Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked Pentagon Papers exposing Vietnam War secrets, dies at 92
|Published: 06-16-2023 7:34 PM
NEW YORK — Daniel Ellsberg, the history-making whistleblower who by leaking the Pentagon Papers revealed longtime government deceit about the Vietnam War and inspired acts of retaliation by President Richard Nixon that helped lead to Nixon’s resignation, has died. He was 92.
Ellsberg, who announced in February that he was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, died Friday morning, according to a letter from his family released by a spokesperson, Julia Pacetti.
Until the early 1970s, when he revealed that he was the source for the stunning media reports on the 47-volume, 7,000-page Defense Department study of the U.S. role in Indochina, Ellsberg was a well-placed member of the government-military elite. He was a Harvard graduate and self-defined “cold warrior” who served as a private and government consultant on Vietnam throughout the 1960s, risked his life on the battlefield, received the highest security clearances, and came to be trusted by officials in Democratic and Republican administrations.
He was especially valued, he would later note, for his “talent for discretion.”
But like millions of other Americans in and out of government, he had turned against the yearslong war in Vietnam, the government’s claims that the battle was winnable and that a victory for the North Vietnamese over the U.S.-backed South would lead to the spread of communism throughout the region. Unlike so many other war opponents, he was in a special position to make a difference.
“An entire generation of Vietnam-era insiders had become just as disillusioned as I with a war they saw as hopeless and interminable,” he wrote in his 2002 memoir, “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.” “By 1968, if not earlier, they all wanted, as I did, to see us out of this war.”
The University of Massachusetts Amherst, the archive for all of Ellsberg’s documents, awarded him an honorary degree in a ceremony held in San Francisco in January. Both UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and UMass President Marty Meehan were among those who attended that event.
UMass acquired the 500 boxes worth of papers from Ellsberg in 2019 for $2.2 million.
Following the ceremony, Subbaswamy observed that there is still discomfort in some quarters for Ellsberg’s actions.
“It sort of goes to show that I think our country still hasn’t quite come to terms with government whistleblowers,” Subbaswamy said. “[The question of] what is truth and patriotism is something that I think, as a society, perhaps we are not quite comfortable with.”
The university has also announced the creation of the Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy, which will “highlight the value of the Ellsberg archive and engage the public in the vital issues so central to Ellsberg’s legacy,” according to the university.
In 2020-2021, inspired by the arrival of Ellsberg’s papers, the university sponsored numerous historic ventures to explore his life and legacy — a yearlong seminar, the creation of a website (the Ellsberg Archive Project), a series of podcasts by The GroundTruth Project, and a two-day, international, online conference with more than two dozen high profile scholars, journalists, former policymakers, whistleblowers, and activists that was attended by thousands.
As much as anyone, Ellsberg answered only to his sense of right and wrong. David Halberstam, the late author and Vietnam War correspondent who had known Ellsberg since both were posted overseas, would describe him as no ordinary convert. He was highly intelligent, obsessively curious and profoundly sensitive, a born proselytizer who “saw political events in terms of moral absolutes” and demanded consequences for abuses of power.
Ellsberg also embodied the fall of American idealism in foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s and the upending of the post-World War II consensus that communism, real or suspected, should be opposed.
The Pentagon Papers had been commissioned in 1967 by then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, a leading public advocate of the war who wanted to leave behind a comprehensive history of the U.S. and Vietnam and to help his successors avoid the kinds of mistakes he would only admit to long after. The papers covered more than 20 years, from France’s failed efforts at colonization in the 1940s and 1950s to the growing involvement of the U.S., including the bombing raids and deployment of hundreds of thousands of ground troops during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Ellsberg was among those asked to work on the study, focusing on 1961, when the newly elected President John F. Kennedy began adding advisers and support units.
First published in The New York Times in June 1971, with The Washington Post, The Associated Press and more than a dozen others following, the classified papers documented that the U.S. had defied a 1954 settlement barring a foreign military presence in Vietnam, questioned whether South Vietnam had a viable government, secretly expanded the war to neighboring countries and had plotted to send American soldiers even as Johnson vowed he wouldn’t.
Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter Scott Merzbach contributed to this article.