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The Documents Daniel Ellsberg Didn't Leak

This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and emailtranscripts@nytimes.comwith any questions.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro

Mr. Ellsberg, a few weeks ago you made public the fact that you’ve been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and that you’ve decided to forego treatment.

Daniel Ellsberg


Lulu Garcia-Navarro

And so first of all, I’d like to say I’m sorry and ask how you’re feeling.

Daniel Ellsberg

Thank you. Well, I’m not. It’s not an enormous change for me at 92. As John Dean said to me, if it’s not one damn thing, it’s another.

So it isn’t that I’m against chemotherapy in principle. I probably will take some and see whether I am one of the relatively few candidates for improvement. But the odds, I might say, are, say, 5 percent. And that’s better odds than I usually deal with politically. So I’m pursuing that a bit, but not to the level of terrible quality of life.

Well, I’m very happy to hear that, that you have found that there are options for you. But I’m also curious why you want to speak to people like me right now. I mean, why are you speaking to journalists with the remaining time that you have?

I’ve long said to my last breath I will be doing what I can to postpone and avert the risk of nuclear war. And I will do what I can to the last — till my last breath. 

Lulu Garcia-Navarro

From New York Times Opinion, I’m Lulu Garcia-Navarro. And this is “First Person.”

Daniel Ellsberg is famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers back in 1971. They helped end the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. After The New York Times started publishing the documents, Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg the most dangerous man in America.

But a few years ago, Ellsberg revealed a secret. The Pentagon Papers were only some of the documents he’d copied and not even the ones he considered most important. There was another set of documents about American nuclear war planning that he had wanted to be his legacy. But a sequence of events involving his brother, a compost heap, the FBI, and a tropical storm kept Ellsberg from ever bringing those other papers to light.

Now Ellsberg is reflecting on his life. And against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and rising tensions over Taiwan, he worries that we’re closer than ever to nuclear disaster and that the American public won’t start paying attention until it’s too late. Today, Daniel Ellsberg’s final warning.

So of course you’re most famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers. But many people might not know that you’ve spent most of your life focused on nuclear war. When did the prospect of nuclear war first enter your imagination?

Daniel Ellsberg

Really when I was 13 in 1944. And my social studies teacher, Bradley Patterson, assigned us a week to study the following question. What if there evolved what he called a uranium bomb?

Now almost no one in America had recently heard of a uranium bomb because the subject had been essentially censored since about 1940. So he said supposing a bomb became possible that was a thousand times more powerful than the blockbusters we were then using. How would this affect humanity? Would this be a good thing or a bad thing?

And my memory is that all of the students in my class concluded what I did after one week. And it wasn’t that hard. You didn’t have to be a moral prodigy to arrive at the conclusion this would be a bad thing for humanity. We can’t really deal with that.

And then, nine months later, during the summer, I remember very vividly being on a street in Detroit. I can remember a trolley car was going by and was clattering on the wheels. I just had that memory as I looked at a newspaper on a stand saying Hiroshima, a city destroyed by one bomb.

And my reaction immediately was that was the bomb we studied nine months ago. And we got it first. And we used it.

Read entire article at New York Times