One night at the end of 1969, Daniel Ellsberg, carrying a briefcase full of top-secret documents, hurried past the RAND Corporation sentry in Santa Monica, California, USA. In the next few weeks, he took out packets of documents several times and made copies page by page.
About a year and a half later, this 47-volume, 7,000-page photocopied document appeared verbatim in The New York Times.
The whole world was shocked.
This document disclosed the US government’s long-standing lies about the Vietnam War. For a time, anti-war waves surged, and the United States had to end the Vietnam War early. At the same time, it also “planted a seed” for the then US President Nixon’s resignation. This is the “Pentagon Papers” leak in American history.
Ellsberg, the protagonist of the leak case, changed American history and pushed himself to the dock, facing 115 years in prison at one point. Although he was ultimately exempted from prosecution, he has been regarded by the authorities as “the most dangerous person in the United States” for the rest of his life, and it is difficult to do anything more. But at the same time, he is also like a lighthouse, pointing out the direction for Snowden, Manning, Assange and other latecomers. On June 16, 2023, Ellsberg died of pancreatic cancer, ending his life of pursuing justice and truth.
Shocked by the truth about the Vietnam War
Ellsberg’s story was featured in the 2009 documentary “America’s Most Dangerous Man: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.” The West Coast premiere of the film happens to be just a few blocks from the RAND Corporation headquarters in Santa Monica. The RAND Corporation was Ellsberg’s employer at the time of the leak. He sent students with flyers to invite former colleagues to watch the film, but none of the old acquaintances showed up. The film was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2010 Academy Awards.
In the eyes of neighbors and classmates, Ellsberg, who was born in 1931, was introverted since he was a child, but he was very talented, especially good at mathematics and piano, and had a superb memory. Tragedy haunted his youth deeply. In 1946, Ellsberg’s father dozed off while driving, causing a crash that killed his mother and sister.
In 1962, Ellsberg graduated from Harvard University with his doctoral dissertation on “Risk, Uncertainty, and Decision Making.” In his paper, he proposed the famous “Ellsberg’s Paradox”, which is regarded as a milestone in the fields of decision theory and behavioral economics, and is still widely cited today.
After graduation, Ellsberg first worked as a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation, and later he entered the US Department of Defense. During the Vietnam War, he was sent to the US embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam, to assess the situation of the Vietnam War on the spot. But soon after, he returned home with hepatitis.
In late 1967, Ellsberg returned to the RAND Corporation to write a top-secret report commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. More than a year later, the “History of America’s Decision-making in Vietnam from 1945 to 1968” including more than 3,000 pages of analysis and more than 4,000 pages of original archives was completed. This is the document that changed Ellsberg’s life, known as the “Pentagon Papers” in history.
The truth shocked Ellsberg. The document reveals how senior officials of the previous administration pulled the United States into the war step by step for political achievements, revealed the fact that the Vietnam War killed 1 million Vietnamese and 55,000 American soldiers, and also revealed how the succeeding Nixon administration continued to deceive the American public, cover up the truth of the war.
As a witness of the Vietnam War who was born and died on the front line, Ellsberg knew the cruelty of war. He believes that making the inside story public is the fastest way to get the United States out of the Vietnam War.
In 1969, Ellsberg moved out the “Pentagon Papers” bit by bit like moving ants, and used the weekend to copy page by page. Ellsberg was divorced at the time, and weekends were his time with his children, and he could only take them to make copies when he had to. He asked his 13-year-old son to help operate the then-rare copier, and once brought his 3-year-old daughter with him. The daughter would help to cut out the big words on the paper, and the son glanced at it and found that the word “Top Secret” needed to be cut out. Fearing that the copied documents would be stolen, Ellsberg made additional copies and hid them with friends, just in case.
media relay report
After the evidence was obtained, Ellsberg began to contact some members of the US Congress, trying to persuade them to release these documents in Congress, forcing the president to make up his mind to end the war. However, his efforts have hit walls everywhere, and no one is willing to take the risk of sacrificing his official career to speak out. As a last resort, he thought of the media.
Ellsberg handed over the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. June 13, 1971 was Sunday, and the day the New York Times chose to start serializing the “Pentagon Papers” was deliberate. They calculated that Sunday was a lazy day for government officials, and their actions would be half a beat slower than usual.
Sure enough, two days after the serialization, there was no movement in the White House. Before the publication was published on the third day, the Attorney General called the editorial department of The New York Times, requesting that the publication be stopped and the newspapers that had been issued be withdrawn. This request was decisively rejected by the newspaper.
A “battle of wits” between the US government and the media kicked off.
The U.S. government took the “New York Times” to court in the name of espionage and asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order to prohibit the publication of this top-secret document during the trial. At this time, the “Washington Post” picked up the baton and continued to report, but it was also sued in court.
While the two newspapers were fighting the Justice Department in court, Ellsberg struck again, forwarding the documents to other media outlets. Soon, the “Boston Globe” launched its first serial report, and the Department of Justice took the “Boston Globe” to court. But the subpoena hadn’t been sent yet, and the Chicago Sun-Times’ report also appeared in the newspapers, followed by the “Christian Science Monitor” and a dozen other newspapers, all of which joined the ranks of publishing the “Pentagon Papers”.
