Daniel Ellsberg

1931 – 2023

Photo: Christopher Michel, 1980. Wikimedia Commons

During the summer of 1971 in Santa Barbara, I got a job painting the house of an older gentlemen.  He was very worldly, and quite kind to me.  After I finished for the day, we would sit on his veranda and have a glass of wine and snacks and chat about the state of the world, in particular the Vietnam War.  On one of these occasions, Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers came into our discussion.  I called Ellsberg a hero; my employer turned his head away, then looked straight at me.

“I know Daniel,” he said. “We worked together in Santa Monica at the Rand corporation for a good many years.  A number of us knew how the war was really being conducted.  We knew McNamara, who had commissioned the report, was lying to Johnson and Johnson was lying to the American people. Everyone in the Pentagon and the State Department knew from very early on but they kept on sending young people to fight and die for nothing.  I did not have the courage to do what Daniel did.  I quit instead, and moved up here.”

I was stunned.  For a moment, I sat in silence, trying to take all of this in.

“He will probably get a life sentence,” I said.

“Yes.  He probably will.  But he knows that’s the price he will have to pay for exposing government treachery. He said as much himself: ‘Wouldn’t you go to prison to stop this war?’ I wouldn’t, but I applaud what he did. He was always a man of great principle, and like me he was a cold warrior who shifted his position since he couldn’t abide seeing soldiers and civilians slaughtered for nothing.”

Over the next few days, we continued our discussion.

“Will you come forward to defend him?” I asked.

“No,” he said calmly. “He broke the law. But history will defend him.”

And it has.

— Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno