Told  /  First Person

My Fifty Years with Dan Ellsberg

The man who changed America.

I first learned of Dan’s importance in the summer of 1971, when he was outed for delivering the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times a few weeks after the newspaper began a series of shattering stories about the disconnect between what we were told and what really had been going on. Those papers remain today the most vital discussion of a war from the inside. Even after the New York Times exposures, their seven thousand pages would be rarely read in full.

I was then working for the New Yorker on a Vietnam project and had learned that it was Dan who did the leaking a week or so before his name became public. His outing was inevitable, and on June 26, after hiding out in Cambridge, Dan strolled to the U.S Attorney’s office in Boston—there were scores of journalists waiting—and had a brief chat with the reporters before turning himself in for what all expected would be the trial of the decade. He told the crowd that he hoped that “the truth will free us of this war.” And then, as he fought his way to the courthouse steps, a reporter asked him how he felt about going to prison. His response struck me then and still makes me tingle: “Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?”

I had done my bit in exposing the My Lai massacre and publishing a book about it in 1970. I was then in the process of writing a second book on the Army’s cover-up of the slaughter. “Hell, no,” I thought to myself, “No way I would go to jail—especially for telling an unwanted truth.” I followed Ellsberg’s subsequent trial in a Los Angeles federal court and even wrote about the wrongdoing of the White House creeps who broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst—at the request of President Nixon. (The government’s case was thrown out after the extent of the White House-ordered spying on Ellsberg became public.)

It was early in the election year summer of 1972 when Ellsberg and I got in touch with each other. I was banging away on the losing Vietnam war and CIA misdeeds for the Times. Nixon looked like a sure thing, despite continuing the hated war, because of stumble after stumble for the campaign of the Democratic nominee, Senator George McGovern. Dan had two stories that he thought could change the dynamics of the November election.