The War May Be Over, but Daniel Ellsberg Is Still at the Barricades
Mystical truth seeker Rennie Davis, politician Tom Hayden, would-be newspaper publisher Jerry Rubin—one after another the angry radicals of the Vietnam resistance movement have lowered their voices and come in from the cold. Not so Daniel Ellsberg, the onetime hawkish defense analyst whose 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers stirred a furious debate on government secrecy and made him a symbol of the years of dissent. Ellsberg, 45, greeted the war’s end with “happy relief.” But since then he has found himself rejected by professional colleagues, and continues to play the lonely crusader.
A popular lecturer—on Vietnam, Watergate and the threat of a nuclear holocaust—Ellsberg lends both his name and his magnetic presence to a mixed bag of political-action groups. Arriving recently in Catonsville, Md., he spoke in the afternoon at the University of Maryland on the menace of nuclear weaponry. A few hours later he joined the Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice in Baltimore. With the marchers in attendance, he gave a speech that evening at Johns Hopkins University against its Applied Physics Laboratory, which conducts classified government research. In Washington, D.C. the following day he pushed for an expanded freedom of information act before rejoining the Continental Walk on the last leg of its nine-month journey from California to Washington. By turns lobbying and lecturing for the rest of the week, Ellsberg led a peace-and-justice workshop sponsored by the walk over the weekend, then headed north for a lecture at Yale, where his daughter Mary, 17, is a premed student. “She’s the only reason I’m speaking there,” Ellsberg explains. This week he plans to jet home to California to co-sponsor a fund-raising meeting for Cesar Chavez’s farm workers.
Always a loner, Ellsberg claims to have no taste for such public commitment. “I am not an activist,” he maintains stubbornly. “I am a researcher, a scholar. I try to understand things. The antiwar stuff had to be done, but it was no kind of life I would have chosen.” Why then his current campaigning? “I feel I have to do it,” he says. “The notoriety I got, thanks to Nixon, means I can raise money for these causes. I can draw a crowd now.”
Once a gung-ho Marine first lieutenant who went on to become a highly regarded nuclear strategist at the Rand Corp., Ellsberg brings the same single-minded conviction to the movements that claim his loyalty. He believes the need for action has never been greater. “What I’m doing now is not about a peace movement at loose ends,” he insists. “It’s about human decency, the preservation of this species, and an end to all war and corruption.” In that service, Ellsberg earned some $40,000 in lecture fees last year, donating $14,000 of it to such diverse causes as the Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom in Iran, Indians for Democracy and Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister’s Jonah House.
Though Ellsberg’s prosecution for spilling state secrets ended more than three years ago when the charges were dismissed, he is still obsessed with government secrecy. “I am a Watergate junkie,” he admits. The groaning bookshelves of the San Francisco duplex he shares with his wealthy second wife, Pat, bear witness to his addiction. (Her father is Louis Marx, the former owner of the toy company that bears his name.) Ellsberg is convinced that only a fraction of the conspiracy has been revealed—”the whole record of the plumbers was never brought out”—and was pleased by Jack Anderson’s decision to file a lawsuit against former President Nixon for violation of-his First Amendment rights as a newsman.
Ellsberg was hurt when old friends in the Marines and the Rand Corp. cold-shouldered him following publication of the Pentagon Papers. “Pat has always been my best friend,” he says, “and suddenly she was my only friend. I thought that after my trial in 1973 my friends would renew our old ties. These were people I’d known for 15 years. I put out a couple of feelers, but got no response. Of course, I have my friends from the Movement, but they’re scattered all over the country. I spend a lot of time alone now.”
Though the CIA once theorized that Ellsberg’s ideological about-face could be explained as “resentment of his father and later those in authority,” he shrugs off the suggestion. His only real youthful rebellion, he says, was against a strong-minded mother who was determined to make him a concert pianist. At 17 (two years after she died) Ellsberg defiantly risked injury to his hands by taking a job at the Dodge plant in Hamtramck, Mich. “because Walter Reuther and Joe Hill were my heroes.” His flirtation with the left ended a few years later at Harvard when the conviction of Alger Hiss nudged him toward the right. (Recently Ellsberg was shocked to read that critical evidence against Hiss may have been faked. “That meant that 20 years of my life were predicated on a lie!” he exclaimed incredulously.)
Once a speaker much sought after by his fellow academicians, Ellsberg has not been invited to a faculty seminar in five years. Though he keeps busy studying and writing—for his own enjoyment, he says—he has found time to take up photography, and enjoys long walks through woods and parks with Pat, 38. (They are an affectionate couple, although Ellsberg jokes about his wife, “She has fantasies about Robert Redford.”) Rarely, however, do Ellsberg’s thoughts stray far from his predicament—a man estranged from the world of power he once helped make. Twice in the past two years Ellsberg’s belongings have been mysteriously ransacked, and more than 75 pounds of papers and documents stolen. Since the materials concerned his lengthy Rand Corp. and Defense Department service, Ellsberg believes no ordinary thief would have been interested. It is troubling, but he refuses to let it weigh on his mind. “You have to ask yourself how much time you can spend thinking about all these things and still remain sane,” he muses. “The answer is that you have to do other things too. I, for instance, want to spend a lot of time making love to my wife.”