Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg speaks on Pentagon Papers, Turkish intervention at UMass

Ellsberg’s whistleblowing may have prevented a nuclear war


Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Matt Berg, Assistant Op/Ed Editor

As he walked on stage of the Campus Center Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts, Daniel Ellsberg flashed peace signs to the crowd, an expected gesture from the man who played a major role in diverting the United States from a nuclear war.

Hundreds of people packed the auditorium on Wednesday night to hear the renowned whistleblower speak on his involvement with the Pentagon Papers, which were recently acquired by UMass. Just over 50 years ago, after concern about increased international military involvement, Ellsberg began copying the U.S. military strategy for the intervention in Vietnam — the Pentagon Papers.

With the possibility of being jailed for life, Ellsberg took the risk and handed over the papers to the New York Times for publication in 1971.

“I thought it could be worth going to prison to end this war,” said Ellsberg, now 88 years old. “I was wrong that we could have gone 70 years without a nuclear war. It actually happened. It could happen again.”

Unknown to Ellsberg at the time, Nixon was waging the possibility of nuclear war, a drastic option that then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger also hesitated on. Relying purely on instinct that the United States’ military strategy could escalate to nuclear war, Ellsberg’s actions have cemented him in history as a key figure in the battle against nuclear weapons.

Two years after the Pentagon Papers’ publication, Ellsberg was charged with conspiracy under the Espionage Act of 1917, facing up to 115 years in prison. However, due to various legal violations by the Nixon administration, such as governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering against Ellsberg, he was freed.

“I’m a huge fan of Daniel Ellsberg, and I think the whole Pentagon Papers situation is fascinating,” said Andrew Botolino, a freshman psychology major. “I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to come and see him speak.”

The timing of Ellsberg’s appearance on campus is especially relevant with the recent accusations against President Trump by a whistleblower, which led to the revelation of the transcript of a call between the Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that has led to an impeachment inquiry.

Ellsberg also drew comparisons to the recent Turkish invasion of Syria and attack of the Kurds. White phosphorus, which Ellsberg witnessed burn people to the bone in Vietnam where he served as a marine, was allegedly used in the attack against the Kurds.

“I had seen children in hospitals burned by phosphorus,” he said, noting that the substance is outlawed in many countries. “It was beautiful as it dropped, white phosphorous with scarlet tips.”

Throughout the night, Ellsberg highlighted the importance of understanding the possibility of present and future war crimes, pointing out the similarities to the concerns he had when he worked in the government.

“I’m here to feel more enriched with the history, especially with the political climate at the moment and the talks of impeachment,” said Jah’inaya Parker, a sophomore mechanical engineering student. “I feel like it’s important to get the gist of crimes done by past presidents.”

“Everyone in this room is affected by the work of Daniel Ellsberg,” said UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy. He described UMass as “the guardians of this exceptional collection,” and they will be in good company among the social activism works of other prominent figures, including W. E. B. DuBois, Horace Mann Bond and Kenneth Feinberg.

Christina Ryan, a 1968 UMass graduate and Northampton resident, came to see the influential activist speak at UMass, a campus historically known for political activism. Along Abbie Hoffman, a prominent social activist of the last century and former President Jimmy Carter’s daughter Amy Carter, Ryan participated in major protests at UMass.

“I worked on the CIA on Trial, using necessities defense to bring the CIA to Trial,” she said. The 1986 protests, aimed at holding the CIA accountable for controversial actions during the Reagan era, resulted in the highly publicized arrest of activists in Munson Hall on campus.

In recent times, Ellsberg said that he has found a role model, someone that gives him hope for the future.

“My hero now, there is no one I admire more now than 16-year-old Greta Thunberg,” Ellsberg said.

Together, the activists recently joined with others in a strike in front of parliament. Although she didn’t win the Nobel Prize, Ellsberg knows she didn’t mind.

“I was unhappy when she didn’t get the Nobel Prize, but there isn’t a person on this planet who is less affected,” he said. What she cares about, he stated, is making change. 

Matt Berg can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @mattberg33.