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Daniel in the Lion’s Den

On the moral courage of Daniel Ellsberg

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.

Daniel Ellsberg never let anyone off the hook that easily, including himself.

“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.”

Ellsberg’s example is an enduring challenge not only to the resentful complacency of the Silent Majority but to a left that has come increasingly to tolerate middle-class careerist compromise in the half-century since Ellsberg’s prosecution. It’s not our fault, exactly. The unions were eviscerated; the Black revolutionaries were killed; the war resisters were jailed; academics and nonprofit executives filled the vacuum. That’s not to say that one can’t be useful to the cause with a PhD: as evidence, witness the life of one Dr. Daniel Ellsberg. But it requires an uncommon ethos of self-suspicion, as Ellsberg understood well. “I’ve come to realize the fear of being cut out from the group of people you respect and whose respect you want and normally expect keeps people participating in anything, no matter how terrible,” he reflected to a documentarian in 2009. Few of us are immune to that fear, and the rationalizations it brews in the professional mind. I teach at a university that accepted millions of dollars from Jeffrey Epstein, celebrates its relationship with Henry Kissinger, and has a pattern of insulating star faculty from accountability for sexual abuse. It’s a good job. I tell myself I can make things better.

To conclude that there is no choice but to cooperate with evil is always to overlook something, some false assumption, some value inaccurately taken to be paramount.

We shouldn’t begrudge most people for wanting to find a way to sleep at night, though surely some could stand a bit more tossing and turning. It is more problematic when those rationalizations begin to infect our collective reflection on matters of political principle and strategy. Perhaps it really is the case, as many on the left have come to believe since 2016, that the best way to advance the cause of socialism is to work to elect unusually noble Democratic politicians to Congress and the White House. But it is also awfully convenient, at least for those of us who could imagine ourselves staffing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s West Wing. Ellsberg’s fundamental insight was not that it is impossible in theory to use the machinery of the American state to effect positive change, but that people—smart, well-intentioned people especially—underestimate the moral confusion that festers in the corridors of power. D.C. bureaus are overflowing with backslappers happy to extol the bravery of the most craven political decision-making. The cafeterias all serve lotus flowers for lunch: soon you forget even that there is something you have forgotten.

Ellsberg had a particularly acute grasp of what the historian Garry Wills has called “Bomb Power,” the way that the very existence of the United States’ nuclear arsenal fundamentally constrains the possibility of exercising democratic oversight of the nation’s military. The power to annihilate all human civilization cannot sanely be disposed of by popular vote. The bomb is a weapon suited only to a benevolent dictator, and that is how the United States came to envision the presidency in the nuclear age—culturally, politically, and even legally. Autocracy, of course, was easier to produce than benevolence. The bomb demands secrecy; secrecy demands lying; and lying demands lawlessness. “The public is lied to every day by the president, by his spokespeople, by his officers,” Ellsberg once asserted. “If you can’t handle the thought that the president lies to the public for all kinds of reasons, you couldn’t stay in the government at that level.” He left the contrapositive unstated: anyone who remains in government after obtaining a reasonably high-security clearance is ipso facto comfortable with the systematic mendacity built into the institution of the modern presidency. Even the ostensible good guys.

And yet nuclear disarmament has more or less disappeared from the agenda of the contemporary American left. Four years spent shuddering at the thought of Donald Trump with his finger on the button did essentially nothing to make the issue an organizing priority for any of the nation’s major left-wing organizations. This disinterest tracks the broader marginalization of anti-war and anti-imperialist commitments on the left; even the Democratic Socialists of America is too often willing to tolerate elected officials who dutifully vote to fund the American war machine as long as they espouse the proper progressive positions on health care and tax policy. At its worst, some members of the “populist” left today sneer at past generations’ anti-war politics as an extravagance that alienated the left from the concerns of ordinary working people (a category whose membership seems so often to stop at the U.S. border). For those who experienced the crushing disappointment of Barack Obama’s reign, which entrenched the power of an imperial presidency he had sworn to dismantle, it is easy to become fatalistic—to treat the perpetuation of American war crimes as an inevitability, against which one can only hope to adduce some positive accomplishments on the domestic front. This way of thinking increasingly distorts even the way we narrate history: hey, Johnson and Nixon killed a lot of Vietnamese people and told a lot of lies about the war, but they gave us Medicare and the EPA, so that has to count for something.  

Daniel Ellsberg never let anyone off the hook that easily, including himself. He never forgot the lesson he learned in the summer of 1969: there is always an alternative. To conclude that there is no choice but to cooperate with evil is always to overlook something, some false assumption, some value inaccurately taken to be paramount. “If we have the will and determination,” Ellsberg told protesters on the fifth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, we have “the power to change ourselves and history.” Most of us in the United States have been disempowered in a thousand ways large and small: as workers, as consumers, as citizens. But being disempowered does not mean that we are powerless, only that exercising our power will not be frictionless. It will hurt.

When it all seems too much to ask, we will always have the memory of Daniel Ellsberg. It’s a bright June day in Boston, 1971. The press swarms around Ellsberg outside of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where Ellsberg has come to turn himself in and face the wrath of the state for leaking the Pentagon Papers. One of the journalists asks him if he’s afraid to go to prison. Ellsberg smiles, as if he is grateful to the reporter for posing the question, the same question that set him to weeping in the bathroom at Haverford two years earlier at the start of it all. And he responds: “Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?”