Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg sharing latest story in Sonoma County

The whistleblower will make appearances in Sonoma and Petaluma this week to talk about his new book and why people should be 'much more worried than they are' about the prospects of nuclear war.|

At the time he was photocopying the 7,000 top secret documents that came to be known as “The Pentagon Papers,” high-level military analyst Daniel Ellsberg was also copying thousands of other potentially damning classified materials.

Many of them were also related to Vietnam. But most are what he calls “The Other Pentagon Papers,” his notes and studies dealing with the command and control of nuclear weapons and nuclear war planning and strategy assembled in the late 1960s when he worked for The RAND Corp., whose federally funded research often drives military policy.

Ellsberg believed then and now, that those documents were even more important than The Pentagon Papers for what they revealed about the nuclear arms build-up, the dangerous weaknesses in the protocol and strategy for using nuclear weapons and the potential for widespread annihilation. Maintaining a massive stockpile of weapons of mass destruction is, he says, “dizzyingly insane and immoral” because of the potential for global casualties on a catastrophic scale measured in the billions. The full climatic consequences were not even considered until the 1980s when scientists identified and began talking about “Nuclear Winter.”

Nearly a half-century later he finally is both revealing the contents of those documents and sounding an alarm, in his latest book, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.”

When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and Washington Post he was arrested on charges of espionage, theft and conspiracy that could have sent him to prison for life. Ellsberg was a cause celebre - a courageous whistleblower or a traitor, depending on which side you were on. Henry Kissinger called him “The most dangerous man in America,” a charge that came to be the title of a 2009 documentary about Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

The leaks didn’t have the hoped-for impact - hastening an end to the Vietnam War. But they were, as Ellsberg said, “a link in a chain of events and actions” that culminated in the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Ellsberg’s latest revelations come as a relative whisper compared to the deafening roar of the Pentagon Papers, which also figured into a Supreme Court decision upholding the press’s First Amendment right to publish them. Yet the 87-year-old activist, who lives in the East Bay city of Kensington, is doggedly pursuing every opportunity to discuss his latest book and the perils posed by America’s nuclear armaments.

He will appear in a sold-out event Monday June 4 at Hanna Boys Center as part of The Sonoma Speaker Series. On June 10 he will appear in conversation with actor, author and Sebastopol resident Peter Coyote, at the Petaluma Veterans Memorial Hall. Although much of the book draws on history and policy during the 1960s, it is relevant today, he said in a recent phone interview.

“There has been no nuclear war and people take that as evidence that it’s extremely unlikely and negligibly important, but that’s not true. Their impression of course, is true. That it didn’t actually happen.

“But if they take from that it didn’t come close to happening, they’re mistaken. They’re unaware of what close calls we have had from false alarms, secret threats and accidents, and how unstable the situation is.”

Nuclear trigger

Ellsberg’s revelations include evidence that there are far more people with the authority to pull the nuclear trigger than the president, contrary to what most people think, that the U.S. has come closer to nuclear war than is commonly known, and that an authorized U.S. nuclear strike could be set off by a far wider range of scenarios and events than the public ever imagined.

The number of deaths estimated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff back in the early 1960s at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin wall, would have been many times more the assumed 600,000. An ensuing nuclear winter, he said, would have led to starvation that could have wiped out nearly everyone on the planet.

“The chance of a two-sided nuclear war is very close now. But it’s not a Russian war which would threaten all life on earth,” he said.

Instead, the threat is from smaller states like Iran and North Korea.

“It’s a terrible prospect and people should be much more worried than they are,” he said. “They’re not acting with the urgency this situation demands. About a third of the country, the Trump supporters, are ignorant of the actual danger … to be knowledgeable about the actual danger and yet to be in any way accepting of war with North Korea, is insane.”

While other presidents like Nixon and Johnson, with their fingers on the figurative nuclear button, have exhibited unstable behavior, Donald Trump’s degree of “recklessness, ignorance and belligerence” is particularly threatening.

