UMass hosts Daniel Ellsberg Conference

The Truth, Dissent, & the Legacy


Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

By Karan Chaudhary, Collegian Correspondent

The Truth, Dissent, & the Legacy of Daniel Ellsberg Conference, hosted by the University of Massachusetts, commenced on April 30 at 10 a.m. The Student Roundtable: Lessons from the Ellsberg Archive was the first event on the schedule.

This roundtable discussion was based on the year-long UMass seminar class, “Truth, Dissent, and the Legacy of Daniel Ellsberg.” Professor Christian G. Appy, best known for his books on the Vietnam War and his upcoming book on Ellsberg’s life and contributions, was the instructor for this seminar and also the moderator for the event discussion. Joining him as a moderator was UMass journalism Professor Kathy Roberts Forde, the associate dean of equity & inclusion in the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, who has also been the co-instructor for this seminar for the spring semester.

During the seminar throughout the spring semester, students got to be some of the first people to work in the Ellsberg archives, owned by UMass. The course was complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shut down of the University’s in-person functions.

“Besides the political climate which made the class so engaging and interesting, this was a unique year for the libraries because we were pretty much shut down,” Jeremy Smith, the archivist of the collection at UMass, said. “We essentially had to make an exception for the students to come in the fall, to come and access the collections.”

UMass announced that it had acquired the Ellsberg papers in 2019, meaning that they are still fairly new to the University.

“This is a completely unprocessed collection, it came to us as organized — or not so much, in this case. There had been 500 boxes, banker size boxes, you can imagine in varying levels of organization. Some more organized than others,” Smith said. He also added that these were contents from the ‘60s, ‘70, ‘80s and ‘90s all in one box and different subjects.

During the roundtable discussion, some of the students shared their thoughts on Ellsberg’s life, specifically, his decision to distribute the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971.

“The main sort of challenge or question of Daniel Ellsberg’s life and the way that I see it is – ‘How do you affect change in government? How do you change the course of the government?’”  said senior legal studies and history major Peter Jones.

“It is through public attention, vigilance and collective action,” Jones said. He added that in the ‘60s, the lesson was just to pay attention and to be passionate. “It sounds simple, but it is hard for people to do and there is fatigue but what I learned is, public opinion can move the needle and that is also daunting, but also encouraging,” Jones said.

Grace Simmons, a junior political science major, said that this journey has been eye-opening and  drew parallels between the course and the current global climate.

“It is inspirational to go through these boxes because there is a lack of hope for young people,” Simmons said. “Being in this course and all its discussion has kind of reinvigorated hope within me that we can make a change”

Emma Lewis, a graduate student studying public history, said that it was difficult to come to class at the beginning of the spring semester following the Capitol riot in January. She said, “being able to talk to everyone in the class gave me hope.”

“I felt really fortunate to do [in-person meetings], to be able to do so safely throughout the year,”  said Helen Kyriakoudes, a graduate student studying public history. She recalled a meeting the class had at 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 3, election day, with Randy Kehler, who went to jail as a draft resister and was the individual who inspired Ellsberg to release the paper and taking this risk for his freedom.

During the discussion, Forde asked students, “What have you all found most striking or surprising in terms of the documents and the artifacts that you’ve found in these 500 boxes of Daniel Ellsberg’s papers?”

“Dr. Ellsberg really just kept everything, which I think is a testament to the number of boxes that the archive has gotten. You can literally find anything in there,” said Talya Torres, a junior english and journalism major. “One could find a photograph of him when Ellsberg was younger, a tablecloth from a restaurant. He was writing math equations on and even the New York Times court documents just bound together that he somehow got a hold of,” Torres said.

The archive includes personal documents and communications for students to explore. Tianna Darling, a graduate student studying public history, got a glimpse into Ellsberg’s personal life.

“I found a telegram from him when he was doing activist work and he couldn’t have his wife and young son with him, and I think that really showed me multiple sides of Ellsberg,” Darling said.

Andrew Bettencourt, a junior history and political science major, described his experience scavenging through audiotapes, color positive slides, photographic film and government documents labeled top secret throughout the seminar. He was researching Ellsberg’s work on nuclear weapons.

“A lot of it was really difficult to parse through. I spent a long time in the archives just trying to figure out how to read what I was reading. It was an enriching experience,” Bettencourt said.

William Le, a junior political science student, expressed the narrative that Ellsberg was more than just an analyst. “He [Ellsberg] was also keeping tabs on social issues of the time. It is remarkable to see how some of these issues have changed, but also how some of them stayed the same,” Le said.

“He collected papers from prominent American economics professors talking about the rising inequality between the classes of America and for how many people, healthcare was becoming less and less an affordable thing,” said Le. “Housing inequality and a whole bunch of other things that we are still striving to solve even today, which on one hand, is kind of disheartening but also shows you the march of progress and what we have accomplished since then.”

