Sonoma Speaker Series: In Conversation with Daniel Ellsberg

  • June 4, 2018
  • 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM

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It’s arguable that no man had a greater influence on the American perception of the war in Vietnam than Daniel Ellsberg. He was a consummate insider, served as a Marine First Lieutenant after graduating from Harvard, later returned to Harvard and wrote what is widely regarded as a brilliant dissertation on decision theory. In 1964 he went to work for the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He then went to Vietnam for 2 years working in the State Department for General Edward Lansdale. He had an eye level view of what was happening in that horrendous war. In 1967 he joined the Rand Corporation and contributed to a top secret history of the conduct of the war in Vietnam.

That history was commissioned by none other than Secretary McNamara, and became known as the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg had become increasingly disillusioned with the war and began attending peace rallies. At one, a draft resistor named Randy Kehler said he was going to prison rather than serve in Vietnam. To Ellsberg, Kehler’s willingness to sacrifice himself to prison to protest the war was an epiphany, and he began making several copies of the top-secret documents. First, he tried to get a number of senators, including William Fullbright and George McGovern, to release them. Didn’t happen.

Then Ellsberg shared the documents with the Institute for Policy Studies in D.C., and they got them to Neil Sheehan at the New York Times. On Sunday, June 13, 1971, the Times published the first of nine excerpts from the papers. Nixon got a court order to stop the Times from publishing. Ellsberg then leaked the documents to the Washington Post which began publishing them. (See the movie, The Post)

The Papers revealed that three presidents, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had consistently lied to the American public about the war. In the end, the release of the Pentagon Papers played a central role in bringing an end to the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency as well.

Now Ellsberg has written a new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, based on his experiences at the Rand Corporation. The New York Times says this about the book: “By employing personal stories from his time in the 1950s and 1960s working alongside (Herman) Kahn and other “wizards of Armageddon” at the RAND Corporation and as a consultant at the Pentagon, he makes hard-to-believe truths more credible.”