Daniel Ellsberg: ‘Pentagon Papers’ Whistleblower, Pro-Democracy Hero (1931-2023)

Daniel Ellsberg, who former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called “The Most Dangerous Man in America” for revealing the secret history and nuclear threats of the U.S. war in Vietnam, left the living on Friday morning, June 16, due to inoperable pancreatic cancer. In a world where irony often triumphs over justice — at least in the short term — the truth-telling Pentagon analyst-turned-anti-war activist Ellsberg passed away at age 93 while his (unconvicted) war criminal opposite Kissinger lives on, at age 100, to continue advising fascist authoritarian leaders, among others, across the world. 

For a comparison of the polar lives of the moral Ellsberg and the amoral Kissinger, I recommend a screening of the deeply moving 2009 documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America” (more below) and reading Christopher Hitchens’ book “The Trial of Henry Kissinger.” Hitchens’ examines Kissinger’s alleged war crimes in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Chile, Cyprus, Argentina, and East Timor — coup, advisory, and military-directed activities that caused the direct and indirect deaths of 3-5 million human beings.  

Probing for an understanding of the ‘extreme danger’ Ellsberg represented for the Nixon White House in 1971, OpEd News editor Rob Kalls’ interview with Ellsberg (see “The Bottom-Up Revolution,” pp. 179-81) reveals the general institutional threat that whistleblowers pose for state and corporate secrecy and power, and the particular alarm Nixon and Kissinger felt with Ellsberg, about covert threats of military escalation, leading to possible nuclear war, leaking into the public sphere through release of the Pentagon documents. 

Still, Ellsberg continues, “Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait till more bombs have fallen and thousands and thousands have died, as I did, before you tell the truth with documents to the press and…Congress…which is likely to get you identified and means you will not just lose your clearance and your access and your career, but you might be prosecuted. You might go to prison…(but again) you might save hundreds and thousands of lives.”   

As for the impact of Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers heroism, he has directly inspired numerous insider truth-tellers, including the second-most famous whistleblower, Edward Snowden. Snowden’s sensational expose of the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs, shared from the sanctuary of a Hong Kong hotel room in 2013, is captured in another compelling film, Laura Poitras’ “CitizenFour,” and in interviewer Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.” 

In Snowden’s own words, “While I was weighing up whether to come forward or not — and this was an agonizing process because it was certainly life-changing — I watched that documentary (‘The Most Dangerous Man in America’). Dan’s example, hearing the arguments from someone who has lived through this; it helps to prepare someone to make that jump themselves.” 

Whistleblowers like Ellsberg and Snowden — not to mention Chelsea Manning, Bill Binney, Thomas Drake, Wendell Potter, Colleen Rowley, Jeffrey Wigand — and whistleblower facilitators like Julian Assange and Neil Sheehan, are critical to democracy restoration, especially in a country like ours that is now leaning hard into fascism (see https://americanfascists.us/the-three-cornerstones-of-american-fascism). But so too are all of us, Ellsberg told “The Nation” magazine’s John Nichols and a room full of academics and organizers at a 2009 premier screening of “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” We all have a role to play; every action connects us to each other which then links us back to the whole.

So, when I actively considered the risks of union-organizing our faculty colleagues at University of the Arts in Philadelphia five years ago, as the then-president targeted our liberal arts school for “reorganization” (i.e., dissolution), ignored our formal and repeated protests, and targeted free-thinking adjunct faculty for prompt dismissal, the upside of possibilities — via unionization — far outweighed the downside of risks, as processed through the “Ellsberg filter” of societal and community risks and rewards. 

So, long story short, we won the union vote 255-2, but I lost my job as full-time associate professor (after 32 years in the classroom) before the union officially came into existence. For the three year run-up, when my identity was discovered and the admin targeted me in more ways than I care to recount (let’s just say I was “radioactive” to all but a handful of my colleagues), I stayed focused on the vision of a better future for the school, students, faculty, and staff. 

Two years removed from higher education, I have only gratitude that Dan Ellsberg helped me to see the big picture all along, from when I met him at an undergrad lecture at Cal-Berkeley, to hearing his wise guidance during a draft counseling workshop, to marching and organizing together for peace in the U.S. and Europe, to discussing his and our journey at the “Most Dangerous Man” film showing in 2009. I never saw Dan again, but I carry his wisdom forward, in my head and heart.

Rest in radical peace and power, dear friend. We will carry on with the good works you inspired.

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