While others explored the papers in a broader context, Isabelle Eastman, a senior English and history major, had a more targeted approach as she talked about how she spent an entire semester on a searching for a specific document. “I was looking for CIA’s profile of [Ellsberg] back when the Pentagon Papers had first been released,” Eastman said.

She eventually tracked it down with Smith’s help. It was a CIA personality assessment from August 1971 that they conducted in secret, and the analysis tried to interpret Ellsberg’s action of why he would release the Pentagon Papers.

“They boiled it down to a mid-life crisis. They said he was such a high achiever for so much of his young life and when he got to midlife he was not achieving as much as he wanted to, so he had this explosive responsive,” she said.

Eastman emphasized that it stood in such stark contrast to her since there was such a disconnect with what the CIA said in 1971 to what Ellsberg told them in class. While the CIA was blaming it on this intensified need to achieve significance, Ellsberg told the students in the class that it was like watching a kid walk into traffic and he knew he had to do something.

Jones talked about Ellsberg’s ideological transformation.  Ellsberg was in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967. “He came in with such enthusiasm about the war and you can see in the archives the letters he wrote to colleagues, friends, to family, just the pretty dramatic dissolution that happened from being in Vietnam and seeing the reports that were going up the chain.” Jones said.

They were not just distorting the truth, they were completely false, said Jones. “You would see the reports that they were sending patrols at night and Daniel Ellsberg would go visit and see that no patrols were happening at all,” he said. “That disconnect between what was being reported and what Daniel Ellsberg expected to see in Vietnam and then the truth on the ground was really powerful.”

It put Ellsberg on a specific path when he came back to Washington since not many government insiders went to Vietnam, and those that did just spent a day or two in comparison to Ellsberg’s years of experience on the ground.

“There was something fishy going on. There was this huge disconnect with what Washington thought was happening and was happening in Vietnam,” Jones said.

However, Maia Fudala, a history major, suggested that this transformation began a long time ago and that it was subconscious. “There were a lot of effects that his childhood had on him and his decision to be a whistleblower,” said Fudala. “They [whistleblowers] have a very unique personality type, they need to be able to sacrifice their future and any prospects they have and they have to be very dedicated to a cause.”

She recalls Ellsberg’s story that he talks about frequently.

“When he was 15, his mother and sister were killed in a car crash and he told us in class that his father had fallen asleep at the wheel and that had changed his perception of authority and it made him wary. No matter how much you trust something, it can fall asleep, and it can change everything,” she said.

Lewis stressed the need to look at the larger picture, “It is much more than just one man’s story; it is a story of all these people coming together and exchanging these ideas. While doing this research we are definitely working with the Ellsberg Archive, but his connections and network is incredibly important in his transformation,” she said..

Le talked about his research which is focused on Ellsberg’s two years in Vietnam and his [Ellsberg’s] understanding of the situation in Vietnam and how that evolved, specifically the ground war as Le dug through the archives through Ellsberg’s old work.

“You can see at first hopefulness and an expectation of high morale and a war that is eventually to be won,” Le said. “But over time you see sort of the disillusionment and the annoyance that there is no progress…With the illusion of progress comes the illusion of victory.”

Cai Barias, a PhD student in the history department, has researched the Asian American Response. “I looked in the Ellsberg Archive and I also looked at some student published newspapers from the Asian American groups in the 1960s and 1970s and I found that the Pentagon Papers were maybe a drop in the bucket,” she said. , “I also found connections in sort of Ellsberg’s constellation of this anti-war network to Vietnamese student organizing and their connection to Asian American organizing,” said Barias.

Torres, who researched the trial of the papers and the moments leading up to it remembered an excerpt from the book “Secrets” which vividly captures Elsberg’s anti-war stance. “When he was giving himself up in front of the courthouse in Boston, one of the press people asked him, ‘Are you ready to go to jail?’ And he had said ‘Wouldn’t you go to jail to help end the war?’” said Torres. “He did not end up going to jail due to a mistrial and government misconduct due to Nixon, but he was so willing to go to jail.”

Appy noted that most people do know of Ellsberg because of the papers, Nixon’s reaction and the mistrial. “But what most Americans don’t know is that Ellsberg’s life has been deeply devoted to learning about and then protesting nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear warfare,” Appy said.

It was the period between 1959 and 1961 that Ellsberg’s view on nuclear weapons transformed fundamentally, according to Bettencourt. “It was during a top-secret study that he was picked for, being contracted by the RAND corporation and working for the navy in the pacific, basically analyzing who had the authority to use nuclear weapons and under what circumstances,” Bettencourt said. “It was then when he was researching officers and admirals all over the Pacific, he kind of started to notice that not only was America’s nuclear command and control system full of holes, contradictions, discrepancies.”

