Truth Be Told
Daniel Ellsberg talks about the Pentagon Papers.
By Kerry Barger ’11
The year 2010 brought the release of thousands of secret governmental cables — from nuclear arms information to personal attacks on some of the world’s most prominent leaders — leaked by Internet activist Julian Assange. Assange, editor in chief of the whistleblower website Wiki-Leaks, has been both hailed as one of the most important social and media activists of his time and publicly condemned for his actions.
But before Assange rocked the contemporary political landscape, another media maverick shook the foundation of five presidential administrations and the Vietnam War. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg released top-secret, classified documents pertaining to the Vietnam War, which later became collectively known as the Pentagon Papers.
“It was a huge blow to the United States’ presence in Vietnam at the time,” says Jeff Cohen, associate professor and director of the Park Center for Independent Media, of the disclosure. “People were being lied to, and Ellsberg let everybody know about it.”
Since then, Ellsberg has continued his support of civic activism and independent media. He spoke to IC students, faculty, and staff last October, following the screening of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The Oscar-nominated documentary highlights the events leading up to the release of the secret documents. The film’s title was taken from a comment Henry Kissinger made about Ellsberg.
Before being published as the Pentagon Papers, the report was first officially titled “United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense” and was commissioned by then secretary of defense Robert McNamara. Ellsberg, who had briefly served in the Pentagon under McNamara in 1964 and as a consultant with Rand Corporation from 1967 to 1971, was on the task force McNamara assembled to write this chronicle of the decision-making on Vietnam. The document revealed that the Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations had lied to the U.S. public about their intentions for entering the conflict between North and South Vietnam. Ellsberg, who had progressively adopted an anti- war stance, was out-raged that the string of administrations had breached their oath to the public as honest governments.
“It was a wrongful war, and the lies lasted for five administrations,” said Ellsberg. “The papers were meant to enlighten the public about the ongoing misconceptions about the war.”
Ellsberg leaked the documents to the New York Times, which gave them front-page coverage, beginning June 13, 1971, after first overcoming a government restraint on publishing the papers by taking the case to the Supreme Court. To ensure that public debate about the papers would not be squelched, Senator Mike Gravel entered 4,100 pages of the document into the Congressional record on June 29, thus legally protecting public disclosure under the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and precluding accusations of treason as a result of the release of the information.
Beacon Press published Pentagon Papers in June 1971, but Ellsberg admitted that many newspapers hesitated because they saw the content as a threat to the safety of troops stationed overseas. Ultimately, the release of the document turned out to be one of the most significant victories in the history of mainstream and independent press.
“I couldn’t hide this information from the public anymore,” Ellsberg said to the IC audience. “And I was ready for all the costs I was going to pay.”
That included coming really close to serving a 115-year prison sentence. Ellsberg was indicted by a grand jury in Los Angeles on charges of espionage, theft, and conspiracy, but the charges were dismissed after a mistrial was declared in May 1973 on the grounds of governmental misconduct against him.