“This is the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis that a president has made explicit threats of an attack against a nuclear weapons state. This is dangerous,” said Ellsberg, who lays out in the book steps to dismantle the “Doomsday Machine” that he says continues to threaten the future of the planet.

Past war plans

The story of Ellberg’s absconding of the The Doomsday papers is more dramatic than The Pentagon Papers. His safe at RAND also contained voluminous notes, verbatim extracts and copies of critical documents, past war plans, cables and studies, some of which were his own research done for Kissinger after he was named assistant for national security affairs in 1969.

Ellsberg also photocopied the nuclear documents, but made a strategic decision to hold back on them to avoid drawing attention away from Vietnam, where thousands were dying. His plan was to release the nuclear papers later, after the fervor over The Pentagon Papers had died down.

What happened next seems like the stuff of a Hollywood script. Ellsberg entrusted the nuclear documents to his brother Harry, who hid them in his basement in a New York suburb. When the New York Times and Washington Post were enjoined from releasing the Pentagon papers and there was a manhunt on for Ellsberg, Harry put the nuclear documents in a plastic trash bag and buried them in a compost pile in his backyard.

Fearful they would be discovered he later reburied the top secret cache in the town dump, marked by an old gas stove.

Digging for documents

As luck would have it, a tropical storm roared through that summer and the bluff where the papers were buried, along with the stove, slid down to a roadway. Ellsberg said his brother and two friends spent every weekend that summer digging for the documents - even bringing in a backhoe - but never found them.

But Ellsberg still had a record. During his 1971 trial his lawyer wanted to know everything that might come up in court that had to do with secrets he had access to. He said he spent an entire week with a tape recorder, recounting all he knew about the projects and studies he had dealt with as an analyst and war planner.

He was only 40 at the time, he said, so his memory was still sharp. The sum of those 500 pages of memories he later transcribed, became a pretty complete account.

“I edited some chapters down from that. I had all this stuff and I gave it to a publisher as soon as the war was over. It’s basically the first third of the book, at least a rough form. And the editor just said they couldn’t sell it. No one was interested in nuclear weapons.”

He set it aside. A generation went by and he began shopping it around again; 17 publishers rejected it on “commercial grounds” before Bloomsbury Publishers decided to take a chance.

He said he talked to powerful members of Congress and high level journalists from Walter Cronkite to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame.

He believes that he might have had more success if he had the actual documents. But over the decades many of them have become declassified.

“We didn’t put anything in that we felt was still classified,” Ellsberg said.

2017 movie

The timing of the publication was serendipitous, with director Steven Spielberg in production for “The Post,” last year’s Oscar-nominated historical drama starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep about the Washington Post’s battle to publish The Pentagon Papers.

“Bloombsury (Publishing) was planning to get it out in the spring of this year. But they pushed me very hard to get it out in December to coincide with the release of ‘The Post.’ I’m sure that did get more attention for my books,” he said.

He gives that film a thumbs-up and said it’s a fairly accurate depiction of events as they really went down. The scene between himself and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was exactly as he recounted it in his best-selling book, “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and The Pentagon Papers,” an American Book Award winner.

Spielberg, he said, did take liberties with a scene that shows Ellsberg’s former colleague Tony Russo helping him cut “Top Secret” off The Pentagon Papers. In real life, it was his kids Robert and Mary, then 13 and 10, who helped him Xerox and later cut the tops and bottoms off the papers. Spielberg actually filmed a scene showing 10-year-old Mary with scissors but then scrapped it, saying it would appear too “unbelievable,” and then re-shot it.

He said he wanted the kids to witness the cutting of the papers because he expected the documents to be quickly released and after that, he would never see his children, “except behind thick glass.” He wanted his kids, who might hear all kinds of attacks on his patriotism, credibility and sanity, to know that “old Daddy was doing this because he thought it was the right thing to do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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