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There’s a reason the government can’t stop this column from being published. Actually, there’s a person who is responsible for the government being unable to stop this column from being published.
His name is Daniel Ellsberg. He died recently at age 92, but his legacy lives on, a credit to him and an emblem of our democracy, still the envy of the world even in these embattled times.
Ellsberg will be forever linked to the Pentagon Papers, which in turn will be forever linked to enhancing press freedom even as they eroded support for the Vietnam War. He was the greatest 20th-century leaker; but in a way, he was its greatest plumber as well, for he shored up perhaps America’s greatest freedom, the indispensable right from which so many others are derived.
With an indefatigable determination, a burning inner rage, a steely and cultivated mind, a clear sense of history’s tides and a sturdy Xerox machine, Ellsberg helped lay bare the decisions and deceptions that led the United States into its most controversial war and kept it there through four presidencies — maybe five, if you count the mortifying exit from Saigon in 1975.
Ellsberg was not an easygoing man, nor easy to like. Through his last years — many of us have innumerable emails to prove this — he was an anti-war warrior of a different sort.
One of his battles was against his press patrons, especially The New York Times, which first published the purloined Papers. Another was a separate, seemingly endless war to assure that history saw Vietnam, his role in helping to end it, and his act of apostasy the way he saw them: pure, though not simple.
He was an agent provocateur who provoked the powerful to have second thoughts. A.M. Rosenthal, the executive editor of the Times, was an ardent supporter of the Vietnam War, but he acceded to publishing the Papers. Arthur Sulzberger, the paper’s publisher, worried about the legal implications of what his newspaper prepared to do; but he, too, agreed to let the presses roll. Thousands, maybe millions, recast their views of the war after learning what the Papers showed — years of deceit, disinformation and duplicity, all in the service of battling communism and providing Vietnam with the freedoms Americans enjoyed.
The Pentagon Papers were America’s version of the Gilgamesh epic and “Middlemarch,” works seldom read but carrying vast implications anyway. Perhaps a better example is “Don Quixote,” for Ellsberg was tilting at the greatest windmills of modern civilization, the American presidency and the Pentagon. He was Cervantes with a relentless sense of certainty.
“He was a brave man of conviction, the best example I know of someone determined to hold government accountable for monstrous lies,” said Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the Times and a frequent Ellsberg email pen pal. “His courage resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision protecting freedom of the press. And because of him, the government can’t stop publication of information vital for the public to know. Anyone who cares about the truth owes him a debt of gratitude.”
The Pentagon Papers, and the litigation growing out of their publication, forever changed the press’s — and the public’s — relationship with the government.
“His courage led to one of our democracy’s most distinguished moments,” said Fritz Byers, who represents media organizations on press issues. “He elevated the rights of a free press, and its role in democratic governance, over the interests of the government.”
Ellsberg, and the high-court decision banning prior restraint on press publication, affirmed journalism in its position as often the first, regularly the best, and sometimes the only effective public watchdog.
“In a time when disinformation campaigns are endorsed, if not manufactured by, both influential elected officials and powerful media corporations, the work undertaken by Ellsberg seems all the more virtuous and remarkable,” said the UCLA constitutional scholar Jon Michaels. “The Xerox machine Ellsberg used should be on display at the Smithsonian.”
Ellsberg — who had spent substantial time in the Pentagon and on the ground in Vietnam and was a contributor to the crafting of the Pentagon Papers themselves — was less interested in making a splash than in making a point — and making a difference.
From the start, his motivation was to prompt Congress to hold hearings on the war and to boost congressional support for cutting off financial support for the war. That never happened because the sins in the Papers were perpetrated largely by Democrats, and at the time, the Democrats controlled both houses on Capitol Hill.
“I hoped for congressional hearings that would lead into the question of where Nixon was going, what his plans and aims were,” he told me in a long conversation two years ago. “I was worried he would keep the war going and even escalate it. My perspective was different from most people’s. They thought Nixon was getting out of the war as best as he could and that it was for all practical purposes over. Had I believed that, I would never have copied the Pentagon Papers.”
That is much forgotten because it was the Republican president, Richard Nixon, who railed against the Papers and whose administration sought to suppress them. That’s not what Ellsberg expected or hoped for; he calculated that the highly partisan 37th president would blame the Democrats for the war or at least say publicly he hoped to end a disaster that the Democrats had led the country into.
That didn’t happen either.
“Nixon was completely outraged by this,” said Dwight Chapin, the president’s appointments secretary and confidante. “None of the material came from his time as president, but from a national security viewpoint he hated the idea of leaking official government documents.”
H.R. Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, sought to minimize the effect of the Papers and to calm the president, even as he issued a veiled warning to him.
“To the ordinary guy,” he told the president, correctly, “all this is a bunch of gobbledygook.” But he also warned Nixon, equally correctly, that “out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: ‘You can’t trust the government, you can’t believe what they say, and you can’t rely on their judgments.’”
That was a prediction in 1971. It is a conviction in 2023.
Daniel Ellsberg: the founding father of American skepticism, and the patron saint of a free press.