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Robert EllsbergApril 21, 2021
Daniel Ellsberg speaks to an unofficial House panel investigating the significance of the Pentagon Papers on July 28, 1971 (AP).

I clearly remember the first time I handled classified documents. That day in October 1969 stands out for other reasons, as it was also the first time I was allowed to handle a Xerox machine, back then an exotic novelty in its own right for a 13-year-old. I can’t say I had much conception that this day would prove historically significant in other ways. The frisson of handling documents marked “Top Secret” quickly faded, and with it the wonder of feeding hundreds of pages into a slow, clunky machine while waiting for the mysterious green light to complete its circuit.

Daniel Ellsberg with his children Mary and Robert in 1969 (photo courtesy of Robert Ellsberg).

The documents were part of a highly classified history of the Vietnam War, commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Only a few people knew of the existence of the study; even fewer had actually read it. One of these was my father, Daniel Ellsberg, a 38-year-old defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a government-sponsored think tank in Santa Monica, Calif. He himself had worked on the study, following his return from a two-year assignment in Vietnam, which in turn had followed a stint working under McNamara in the Pentagon. What he read—a history of lies and secrets that served to hide the true origins, purpose and prospects of success of a murderous war—convinced him to cross the line from strong disagreement with our Vietnam policy to active resistance.

Two particular factors had influenced the timing of his decision to copy these documents. He had recently learned from contacts in the National Security Council that President Richard Nixon, contrary to public belief, was committed to winning the war through escalation. My father believed that getting these documents into the hands of Congress, and perhaps sparking public hearings, might prevent Nixon from repeating the policies of his predecessors.

Imagining that people might call him crazy or a traitor, he wanted us to see for ourselves that he was acting in a calm and deliberate fashion.

The second factor was his encounter with young draft resisters, who had no access to “top secret” information and yet were willing to sacrifice their freedom to oppose the war. A moment of epiphany occurred for him while attending a gathering of War Resisters International in Haverford, Pa., when he heard a young man named Randy Kehler calmly mention that he was about to begin a prison term for resisting the draft. After recovering from the impact of this news, my father felt a new question arise: “What could I do to help end this war if I were willing to go to jail?” He said later that it was as if an axe had come down, dividing his life in two.

I had been watching this slow process of my father’s conversion from Cold War insider to committed truth-teller. He had returned from that conference with books by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., along with Thoreau’s famous essay on civil disobedience. Over lunch one day at an outdoor restaurant, he described what he planned to do. In the spirit of civil disobedience, he intended to copy these documents from his safe at RAND and provide them to Congress. It would certainly involve some risk, but he felt it was necessary. Would I help him? 

That is how I happened to find myself, later that day, standing over the primitive Xerox machine in a borrowed office. I didn’t suppose that this might entail any personal risk for me—though it did later cause me to be subpoenaed before a federal grand jury and thus implicated me in a case for which my father would ultimately face 115 years in prison. But that was in the future. On that fall day in 1969, the most exciting moment occurred soon after we arrived—when police officers knocked on the door, my father having neglected to turn off the burglar alarm.

Daniel Ellsberg wanted to pass along to us the lesson he had learned: that there were circumstances in which one might be called to make sacrifices for the sake of a higher truth. 

I never imagined that my father actually needed my help, or that of my younger sister, who joined us on another occasion. But as he later explained, he had assumed that he might go to prison for a long time, if not the rest of his life. Imagining that people might call him crazy or a traitor, he wanted us to see for ourselves that he was acting in a calm and deliberate fashion. In the future we might see him behind a plexiglass window in prison. But he could pass along to us the lesson he had learned: that there were circumstances in which one might be called to make sacrifices for the sake of a higher truth. That would be his legacy.

For some time, I was unaware of any consequences for our activities that day. It turned out that nobody in Congress would take the risk of accepting the documents. And so, unbeknownst to me, my father turned to The New York Times. On June 13, 1971—50 years ago—the first installment of the papers appeared in the Sunday New York Times under a deceptively innocuous headline: “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement.” Inside, the story included actual classified documents, and it promised continuing installments.

The official name of this study was “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” but the media quickly dubbed it “The Pentagon Papers.” This breaking news was as surprising to me as to anyone else, although I was unusually prepared to guess its backstory. “He did it! He did it!” I shouted aloud (to no one). My father had immediately gone “underground”; and after a Justice Department injunction temporarily stopped publication of the stories, he began providing copies of the documents to other newspapers. When he eventually surrendered himself for arrest and arraignment in Boston, a reporter asked him, “Aren’t you afraid of going to jail?” He replied, “Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end the war?”

