Childhood & Early Life
Daniel Ellsberg was born on April 7, 1931 to Adele and Harry Ellsberg in Chicago, Illinois. The Jewish family converted to Christian Science and raised Daniel as a Christian scientist.
He attended the Cranbrook School in Detroit. His mother wanted him to become a pianist, but an unfortunate family accident that killed his sister and mother lead him to stop playing the piano.
He went to Harvard College through a scholarship and graduated in 1952 with a summa cum laude in Economics. He later received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study at the University of Cambridge.
In 1954, He enlisted himself in the U.S. Marine Corps where he served as a platoon leader and company commander. He was discharged as a first lieutenant in 1957. He returned to his alma mater, Harvard University, as a Junior Fellow for two years after being discharged.
He earned his PhD from Harvard in 1962 where he concentrated on decision theory. His arguments would later be known as the Ellsberg paradox, which has remained an influential stance today.
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In 1958, Daniel Ellsberg began his career with RAND Corporation as a strategic analyst. His areas of interest included nuclear strategy and the hold of nuclear weapons.
He started working at the Pentagon in 1964 where he was trained under Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, as a special assistant to John McNaughton. He was transferred to Vietnam where he worked under General Edward Lansdale for two years.
Later, he resumed his employment at RAND, focusing on a classified study of the Vietnam War. These reports were completed in 1968 and were referred to as the Pentagon Papers. His anti-war position led him to make several copies of the classified documents with help of his colleague, Anthony Russo.
The Pentagon Papers revealed that the US government was aware that the war couldn’t be won, demonstrating that the administration continued to lie to its people. Ellsberg asked many U.S. Senators to release these papers on the Senate floor, but nobody complied.
He quit working for the Pentagon and shifted to MIT as a senior fellow. However, he took the photocopies of the classified documents along with him as he wanted to ensure that the public read it.
He privately circulated the documents’ copies to several people, including scholars at The Institute for Policy Studies and Neil Sheehan of the New York Times. Times published the first few excerpts on June 13, 1971.
The Nixon administration issued a court order against the Times to prevent further publication of the document. Ellsberg became a target for the FBI, which he kept eluding. He circulated the documents to 17 more publications in order to spread the truth.
The Supreme Court ordered on June 30, 1971 that the document could be published. In the New York Times Co. vs. United Sates case verdict, the right of the press to publish prevailed. Ellsberg admitted to having leaked the document to the press around the same time. Thus, free from political threat, the papers were fully published.
Ellsberg’s became a hero in the public and a foe for the government as he had embarrassed three administrations: the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.
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With an intent to tarnish Ellsberg’s reputation, Egil Krogh, David Young, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt launched an operation that revolved around disgracing Ellsberg’s mental state. They broke into his psychiatrist’s office to steal his files, but couldn’t find anything embarrassing.
He publicly surrendered to the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts, Boston, stating that he didn’t regret what he did. He and his accomplice were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 and several other charges.
His charges carried a sentence of over 115 years. The trial began in 1973 in Los Angeles, and Ellsberg defended his actions. With new evidence suggesting the break-in to his psychiatrist’s office in addition to further tampering from the government, the Judge dismissed all charges against him and Russo on May 11, 1973.
After the trial, Ellsberg regained his voice and continued to speak against the war. He visited colleges and gave lectures. He also became a member of Campaign for Peace and Democracy.
He publicly issued his support to Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Booz Allen, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, stating that their actions had been nothing less than heroic, and the government needed more whistleblowers. Julian Assange cited Ellsberg as his inspiration.
Ellsberg wrote several books, including ‘Papers on the War’ (1972), ‘Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers’ (2002) and ‘The Doomsday Machine’ (2017).
He has used his position to condemn the atrocities committed by the government. A champion of free speech and public rights, Ellsberg has given talks on how almost every president has deceived the public. He has been arrested many times for protesting in public, but he continues to actively work for peace and transparency.
He co-founded the Freedom of the Press Foundation in 2012 and he is also a founding member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He is currently a Fellow of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and remains a vocal advocate for whistleblowing.
Family & Personal Life
Daniel Ellsberg was married to Carol Cummings for 13 years before they divorced. They have two children: Robert and Mary Ellsberg.
He married Patricia Marx in 1970. They have a son, Micheal Ellsberg. She is often seen alongside him in public and supported him throughout the ordeal in the late 1970s.
Ellsberg’s life and courage were essayed in the historical film, ‘The Pentagon Papers’ (2003). The movie documents his life and the unraveling of the classified documents.
A full-length documentary on him titled, ‘The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers’, was released in 2009. It was nominated for the Academy Award.