[June 13th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a controversial moment made possible by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ellsberg and other whistleblowers, leading up to a weekend post on one of the true heroes of the Trump era.]
On three inspiring stages in a lifelong fight for transparency and truth.
1) The Pentagon Papers: Ellsberg, an economist and analyst who had moved from a position at the RAND Corporation to work with the US Defense Department in the Johnson administration, is best known for his vital role in sharing and disseminating the classified Vietnam War-related documents that collectively became known as the Pentagon Papers, a role that put not only his freedom but also his health and life in jeopardy. As he put it when he surrendered himself to US Attorneys, “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.” In my new book I call Alexander Vindman’s whistleblowing (on which more later in the week) an embodiment of critical patriotism, and I’m not sure there’s any such action that rises to that exemplary definition better than Ellsberg’s.
2) 21st Century Whistleblowers: Ellsberg’s Vietnam-era whistleblowing was due not only to his sense of the federal government’s missteps and lies, but also to his principled opposition to the Vietnam War itself. That anti-war activism has continued throughout Ellsberg’s life, most notably in his vocal opposition to the Iraq War and the similar governmental lies which precipitated that conflict. And while Ellsberg himself was no longer in a position to blow the whistle on that governmental misconduct, he has become one of the most potent advocates for those figures who have done so in this 21st century moment, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Manning in particular has suffered extensive penalties, including a great deal of jail time, for both her whistleblowing and her refusal to testify against fellow whistleblowers, and Ellsberg has been one of her most consistent and vocal supporters throughout those struggles.
3) The Doomsday Machine: Ellsberg has linked those 21st century efforts to a more overarching campaign for transparency and truth, as illustrated by his role in the 2012 founding of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. But he has also continued to embody those goals through his own voice and writing, most notably in his 2017 book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. In that book Ellsberg partly adds to the histories around the Pentagon Papers, making the case that it was in his role as a nuclear war planner that we began to truly understand the horrors of US military and foreign policy and the need for whistleblowers to make public those secret ideas. But he also notes that while the Cold War may have ended, the threat of nuclear war remains as present as ever, if not indeed more so due to the large and often relatively unsecure nuclear arsenals scattered around the world. Doomsday is a scary and important work, which could describe a great deal of Ellsberg’s contributions to our collective conversations for 50 years now.
Next WhistleblowerStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other whistleblowers you’d highlight?