June 16, 2023

Ellsberg, who lived locally, is best known for leaking a trove of classified documents that helped hasten the end of the Vietnam War, and indirectly led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.  

Daniel and Patricia Ellsberg in the living room of their Kensington home in 2018. Photo: Daphne White

Daniel Ellsberg — once called “the most dangerous man in America” — died Friday in Kensington, his home for more than 40 years. He was 92. Ellsberg shared in March that he had been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, and that he had decided to forgo chemotherapy.

Ellsberg is best known as the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers, which helped hasten the end of the Vietnam War, and indirectly led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. But his enduring passion — which he continued to work on almost until the day he died — was raising awareness about the genocide that would result from a nuclear war, a war he felt was all but inevitable.

Ellsberg is “the premier whistleblower in living memory,” said Edward Wasserman, professor of journalism and former dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “One of the things people lose sight of is that this was a guy who was tracking to be in the most senior positions in the foreign policy establishment. He had all the credentials and capabilities to be Secretary of State, and he could have had a tremendous future in diplomacy and statesmanship. But he sacrificed all the things he had trained for and expected to do in order to do the right thing.”

The right thing, for Ellsberg, was the leaking of secret government documents related to the futility of the Vietnam War, in an effort to hasten its end. Ellsberg was put on trial under the Espionage Act and was facing 115 years in jail for his actions. (One of Ellsberg’s defense lawyers was Leonard Boudin, grandfather of Chesa Boudin, the former San Francisco district attorney.)

Ellsberg was only spared jail time because Nixon decided to have the Plumbers illegally break into his psychiatrist’s office in 1971, to look for information that would discredit Ellsberg. They found nothing. In 1972, the Plumbers went on to break into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate building, and that became the scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation.

A Historical Figure

Wasserman began inviting Ellsberg to speak to his journalism students so they could learn about whistleblowers “from one of the most celebrated sources of the last half of the century.” While most of the students had not heard of Ellsberg before he came to their class, “the students just adored him,” Wasserman said. “He spoke for an hour, and after he finished they would keep him there for another hour asking questions,” Wasserman said. “He loved it. He was a very gracious, warm and humble person.” During his tenure as dean of the journalism school, Wasserman also asked Ellsberg to become a member of the school’s advisory board.

“He is a historical figure of real stature, and his demeanor was so magnetic the students were naturally drawn to him,” Wasserman said. “He would give accounts from the glory days at the Rand Corporation, telling stories involving characters they had never heard of: people like [former Secretary of State] Dean Rusk and [former Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara.” 

As a military analyst at Rand, and later at the Pentagon, Ellsberg had the highest level of security clearance and also worked closely with National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It was Kissinger who called Ellsberg both “a genius” and, at a later time, “the most dangerous man in America.” Ellsberg both wrote and had access to top-secret documents that were meant to be read only by the President and his closest aides.

Pentagon Papers in Berkeley

When Ellsberg decided to leak the Pentagon Papers, he and his wife Patricia famously set about copying 7,000 documents, after carefully cutting off the “Top Secret” designation at the top. Because Ellsberg was afraid that the government might find out about those documents and seize them, he distributed copies around the country so that at least some could be saved. One set of documents, it turns out, was stashed away in Berkeley.

David Obst was an anti-war activist and Cal student at the time. He and Ellsberg had a mutual friend, so one day Ellsberg called him and asked for his help. “I told him I hated the war, and I would do anything I could to help stop it,” Obst said. “I didn’t hear back from him for a while, and then one day he called and said, ‘Have you seen today’s New York Times?’” The Pentagon Papers had started running in the paper that day. “It’s not great, because I have left copies all over the country,” Ellsberg told him.

Obst asked what he could do to help. “He says, go and get the copies,” Obst said. “I said, ‘Oh, sure.’” It turns out that one copy was in Berkeley (Obst doesn’t remember exactly where), and another copy was at Beacon’s Van and Storage in Los Angeles. “Ellsberg gave them permission to release it to me, and like an idiot, I gave them my real name. The FBI showed up two hours later.”

Obst managed to fly to Boston with the papers before then and hid in a hotel for three days. Eventually, Ellsberg got in touch with him and Obst gave him the documents. When Obst later became a literary agent, he convinced Ellsberg to hire him. Obst helped Ellsberg put together a book called Papers on the War. But, as it turns out, Ellsberg had writer’s block. This was the reason he was seeing a psychiatrist. “I was the last one to find out he had writer’s block,” Obst said. “The book finally got written, but it came out late.”

Ellsberg still had writer’s block decades later when he set out to write his fourth book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War PlannerHe later told Berkeleyside that the book had to be “pulled out of” him by his family.” “They said, ‘If you don’t write this book,  you will feel unfulfilled, and you will feel like a failure.’ I thought my family would think less of me. It was very hard, as with my other book, but we did manage to get it out, at great challenge to my health.”

How the world will end

Even though Ellsberg lived in the East Bay for 40 yearsmost people had no idea that he lived in the area, and he was not recognized as he went about his daily life. “He kept a low profile,” Wasserman said. “His activism has been giving moral support to whistleblowers like Julian AssangeChelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. He gave them a certain aura of historical legitimacy by actively associating himself with them. He said they are doing now what he did then.”

