1971

“I was PFC Manning.” Daniel Ellsberg, 2011

“The current risk of nuclear war, over Ukraine, is as great as the world has ever seen.” Daniel Ellsberg, 2023

Daniel Ellsberg recently made public his terminal cancer diagnosis. [Ellsberg died on June 16—eds.] It is an appropriate time to look back on his heroic accomplishments.

Daniel Ellsberg played a central role in shifting public opinion against the Vietnam War. He had been a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation (a defense-oriented think tank), worked in the Defense Department and the White House, and was stationed in the US Embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam. In 1967, he helped to produce the top secret report on the origins and development of the brutal Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers. In 1971, troubled by the carnage of the war, and the decades of lies used to justify it, Ellsberg provided the Pentagon Papers to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and then leaked them to the New York Times, Washington Post, and seventeen other newspapers. For that, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger denounced Ellsberg as “the most dangerous man in America” who had to be stopped at all costs. However, in a landmark decision the Supreme Court upheld freedom of the press by affirming the newspapers’ right to publish the Pentagon Papers. The resulting public uproar intensified and widened the anti-war movement, and along with the fierce resistance of the Vietnamese people ultimately compelled the US to withdraw from Vietnam. In 1973, Ellsberg’s trial on twelve felony counts that could have led to 115 years in prison were dismissed on grounds of governmental misconduct against him.

Ellsberg regrets not releasing the Pentagon Papers much sooner, which might have restrained the war planners. He noted that Senator Wayne Morse said that if the Senate had known of the real situation in Vietnam in 1964, the initial justification for the war, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, might have been defeated.

Daniel Ellsberg narrated the 2009 documentary film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2010. In the following decades Ellsberg remained committed to exposing militarism. In 2017, he published The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, in which he documented just how close the world has come to nuclear destruction several times!

Whistleblowers and the American Library Association

From 2011 through 2015, as a project of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association (ALA), I worked to try to get ALA to go on record in support of whistleblowers Chelsea Manning, who leaked Iraq and Afghan war documents; Edward Snowden, who exposed US mass surveillance; and John Kariakou, who exposed US torture of prisoners. We also tried to get ALA to support publisher of leaked documents Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and to go on record against mass surveillance of the American people. Since Daniel Ellsberg has been a consistent and outspoken supporter of WikiLeaks and all contemporary whistleblowers, we invited him to give a talk and show his film at the June, 2011 ALA meeting in New Orleans. Although our resolutions were defeated, we did educate literally thousands of librarians about the lies told about US foreign policy, war crimes, cover-ups, and secret US government mass surveillance programs. We won a small victory when a counterresolution passed indicating general support of whistleblowers but without naming any of them. But of course, this was useless in trying to lobby support to try to keep Manning, Snowden, Kariakou, and Assange out of prison or exile.

Ellsberg (third from right, with the author on his left) and a group of members of the ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table. Photo courtesy of Carol Inskeep

From Vietnam to Afghanistan

In his 2011 ALA talk and in an interview the next day with the editor of American Libraries, the official ALA magazine, Ellsberg talked about how the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars are “remarkably similar,” including both countries having corrupt and illegitimate governments as well as open borders that make insurgency much easier. He described how the US intentionally provoked the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan: “Now we ha[d] the chance to give them their Vietnam.” The US armed Islamic extremists from all over the world to overthrow that government. This led to massive Soviet losses, and their defeat, along with one million Afghans killed. So the US created Al Qaeda. Some time later, a French reporter asked Zbigniew Brzeziński, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, if he had any regrets about that policy. Brzeziński replied that it was one of the best things we ever did, and “in the eyes of history what is more important, the end of the Soviet empire or some stirred-up Muslims?”

Ellsberg speaking at the 2011 ALA annual meeting

In the 2011 interview, Ellsberg said that the US Afghanistan War “is a cruel, ruthless policy.” Regarding this “unjustified homicide,” Ellsberg said that presidents would rather send men and women to die and kill rather than be called names and risk reelection and their place in history. President Barack Obama prolonged that clearly unwinnable war, but this was typical and no different than the others. Doing an impersonation of Henry Kissinger, Ellsberg talked about the last time he saw him in the early 1970s. He asked, “What is your best estimate of how many people will die under your policy in the next year?” Kissinger replied, “What is your alternative?” and then walked away. Ellsberg said that this is a question for Obama concerning the current wars. We could tell Obama, “Mr. President, winning the next election is important for all the things you want to do. It’s not some unimportant thing. But it is not the last word. It’s not a sufficient reason to kill people at a large rate.”

Ellsberg told the story of the discussion between Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon concerning how they should attack North Vietnam. Nixon asked Kissinger how many people would be killed if they hit the dikes. Kissinger said perhaps 200,000. Then Nixon said “it is time to think big,” including about using nuclear weapons.

The Importance of the Anti-War Movements

Ellsberg noted in the 2011 interview that between 56 and 71 percent of Americans thought the US should get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, but that did not mean it will happen any time soon. People had similar opinions in 1968, but it took seven more years to leave Vietnam. (It would take twelve more years for Afghanistan.) But the anti-war movement had a big effect. The war could have been much worse, escalating to a war against China and possible use of nuclear weapons. The mainstream media played an important role during the Vietnam War. We saw the carnage on TV every night then, but not so for the Afghanistan War. The draft made the huge Vietnam war effort possible. A new draft would make the current wars much bigger and more dangerous.

Parting Words

In Ellsberg’s recent interview on Democracy Now!, he talked about many current issues, including how it is taboo to call the US an empire; how that obscures what is really going on; and how that denies the horrible means used to keep the empire going. Regarding Ukraine, he called the US and UK rejection of a peace plan negotiated by Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky a “crime against humanity.”

Daniel Ellsberg risked prison for life and his professional reputation in the 1970s to expose the deceit in US foreign and military policy. He has continued with civil disobedience and gone to prison numerous times over his entire life. In another recent New York Times interview, Ellsberg said that the world is not going to address climate disaster. And regarding the possibility of nuclear war, as any gambler knows eventually one’s luck runs out. We should take his pessimism on climate disaster and the inevitability of the use of nuclear weapons very seriously. Until recently he chose to remain somewhat optimistic that humanity might possibly avert near total destruction. How many of us are listening?

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