This Week in Whistleblower History: 50th Anniversary of the Publication of the “Pentagon Papers,” Leaked by Daniel Ellsberg
This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the publication by The New York Times, starting on June 13, 1971, of a series of reports on the secret history of the Vietnam War based on thousands of pages of highly classified government documents. The documents, which became known as the “Pentagon Papers,” were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a former U.S. Marine with a Ph.D. in Economics working as a military analyst for the RAND Corporation. Ellsberg’s journey from loyal Marine and military analyst to anti-war activist were the subject of a recent online conference sponsored by the University of Massachusetts and The GroundTruth Project, titled “Truth, Dissent and the Legacy of Daniel Ellsberg.” The conference and subsequent podcast, “The Whistleblower,” chronicle Ellsberg’s courageous acts of civil disobedience in the service of truth and defense of democracy. Both the conference materials and podcast are well worth careful study and reflection, for Ellsberg’s actions continue to provide important lessons and inspiration for whistleblowers and their advocates today.
Whistleblowing As a Way to Show Concern for Others
One lesson that Ellsberg himself draws is that whistleblowing is a way of showing that “the lives of others matter.” Upon starting work at the Pentagon in August 1964, Ellsberg was horrified to discover that President Johnson was lying to Congress and the American people. Specifically, in order to gain an edge in the presidential election, Johnson told the public that he was not seeking a wider war in Vietnam. But at the same time, Johnson was using misinformation, specifically, about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, to escalate U.S. military involvement in that conflict.
Ellsberg observed Johnson’s “bold-face lies” in real-time. And then, in 1965, he traveled to the front lines in Vietnam and discovered that the military field commanders were lying to the Pentagon as well, making it appear that the U.S. war effort was going well when in fact it was an abject failure and causing untold death and destruction to innocent Vietnamese civilians.
At the UMass conference, Ellsberg provided the grim assessment that, as shown by the events of the Vietnam War and, more recently, by police brutality in our own country, we, as a people, are capable of “depraved indifference” when it comes to the welfare of others. But he held out the hope that by telling the truth, we can break down the false dichotomy between “us” and “them,” and develop greater concern for humanity at large.
Whistleblowing As An Act of Dissent
A second lesson that Ellsberg draws is that truth-telling can be effective as an act of dissent. He first came to this realization in March 1968 when a leak by someone within government—not Ellsberg himself—that General Westmoreland had requested an additional 206,000 troops be called up before the devastating attack by the North Vietnamese on January 31, 1968, known as the “Tet Offensive,” led to Westmoreland’s firing. For the first time, Ellsberg concluded that it was wrong to put a vow of secrecy above all else and understood the potential force of leaked information.
This realization led Ellsberg to leak information in late March 1968 to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan to counter misinformation that the communist forces in Vietnam were dwindling in number. And it also led him to leak classified reports to Senator Robert Kennedy to use against Johnson in the fight for the Democratic party nomination for president. After RFK was assassinated in June 1968, Ellsberg despaired there would ever be a political solution to the Vietnam War. He thereafter leaked the Pentagon Papers with the hope of bringing the Vietnam War to a swift conclusion, fearful that Johnson’s successor—Richard Nixon—would make matters even worse by using nuclear weapons.
At the UMass conference, Ellsberg freely acknowledges that the Pentagon Papers did not bring the Vietnam War to an end; in fact, Nixon continued to escalate the U.S. involvement after their release. But he takes some credit for helping to prevent nuclear conflict in Southeast Asia and inadvertently bringing the Nixon presidency to an end.
Whistleblowers Face the Threat of Retaliation
The third lesson from Ellsberg’s remarkable life story is that whistleblowers often find themselves in the crosshairs of powerful people they reveal to be telling lies. In Ellsberg’s case, after leaking the Pentagon Papers, he was attacked by President Nixon, who referred to Ellsberg as “the most dangerous man in America” and enlisted a group of henchmen known as “the Plumbers” to destroy Ellsberg personally and professionally. Nixon’s efforts not only failed, but they also backfired. The Plumbers engaged in a series of criminal acts that ultimately got the espionage charges against Ellsberg thrown out of court. And, as the UMass conference and podcast show, a direct line can be drawn between Nixon’s over-reaction to Ellsberg’s leaks and the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation.
In conclusion, fifty years after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, we continue to draw important lessons from Daniel Ellsberg’s courageous acts of civil disobedience in the service of truth and justice. Government and corporate corruption and lies remain a problem, requiring constant vigilance. Whistleblowers like Ellsberg remain as vital to the proper functioning of democracy today as ever.
If you are a whistleblower with information about government or corporate fraud that you would like to report, please contact a member of our whistleblower team.