The Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellsberg’s Legacy

The Pentagon Papers should serve as a call to action for the American public to demand more transparency from the US government.

Two years ago, I spent hours buried in the Special Collections & University Archives at the UMass Amherst library, going through the more than 500 hundred unprocessed boxes of Daniel Ellsberg’s materials: formerly classified documents, his research on decision-making theory, notes on napkins, and love letters to his wife. I also read the books he wrote, books others wrote about him, and interviewed him and people close to him, including his wife, friends, and lawyer.

I conducted this research during a unique seminar on the life and times of Ellsberg. Ellsberg is best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers on Jun. 13, 1971, which revealed US government’s systemic lies to the American public about the nature of the Vietnam War. But, there is much more to his story and political transformation.

Ellsberg’s job was to keep secrets, and he revealed those secrets about the Vietnam War and US nuclear posture because he saw how dangerous that standard of secrecy had become. Researching his story taught me that we must continually demand transparency and accountability from the US government. They have been granted power by the American people and act on our behalf but regularly escape accountability for the harms they perpetuate at home and abroad.


After getting his doctorate in economics and decision theory at Harvard University, the RAND Corporation hired Ellsberg, and he advised President John F. Kennedy on nuclear strategy. Ellsberg’s job was to plan nuclear wars. Through this role, he learned about the immorality of US nuclear policy. Forget what you think about the president having a nuclear button on their desk or even the nuclear football. Ellsberg discovered that if a US ship carrying nuclear weapons lost communication with the mainland, it should assume that the United States was nuked by the Russians and attack back. There are several problems with this strategy, but the main one was that communications were not great back in the 1960s, and ships lost communication all the time. So what the public thought about the president being the only one capable of launching a nuclear attack was not true — the reality was much more dangerous.

Today is the 51st anniversary of the Pentagon Papers. It’s hard not to think about how different history would have been if Ellsberg and those who helped him had made more convenient choices.

In 1961, Ellsberg’s life changed when, during a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he realized that the nuclear plans for a US first strike involved more targets than he ever thought possible. The military estimated that its strategy for the “doomsday machine” would result in 600 million deaths. To put the magnitude of this strategy into perspective, Ellsberg always referred to the military’s estimate as 100 Holocausts.

In 1962, Ellsberg was advising the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the United States came closer to nuclear war than ever before. He saw how much domestic politics controlled decision-making and how catastrophic posturing could be. Ellsberg always talked about this event with particular desperation. You could feel his anxiety and fear. I had nightmares about it for months after my conversation with him. And I also remember realizing that this important event was not what I thought it was. I always assumed that the missiles being in Cuba were an imminent threat. Yet, after interviewing him, learning that he believed that the nuclear missiles posed the same threat to Eastern Europe as they did to Cuba but that Republicans wanted to invade Cuba instead, and reflecting on findings from my own research, I realized that the Cuban Missile Crisis was a political creation that could have ended life on this planet.


Ellsberg remained optimistic that his work could make a difference. Then, two years later, he started working on one of the Pentagon’s most secret projects: The Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, commonly known as the “Pentagon Papers.” Ellsberg realized the papers proved that administrations from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Lyndon B. Johnson not only lied to the public and Congress about US involvement in Vietnam but also made decisions based on how their administrations would look to the public and sent young American men to die knowing they could not win. He also uncovered that the military targeted non-combatants, women, and children. Patricia Ellsberg, Dan’s wife, called what the United States was doing to civilians torture and terrorism and maintained that the people in power did not care about the Vietnamese people they claimed to protect, nor the American people they claimed to represent.

In 1964, Ellsberg heard a speech by Randy Kehler, an anti-war activist who was going to prison for dodging the draft. He asked the crowd, “What are you willing to do to stop this war?” Ellsberg decided he must do everything he could to stop the madness. For years, he talked to Senators like George McGovern (D-S.D.), J. William Fulbright (D-Ariz.), and even Bobby Kennedy (D-N.Y.) about ways to make the Pentagon Papers public. He wrote an op-ed publicly criticizing the war, which he in turn was heavily criticized for. He even spoke to Henry Kissinger and tried to convince him to develop a conscience.

