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Daniel Ellsberg's Moral Courage Was Unsparing, Even of Himself

STEVEN SPIELBERG’S FILM The Post begins with Daniel Ellsberg in Vietnam. The year is 1966. The official story from the Pentagon, at that time largely unquestioned in U.S. media, is that the war is going well. That is a lie—the first of the many deceptions that will unravel spectacularly in the years to come. As Spielberg tells it, that thread begins to fray here, in the Vietnamese jungle, with an unassuming bureaucrat sent to survey the progress of the campaign against the Viet Cong. Ellsberg, played by a dashing Matthew Rhys, insists on accompanying a patrol on their nighttime exercises. The RAND wonk looks surprisingly comfortable in body armor, toting an automatic rifle. Then it all comes undone: a VC ambush, blood in the muck, muzzle flare from invisible enemies in the misty shadows. Our hero is shaken. On the plane home, he tells his boss’s boss, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, that the war is not going well at all, actually. McNamara agrees. But when the plane lands he disembarks and greets the press with a grin, continuing to lie through his teeth. A shaken Ellsberg returns to his office at RAND, opens his safe, and contemplates a thick stack of papers. Next, the Xerox machine.

It’s a compelling story, and it’s almost true. Ellsberg really was a high-ranking war planner before he copied and leaked the Pentagon Papers; he really did go to Vietnam and witness the quagmire firsthand; he delivered the bad news personally to McNamara on the flight back, who really did lie to the press on the tarmac. But that was not the moment that Ellsberg decided to become a whistleblower. I believe it is impossible to fully appreciate the profundity of Ellsberg’s subsequent heroism—and the magnitude of our collective loss, with his death on Friday at the age of ninety-two—without understanding the period of hesitation that preceded it. Ellsberg, always his own harshest critic, would call it moral weakness. Whatever you want to call it, the truth is this: After he returned from Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg went back to work. He didn’t photocopy anything. The most drastic action he took, in fact, was to call off his engagement with his future wife, Patricia, an anti-war journalist who refused to stop holding his feet to the fire.

“I’m trying to do the best I can to moderate the killing,” she recalls him telling her. Ellsberg had a better case than most. A PhD economist, Ellsberg was one of the world’s leading experts on decision-making under uncertainty; his research led him to an absolutist opposition to the atomic bomb that was not shared universally in the Pentagon—even before Richard Nixon, infamously cavalier about the prospect of a nuclear exchange, entered office. After learning more about the United States’ nuclear weapons protocols early in his career in the defense bureaucracy, Ellsberg became—and remained for the rest of his life—terrified that the risk of nuclear war was higher than almost anyone understood. And he told himself, quite persuasively, that the need to prosecute his nuclear safety campaign within official channels outweighed whatever moral compromises inhered in his continued cooperation with the machine waging immoral and unwinnable war in Vietnam.   

Ellsberg’s great moral achievement was not turning against the Vietnam War. That was the bare minimum we could expect of a thinking, feeling person in those years. Rather, it was overcoming the seductive power of this story, the exculpation he initially furnished to himself and to his dovish friends: I can do more good from here, on the inside. There is a miraculous harmony between my career interests and the cause of harm reduction. What’s the alternative?

Ellsberg didn’t decide to exile himself from the elite circles in which he swam until he acquired an answer to this all-too-familiar rhetorical question. It came at a conference of the War Resisters League at Haverford College in August 1969, over two years after his return from South Vietnam and a year after the conclusion of the damning Pentagon study he would later release to the world. At the conference, Ellsberg heard firsthand from the draft resister Randy Kehler, who expressed his excitement that he would soon join his comrades in prison. Kehler’s testimony reconfigured Ellsberg’s mental universe. Here was living proof that there was an alternative after all: prison. The only honorable way to deal with an unjust government was to welcome its retribution. A more moderate slaughter wasn’t good enough, not if you were still responsible for pulling the trigger—behind the sandbags at Khe Sanh, or from your office in Arlington or Santa Monica. 

Ellsberg left Kehler’s speech and shut himself in an empty campus restroom, where he wept on the floor for an hour. Then, and only then, did he open the safe that contained the Pentagon Papers.

Spielberg’s presentation is comforting because it allows viewers to imagine that we would have acted as Ellsberg did were we in his situation—because we, too, would have figured out that the war was bad, and that was all it took. But evidence to the contrary is all around, not merely ubiquitous but woven into the very fabric of life-making in our damnable society. We are all looking away from something. We eat our slave-labor chocolate; we pay our taxes to a state built on genocide that will without a doubt use some of those dollars to perpetuate atrocities we may never know about in far-flung corners of its empire. “You don’t want on this jury men of middle age,” advised a psychologist retained by the team that defended Ellsberg and his collaborator Tony Russo for leaking the Papers. “These are people who in the course of their lives might possibly have sacrificed principle for the sake of career, for the sake of family, and they lived with that compromise, and they will have a lot of disdain, even contempt for two men who did it for the sake of principle and took the risk.”

Read entire article at The Baffler