“But it was also indiscriminate in its targeting of civilians and its targeting of China, specifically, any war with the Soviet Union, which really could just be a small border skirmish in Berlin, perhaps China would also be targeted by Nuclear weapons and then finds out that directly or indirectly would cause the deaths of over 600 million people. His work gets cut short because of the war in Vietnam which he begins to work on in 1961, his work overall cannot be understated” he continued.

Simmons spoke about Ellsberg’s book “The Doomsday Machine.”

“Ellsberg writes about a meeting he was in with nuclear war planners and [the plans for bombing] truly was indiscriminate. They had these massive maps and they said if nuclear attacks happen against us, here is where we will be bombing,” she said.

Simmons continued, “He noticed the maps were of Russia and China but there were no borders drawn or anything. It was truly just anti-communist sentiment within the Cold War era, and I think that indiscriminate nature of bombing resonates through a lot of the research that we found this year on the bombing plans, any attack that happened against the U.S. in the cold war but also how we treated the Vietnamese in our bombing there.”

Erik Plowden, a senior social thought and political economy major, focused on Ellsberg’s relation to whistleblowing. “I think it’s been fascinating and also a little bit frustrating to see a lot of similar arguments being against whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden” he said. “A lot of  [the arguments], especially towards Snowden, are that his leaks threatened the national security of the United States, which of course was also leveled at Ellsberg. Implicit in all of these assumptions is that the military ventures of the United States are a net positive for the world, which I would also say is a very big takeaway from this course has been that it is very much not the case in a lot of circumstances.”

“I think, in a way, this country could sort of perhaps benefit from Ellsberg’s transformation and thinking in international and more moral perspective than one that’s centered on the military domination of the United States,” said Plowden.

“We are coming out of a presidency, [Donald] Trump’s presidency that was marked by lies but also in its ways marked by truth-telling because of whistleblowing that came out of this era, including the Dawn Wooten, who was the nurse in the I.C.E detention centers” said Eastman.

She recalled how the whole class discussed conspiracy theories and COVID[-19] deniers. “[Ellsberg] said anyone will find evidence for anything that they believe, they will find a way to prove it to themselves if that is what they want to believe.” She added that, “Whistleblowers dilute that narrative and come out with hard evidence and facts that support the truth and they are the ones who are making these changes that are instrumental during this time.”

Historians, journalists and activists of the period joined the seminar at several points over the year

Barias expresses how the variety of speakers helped expand her knowledge, but one particular guest stood out in helping her a lot during her research: Professor Ngo Vinh Long.

“We spoke outside of class about this sort of the legacy of Vietnamese student organizing and it was great to hear the amount of work that he did organizing with other Vietnamese students,” said Barias. “But it was also sort of returning to this question of continuity in history, sort of disheartening to hear that he faced an incredible personal threat in doing so. He was not only harassed for speaking out against the government, but he was also experiencing racism because he Vietnamese and he was in America at the time.”

Bettencourt enjoyed speaking to all the speakers that joined the class online, but he specifically enjoyed the last interview with Wayne Smith, a Vietnam war veteran from Rhode Island. Smith is a veterans advocate and mental health therapist.

“I thought his coming to the class was grounding and it served as a great reminder of why what Daniel Ellsberg did is important,” Bettencourt said.

“Have you found it [the seminar] a combination of inspiration or discouragement or something altogether different?” Appy asked students.

“I keep saying how inspirational it has all been,” said Simmons. “I think it has brought to light how the specific issues of the time may have changed but the underlying societal motivations have not. There is still so much work to be done there.”

Simmons recalled a quote from Ellsberg that stayed through the seminar’s interviews, about something that his lawyers said to him before he went to trial – “Be calm, be calm, it all depends on you,” and that is how it constantly feels said Simmons, “Terrifying, inspiring and there is always this underlying drive that’s really been brought to light to this class.”

Le said “One thing they all [the speakers] emphasized that they have hope in our generation and our ability to carry on the torch of what they did, the torch of progress is still burning bright, despite all the negative pessimism that we as a generation hold,” he said..

“It can be discouraging to see the same struggles being repeated again and again against foreign intervention, against lies, but I think that one of the more inspiring things I have learned from this class is that behind all the pompousness and power that the executive branch can present behind all of the military power that the United States can project, just a little of the truth can sort to tip those dominos and make it all fall down,” said Plowden.

Appy also gave a special mention to the late Rob Cox, the former director of special collections and University archives, and said that, without him, the acquisition of the archives would not have been possible.

“I think one of the arguments that helped [Cox] persuade that UMass was the right place is that our archive has a long tradition of collecting papers about peace activism and the struggle for social justice issues,” Appy said.

Ford thanked Charlie M. Sennott, the founder and Director of The Ground Truth Project and Mitch Hanley, the podcast producer.

Karan Chaudhury can be reached at [email protected]