Skip to main content
Select Source:

Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg (born 1931) was a defense analyst for the Rand Corporation, a U.S. government official, and then became an anti-war activist during the Vietnam era; it was Ellsberg who leaked a top-secret Defense Department study that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. One indirect repercussion from this act was a decline in public support for the war, and eventual discrediting of the administration of President Richard M. Nixon.

Daniel Ellsberg was born in Chicago on April 7, 1931. His father, a structural engineer, moved the family several years later to Detroit. The young Ellsberg attended Barber Elementary School in Detroit and subsequently received a scholarship to Cranbook, an exclusive preparatory school located in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. After compiling a superb academic record there, as well as captaining the basketball team, he won a scholarship to Harvard University. Once again, Ellsberg's academic performance was outstanding; he graduated summa cum laude in 1952 with a B.A. in economics, ranking third in a class of 1,147.

After graduation Ellsberg continued his studies for one year at Cambridge University in England as a Woodrow Wilson fellow before returning to graduate school at Harvard in 1953. He temporarily interrupted his doctoral training to enlist in the Marine Corps in April 1954. Following officers' candidate school, he received the rank of second lieutenant and served as a platoon leader at Quantico and later at Camp Lejeune. In February 1957 he was discharged from the Marine Corps as a first lieutenant. Ellsberg then returned to his graduate studies at Harvard, where he spent the next two and a half years as a member of the prestigious Society of Fellows. During this period he expanded his research interests to include political science and psychology, focusing especially on the new field of games theory, which utilized mathematical formulas to devise strategies for adversarial conflicts.

From Rand to Vietnam

In 1959 Ellsberg accepted a position with the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California. That firm had recently emerged as a leading center for the application of games theory to defense problems. At Rand he worked on a variety of matters, developing particular expertise in the field of nuclear strategy. During his years at Rand, Ellsberg also worked intermittently as a consultant on strategic nuclear war planning and nuclear command and control for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the White House, and the Department of State, respectively. In 1962 he was awarded the Ph.D. degree by Harvard; many specialists considered his doctoral dissertation, "Risk, Ambiguity, and Decision," a tour de force.

In August 1964 Ellsberg joined the Department of Defense as a special assistant to John McNaughton, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He devoted much of his time at the Pentagon to the growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In July 1965 he transferred to South Vietnam as a senior liaison officer attached to the U.S. embassy in Saigon. Ellsberg remained in Vietnam for two years. Among other duties, he worked under Major General Edward G. Lansdale, the officer in charge of the American pacification program, assessing the effectiveness of anti-guerrilla operations in the provinces.

Frustrated by U.S. Policy

By 1966 Ellsberg told friends that he was growing increasingly disillusioned with the course of the American war effort. These doubts intensified after his appointment the following year as an assistant to the deputy U.S. ambassador in South Vietnam, William Porter. In that position he prepared a report sharply critical of the U.S. pacification effort and made a special trip to Washington to present his findings to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Shortly thereafter Ellsberg suffered a severe case of hepatitis and left Vietnam permanently.

In July 1967 he resigned his government position to return to the Rand Corporation. Ellsberg continued serving as a governmental consultant, however, until the spring of 1969. As a consultant he helped prepare a secret internal study, commissioned by Defense Secretary McNamara, that examined the history of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam. Subsequently, in his final assignment for the government, he prepared an outline of alternative Vietnam strategies for Henry A. Kissinger, President Richard M. Nixon's special assistant for national security affairs.

Ellsberg's opposition to the war in Vietnam deepened during the early years of the Nixon administration. Increasingly he spoke out publicly against American involvement, articulating an antiwar position that proved occasionally embarrassing to his employers at Rand, a major defense contractor. In the spring of 1970 he left that firm to accept a fellowship at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; he intended to write a book on Vietnam decision-making and to continue speaking out against a war that he now viewed as immoral. "My role in the war was as a participant," he stated at that time, "along with a lot of other people, in a conspiracy to commit a number of war crimes, including, I believe, aggressive war."

The Pentagon Papers

Acting on these new convictions, in the summer of 1971 Ellsberg leaked copies of the McNamara study to the New York Times and other prominent newspapers. Almost overnight the "Pentagon Papers," as the study was quickly dubbed, became a lead story in the media, and Ellsberg became a controversial national figure. As he later explained his motivations: "I felt as an American citizen, a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American people. I took this action on my own initiative, and I am prepared for all the consequences." Those consequences included federal indictment on several counts under the Espionage Act for the possession and unauthorized release of classified documents.

The Pentagon Papers catapulted Ellsberg into a position of national prominence. For the antiwar movement, his conversion from ardent "hawk" to committed "dove" proved a powerful symbol. Ellsberg, for his part, warmly embraced the movement along with a series of other liberal causes. In 1972 he published a book, Papers on the War, that set forth his position on the Vietnam conflict.

