Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers

Long before WikiLeaks released the largest amount of classified documents in American History, Daniel Ellsberg shocked the nation in 1971 by releasing what has become known as “The Pentagon Papers”. There is a huge difference between the two events. I doubt if any change in foreign policy comes from WikiLeaks. The only damaging piece of evidence coming out from WikiLeaks was that the Pakistani troops were aiding the Taliban in Pakistan. The Pentagon Papers on the other hand, brought out the worst in a President, an ultimately, brought down the President and changed the US’s role in Vietnam.

Daniel Ellsberg was born in Chicago in 1931. He grew in Michigan and went to Harvard, graduating with a B.S. in economics in 1952. In 1954, Ellsberg left to join the Marines. He would stay in the Marines until 1957. After an honorable discharge, Ellsberg resumed graduate studies at Harvard. He also began working for the Rand Corporation and received his Ph.D. in economics in 1962. His dissertation was on a paradox in decision making now known as the Ellsberg paradox.

Between 1964 and 1967, Ellsberg worked for the Defense Department and the State Department and even served one tour in Vietnam. When he returned home, Ellsberg went back to work for the Rand Corporation. Ellsberg was commissioned (along with two other people) by then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to compile a top-secret history of the War in Vietnam. At the time, Ellsberg had top-secret clearance.

Throughout 1969 and 1970, Ellsberg lived a double, sometimes, triple life. He worked for Rand, he worked on the top-secret history, and he began attending anti-war rallies. In 1970, Ellsberg began to try to get the top-secret history published. He approached newspapers and senators. No one was biting. He began to copy more and more of the report. On June 13, 1971, the New York Times began to publish what became known as “The Pentagon Papers”.

Ellsberg became public enemy number one in the eyes of the Nixon Administration. Even though most of the documents were about Johnson’s attempts to get into war and the mismanagement thereafter, Nixon was still outraged. “Tricky Dick” went into full effect even having his “plumbers” break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The Nixon administration tried to lock up Ellsberg and throw away the key, but by the time the case went to trial, Watergate was the story of the day. Ellsberg was to be tried under the Espionage Act of 1917, and he was, but the Judge threw out most of the evidence of the prosecution because it had been illegally obtained. Judge Byrne dismissed all charges against Ellsberg.

Ellsberg, who was working at the Defense Department on the night of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, said in an interview on NPR:

Years later when I revealed some of those same cables and documents that I had in my safe that night, August 4th, 1964, when I revealed them in the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, Senator Wayne Morse who’s been one of the two senators who voted against the Tonkin Gulf resolution told me, if you had given me, on the foreign relations committee, those documents which were now out in 1971.

If you’d given me those documents, at the time, in 1964, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of committee. And if they had brought it to the floor, it would have lost. And he was telling me that I, by telling the truth to Congress, as was my constitutional responsibility to do, I could have averted that war and 50,000 American lives and several million Vietnamese – so that’s a heavy burden to bear.

The Papers did help to change America’s perceptions about its government in the 1970s. America became more and more apathetic. Nixon would resign, but not before turning over control of the war to South Vietnam. The papers shed light on the role of the Johnson administration and its handling of the press. It changed how America viewed its secrets. “The War Logs” as they are no being called are not rattling anyone’s sabers. The only thing that might change today would be security protocols. That’s a shame.

In 2009, an Oscar nominated documentary was released about the Pentagon Papers. Here is a nice interview with the director of “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”.

Here is a short interview with Ellsberg about what he call Vietnamistan (Afghanistan)

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