Many people around the world regard my father, Daniel Ellsberg, as a hero. Over the last 40 years he has been a visible and outspoken champion for the cause of peace and social change. But he is particularly known for a singular act of courage. In 1969 he photocopied a 7,000-page top secret history of the Vietnam War, known as the The Pentagon Papers, and provided it to the New York Times and other newspapers. After the Papers were published in 1971, he was arrested and put on trial to face 115 years in prison. Thanks to eventual revelation of gross government misconduct in the case (including burglary of his psychiatrist's office and the attempted bribery of his judge), the charges were dismissed. These revelations, which were part of the wider "Watergate" scandal, led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon and ultimately the end of the Vietnam War.
These events were part of my childhood, and they continue to reverberate through my life.
My father spent the '60s working as a government insider, a defense department analyst entrusted with the highest security clearances. Then, in 1965, he went to Vietnam, and what he experienced there over the next two years caused him to change. He came to see the futility of the war, its impact on innocent civilians, and he began to question the motives and the morality of U.S. policy. On his return, as part of the Pentagon Papers project, he began researching the origins of the war. When he finally read the entire history, which documented a long history of government deception and lies, he realized that the war was not simply a mistake to be corrected but a crime to be resisted.
Daniel Ellsberg with co-defendant Tony Russo after charges were dismissed in the Pentagon Papers case in 1973. Daniel's wife Patricia is at the right.
In this state of mind, in the fall of 1969, he attended an international gathering of anti-war activists, including many inspired by Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolent "truth-force." There he met young Americans who were going to prison for resisting the draft. These young men had no access to classified documents or the corridors of power. They acted without any presumption that their personal sacrifice would end the war or alter history. They were simply following their conscience, casting their "whole vote," as Thoreau once put it, adding the weight of their personal witness to the balance of peace. My father, sitting in the audience, was enormously affected by their example. After listening to the testimony of one particular young resister, he went outside and wept uncontrollably for a long time. Then he asked himself the question: "What could I do to help end this war if I were willing to go to prison?" As he later recalled, it was if an axe had cut his life in two. Everything that followed would reflect the impact of that moment.
Soon after this, one day in October, my father took me out to lunch. He told me that he intended to copy secret documents about the war from his safe at the Rand Corporation and make them available to Congress. He didn't know what the consequences might be. It might help end the war. But it might also involve his going to prison. Would I help him?
I was 13 at the time. I can't say I totally understood the implications of what he was telling me. But at his urging I had been reading books by Gandhi and Thoreau's "The Duty of Civil Disobedience," and I certainly understood and supported his intentions. And so for a couple of days I and my younger sister helped with photocopying the Pentagon Papers, a long project that actually took him many weeks. I didn't suppose that he really needed our help. But in the belief that he might end up in prison for many years, and that surely we might later hear from other people (as indeed we did) that he was a criminal, a traitor or simply mad, he wanted us to have a share in this action. He wanted us to see that he was acting deliberately and with full possession of his mind. And he wanted us to receive lessons that might be the only legacy he could leave us: the importance of following one's conscience; the value of a life dedicated to truth; the message that there are things in life that are worthy of the greatest sacrifice.
The Pentagon Papers were published 40 years ago in 1971, at the midpoint of his life, thus far. April 7, 2011 is his 80th birthday. I am, of course, immensely glad that he did not spend the past 40 years in prison. In fact, he has spent the past 40 in continuous dedication to the same cause and the same values. In his protest against nuclear weapons and various wars, he has been arrested dozens of times. In particular, he has tried through his actions to inspire others, whether government officials or ordinary people, to live up to their highest responsibilities as citizens of the earth, as human beings. He has committed his words, his actions and all his energy to the struggle against war and violence of all kinds and to overcome lies through the power of truth.
In this April 1, 1972 picture, Daniel Ellsberg, chief defendant in the Pentagon Papers case, addresses a crowd at the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. following an anti-war parade that ended at the Capitol. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)
Many people regard my father as a hero. And he is my hero as well. But of course his impact and influence in my life go beyond the public story of protests and activism. Although I cannot claim to have emulated his life of public witness, I know that my own life has taken shape around the lessons and the example he offered so many years ago. I know that through him I was introduced to a whole tradition and community of men and women across the ages whose lives have borne witness to truth and the highest calling of humanity. I think of people like Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton and Sojourner Truth. I have spent much of my life writing about such people and holding up their lives, believing that such stories expand our moral imagination, illuminate the challenges of our own time and reveal new possibilities of human existence, enabling each of us to live more bravely, more lovingly. Just as my father's example has undoubtedly inspired many people, I know that he too was inspired by the witness of others, some well known, others obscure and uncelebrated. It is a very high responsibility to remember and honor such stories. In the chronicle of conscientious actions, one candle lights another.
But it is not only my father's exemplary and heroic qualities that I honor. I also think of his incredible zest for living: his passion for books, poetry, music and nature; his willingness to drive two hours to catch a movie on his "must-see" list; his hilarious sense of humor; his delight in entertaining children with card tricks and magic acts; the way he loses himself when he plays Chopin on the piano or recites a favorite poem; his pride in making scrambled eggs; his capacity to weep in the face of beauty; his fierce indignation over injustice; his ability to laugh at himself; his generosity and loyalty toward a friend in need; the way he always "dresses up" to get arrested and invariably flashes a peace sign from his manacled hands.
This is not to suggest he is without faults. He has many, which he himself is the first to recognize and name. But his shining idealism, his fullness of heart and his overall integrity, for me, far outweigh his failures and shortcomings. Up to the present he continues to grow, to question himself, to push himself to learn and understand the world, to seek out new opportunities to challenge the power of lies and violence, to expand the possibilities for peace.
On his 80th birthday, I am proud to call him my father, my hero. I know I will spend the rest of my life absorbing the lessons he has given me, trying my best to pass them along to my own children and to others.
Daniel Ellsberg participates in an anti-war protest in front of the White House December 16, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
This story was first published on the MY HERO web site in honor of my father Daniel Ellsberg's 80th birthday.