UMass Professor Christian Appy speaks on the life and legacy of Daniel Ellsberg

From warrior in Cold War politics to leading anti-war advocate

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Dylan Nguyen/ Daily Collegian (2022)

By Sabrina Ishanyan, Collegian Correspondent

On Oct. 28, at the University of Massachusetts W.E.B. Du Bois Library, Christian Appy, a history professor, gave a lecture on Daniel Ellsberg’s transformation from an American war hawk during the Vietnam War to one of the most vocal anti-war advocates in the last four decades.

“Ellsberg’s Mutiny: War and Resistance in the Age of Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate” was hosted by the UMass Amherst Libraries in partnership with the Department of History, the College of Humanities and Fine Arts and the Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy. Jeremy Smith is the Daniel Ellsberg archivist at the University and was one of the primary coordinators of the lecture.

As an archivist, Smith is responsible for organizing the 500 boxes of Ellsberg’s life work that the University acquired in 2019, which includes personal items and papers from his time in government and later as a peace activist. Smith says he hopes his work will allow the materials to be more accessible for scholars at the University to utilize for research purposes.

“Now that we have the archive, we’re doing lots of programming in the library outside of the library, around a lot of issues that Daniel Ellsberg grappled with,” Smith said.

Appy began the lecture with an overview of Ellsberg’s life. Ellsberg grew up in Detroit before enlisting in the Marine Corps after graduating from Harvard with a degree in economics. He began working for the government in the mid-1960s, where he established himself as a skilled nuclear war strategist and for seeking effective ways on behalf of the Americans to defend their objectives in Vietnam.

However, he quickly became disillusioned with the war, Appy said, and the government’s failure to accurately inform the American public of the status of the war. This ultimately led to his decision to publish the Pentagon Papers — for which he was tirelessly prosecuted by the Nixon administration for years — and established himself as one of the most outspoken opponents of war.

According to Appy, Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s secretary of state, expressed considerable apprehension towards Ellsberg’s actions, saying that he was “the most dangerous man in America and must be stopped.”

“Within days, the White House was whipped into a frenzy of outrage and true paranoia about the threat presented by Daniel Ellsberg and the press,” Appy added.

He later delved into Ellsberg’s role as a “whistleblower” and the ideologies he defended that conferred this title.

“For more than 50 years, he has been one of the most tireless and penetrating critics of U.S. foreign policy and has made some quite radical changes in the exercise of American power,” Appy said.

Appy explained that Ellsberg tried to move “in what we refer to as an ‘anti-imperial direction.’” This means reigning in the “almost” absolute power of the president to make war in the nuclear age. That makes foreign policy “vastly more transparent, less secretive and accountable to the public.”  Appy also adds that this “radically” scales back with the U.S. foreign military basting and intervention and “challenge the long history and ongoing exercise of undemocratic, secret, and unaccountable global interventions,” Appy said.

“It occurred to me that maybe a more active word for Ellsberg was ‘mutineer’ as much as a whistleblower,” added Appy. “A guy who committed an act of mutiny.”

“There has never been a government official with his level and access to power and classified information who has broken so radically with the nation’s military policies and taken such a personal risk to change those policies,” Appy emphasized on Ellsberg’s distinct transformation, one of the defining characteristics of Ellsberg’s legacy.

Appy attributes two broad factors to the change: his innate intellectual integrity and a reevaluation of his personal and moral values.

“Dan was always the premier analyst and intellectual. Ideas matter to him, still,” Appy said. “Reading the Pentagon Papers was hugely important to his decision that this war had been fundamentally flawed and unjust from the beginning.”

Towards the latter years of the war, when public discontent towards the war rose dramatically across the American population, Ellsberg began meeting with Americans who were willing to go to prison for engaging in acts of civil disobedience in opposition to what they believed to be an unjust war.

Eric Ross, a PhD student in the history department looking at U.S. formulations, attended the lecture and has and continues to work closely with Appy.

“Professor Appy was key to pointing out this idea that Daniel Ellsberg’s activism is not a momentary decision. It’s part of a lifelong process and also something that we can all engage in,” Ross said.  “That’s part of being in a democracy, it means that our leaders are ultimately accountable to us.”

“When [the government] is not operating and acting in our best interests, the most patriotic thing we can do in those times is to dissent, to fight against our government, to fight against policies that we deem are wrong and moral, etc.,” Ross added.

Appy discussed his goals with the Ellsberg initiative and his hopes with it evolving into something more permanent.

“I got the idea of trying to create an Ellsberg Institute for Peace and Democracy that will be centered at UMass and would promote public awareness and scholarship and activism around the overlapping issues that are crucial to Ellsberg’s life and legacy,” Appy explained.

Appy said he hopes the institute would endorse issues such as anti-authoritarianism, democracy, nuclear disarmament and other ongoing concerns regarding national security and government accountability in foreign affairs. Yearly programming such as guest speakers and active promotion around these issues would entail some of the work the institute hopes to pursue and more.

“The scholarship part of this is important, but I really do want to try to help energize younger people, high school teachers, and activist/community people, not just in the area, but around the country to take these issues more seriously and to be more hopeful about the possibilities for making change,” Appy said.

“I figured, Ellsberg can be inspirational, it is sometimes said that courage is contagious,” Appy said. “I wish it was more contagious.”

Sabrina Ishanyan can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @sabrinaishanyan.