A reporter asked him, “Aren’t you afraid of going to jail?” He replied, “Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end the war?”

As installments of the Pentagon Papers appeared, they revealed just how little the American people knew about the truth of our engagement in the war. For instance, they showed that our intervention in Vietnam had grown out of our support for the French colonial war in Indochina; rather than coming to the defense of an ally in South Vietnam, it had been “our” war from the beginning. Among other revelations: that Lyndon Johnson had lied during the 1964 election about his actual plans to escalate; that the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the pretext for congressional support for the war, was based on lies; and that we had continued to escalate with no actual expectation of victory, but mainly with the intention of delaying a politically costly defeat.

As H. R. Haldeman, known as Bob, Nixon’s chief of staff, summarized for his boss: The documents were confusing, “but out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: You can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment…. And the president can be wrong.”

My father had volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1965 as part of an interagency task force, studying the conduct of the war and the prospects for “success.” He had originally seen the war as a “problem to be solved.” Traveling throughout the country, and even accompanying Marines on hazardous night patrols, his view of that problem changed. The people of Vietnam, he said, had become “as familiar as my own hands.” By the time he returned to the United States in 1967, he believed the war was a “mistake to be ended.” But it was his reading of the Pentagon Papers that inspired the next stage of his conversion, leading him to see the war as “a crime to be resisted.”

Amazingly, the copying of the Pentagon Papers did in fact help end the war, though not the way my father had imagined. While their publication generated enormous coverage, they didn’t seem to have much impact on public opinion. Despite four years of escalation, massive bombing and the invasion of Cambodia and Laos, most people still believed Nixon was ending the war, and he was re-elected in 1972 in a landslide. And the war continued.

As installments of the Pentagon Papers appeared, they revealed just how little the American people knew about the truth of our engagement in the war.

Then came Watergate. There was no direct link between the White House and the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters. And yet the break-in at the Watergate Hotel was carried out by the same “Plumbers” team that had earlier operated out of the White House to carry out illegal acts against my father. This made it essential that Nixon keep the Watergate burglars quiet. And so he interfered with the Watergate investigation and authorized the payment of hush money.

Robert Ellsberg
Robert Ellsberg at age 13, in 1969 (Photo courtesy of Robert Ellsberg)

The crimes of the Plumbers had begun soon after my father’s arrest for sharing the Pentagon Papers. Terrified that my father would leak other documents about the administration’s secret plans for escalation, including nuclear threats, Henry Kissinger had called him “the most dangerous man in America.” This set in motion an array of illegal actions to stop him from further leaks. Revelations of these measures—including the burglary of my father’s psychiatrist’s office and an offer to the judge in his case to become director of the F.B.I.—led to the dismissal of the charges against him in April 1973. Nixon’s resignation, ahead of his impending impeachment, followed in August. With the cutoff of congressional spending under the Ford administration, the Vietnam War ended in April 1975.

My father went on to spend the following decades in tireless work for peace, striving in particular to raise awareness of the peril of nuclear war. I later helped him edit two volumes of his memoirs, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002)and The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2017). He has been arrested close to 100 times in acts of civil disobedience. April 7 marked his 90th birthday.

My father could not have foreseen all the consequences of his unusual version of “Take your children to work day.”

Now, 50 years after their publication, the Pentagon Papers are remembered as a landmark in the history of the First Amendment and freedom of the press, and a milestone in the annals of “whistleblowing.” My father’s story has inspired other whistleblowers, including Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

And no doubt his actions and the lessons he tried to convey have borne fruit in my own life. Among other things, they prompted my decision to leave college in 1975 to work for five years with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker in New York City. In my own writing life I have concentrated on telling the stories of saints, prophets and moral heroes, believing in the power of such stories to enlarge our moral imagination and our sense of personal responsibility. Like my father, many of those I have written about saw something that needed to be done and decided that they should do it. And their example inspired others to take one more step themselves.

That is how it was in my father’s case. When Randy Kehler stood up and spoke about facing prison, he had no idea who was in the audience that day, what seeds he might be planting and how his own action might play a significant role in ending the war. Randy Kehler’s action, in turn, was inspired by the example of others who went before him.

My father could not have foreseen all the consequences of his unusual version of “Take your children to work day.” To be sure, the years that followed involved stress and anxiety for my family. Yet I know his action changed history. And it changed my own life, setting me on the mission of casting other seeds. My father was inspired in part by the words of Thoreau: “Cast your whole vote; not a slip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” For me, it is another familiar line from the Gospel of John, 8:32, that sums up the meaning of his witness: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

Correction: The estimated number of times Daniel Ellsberg has been arrested has been updated.

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