Ellsberg had a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University. His undergraduate and Ph.D. theses were on decision-making under uncertainty. The ideas he proposed were eventually called the Ellsberg Paradox, and became the subject of countless academic papers and conferences.

It was this interest in decision-making that allowed him to see and speak out against what he saw as the unacceptable risk of nuclear war.

“One day in the spring of 1961, soon after my 30th birthday, I was shown how our world would end,” he wrote in the opening sentence of The Doomsday Machine. He saw a top-secret graph from the Joint Chiefs of Staff intended for President John F. Kennedy which predicted that the death toll from a first nuclear strike would result in about 600 million deaths. “A hundred Holocausts,” he wrote. “I remember what I thought when I first held the single sheet with the graph on it. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere, ever.” From that day on, he wrote, “I have had one overriding life purpose: to prevent the execution of any such plan.”

Despite Ellsberg’s 60 years of activism and advocacy on this issue, the nuclear danger is now higher than ever. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists just recently moved the hands of the symbolic Doomsday Clock forward to 90 seconds to midnight, “the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.” When Berkeleyside interviewed Ellsberg in 2018, after the publication of his book, the clock was set at 2 minutes to midnight. While the current danger has been heightened by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to use tactical nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war, Ellsberg pointed out that almost every American president since President Truman has also threatened the use of nuclear power, either implicitly or explicitly.

Ellsberg has no delusions about the very real possibility of nuclear war. He told Berkeleyside that the chance of us “getting through another century is small, maybe 1 or 2%.” And yet, he told New York Magazine that “for me doing what I’m doing doesn’t take a whole lot of hope. A little uncertainty is enough to keep me going.” In his estimation, he worked all those decades to possibly reduce the chance of a nuclear holocaust from 98% to 96%.

Living saint

“Ellsberg has a fair claim to be called a living saint,” said Steve Wasserman (no relation to Edward Wasserman), publisher of Heyday books. “He did something absolutely in the tradition of Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi — he put his body on the line, repeatedly.” Steve Wasserman first met Ellsberg at a distance during his trial 50 years ago, but later, as an editor, he participated in several major anniversaries of the release of the Pentagon Papers.

Since releasing the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg was arrested more than 70 times in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in the U.S. and abroad. The majority of the arrests, but not all, were focused on protesting nuclear weapons. In 1995, at the age of 64, he fasted during the entire 26 days of the Non-Proliferation Treaty conference, maintaining a daily presence outside the United Nations in New York and lobbying with delegations inside the conference rooms. In 2011, at the age of 80, Ellsberg spent the night in a tent on Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza in support of the Occupy Cal movement.

“What was Dan Ellsberg’s great crime, deserving of 115 years in prison?” Steve Wasserman asked. “He broke ranks with the class he was supposed to serve, for which he had been trained, and which he had embraced. He began to question the masters of war he had so loyally served, and applied all his brilliance to trying to understand the questions which, in their lethal enormity, began to inflame his imagination and overwhelm his heart.”

Despite the political shunning, Ellsberg was awarded several prestigious awards in his lifetime. In 1978, he accepted the Gandhi Peace Award for Promoting Enduring Peace. He was awarded the inaugural Ron Ridenhour Courage Prize in 2004, a prize established by The Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation. In 2006, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, for “putting peace and truth first, at considerable personal risk, and dedicating his life to inspiring others to follow his example.” He received the Dresden Peace Prize in 2016, and the Olof Palme Prize in 2018.

Virtue ethics

“My impression of Dan on the basis of his behavior is that there are two things one must try to do: Be kind to others, and do the right thing so you can sleep well at night,” Steve Wasserman said. Ellsberg was “stalwart and determined” his whole life — he did not burn out. “He was in it for the long haul, not for the 15 minutes of fame.”

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Ellsberg said, “My work of the past 40 years to avert the prospects of nuclear war has little to show for it. But I wanted to say that I could think of no better way to use my time and that as I face the end of my life, I feel joy and gratitude.”

While some might feel bitterness at the futility of such a long-term effort, Ellsberg seemingly did not. “There is a profound difference between an ethics built on the consequences of action, and virtue ethics,” Edward Wasserman said. “Dan is very much a virtue ethics guy. He believes that the intrinsic value of certain actions. He has no control over the consequences, but he has control over the actions he takes.”

Steve Wasserman agrees. Ellsberg was “never the leader of anything except his own conscience,” he said. “But he had an undiminished lust for life. You feel in his presence a deep commitment to a certain joy in life. He stands for life against death.”

Rep. Barbara Lee released a statement, calling Ellsberg “a courageous truth teller who exposed the United States’ lies about the Vietnam war and continued to fight to protect our democracy.”

“I was fortunate enough to honor Dan a few months ago at his University of Massachusetts honorary degree ceremony. His support has always been uplifting. I’m heartbroken at his loss, but I know he has inspired countless people across the world to stand up for what is right.”

Ellsberg, who appeared in public in Berkeley as recently as April at the Logan Symposium where he received a standing ovation, is survived by his wife Patricia; children Robert, Mary, and Michael Ellsberg; and five grandchildren.

By Daphne White, Berkeleyside