Obituary: Daniel Ellsberg 7 April 1931 – 16 June 2023

IssueAugust - September 2023
Comment by Kate Hudson, Ken Butigan

Kate Hudson:

We were saddened to hear of the death of whistleblower and peace campaigner Daniel Ellsberg, who died last Friday, aged 92. Daniel was a staunch anti-nuclear campaigner as well as a powerful voice for peace over many decades.

An expert in nuclear weapons planning, Ellsberg was perhaps most famous for his role in leaking 7,000 pages of classified military files in 1971, while working as an analyst for the Rand Corporation.

The Pentagon Papers revealed for the first time the history of the US involvement in Vietnam, and how US president Lyndon B Johnson’s administration had systematically lied both to the US public and to Congress about its conduct of the war.

In the decades that followed, Ellsberg went on to become a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons. He campaigned against many aspects of nuclear proliferation including against MX missiles, the deployment of new US nuclear weapons to Europe, and the neutron bomb.

Speaking in a March 2023 interview with the New York Times, Ellsberg said: ‘I think about nuclear war not because I find it fascinating but because I want to prevent it, to make it unthinkable, because I care about the world that it would destroy.’

CND is proud to pay tribute to Daniel Ellsberg. He was a courageous campaigner for peace whose bravery exposed the true extent of US government lies about the reality of the Vietnam War. And when it came to nuclear weapons he spoke from a position of expertise on why they are a catastrophe waiting to happen. He will be much missed.


Ken Butigan:

In a time when we are cynical about the idea of heroes, Daniel Ellsberg has long been one of mine. On learning of his passing this week, I am moved, like so many, to share deep gratitude for a life lived so well.

I first met Dan when he was preparing to go to trial for releasing the Pentagon Papers. As part of a nationwide tour in the fall of 1972, he came to the University of San Diego, where I was a first-year student. After his talk to a large crowd at the law school, I slithered my way to the front and managed to ask him about the future of the policy. He was thoughtful and detailed and genuine.

Over the following decades I would see these qualities in action many times on various settings and contexts, especially after I plunged into the world of progressive political activism in the early 1980s.

While Ellsberg is often rightly remembered for risking 115 years in prison for releasing a top-secret study revealing the pattern of deception which a succession of US administrations perpetrated and that had fuelled a long and costly war in Vietnam, I am most moved by the 50 years of activism that followed this historic act.

He cashed in a considerable portion of his privilege as a man educated at Harvard and Cambridge, as the ultimate insider, to stand wholeheartedly against the systems of domination that threaten us all. He persistently brought his insight and passion to the vexing problem of the survival of the planet.

‘After leaking the Pentagon Papers, you could have sat on your laurels,’ I once said to him in an interview. ‘Why didn’t you?’ He looked at me with bewilderment.

Though such a thing might have occurred to someone else – taking such a dramatically risky step, after all, is trouble enough for a lifetime – for him the work wasn’t finished.

In fact, releasing the papers seemed to release something in him, so that he plunged feet first into the roiling waters of nonviolent movements using the most powerful symbol he had at his disposal to back up his words and his analysis: his own vulnerable body.

The interview we did, for example, concerned his active participation in the waves of nonviolent action at the Nevada [nuclear weapons] Test Site in the 1980s, as I recounted in an essay 10 years ago in Waging Nonviolence:

‘The United States detonated nuclear weapons at the site north of Las Vegas on average once every 18 days beginning in 1951. Ellsberg took part in the nonviolent resistance organized by Nevada Desert Experience and other organizations to stop this, but he also participated in riskier actions than simply crossing the line at the facility’s entrance. In 1985, he and a couple of members of Greenpeace walked deep into the site just before a nuclear device was scheduled to be detonated. Via walkie-talkie, they made contact with the test site authorities that they were in the area and that they should not follow through with the test. Not only was the test delayed, Ellsberg managed to communicate with some friends in Congress who used the news of this action to help pass a bill in the House calling for an end to testing. (It was killed in the Senate.) These actions contributed to those by many others in the United States and around the world to establish the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the early 1990s.’

But there are so many other times when he was arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience: at an historic action when hundreds were arrested at the CIA headquarters; as part of the campaign at Concord Naval Weapons Station where his friend Brian Willson was run down by a train carrying arms bound for Central America; and innumerable protests against the Persian Gulf War and the later wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had been arrested at the White House and at Red Square in Moscow.

One of my favourite examples is the year-long campaign at Rocky Flats, the facility outside Denver that manufactured the plutonium pits used in nuclear arms. Dan and others took part in waves of resistance month after month.

Dubbed the ‘Rocky Flats Truth Force’, the protesters sat on a strategic railroad spur to ‘stop the arms race in its tracks’ and interfere with the smooth functioning of nuclear weapons assembly and production. Many were arrested and tried. A few years later the facility was shuttered.

‘As a former official speaking on so many matters which so many officials have concealed, denied and lied about over the years, I was glad to have the opportunity in court to testify to my knowledge and beliefs,’ Dan wrote about his testimony in A Year of Disobedience, a book by Keith Pope about the campaign. ‘I revealed the Pentagon Papers because I believed that decades of secrecy surrounding official decision-making in Vietnam, by promoting public ignorance and passivity, had prolonged a needless and wrongful war and threatened the survival of our democracy.’

Dan was arrested engaging in civil disobedience countless times in these and many other struggles. I was fortunate to be involved in some of theses efforts, in which I was able see up close his gifts of tenacity, intelligence, clear-sightedness, and courage.

There is so much to say but, for now, I will leave it at sharing my deep thankfulness for his choices for peace and justice over many, many years.

Thank you so much, Dan, for all of it.

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