Daniel Ellsberg, Nonviolence Warrior

Daniel Ellsberg, 1972, public domain


We all care about those in our circle, our group, our tribe.  But who cares about the others?  About those outside our group, our country?  About other species?  About future generations?  I identify with those who care about the others.  Those people are my tribe.

Daniel Ellsberg, in a recent interview cited by Robert Ellsberg in Robert Ellsberg and Chris Zimmerman, “A Father’s Legacy to His Son – and His Country,” The Plough, June 16, 2023.


Daniel Ellsberg died two days ago, on June 16, 2023, at the age of ninety-two.   


This short essay remembers Ellsberg’s role in helping to end the Vietnam War, his conversion from Cold War militarism to anti-war leadership, and his lifelong commitment to nonviolent direct action against militarism and nuclear weapons.  In conclusion, I share some personal reflections from our dear friends David Hartsough, Ken Butigan and Robert Ellsberg, Daniel’s son.


The Pentagon Papers 


In 1971, when he leaked the so-called “Pentagon Papers” – an enormous trove of classified documents setting out the history of deception, misinformation and lies that had thoroughly infected U.S. public communications regarding Vietnam War policy – Ellsberg faced charges under the 1917 Espionage Act (and other criminal charges of theft and conspiracy) carrying a total maximum sentence of 115 years.  


Henry Kissinger reportedly told Nixon “Daniel Ellsberg is the most dangerous man in America, and he must be stopped at all costs.”  Nixon agreed.   “We’ve got to get him.”  “I don’t care how you do it,” Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, according to a White House recording made in June 1971, recounted in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s 1976 book Final Days.  “You can’t let the Jew steal that stuff and get away with it.” (In 2008, Ellsberg told a journalist that his parents considered the family Jewish, “but not in religion.”“I was a Jew and I am a Jew,” he said. “By [Nixon’s] definition, I’m 100 percent a Jew, as I would be under Hitler’s.”).


Thus Nixon’s top deputies took extrajudicial measures, including organizing a break-in and burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist office, and crude efforts to bribe the Federal judge hearing Ellsberg’s case.  


This was ironic, in three ways.  First, the corrupt actions of the Nixon administration led the presiding judge to dismiss the government’s case, a result Ellsberg could never have imagined.  He had expected to spend the rest of his life in prison, and accepted that result as the price he had to pay to enable the American people to know the truth about Vietnam.  Now, because of the Nixon Administration’s criminal venality, he was free.


Second, it was not Ellsberg who ended up in Federal prison, but Nixon’s top aides (including H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, and John Ehrlichman, White House Counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs) who had conspired to destroy Ellsberg and his anti-war colleagues.


Third, tragically, Ellsberg came to believe that the publication of the Pentagon Papers did not cause the war to end sooner than it would otherwise have done.  However, the disclosure of Nixon’s extra-legal “plumbers” scheme to discredit Ellsberg ended up undermining Nixon instead, contributing to his “Watergate” downfall, and creating intensified pressure for U.S. withdrawal.  So Ellsberg’s courageous actions helped to bring down Nixon and end the war, after all, by exposing the criminality of the Nixon Administration, and crippling Nixon’s authority as a war president.  


Daniel Ellsberg’s response when asked if he is willing to accept a 115 year prison sentence for his disclosure of the Pentagon Papers:


From violence to nonviolence


Ellsberg, a brilliant military analyst, had been a trusted member of an elite group of Cold War strategists with access to the nation’s military and nuclear secrets.  Slowly, as he became increasingly cognizant of and morally troubled by the inhumane consequences of nuclear and Vietnam war planning in which he had been engaged, he became dedicated to using his unique expertise to dismantle the war machine that he had spent his career helping to run.


After completing undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard and Cambridge, Ellsberg enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1954.  He progressed from platoon leader to company commander to first lieutenant.  He extended his enlistment to ship out with his battalion for the 1956 Suez Crisis intervention (where he didn’t engage in combat).  Upon leaving the Marines, Ellsberg began working as a strategic analyst at RAND in the summer of 1958.  Completing a doctorate in Economics at Harvard in 1962, Ellsberg’s doctoral thesis had made a major contribution to game theoretical analysis of decision making.


Established after World War II under special contract to the Douglas Aircraft Company, the RAND Corporation became affiliated with the United States Air Force, soon after it had become an independent service branch in September 1947.  Ellsberg worked at RAND, focussing on nuclear strategy, and the command and control of nuclear weapons from 1958 until he joined the Pentagon in 1964 under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.  After a two-year tour in South Vietnam, working for General Edward Lansdale in affiliation with the State Department, Ellsberg returned to RAND.  


By coincidence, I have a personal connection to this story.   When I was a young boy, my best friend was Robert Ellsberg, Daniel’s oldest son.  Robert lived with his sister Mary and their mother Carol (Ellsberg’s first wife) just a few blocks from my family’s home, and we all went to the UCLA lab school.  When I was 9 or 10 years old (in 1966 and 1967) I remember the strange feeling stirred up by the massive Viet Cong crossbow hanging on the wall of Robert’s house, and the elation of playing with military style walkie-talkies in the neighborhood.   But Robert remembers that even at an early age his father increasingly shared doubts about his military career, his pessimism about the Vietnam War, and his increasing moral revulsion about the massive destruction of civilian lives.   


