When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the first excerpts of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971, he sparked a chain of events that would forever cement his place in American history. Seeing parallels between his actions and those of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and the currently detained Pfc. Bradley Manning, Ellsberg, once known as “the most dangerous man in America,” spoke out in support of the whistleblowers during his recent visit to Stony Brook University.
On a stage decorated with two chairs, a coffee table and a rug, Ellsberg was interviewed before a nearly full Student Activities Center auditorium by journalism professor James M. Klurfeld. According to a recent editorial by the Stony Brook Press, which helped sponsor the event with the Graduate Student Organization, Ellsberg was brought to Stony Brook in keeping with their “tradition of our mission to fire a vital public debate on campus.”
“The Press supports and funds this because of a mission to tell the truth—even when there are risks,” said the Press’ Executive Editor Najib Aminy, a senior journalism student, in his opening speech.
Ellsberg’s release of the 7,000 page Pentagon Papers—a top-secret document chronicling the United States’ involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967—was revealed to have been a lengthy process, beginning with his stint with the global policy think tank RAND Corporation in 1958. In 1964, he moved on to work at the Pentagon, and in 1965, he traveled to Vietnam to serve for two years at the American Embassy in Saigon, where he evaluated pacification in the field. It was here where his views would change drastically.
“Our justification was protecting civilians and making them see that they were being protected by friends, helped, and supports of democracy,” Ellsberg said. “It was hard for Americans to see that others might view them as invaders or occupiers.”
Ellsberg said that Americans underestimated the commitment and resolve of Vietnamese forces, ignoring the elements of nationalism involved and the idea that the Vietnamese were trying to expel an occupying force from their country.
“My impression was that we were like the Redcoats,” he said. “It became clear to me that we weren’t going to win—not with the way we were doing things.”
Ellsberg drew parallels between the Vietnam War and the ongoing war in Afghanistan, saying that enemy forces have superior knowledge of the terrain and a much stronger resolve on their sides. He said that the difference in motivation in fighting against an occupying force versus fighting for an occupying force was unfathomable, and is something we are still unable to grasp in Afghanistan and Iraq.
By 1969, Ellsberg had known that the war would not only continue, but would also grow even larger. That year, he photocopied the study that would later come to be known as the Pentagon Papers and sent it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Two years later, he would send it to the New York Times and more than a dozen other newspapers. Doing so sparked a backlash from Washington that would involve wiretaps on Ellsberg’s phone, an attempt to discredit him by stealing his medical files from his psychiatrist, and even sending what Ellsberg called a “White House hit squad” to incapacitate him on the steps of the Capitol building.
However, despite his notoriety among the Nixon administration—then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger would bestow him with the label “most dangerous man in America”—Ellsberg maintains that he was only one person in a chain of events, and that the “5,000 Americans who went to prison for protesting the war were part of it, too.”
Ellsberg asked why it was insensible to put one’s life on the line to end a war, and advised the audience, as citizens to “stop letting leaders determine who should be exterminated.”
“As humans, we accept the deaths of those unlike us,” he said. “Those other women, children, and even adult males deserve respect, and if we don’t act on that, as Bradley Manning said, we are doomed as a species.”
Hassan Ali, a graduate student studying social welfare, said he was surprised that the history behind the Pentagon Papers hadextended so far back and was still relevant today in relation to Bradley Manning.
“He put his life on the line to make a difference,” Ali said.