What if truth doesn’t win out until a million corpses too late? Daniel Ellsberg, one of the most heroic truth-tellers of our era, passed away on Friday at the age of 92. He risked life in prison to leak the Pentagon Papers during the Nixon administration. Ellsberg sought to shatter the enchantment that official lies held for so many Americans. That noble cause remains a work in progress.
Here is a two minute video of Ellsberg telling the story of his epic battle against the Nixon administration and warmongering government officials.
Ellsberg was an antiwar icon for more than 50 years after the Justice Department failed to destroy his life in the early 1970s. As a former Marine lieutenant and a Harvard Ph.D., Ellsberg was hired by John McNaughton, the assistant secretary of Defense, and started work in August 1964 on the day the Gulf of Tonkin crisis erupted. Ellsberg relates receiving the “flash” wire dispatches from the USS Maddox. Within hours after the U.S. destroyer reported being attacked by North Vietnamese PT boats, the ship’s commander had wired Washington that the reports of an attack on his ship may have been wildly exaggerated: “Entire action leaves many doubts.”
But it didn’t matter because President Lyndon Johnson sought a pretext for war. Johnson and his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara raced to proclaim that the attack was unprovoked. But, at a National Security Council meeting on the evening that the first report came in, Johnson asked: “Do they want war by attacking our ships in the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin?”
CIA chief John McCone answered: “No. The North Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our attack on their off-shore islands. They are responding out of pride and on the basis of defense considerations.” The fact was that the United States had orchestrated an attack by South Vietnamese commandos on North Vietnamese territory before the alleged conflict began. But Johnson lied, commenced bombing, and Congress rushed to cheer him on.
Ellsberg was a gung-ho liberal cold warrior until the late 1960s. In 1967, the Pentagon ordered top experts to analyze where the Vietnam war had gone wrong. The resulting study contained 47 volumes of material exposing the intellectual and political follies that had already left tens of thousands of Americans and a million Vietnamese dead. After the study was finished, it was distributed to the key players and federal agencies and the White House—and completely ignored.
As Ellsberg read the confidential documents that formed the basis of The Pentagon Papers, he realized that the U.S. government was far more deceptive than he suspected. He grasped that “the concentration of power within the executive branch since World War II had focused nearly all responsibility for policy ‘failure’ upon one man, the president. At the same time, it gave him enormous capability to avert or postpone or conceal such personal failure by means of force or fraud…That power could not fail to corrupt the human who held it.”
Ellsberg was astounded at the incorrigibility of U.S. foreign policy. No matter how many Ivy League grads and Whiz Kids were manning the helm, “there was a general failure to study history or to analyze or even to record operational experience, especially mistakes. Above all, effective pressures for optimistically false reporting at every level, for describing ‘progress’ rather than problems or failure, concealed the very need for change in approach or for learning,” Ellsberg observed in his 2002 book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.
Ellsberg leaked the documents to The New York Times after several senators, including George McGovern, chickened out on exposing them on Capitol Hill. When the Times began publishing excerpts in 1971, “the White House and the State Department were unable even to locate the forty-seven volumes.” Editor Tom Wicker commented at the time that “the people who read these documents in the Times were the first to study them.” Philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that the Pentagon Papers revealed how “sheer ignorance of all pertinent facts and deliberate neglect of postwar developments became the hallmark of established doctrine within the Establishment.”
Legal battles over the Pentagon Papers spurred an epic Supreme Court decision. In his 1971 opinion on that case, Justice Hugo Black declared that a free press has “the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.” Black hailed the First Amendment: “The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.”
H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s White House chief of staff, warned the president in 1971 that the Pentagon Papers might make people believe “you can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment. And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this.” But that dogma suffered scant damage inside the Beltway. As Ellsberg related at a 2007 Future of Freedom Foundation conference, he asked a New York Times columnist why the Times was so soft on Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. The columnist said, “There is nothing that a [New York Times Washington] bureau chief can deliver [to the top editors in New York] that is more important than a lunch with Kissinger. If he can do that, his job is made.” In 2016, Jon Schwarz wrote in The Intercept, “Time and again, the Washington press corps has credulously accepted officials’ lies and misinformation, and passed them on to their readers as the truth. Their real-time skepticism is almost nonexistent. And they keep doing it.”
The Nixon administration charged Ellsberg with espionage regardless of the Supreme Court decision. At the start of his trial for leaking the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg declared: “This has been for me an act of hope and of trust. Hope that the truth will free us of this war. Trust that informed Americans will direct their public servants to stop lying and to stop the killing and dying by Americans in Indochina.” The federal case collapsed after the judge learned of endless illegal skullduggery against Ellsberg by the Nixon White House.
Ellsberg should have received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, except that those honorifics are given instead to “useful idiots” who help presidents seize more power or start wars. Ellsberg’s legacy is best summarized by his admonition: “We need the courage to face the truth about what we are doing in the world and act responsibly to change it.” Unfortunately, the federal government is probably creating ten times more secrets every year compared to the 1970s. Much of the media now prefers to trumpet official lies instead of fighting them. The boundless docility of the mainstream media to the Biden administration storyline on the Ukraine War is the latest proof that there is no cure for cravenness. The most (only?) candid U.S. government documents on the war surfaced thanks to a leak in a Discord gamer group. The Washington media responded as if the leaker was a heretic and stampeded to help the feds track down the culprit. The whole point of secrecy is to prevent citizens from controlling the government.
Ellsberg risked his life to awaken people to the danger of blind trust of Washington. Ellsberg lamented: “There remained enormous resistance in the minds of voters and commentators to believing that these generalizations [of profound foreign policy deceit] applied to an incumbent president.” The Joe Biden administration is not more trustworthy than the Nixon administration, but few people will learn that fact from reading today’s newspapers and pundits. The Leviathan Anti-Defamation League seems to be running the media.
Maybe the intellectual-cultural tide towards servility is too strong to be turned by whistleblowers like Ellsberg or Julian Assange or Edward Snowden. Regardless, raising hell by exposing government lies and crimes can be its own reward. And if enough courageous folks expose government secrets, perhaps Americans will finally wake up and we can put a leash on Washington’s tinhorn dictators.