THE TERM “WHISTLEBLOWER” might seem overly used, but we are living in strange and turbulent times and an increasing number of individuals are mustering the courage to call things out that they see as wrong, unjust, or untrue. I had the honor of listening to Daniel Ellsberg, the original whistleblower, when he appeared as a keynote speaker at the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference on September 8, 2018. Ellsberg shared a lifetime of experiences and wisdom with the audience, and after his presentation I had the opportunity to meet and talk with him, a moment I will always remember. Daniel Ellsberg passed away on June 16, 2023, at the age of 92.
Born on April 7, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois, Ellsberg’s early life was marked by a sense of duty and service to his country. Following a year of graduate studies at Cambridge, he returned to the United States to enlist in the Marine Corps and support its US Cold War policy. Following his service, Ellsberg returned to Harvard to work on his dissertation in games theory, which led him to join the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, in 1959 to work on nuclear war strategy.
After his military service, Ellsberg became a nuclear planner at the RAND Corporation in the late 1950s. Working in the heart of defense analysis, he gained access to classified information related to nuclear war planning. As the Cold War intensified, Ellsberg witnessed the reckless arms race and the profound dangers posed by nuclear weapons. His time as a nuclear planner deeply troubled him as he realized the catastrophic consequences such weapons could bring upon humanity.
In 1964, Ellsberg joined the staff of the assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs and worked directly on Vietnam policy. In 1967, he turned “from hawk to dove,” when he was in Vietnam as part of the State Department. He concluded that “no change in tactics or reallocation of American resources could turn the tide of the war.” Ellsberg returned from Vietnam after contracting hepatitis and rejoined the RAND Corporation, continuing to serve as a consultant to the government on the war.
“A streetcar rattled by on the tracks as I read the headline: a single American bomb had destroyed a Japanese city. My first thought: “I know exactly what that bomb was.” It was the U-235 bomb we had discussed in school and written papers about the previous fall. I thought: We got it first. And we used it. On a city. I had a sense of dread, a feeling that something very dangerous for humanity had just happened.”
― Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
Daniel Ellsberg Vietnamese driver’s license, November 25, 1966
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg made a momentous decision that forever changed the course of his life. He risked everything by leaking the highly classified Pentagon Papers, a top-secret government study, to the New York Times and other newspapers. The Pentagon Papers exposed decades of government deception about the Vietnam War and its true nature, shocking the American public to its core.
In response to the leak, President Richard Nixon and his team launched an aggressive campaign to discredit Ellsberg and suppress further publication of the documents. The administration attempted to portray Ellsberg as a traitor and a threat to national security, and dubbed him “the most dangerous man in America.”
The original quote referring to Daniel Ellsberg as “the most dangerous man in America” was attributed to Henry Kissinger, who served as the U.S. National Security Advisor and later as the Secretary of State during the Nixon administration. Kissinger intended to depict Ellsberg as a grave threat to the government’s interests and to create a negative image of him in the eyes of the public.
The New York Times published the first installment of the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971,
Ellsberg’s courageous act of whistleblowing exposed a web of lies and deceit woven by successive U.S. administrations as far back as Kennedy. His actions sparked a media frenzy and ignited a legal battle as the Nixon administration sought to prevent further publication of the documents. Ellsberg stood firm in his belief that the public deserved to know the truth, no matter the cost.
The subsequent trial was a watershed moment for American democracy. The government charged Ellsberg under the Espionage Act in an attempt to silence him. However, the trial’s outcome turned out to be an unexpected twist, as it was revealed that the government had engaged in illegal wiretapping against Ellsberg. This shocking revelation led to the case’s dismissal and further fueled public outrage, igniting Nixon’s downward spiral.
Ellsberg’s bravery and integrity in the face of grave personal risk became an inspiration to countless individuals. His actions not only hastened the end of the Vietnam War but also brought to the forefront the issues of government accountability and transparency. The Pentagon Papers affair became a pivotal moment in the history of the First Amendment and the freedom of the press, reaffirming the crucial role journalists play in holding those in power accountable.