This relay report by the media has become a rare scene in the history of American journalism. The final verdict of the court is: the US government lost the case. The court ruled that newspapers have the right to publish historical records, whether or not they are marked “top secret.” The basis of the judgment may be the sentence of the defense lawyer – “‘The Pentagon Papers are classified as top secret for political reasons, not for national security reasons. The disclosure of documents is only detrimental to the government, but it is not a leak of military secrets.”
President’s mad revenge
The media’s initial success, but the leaker Ellsberg still faces great risks. On June 28, 1971, 15 days after the report was first published, Ellsberg publicly surrendered. He had known for a long time that he would definitely be exposed, that he would not be able to escape the fate of being prosecuted, and he was ready to go to jail.
Soon, Ellsberg was charged with 12 felonies including espionage, theft and conspiracy by the U.S. government, and faced 115 years in prison. Dramatically, it was a series of crazy revenge actions by then President Nixon that saved Ellsberg to a certain extent.
In his autobiography, “The Secret,” Ellsberg revealed how Nixon went to any lengths to tarnish his reputation. A tape about Nixon’s request to “rectify” Ellsberg was exposed.
In the recording, Nixon said, “Let’s put the bastard in jail.”
“We’ve got him,” said then-presidential national security adviser Henry Kissinger.
Nixon said, “Don’t worry about his trial… We’re going to judge him with the news media, we’re going to kill him with the media… Get it?”
Kissinger and Attorney General John Mitchell said in unison: “Understood.”
In the end, they agreed that they were going to discredit Ellsberg as a “playboy raised by women” in the media.
To this end, they tapped Ellsberg’s phone, trying to prove that he was leaking for fame and fortune. At the same time, they also illegally broke into and searched the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, trying to find evidence that Ellsberg had mental problems in order to eliminate public attention and trust in him. Nixon even arranged for thugs to break Ellsberg’s legs.
During the 1973 trial, the judge in charge of the case was bribed, and at one point Ellsberg almost spent the rest of his life in prison. The judge “got his wish” to get the job of FBI director.
However, people are not as good as heaven. The retaliation against Ellsberg was exposed, which became the fatal blow of Nixon’s impeachment and resignation process. After such a farce, a lot of evidence in the case was “polluted”, and the judge was under pressure to cancel the trial of Ellsberg and acquit him.
People’s attitudes towards Ellsberg have also undergone subtle changes. When Ellsberg first disclosed the “Pentagon Papers”, many people inside and outside the government accused him of being a “traitor” and suspected him of espionage. As time went on, however, more and more people came to recognize Ellsberg as a man of extraordinary courage, a hero who risked his personal freedom to reveal the truth.
Waving the flag for those who are “connected with fate”
In the more than 50 years since the leaks, Ellsberg has been a staunch fighter against the war. He gave speeches, made media appearances and was a frequent protester, for which he was also arrested. Because of these actions, the title of “the most dangerous man in America” has always been with him.
His level of “dangerousness” has not diminished with the passage of time, because the “Pentagon Papers” were not the only documents he copied that year.
In May 2021, the New York Times reported on another classified document disclosed by Ellsberg. This U.S. military research report written in 1966 shows that after the bombardment of Jinmen began on August 23, 1958, high-level U.S. military officials considered launching a “nuclear strike” on mainland China.
This is not the first time China has encountered a nuclear threat from the United States. Before the successful detonation of China’s first atomic bomb, the United States had repeatedly clamored for a nuclear strike against China. But the document reveals an even more troubling truth — that the United States, past and present, is keeping nuclear holocaust close at hand.
Ellsberg disclosed in the book “The Doomsday Machine” that this more secretive document was accidentally lost during the preservation process and was buried at a construction site as a foundation landfill, which made it difficult for him to expose it. A significant portion of the lost documents have been declassified over the past few decades, largely proving what he has.
After Ellsberg, one after another “leakers” appeared one after another.
In 2013, Snowden discovered classified documents that could prove that the US government conducted a large-scale surveillance operation. When he was struggling with whether to make the documents public, the documentary about Ellsberg gave him inspiration and courage. Ellsberg was among the first to stand up for Snowden after his release of the documents sparked a huge storm of public opinion. In 2015, Ellsberg went to Moscow to visit Snowden in exile, and the two became friends.
Since then, former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Manning and “WikiLeaks” founder Assange have been accused of violating the “Espionage Act” for exposing the dark activities of the United States. Ellsberg has never stopped cheering for these people who “same fate” with him.
In 2018, Ellsberg was interviewed by the British “Guardian”. The reporter asked: “The leak cost you a lot. Is it worth it?”
Ellsberg replied without hesitation: “Of course it is worth it! Is it worth it that Snowden had to go into exile to expose the Prism Gate? Is it worth it for Manning to go to prison for seven and a half years in order to expose the secret? In my opinion , worth it. I think they agree with me, and they are doing the right thing.”
In March, Ellsberg, 92, announced that he had pancreatic cancer. He said that he is no longer able to undergo surgery, does not plan to undergo chemotherapy, and will receive hospice care.
“I am not in any physical pain,” Ellsberg wrote at the time. “The cardiologist has allowed me to give up my salt-free diet for the past six years, which has greatly improved my life :(I am now ) can eat my favorite food and have fun with it!”
The body is ready to leave at any time, but regret still breeds in his heart. “I’m leaving a world that’s in a very bad place … it’s not the world I’d dream of seeing in 2023,” he said.