According to the June 16, 2023 New York Times obituary:


In August 1969,  [Ellsberg] went to a War Resisters League meeting at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and heard a speaker, Randy Kehler, proudly announce that he was soon going to join his friends in prison for refusing the draft.  Profoundly moved, Mr. Ellsberg had reached his breaking point, as he was quoted saying in “The Right Words at the Right Time” (2002), by the actress Marlo Thomas. “I left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room,” he said. “I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing. The only time in my life I’ve reacted to something like that.”


In an interview published on the day of his father’s death – Robert Ellsberg and Chris Zimmerman, “A Father’s Legacy to His Son – and His Country,” The Plough, June 16, 2023 – Robert remembers:


In October 1969 my father took me out for lunch and told me about his plans to copy what became known as the Pentagon Papers. His intention was to make them available to Congress, and he had some hopes that this might help end the war, though it would involve the risk of prison. He had been sharing with me books and writings by Gandhi, Thoreau, Martin Luther King, and other teachers of nonviolence, so I understood what he was talking about it. He asked if I would help him. So that afternoon I spent the day at a Xerox machine copying Top Secret documents. I was thirteen.


According Robert, “many people believe my father released the Pentagon Papers because he was offended merely by its chronicle of lies.  The truth is, he was offended by the crimes that those lies were protecting – they were lies about murder.”


Instead of going to prison for the rest of his life, Daniel Ellsberg lived another 52 years.  


He had become a thoroughly converted man.


“My father devoted his life to opposing ongoing wars and preventing nuclear war.   He wrote interviews, lobbied, protested and was arrested almost a hundred times.” Daniel Ellsberg participated in marches in an effort to prevent the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, presciently warning of a possible “Tonkin Gulf scenario” that could be used to justify going to war.   He engaged in direct action protests to stop nuclear weapons production and possible use. With the outbreak of in Ukraine, Ellsberg became especially discouraged, concerned about the danger of nuclear war, and the freeze on US-Russian arms control.  But he didn’t give up hope, nor did he stop fighting for peace and nuclear disarmament.  “To him, hope was not just optimism.   It was a form of action, a way of life.”


Robert also came to lead a life of heroic nonviolence..   He dropped out of Harvard to work for the Catholic Worker community in New York.  At  Dorothy Day’s request, Robert became the managing editor of the iconic Catholic Worker newspaper. He returned to college five years later, just before Day’s death.  He spent two years working as a hospice orderly in a home for terminal cancer patients run by an order of Dominican sisters, and he began a longstanding career as editor-in-chief at Orbis Books, editing five volumes of writings by Dorothy Day, and writing many books about saints and holiness.


As an activist, Robert participated in many protest actions against nuclear weapons, getting arrested many times, including with his father at the Rocky Flats nuclear facility in Colorado, “where we sat on the tracks leading into the factory that makes the nuclear triggers for hydrogen bombs. I spent sixteen days in solitary confinement, fasting the whole time.”


With significant editorial help from Robert, Daniel Ellsberg published The Doomsday Machine:  Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner in 2017.  (““In this project, which involved close work and conversation every day for two years, I was not just an editor, but a counselor, motivational coach, analyst, at times ghostwriter, and confessor.”  Robert regards this book as his father’s masterpiece, an assessment I share.  Because of the profound urgency of Ellsberg’s prophetic book, I will write a separate blog post about it, emphasizing the support Ellsberg’s clarion call to organized nonviolent struggle for nuclear disarmament. 


Concluding reflections


In conclusion, I am honored to share personal reflections by our dear friend David Hartsough, recipient of our institute’s Clarence B. Jones Award in Kingian Nonviolence, who marched with Daniel Ellsberg, and went to prison together with him, and stood side by side with him in the nonviolent movement against militarism and nuclear weapons.


A Tribute to Daniel Ellsberg and a Call to Action, by David Hartsough


Daniel Ellsberg’s life and his Speaking Truth To Power has been a powerful gift to humanity! He has devoted his life to speaking out and acting to prevent and stop wars and the suicidal nuclear arms race. As Dan has pointed out, with the US, Russia and China all preparing for and threatening nuclear war which could so easily escalate into nuclear war and the resulting nuclear winter, most of the people in the world would die from nuclear blast or starvation. This is unconscionable.


Inspired by Dan’s life, we need to step up to the plate and work to stop this crime against humanity before it is too late. Hopefully hundreds of others will be inspired by Dan’s courage to become whistle blowers and speak Truth in the face of the lies and half truths by politicians and the mass media. Thanks Dan for your life and for inspiring us to continue the good work you have been doing. Hope you have a good rest and have a chance to meet up with Gandhi and King and so many other nonviolent warriors who have gone before us.


David Hartsough, a good friend of Daniel Ellsberg who has had the privilege of being arrested and spending time in Jail together with Dan many times over the past 40 years.


And here are reflections by by our close friend Ken Butigan, a member of our institute’s Leadership Council, and lifelong nonviolence activist and teacher “A Life of Powerful Choices: Remembering Daniel Ellsberg,” published by Campaign Nonviolence, Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, June 16, 2023.


And I encourage all of you to read Robert’s moving reflections on his father’s life: Robert Ellsberg in Robert Ellsberg and Chris Zimmerman, “A Father’s Legacy to His Son – and His Country,” The Plough, June 16, 2023.




Jonathan D. Greenberg