The following year the charges against him were dropped as a result of government misconduct. In the wake of the Pentagon Papers furor, the Nixon administration had launched its secret "plumbers" operation, so named because this team of trusted presidential aides was directed to stem any further "leaks" that might embarrass the government, as the Pentagon Papers had. Nixon aides burglarized the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in an effort to find information that would destroy his credibility, and employed similar criminal tactics in an attempt to tap the phones at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in the summer of 1972. The ramifications from this last act forced Nixon to resign 1974.

Distinguished Protest Record

Although Ellsberg's name gradually slipped from public view in subsequent years, he continued to speak out on a series of important national issues, including the problems of nuclear power and nuclear armaments. In the 1980s he served on the strategy task force of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, and publicly advocated nuclear disarmament; he was also an outspoken opponent of U.S. policy in Central America. Joining other prominent Americans critical of the Reagan administration policy, Ellsberg was arrested numerous times for civil disobedience, including the besieging of the CIA office in San Francisco in 1985.

Later in the decade Ellsberg was affiliated with Center for Psychological Studies in the Nuclear Age at Harvard Medical School; there he studied the impact of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. In the early 1990s he accepted a position as director of the Manhattan Project II, a program launched by Physicians for Social Responsibility. Its goal was to dismantle the work of the first Manhattan Project— the World War II-era, top-secret government effort that developed the world's first nuclear weapon. Though no longer a board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Ellsberg continues to work with the activist group. He is also a popular guest lecturer. For his record of achievement he has received the Tom Paine Award and the Gandhi Peace Award.

Further Reading

Sanford Ungar's The Papers and the Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle over the Pentagon Papers (1972) follows the First Amendment battle over Ellsberg's act. A study by Peter Schrag, Test of Loyalty: Daniel Ellsberg and the Rituals of Secret Government (1974), analyzes the events surrounding Ellsberg's change of position regarding the Vietnam War as well as his decision to release the Pentagon Papers. There are no other studies that deal directly with Ellsberg, although many of the standard works on the Vietnam conflict mention his role in passing. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Daniel Ellsberg." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 13 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Daniel Ellsberg." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/daniel-ellsberg

"Daniel Ellsberg." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/daniel-ellsberg

Ellsberg, Daniel

Ellsberg, Daniel (1931–), military analyst, nonviolent activist.Ellsberg graduated from Harvard in 1952, served as a Marine infantry commander (1953–56), then returned to Harvard for his Ph.D. An expert on crisis decision making at the Rand Corporation think tank, he was a consultant on nuclear weapons to the Pentagon and Kennedy White House, notably in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Early in the Vietnam War (1964–65), he was special assistant to the assistant secretary of defense responsible for Vietnam policy. He spent two years in South Vietnam as a State Department adviser (1965–67), then rejoined Rand and contributed to the Pentagon's internal classified history of the war ordered by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

In October 1969, Ellsberg tried to release the secret Pentagon history to Congress, but lawmakers refused the material. Drawn more deeply into the antiwar movement, he provided the so‐called Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and Washington Post. Its June 1971 publication revealed a history of presidential failures and deceptions and was critically important in mobilizing public opposition to the war. President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger feared further leaks by Ellsberg. To silence and slander Ellsberg and block future “leaks,” they created the White House “Plumbers” unit. At Nixon's instigation, the unit conducted an illegal break‐in of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in Los Angeles in September 1971. The same “Plumbers” unit carried out the June 1972 Watergate burglary, which led to President Nixon's resignation in August 1974. Ellsberg was tried for espionage, but because of White House tampering, the federal judge dismissed the charges. During the 1970s and 1980s, Ellsberg lectured widely and was arrested for antiwar and antinuclear civil disobedience protests.
[See also Peace and Antiwar Movements.]

Bibliography

Sanford Ungar , The Papers and the Papers, 1972.
Peter Schrag , Test of Loyalty: Daniel Ellsberg and the Rituals of Secret Government, 1974.

Stewart Burns

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ellsberg, Daniel." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. 13 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Ellsberg, Daniel." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ellsberg-daniel

"Ellsberg, Daniel." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ellsberg-daniel

Ellsberg, Daniel

Daniel Ellsberg, 1931–, American political activist, b. Chicago, grad. Columbia Univ. (B.S., 1952, Ph.D., 1959). After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, he worked for the Rand Corporation (1959–64; 1967–70), conducting studies on defense policies. Originally a strong supporter of the Vietnam War, he became a committed opponent of U.S. policy. In 1971 he gave the New York Times access to a secret history of the Vietnam War, commissioned by the Dept. of Defense, which revealed that the government had repeatedly misled the American people about the escalation of the war. The government attempted to prevent the publication of the report, which became commonly known as the Pentagon Papers; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) that the publication of the papers was permissible. The government attempted to prosecute Ellsberg for the release of the report. The charges were dismissed in 1973 when it was revealed that White House officials had burglarized the offices of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in an effort to discredit him (see Watergate affair). He discusses the matter in his Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002).

See biography by T. Wells (2001).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ellsberg, Daniel." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 13 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Ellsberg, Daniel." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ellsberg-daniel

"Ellsberg, Daniel." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ellsberg-daniel