But none of it worked. Only then did he leak the Pentagon Papers and change the course of history. Ellsberg copied the 7,000 pages and gave them to the New York Times. He was sure he would spend the rest of his life in prison. He was one of the “Whiz Kids,” an elite group of experts of the RAND Corporation shaping US foreign policy. He had the ear of the president. He had a wife he adored and two kids. But, he was willing to risk all that to do the right thing. He believed that publishing the papers would show that deception by presidents and their men was not an exception, it was the norm.


At first, the public’s reaction was lukewarm, but President Richard Nixon was enraged and ordered the New York Times to cease the publication of the papers. Without the ensuing legal battle, the public may have never fully grasped the severity of what the papers uncovered. Ellsberg faced charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, theft, conspiracy, and more. Nixon wanted Ellsberg to pay, and advocated for him to spend the rest of his life in prison. Nixon even offered the judge on his case a position as FBI director. He also asked his supporters to go after Ellsberg “by any means necessary.” A group of Nixon men called the “Plumbers” were tasked with ensuring Ellsberg lost his trial. Some of them broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, looking for files that contained embarrassing information. They wiretapped him without a warrant and had a plan to put LSD in his soup to make him look crazy. You can’t make this stuff up.

The Watergate prosecutors discovered these crimes near the end of Ellsberg’s trial in 1973. They gave this information to the judge, who dismissed the prosecution. The part of this story that few people know is that the prosecutors never proved that Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in. Rather, they proved that Nixon paid the Plumbers to discredit Ellsberg, which ultimately led to his impeachment.

Nixon’s impeachment and resignation eventually led to the war’s end on Apr. 30, 1975. Somehow, Ellsberg walked free. Though he did not know that was how his story would end, he nevertheless did what he thought was right. Even now, at 91, Ellsberg is an anti-war, pro-disarmament, and climate activist.


Ellsberg was the first modern American whistleblower, and decades passed until there was another one that got the same attention. If it were not for a chain of events during his trial, including Nixon’s obsession to see him suffer, which led the president to intervene in his trial illegally, Ellsberg would still be serving his life in prison. His freedom, therefore, is an exception and not the rule. His admitting to revealing the Pentagon Papers and refusing to flee the United States is also an exception and sets him apart from others in similar predicaments.

The fight for government transparency is even more important now. More than 5 million Americans have a security clearance, which has been steadily increasing. In the intelligence and defense fields, classifying information has become part of the bureaucratic process, and more information is kept secret from the public now than in the past. Erwin Griswold, who had argued that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was a threat to national security in front of the Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. United States in 1971, recently wrote that the government has a problem with overclassification. He pointed out that “the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security, but rather with governmental embarrassment.” Additionally, the 9/11 Commission stated that overclassification resulted in agencies not being able to share intelligence with each other that could have prevented the terrorist attacks. National security requires a degree of secrecy but this level of overclassification is not only a threat to the spirit of democracy, it also keeps us less safe.

You don’t have to agree with Ellsberg on everything to admire the man. He believed he had to do the right thing regardless of the consequences. Learning about his life taught me so much. But, so did the others who inspired him to risk it all: Patricia Ellsberg, who was an anti-war activist long before him, collaborator Anthony Russo, who leaked the papers along with Ellsberg, facing the same risks and yet receiving none of the public recognition, and other activists, who had been fighting against the war even before the Pentagon Papers were published.

Here are the five things I learned from the people who helped end the Vietnam War, especially Ellsberg. First, you never know how your actions will have an impact, which means you have to do everything you can as well as you can to make the changes you want to see. Second, doing the right thing is complicated, and sometimes it does not pay off, but you must do it anyway. Third, doing “the right thing” is not a single act or event. Living an ethical life is something you must do every day, and keep working at. Fourth, we must keep investigating, researching, and being willing to engage with different ideas — and, more importantly, swallow our pride when we are proven wrong. And finally, we need to demand transparency and accountability from our officials, who, at times, have wagered millions of American lives to save their political careers.

Today is the 51st anniversary of the Pentagon Papers. It’s hard not to think about how different history would have been if Ellsberg and those who helped him had made more convenient choices. The Pentagon Papers and Ellsberg’s whistleblowing should serve as a call to action for the American public to demand more transparency from those in Congress and the White House who claim to represent our interests.

Carla Montilla is a graduate student, Research Assistant, and President of the Society for Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs at American University’s School of International Studies. She is also an En Voz Alta program participant at Women’s Action for New Directions.