With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Daniel Ellsberg Is Still Thinking About the Papers He Didn’t Get to Leak

“Keeping secrets was my career,” Daniel Ellsberg says. “I didn’t lose the aptitude for that when I put out the Pentagon Papers.” This might come as a shock, considering that the former Defense Department analyst is best known for leaking classified information nearly half a century ago, thus bringing about a landmark legal precedent in favor of press freedom and, indirectly, hastening the end of both the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. But for many years, even as Ellsberg beat prosecution, became a peace activist, and wrote an autobiography titled Secrets, he still had something remarkable left to disclose.

It turns out that Ellsberg also took many thousands of pages of documents pertaining to another subject: nuclear war. Ellsberg, a prominent thinker in the field of decision theory, had worked on the military’s “mutual assured destruction” strategy during the Cold War. Once a believer in deterrence, he now says he was a collaborator in an “insane plan” for “retaliatory genocide.” He wanted to tell the world decades ago; with nuclear threat looming again, he’s put the whole story into a new book, The Doomsday Machine.

“I expected to be in prison for the rest of my life,” Ellsberg says. Instead, at 86, he lives in a mid-century-modern home in the hills above Berkeley with his wife of many years, Patricia. When I visit him one sunny Sunday morning, he leads me onto a deck with a stunning view of San Francisco Bay and carefully descends some wooden stairs, leading to an old outdoor hot tub and the door to his basement office. He says the acoustics there are better for his hearing. The office is, naturally, crammed with papers: boxes labeled with terms like FIRST USE THREATS, and books arranged into categories: CATASTROPE, ETHICS, BOMBING CIVILIANS. Ellsberg’s face, always brooding and hawkish, is now deeply lined, and his hair is white and tousled. He makes a good doomsday prophet. At his age, there are no short conversations. A single question inspires an excursion through decades of experiences, and a trip back into a warren of rooms filled with even more boxes and file cabinets, where he knows just where to find, say, a 1961 national intelligence estimate of the Soviet Union’s missile arsenal.

“I’ve had a nice life, but I would rather have gotten this out,” Ellsberg says. “I shouldn’t have waited.”

The Doomsday Machine is being published at an alarmingly relevant moment, as North Korea is seeking the capability to target the United States with nuclear missiles, and an unpredictable president, Donald Trump, has countered with threats of “fire and fury.” Experts on North Korea say that the risk of a nuclear exchange is higher than it has been in recent memory. Ellsberg, as one of the few living members of the generation of theorists who devised our nuclear strike doctrines, has been grappling with such possibilities for much of his life. “It is kind of astonishing,” he says, “that people will put up with a non-zero chance of this happening.” ...

Read entire article at The New Yorker