Daniel Ellsberg died on June 16, fighting to the end to warn of the existential threat of nuclear war. The 92-year-old whistleblower left a legacy of peace activism dating to his courageous release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Given the advancing security state and the atrophying peace movement, could his accomplishments be repeated today in this time of war in Ukraine?
From “defense intellectual” to peace activist
Daniel Ellsberg started his career as a brilliant “defense intellectual” working for the military and quasi-state think tanks. He helped plan, among other things, nuclear first strikes against the Soviet Union with China as a secondary target. However, with access to top secret information, he came to understand that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and the government – surprise, surprise – was lying to the US public that it could and would prevail.
Ellsberg’s geopolitical posture underwent a sea change from being a master of war to a warrior for peace. This was in the 1960s, and the transformation did not happen in isolation.
Ellsberg reportedly attended his first peace demomonstration in 1965, while still working for the RAND Corporation. He was especially inspired by the example of Randy Kehler, a draft resister willing to go to prison for his beliefs. By May 1971, the to-be whistleblower participated in a mass demonstration against the Vietnam War in an “affinity group” with known radicals Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.
Could an analyst with access to top secret information also associate with nationally prominent dissidents, attend rallies against the military, yet go undetected and undeterred by today’s surveillance state apparatus? Not likely.
Also not likely, regrettably, is the revival of a political milieux like that of the sixties. This year, the Rage Against the War Machine demonstration, organized principally by the Libertarian and People’s parties, managed to attract only a few thousand to Washington on February 19. A few weeks later, another coalition led by ANSWER, UNAC, and others staged an anti-war rally on March 18 with similarly low turnout. Since then, there has not even been an attempt to mount a national demonstration against the ever escalating war in Ukraine.
Pentagon Papers purloined and published
Back in 1969, besides attending anti-war demos on his time off, Ellsberg was busy at work photocopying what were to become known as the Pentagon Papers, revealing the truth of the US imperial effort. To be sure, such a 7,000-page duplication feat could not be accomplished undetected under present security arrangements.
By 1970, Ellsberg was contacting sympathetic Democratic Party senators such as J. William Fulbright, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and George McGovern. They could release the papers on the floor of the Senate and still enjoy immunity from prosecution. They refused, but kept the liaison confidential.
After entrusting the Pentagon Papers with New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, the Times began publishing excerpts on June 31, 1971, without Ellsberg’s prior consent. Ellsberg also provided the Washington Post and other outlets with the papers, which published excerpts.
While the Times and the Post have long practiced follow-the-flag journalism, the fourth estate was still not yet quite the stenographers for the State Department and mouthpieces for the security agencies that they are now.
And today, unlike Fulbright and especially McGovern who were questioning the Vietnam War effort, not a single Democrat in either house opposes a war in Ukraine that is heading toward a nuclear exchange. Oddly, the contemporary politicians that could most nearly pass for peaceniks on Capitol Hill are far-right Republicans.
Once the Pentagon Papers went public, Ellsberg went on the lamb, precipitating the largest FBI “manhunt” since the Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932. But the feds never caught him. After thirteen days, Ellsberg simply turned himself in.
Such a hide-and-seek scenario would be impossible these days with our every move recorded on ubiquitous surveillance cameras. Eluding the 21st century police state is no longer an option.
Case dismissed due to government misconduct
Ellsberg went to trial on January 3, 1973, charged with theft and conspiracy under the 1917 Espionage Act. He faced 115 years in prison.
His defense was that the documents were illegally classified to keep them from the American public, not from a foreign enemy. That defense was disallowed.
The government was meanwhile busy collecting evidence against him. Operatives from the Nixon White House illegally broke into his psychiatrist’s house. The perpetrators included G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, who weren’t caught then. But a year later the “plumbers,” which were initiated to get Ellsberg, got their comeuppance when they were implicated in the Watergate scandal. The FBI also illegally wiretapped Ellsberg’s phone and then claimed the recordings had been lost.
In light of such government misconduct, the Nixon-appointed judge on the case, William Byrne, was compelled to dismiss the case on May 13, 1973. The back story is that while the trial was in progress, the judge was offered the directorship of the FBI, which he wanted but had to wait until the trial was concluded before accepting.
