A famous light on secrets: UMass examines legacy of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

  • Daniel Ellsberg, second from left, in 2019 with Gar Alperovitz, far left; Patricia Ellsberg; and Janaki Natarajan as he joined his co-conspirators at the University of Massachusetts Amherst after the school acquired his papers. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst history professor Christian Appy is a principal organizer and a moderator for the virtual conference on Daniel Ellsberg’s legacy. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • As his co-defendant, Anthony Russo, right, and wife, Patricia, listen, Daniel Ellsberg addresses reporters outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles on Jan. 17, 1973, during his trial for leaking the Pentagon Papers. AP FILE PHOTO

  • Daniel Ellsberg is all smiles and his wife, Patricia, throws back her head in happiness as they emerge from the Federal Building in Los Angeles on May 11, 1973, shortly after the judge in the Pentagon Papers case dismissed all charges of espionage, theft and conspiracy against Ellsberg and his co-defendant, Anthony Russo. AP FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/26/2021 5:00:04 PM

A little over 50 years ago, The New York Times published a series of stories that detailed how successive U.S. administrations, dating back to Harry Truman’s presidency, had sought to break a communist-led insurgency in Vietnam and had steadily and secretly enlarged the war, lying to the American public and in some cases to Congress about the nation’s involvement in the small Asian country.

Those stories, which caused an immediate uproar, were based on a U.S. Department of Defense history of the Vietnam War that came to be called the Pentagon Papers — and at the center of the controversy was a former military analyst and U.S. intelligence official turned whistleblower and peace activist, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the papers to the Times.

Ellsberg, who’s now 90, has had a long career since Vietnam as a writer, speaker and antiwar activist. And on Friday, April 30, and Saturday, May 1, the University of Massachusetts Amherst will recognize his pivotal role in shining a light on government deceit with an online conference, “Truth, Dissent and the Legacy of Daniel Ellsberg.”

The event will bring together more than two dozen speakers — historians, journalists, former policymakers and activists, including whistleblower Edward Snowden and Ellsberg himself — to examine the key issues that have engaged Ellsberg’s life: the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, antiwar activism, and the drawn-out conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The conference, which is free but requires attendees to register, comes two years after UMass acquired more than 500 boxes of personal papers from Ellsberg that have become part of the university’s Special Collections and University Archives. Those papers in turn have formed the basis for a yearlong seminar in 2020 to 2021 in which UMass students have used the material to study the Vietnam era.

Christian Appy, a UMass history professor who has led that seminar and is also a principal organizer of the conference, said the class — the only one in the UMass History Department this year that’s taken place in person — has also given students the opportunity to look at the ethical questions surrounding whistleblowing. Appy notes that the Harvard-educated Ellsberg, in leaking government secrets to the media, was willing to risk a jail sentence to try to stop a war he believed was utterly wrong.

“These are important issues,” said Appy, the author of a number of books on the Vietnam War and its aftermath. “And it’s been really interesting for students to be studying this era when we’re seeing so many dramatic developments in our own time — Black Lives Matter protests, the Big Lie (about a stolen presidential election), the insurrection” (at the U.S. Capitol).

Another contributor to the seminar, co-taught with Appy this semester by UMass journalism professor Kathy Roberts Forde, is journalist and UMass alum Charles Sennott, the founder of The Ground Truth Project, a nonprofit that works to beef up public service journalism through training seminars, fellowships, conferences and other means.

The UMass seminar, Appy notes, “has also aimed to show the important role journalists have in holding government accountable.”

Along those lines, a number of prominent journalists will speak at the UMass conference. Frances FitzGerald, author of “Fire in the Lake,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of Vietnam and the Vietnam War, is one; Fred Kaplan, national security writer for Slate, is another; and Amy Goodman, host of the radio program “Democracy Now!,” will moderate a discussion between Ellsberg and Snowden, the former U.S. intelligence officer who blew the whistle in 2013 on U.S. mass surveillance programs.

Another discussion will focus on the continued threat of nuclear weapons, long a concern of Ellsberg. He wrote an acclaimed 2017 book, “The Doomsday Machine,” about his role from the late 1950s into the 1960s as a nuclear war planner for three different U.S. presidents; the book revealed numerous incidents in which modern U.S. presidents have threatened the use of nuclear weapons.

Appy said Ellsberg remains a historic figure today for a number of reasons. For one, his leaking of the Pentagon Papers, and their subsequent appearance in The New York Times, led to a temporary court order forcing the newspaper to halt the stories — the first time the federal government had restrained publication of a major newspaper since the U.S. Civil War.

But then the U.S. Supreme Court threw out that decision, a move that’s considered a modern landmark in protecting freedom of the press.

Appy also noted that the U.S. government indicted Ellsberg for violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and other federal laws; he faced a possible sentence of 115 years. But charges were dismissed in 1973 following revelations that the administration of President Richard Nixon had illegally wiretapped Ellsberg’s phone and broken into his psychiatrist’s office to find incriminating information on him.

Those same kind of covert actions would undo Nixon following the 1973 Watergate break-in, Appy noted. A conference discussion on the links between the Pentagon Papers and Watergate will include John Dean, the former Nixon White House counsel who testified against Nixon at the Watergate hearings, as a panelist.

There’s also a key local connection to Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers: Ellsberg was inspired to leak the information and risk imprisonment after hearing Randy Kehler, a longtime Franklin County peace activist, give a speech at a 1969 War Resisters League conference on why he would rather go to jail than serve in Vietnam. Kehler is also a panelist at the UMass conference.

Ellsberg, Appy said, “is really a remarkable person — someone who’s remained true to his convictions for over 50 years now.”

To register for the conference or learn more about it, visit umass.edu/ellsberg/conference.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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