Daniel Ellsberg: Biography & Book

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Most of us would like to think our government wouldn't mislead us. Daniel Ellsberg, however, proved that isn't always the case. Read on to learn how this military analyst bucked the U.S. government and helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War.

Top of His Class

Few people are as brilliant as Daniel Ellsberg can claim to be. He graduated with a degree in economics given with highest honors from Harvard. Following that, he was given a fellowship to study at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Afterwards, he came back and got his PhD from Harvard. Simply put, Ellsberg could be assured of being one of the smartest people in the room.

He was also one of the most patriotic. He served as a Marine officer in the years following the Korean War, and ended up working for the RAND Corporation, a think-tank that was heavily funded by the government, among others; he later worked for the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State before returning to RAND. However, this was a difficult time for the United States. Protests raged about the country's involvement in a war halfway around the world in a place called Vietnam. Here, North Vietnamese Communists, backed by the USSR and China, were fighting the South Vietnamese, who were backed by the United States. Still, the war was deeply unpopular in the United States.

Becoming Anti-War

Ellsberg started to go to anti-war rallies, despite still working on some pretty sensitive government information. There, faced with dozens of men who were looking forward to prison instead of fighting in Vietnam, he realized that he fundamentally disagreed with the course of the war. However, Ellsberg had access to something those men would never have - thousands of documents that were classified but condemned the war as unwinnable. Along with a former coworker named Anthony Russo, Ellsberg started to make copies of the documents.

The Pentagon Papers

These documents, which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, showed that the government had lied about the war, and that was pretty powerful in and of itself. Still, then why were young men being forced to fight? This was the question that Ellsberg asked as he made the decision that would change his life. Secretly, he started to enlist the support of powerful people, including some senators, to help introduce his knowledge to the public at large. He also leaked the documents to newspapers. Collectively, the Pentagon Papers grew to reach more than 7,000 pages.

Accused of Espionage

The reaction to the publication of the Pentagon Papers in American newspapers, including The New York Times, was simply epic. Ellsberg faced criminal charges per the Espionage Act in 1971. He initially went into hiding, and the FBI searched for him for more than three weeks. The government sued newspapers to prevent their publication. However, the courts had sided with the papers. After all, the damage had been done already - Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK), released the documents into the Senate record; he also arranged for publication of the Pentagon Papers in book form. Simply put, the cat was out of the bag.

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