In 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg arrived at a federal court in Boston, a journalist asked if he was concerned about the prospect of going to prison for life for leaking a 7,000-page top-secret history of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg responded with a question of his own: “Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?”
Political activist Daniel Ellsberg speaking at rally in Washington D.C.
In 2017, Daniel Ellsberg published his book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. This gripping memoir provides a deeply personal and unfiltered account of his time as a nuclear planner and offered an insider’s view of the Cold War nuclear policy. The Doomsday Machine exposes the chilling realities of nuclear warfare and the inherent risks of accidental or intentional nuclear conflict.
Ellsberg’s overriding concerns: As long as the world maintains large nuclear arsenals, it is not a matter of if, but when, a nuclear war will occur. The vast majority of the population of an initiator state would likely starve to death during a “nuclear autumn” or “nuclear winter” if they did not die earlier from retaliation or fallout. If the nuclear war dropped only roughly 100 nuclear weapons on cities, as in a war between India and Pakistan, the effect would be similar to the “Year Without a Summer” that followed the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, except that it would last more like a decade, because soot would not settle out of the stratosphere as quickly as the volcanic debris, and roughly a third of the people worldwide not killed by the nuclear exchange would starve to death because of resulting crop failures. If more than roughly 2 percent of the U.S. nuclear arsenal were used, the results would more likely be a nuclear winter, leading to the deaths from starvation of 98 percent of people worldwide not killed by the nuclear exchange.
Ellsberg believed that in order to preserve the ability of a nuclear-weapon state to retaliate from a “decapitation” attack, every country with nuclear weapons seems to have delegated broadly the authority to respond to an apparent nuclear attack. In other words, many individuals within individual countries possess the power to “push the button.”
The Doomsday Machine was a resounding success, captivating readers and critics alike with its unflinching analysis of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Once again, Ellsberg’s message and warnings reverberated across generations, as he continued to advocate for peace, nuclear disarmament, and arms control.
Daniel Ellsberg’s book,”The Doomsday Machine,” published in 2017.
At the 10th San Francisco Writing for Change Conference, Ellsberg urged writers and activists to use their talents and platforms to expose hidden truths and challenge the status quo. Drawing from his own journey as a whistleblower, he emphasized the profound impact one individual’s actions could have on the course of history. I watched the eyes of conference attendees as he spoke, and how his words resonated to each one, inspiring them to take up the mantle of truth-tellers and agents of change.
As I sat and listened to Ellsberg speak, I thought of my father and his work in the military, and the things I learned later after he had passed. As with Ellsberg, the threat of nuclear annihilation was at its height during my father’s time in the military, and he was well aware of the consequences—but there were many things he didn’t talk about around the family. I wonder what pressures were put on him and many others to keep quiet under the guise of national security.
When I spoke to Ellsberg after his presentation and told him I was in the process of writing a memoir about my experience of working in Prudhoe Bay and witnessing oil proliferation firsthand, he quipped, “. . . big oil and the pharmaceuticals—two of the most corrupt and dangerous industries, both motivated by greed.” Ellsberg’s life journey is a testament to the power of conscience and the courage to speak truth to power. From his time as a nuclear planner to his courageous act of leaking the Pentagon Papers and his impactful book “The Doomsday Machine,” Ellsberg’s commitment to transparency, accountability, and peace has left an indelible mark on American history. We can learn so much from him, especially now.
“Is it simply quixotic to hope to preserve human civilization from either the effects of burning fossil fuels or preparing for nuclear war? As Martin Luther King Jr. warned us, one year to the day before his death, ‘There is such a thing as being too late.’”
― Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
The author and Daniel Ellsberg at the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference, September 8, 2018.
More information about Daniel Ellsberg:
Daniel Ellsberg documentary
The full true story of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
“The Most Dangerous Man in America”
Related Changing Tides blog links
- How I Never Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
- A Blast from the Past: Atomic Tourism in Las Vegas
- Project Faultless: Nuclear History Buried in the Nevada Desert
To read more about the Prudhoe Bay oilfield and oil proliferation, check out my book, Refraction: An Arctic Memoir, at: https://bit.ly/3tdZR0R
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