Then and now: Countdown to the Daniel Ellsberg Conference

“I think individuals do have the responsibility to tell the truth”


Parker Peters

Parker Peters / Daily Collegian

By Karan Chaudhary, Collegian Correspondent

The Ellsberg Archive Project: Truth, Dissent & The Legacy Of Daniel Ellsberg Conference commences tomorrow as the University of Massachusetts hosts the event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers.

This online conference, held through StreamYard, will feature Daniel Ellsberg, as well as distinguished historians, journalists, whistleblowers, activists and former policymakers. This conference will also have a plenary panel with a historic conversation between Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, moderated by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

Professor Christian G. Appy, best known for his books on the Vietnam War and his upcoming book on Ellsberg’s life and contributions, is the lead organizer for this conference. The presence of the archives at UMass had enabled the creation of a year-long seminar, where students got to be the first group to explore the archives. “Most of the papers are still unprocessed. So, each box you open is a kind of surprise,” Appy said.

He further added that the papers and the court case that followed it are still relevant to date. “To do it [the course], in this year of the pandemic, and with all the other events going on, also gives it a special kind of significance,” he said. “Some of what has happened in the past year, makes the history of Daniel Ellsberg’s time going back to the 60s and 70s, seem, I think, all the more relevant.”

Appy said the students were able to draw a parallel between the Trump and Nixon administrations.

“In the fall, we had a president who was telling the big lie that his election victory had been stolen from him, followed in incredibly by the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and then followed again by a second impeachment trial, another kind of connection back to the Nixon years,” Appy said.

The activism which followed in 2020 and the inaccuracies from the White House amounted to interesting discussions and interviews with speakers from around the country in the course, he added. “I have to say, probably the most exciting class I have ever taught,” he said.

UMass journalism Professor Kathy Roberts Forde, the associate dean of equity & inclusion in the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, has been the co-instructor for this course for the spring semester. She talked about how the students in the course have been engaged with the material and have asked thoughtful questions.

“Ellsberg has on multiple occasions said that the students have asked him questions that he has never been asked before. He has just been so engaged by them,” Forde said.

The GroundTruth project has been closely involved with the course. “We have an elaborate set up so that GroundTruth can record sound from the classes. We are expecting that the student voices are going to become part of the podcast,” Forde said.

Mitch Hanley, a Peabody award-winning producer, and Charles M. Sennott, the award-winning correspondent and founder and director of the GroundTruth Project, have been in all these class meetings throughout the year. The GroundTruth Project has recently uploaded the first episode – The Whistleblower: Episode 1: The Lying Machine.

During these interviews, both Appy and Forde were asked a question about the ethical issues that arise for a whistleblower and what they would say to a person if they found themselves in that position.

“I think individuals do have the responsibility to tell the truth if someone comes across information that is being held secretly, that is endangering the world or a small part of the world, or public health or public well-being or jeopardizing peace,” Appy said.

According to Appy, the real questions to tackle in this situation would be, “What will be the consequences of releasing this information? Will it help people? Will it make the world better? Will it advance democracy and things like that? Or will it do the opposite? Therefore, I suppose you could say that not all cases of whistleblowing are necessary, I think you would have to judge it case by case. That is the sort of the ethics of whistleblowing.”

Ellsberg had an ethical conviction that led him to release top-secret papers about the history of the Vietnam War. He took many risks that would not only harm his career but his freedom when he had released these papers to the New York Times, The Washington Post and 16 other newspapers.

“He initially wanted to give them to the Senate because he hoped that a senator would put it into the public record and then hold hearings, on the ways in which Nixon was repeating some of the errors of his predecessors,” Appy said. “But no person in Congress had the political courage to do that.”

“You know, [Ellsberg] had started as a person that believed the war was just and difficult, but then he began to think of it differently after spending two years in Vietnam, as an unwinnable stalemate from which the United States should try to find some space-saving exit. But then over a period of about two years between ‘67 and ‘69, in part from reading the Pentagon Papers, in finding its history of deceit, and also by meeting a lot of younger anti-war activist, he became convinced that the war was not only a mistake, but actually unjust and immoral, and even criminal,” Appy said.

“He often tells the story of hearing a speech by a young anti-war activist named Randy Kehler, who will also be talking at the conference, his speech was about why he had decided to risk going to prison by resisting the draft, and he was just about to go off to serve two and a half years, which he did. So, Ellsberg was so moved by that.”

The faculty also spoke about the challenges their team and UMass administrators have faced while organizing the conference..

“It is an army that is working together collectively to make this conference happen,” Forde said. “Maybe the army is the wrong term to use in the context of a group of people who are really committed to peace.”

She gives full credit to the tremendous number of people involved; her students speaking at the conference, University Relations office, the News and Media Relations Office, web designers and the Fine Arts Center.

“We’re doing interviews with the media, which we are so grateful for, especially our student media. . . And a special mention to Jessica Johnson, who is the program director for the history department, she is doing an incredible job, she is working with our social media plan and ensuring it all goes well this week,” Forde said.

Appy, too, is grateful for all the support he has had with this conference. He played a significant role in sending out invitations and connecting by email. He added that even though it would have been nice to have this conference in person, that possibility also poses logistical challenges.

“In some ways the online component gives us more flexibility,” he said. “Not only have we been able to invite more people, but probably have gotten more acceptances than we might have not if people didn’t really want to fly all the way across the country.”

Attendance is expected to be high, with 1500 people already registered, a number that would have been difficult to accommodate in-person.

“It is challenging, but it is going to be fun,” said Appy.

Day one of the conference commences at 10 a.m. EST tomorrow, with a student roundtable — Lessons from the Ellsberg Archive, with Appy, Forde and the Ellsberg seminar students, followed by other discussions.

The conference is free and open to the public. Register for this event here.

Karan Chaudhary can be reached at [email protected]