Ellsberg went free and went on to be a leading voice for peace. Byrne never got the FBI appointment.
Shifting partisan views on the security state and war
Today, with modern surveillance techniques and the NSA collecting every citizen’s electronic communications, the FBI would have no need to wiretap as they did with Ellsberg. And federal court judges no longer impartially dismiss cases of whistleblowers who dare to defy the state, as with Obama prosecuting more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined.
According to polls over the last decade, partisan views on the growing surveillance state have flipflopped. The majority of Republicans now oppose the security state while most Democrats embrace it. Likewise, the Democrats are the new party of war.
The Armageddon-loving crazies in the Pentagon now serve as a calming counterpoint to the White House and the neo-con warriors in the State Department. Compared to Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and Victoria Nuland, the baddie generals of the past look like pacifists.
Nixon and Kissinger conspired to split the socialist bloc, pitting People’s China against the Soviets. In contrast, the current somnambulist in the Oval Office is working overtime to forge a union of these two supposed enemy states, while preparing for nuclear war against them both.
And no one in official circles seems the least bit concerned that the juggernaut to planetary annihilation has a fatal design flaw; no brakes to stop it.
We are living in times when the likes of far-right Republican Tucker Carlson are the ones making reasonable critiques of the unfettered security state and of the continual provocations against Russia.
Barbara Lee and the whole lot of once peace-promoting Democrats have learned to love war, voting nearly unanimously for every military appropriation to the proxy conflict on Russia’s border. Unfortunately, the fear of fascism by putative liberals does not extend to actual Nazis in Ukraine.
How about the strategy of progressives working within the Democratic Party to move it to the left? In practice, Bernie Sanders and the Squad have worked tirelessly from one celebrity ball to next to prove that the term “progressive Democrat” is an oxymoron. Yes, the senator from the Green Mountain State is still a cut above Mitch McConnell. But that is not a very high bar.
That same Vermont career politician is now a significant cut below the maverick crusader who had in more auspicious times run for the presidency in 2016 and 2020 on the platform that the whole system was rigged including the Democratic Party. In so doing, he proved the DNC was indeed rigged. And then he proceeded to unreservedly join the Democrats, sheep-dogging Our Revolution into the party.
When the Democrats held a trifecta of the executive, House, and Senate, Mr. Sanders’ $200 billion healthcare package was off the table. Yet when the House went Republican, Bernie revived the initiative knowing that it would be defeated.
To be fair, blame for the demise of liberalism must be shared with its constituents who have become so deranged by the specter of Donald Trump that they will swallow anything the Democrats feed them. Even formerly liberal publications like The Nation run hit pieces against RFK Jr., terrified that the pro forma presidential primaries might include someone questioning party orthodoxy.
Meanwhile, they remain clueless that working class Americans are not wildly enthusiastic about another four years of Kamala Harris and her running mate. The Democrat’s frontrunner currently has a dismal 40% approval rating.
The Vietnam and Ukraine wars
The release of the Pentagon Papers revealed that the state was cognizant of the futility of the Vietnam venture and was maliciously willing to continue at a horrific cost to US troops and a still greater toll of Vietnamese lives. The paper’s publication was credited with contributing to a growing domestic disenchantment with imperial war.
Saigon “fell” two years after Ellsberg’s case was dismissed. On April 30, 1975, the Vietnamese successfully repelled the aggressor on the battlefield. With the anti-war movement mounting and the troops resisting, Washington was forced to accept defeat.
Now the US is embroiled in yet another horrific war, but a war of a different kind. The Ukraine War is a proxy war without a major commitment of US troops. However, similar to the exposés of the Pentagon Papers, it is now known that:
– The war in Ukraine was deliberately provoked by the US.
– The Minsk accords were a cynical ploy to buy time to arm Ukraine.
– US boots are being deployed on the ground.
– The US intends to eschew any negotiated peace.
– The war is unwinnable.
– The carnage is about maintaining empire, not preserving democracy.
This content originally appeared on Dissident Voice and was authored by Roger D. Harris.