Peace Train: Dan Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers 50 years ago

Distrust in government persists today

So, why was that important? With the Pentagon Papers revelations, the U.S. public’s trust in the government was forever diminished. Dan Ellsberg’s release of all those secrets created a distrust of the U.S. government that some say persists today.

The man who exposed U.S. lies about the Vietnam War said in a recent interview with The Guardian that the culture of official secrecy is worse today. In the interview he urges whistleblowers: “Don’t wait years till the bombs are falling and people have been dying.”

Ellsburg was born April 7, 1931, in Chicago. He became an American military analyst and researcher and eventually leaked portions of a classified 7,000-page report that detailed the history of U.S. intervention in Indochina from World War II until 1968. Dubbed the Pentagon Papers, the document appeared to undercut the publicly stated justification of the war.

Ellsberg received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard in 1952, and from 1954 to 1957 he served as an officer in the Marine Corps. He was awarded a three-year fellowship to undertake independent postgraduate study, and he returned to Harvard after his separation from the military. In 1959 he joined the RAND corporation as a strategic analyst, applying his academic expertise — a branch of statistics known as decision theory — to matters of national security. While still at RAND, he earned a doctorate in economics from Harvard (1962), and an article presenting his thesis, “Risk, Ambiguity, and Decision,” became a frequently cited work in the field of game theory.

In 1964, Ellsberg left RAND to join the Department of Defense, where he was tasked with analyzing the expanding U.S. military effort in Vietnam. The following year he transferred to the State Department. With his headquarters at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Ellsberg accompanied troops on patrol to evaluate the war effort. During that time, he reached a personal opinion that the war was unwinnable. He returned to the U.S. in June 1967 and rejoined RAND the following month. There he worked on U.S. Decision-Making in Vietnam, 1945–68, a top-secret report commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Its content strengthened Ellsberg’s opposition to the war, and in October 1969 he began photocopying it with the intention of making it public. Over the next 18 months, he offered the document to several members of Congress, but none chose to act on it.

In 1970 Ellsberg left RAND for a position at MIT; it was there that he became deeply critical of the expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos, and leaked portions of the report to the New York Times. On June 13, 1971, the Times began publishing articles based on the Pentagon Papers — as the McNamara report came to be known.

He was indicted under the Espionage Act, and the charges leveled against him could have resulted in up to 115 years in prison. The trial against him began in January 1973, lasted four months and concluded with the dismissal of all charges after evidence of gross governmental misconduct came to light. Cleared of wrongdoing, Ellsberg devotes himself to peace activism, writing and teaching.

He was a vocal proponent of the media organization WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange, that group’s founder, cited Ellsberg as an inspiration for its creation. Indeed!

Thank you, Dan Ellsberg.