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Daniel Ellsberg- The Pentagon Papers’ Story

Daniel Ellsberg is an activist and a military analyst who served for the United States Army. However, today, the man is a well-known figure as one the main whistleblowers of the Pentagon Papers. Here, we are covering the background on The Papers and how Daniel was operational in them, thereby becoming a subject of global attention.


Pentagon papers
Daniel Ellsberg

About Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg is from Chicago, Illinois and was born in 1931. He then got a full scholarship ride to Harvard and graduated summa cum laude in Economics in 1952. He later pursued a fellowship at Cambridge for a year to later return to Harvard for a postgraduate degree.

After the completion of his education, in 1954, Ellsberg entered the Marine Corps, which segued into a more complex relationship with the military.

In ‘59, Daniel Ellsberg started working with the RAND Corp. as a strategic analyst. Here, he mostly focused on the nuclear strategy. A few years after this, he went on to pursue his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1965 and then went on to work for the Pentagon. At the Pentagon, he worked and studied the documents of the Vietnam War and here is where things got interesting.

Early Context

While being exposed to the documents of the Vietnam War is when Ellsberg started his anti-war activism. He was inspired by the fellow activist, Randy Kehler. Here is what Ellsberg said later about Kehler’s influence on him:

“I hadn’t met Randy Kehler it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy [the Pentagon Papers]. His actions spoke to me as no mere words would have done. He put the right question in my mind at the right time.”

In the heydays of 1969, he made multiple copies of classified documents relating to the Vietnam War to which Ellsberg had an exclusive access.

What the Papers Contained

The Pentagon Papers were essentially a set of documents that burnt the United States’ war efforts to the ground.

The Papers’ stated that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s office and administration had not only lied to the public but also to the Congress about the situation in Vietnam.

The long story short, there was an attack conducted on an extended part of southeast Asia than what was promised.  Nearby coasts of Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam were also bombed which were not on the original plan.

This was an active effort from the government to mislead its people and lie. And it was not just the Johnson government but the subsequent parliaments after him up until the ‘70’s. Later, it was also revealed in the papers that the war which could have been limited to the ‘50’s went on to continue from 1955 to 1975.

It was like the government had conducted treason against its people and responsible humanitarian efforts. It was also a sign that the government was certain that the war could not be won but continued its pursuits anyway.

The Release

After compiling and making copies of the incriminating documents, Ellsberg furthered his agenda. He met with Kehler and a poet going by the name of Gary Snyder to seek guidance; there was a definite need of action.

Ellsberg pushed to release the papers to the Congress, at the least, through a few sympathetic senators. Some copies were also distributed in private circles amongst some academicians and scholars at the Institute of Policy Studies.

Along with this came the big hit of releasing the sets through New York Times journalist – Neil Sheehan. He corroborated the story through Ellsberg and the scholars at the Institute of Policy Studies.

This first series of articles were publicly published on June 13, 1971. This lead to a widespread manhunt for Ellsberg who was evading the FBI and also a 15-day article publishing suspension for the New York Times by the court. While the manhunt was on, Ellsberg secretly leaked the documents to 18 other publications including the Washington Post.

This leak was a major cause of embarrassment to the presidency and governing bodies.

The Trial

Not waiting for the FBI to catch him, Ellsberg publicly surrendered himself to the US State Attorney’s office. He said the following words:

“I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”

Proceeding the same, he was framed guilty under the Espionage Act of 1917 and other consequential sub-charges which granted him a 115-year sentence.

Things started turning in Ellsberg’s favor when the prosecution presented illegal wiretapping and other forms of bureaucratic misconduct when it came to quid pro quo agreements between opposing parties. Due to this, Judge Byrne who was presiding the trial declared a mistrial and dropped all charges against Ellsberg.

What Now?

Post the trial and the dropped charges, Ellberg’s activism did not cease. He, to this day, remains a vehement anti-war activist and takes a strong stand on current events.

He has also extended explicit support to other whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. He called them “two new heroes of mine.”


Daniel Ellsberg is now widely recognized and formally awarded for his efforts on calling out malpractices by the government. He aspires to do the same as long as he can physically and mentally contribute.

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