Since the release of Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Post, there’s been a spike in interest about the Pentagon Papers, a classified study of the U.S. government’s decision-making in relation to the Vietnam War. The Papers were first released by Daniel Ellsberg, a former U.S. military analyst. In a recent interview on NPR, Ellsberg mentioned that, on one occasion, “Police came in and found my son running the Xerox machine.”
His son, Robert Ellsberg, is an HDS alumnus and the editor-in-chief and publisher of Orbis Books. HDS caught up with Robert about the lasting impact of the Pentagon Papers on politics, journalism, and his own life.
Harvard Divinity School: What was your role in the effort to copy and disseminate the Pentagon Papers? What/how much did you do?
Robert Ellsberg: My personal role was fairly limited, though it was an enormously significant event in my life. My father took me to lunch one day and told me he had a project that might help end the war, though it carried some risk.
It involved copying a secret history of the Vietnam War that he had in his safe at the RAND Corporation and providing it to members of Congress. Would I help him? I said sure. We went that same day to a small office with a Xerox machine, where I spent a few hours photocopying top secret documents. I also helped on one other occasion.
HDS: In his NPR interview, your father talks about the time when his friend accidentally set off a burglar alarm and a police officer came to the door to find you at the Xerox machine. How do you remember that evening?
RE: We were using a borrowed office, and my father kept forgetting to turn off the burglar alarm. Yes, the police came to the door soon after we arrived. Our first thought was along the lines of, “Wow, these guys are good!” But we didn’t look very suspicious and the police took a look around and reminded us to be more careful.
HDS: You were only 13 years old at this time. How did you understand what your father was doing—and why?
RE: I had been watching my father—a government defense analyst—gradually turning from an ardent believer in the American role in Vietnam to a passionate opponent. His experience of two years in Vietnam had made a big difference.
In 1968 he was advising candidates like Bobby Kennedy and anyone who would listen. By 1969 he had become convinced that Nixon was intending to continue and expand the war and that this was not a mistake but “a crime that needed to be resisted.” He returned from a conference of war resisters, where he was affected by the example of young men preparing to go to jail for draft resistance. He brought me books about Gandhian nonviolence and pamphlets like Thoreau’s “Duty of Civil Disobedience.” He explained what he wanted to do in terms of those traditions. I didn’t fully comprehend what the documents were about, but I accepted his hope that whatever was in them would mobilize wider opposition to the war, and interfere with Nixon’s plans for escalation.
In a larger sense, he believed he was headed for prison. He didn’t know under what circumstances I would see him in the future or what active part he would play in my life. But one thing he could leave me was the example that there are things in life for which it is worth taking a risk and making a sacrifice. He wanted me to witness that and be a part of it.
HDS: What was life like for you and your family after the Times and the Post began reporting on the Pentagon Papers? How did things change?
RE: Nearly two years passed after we copied the Papers. My father was living in Cambridge and had no prior notification that the Times was busily preparing the Papers for publication. (He had turned to them after no member of Congress would accept them.)
I was living in Los Angeles with my mother when the Times published the first installment. I knew at once what this meant and I felt jubilant. But this excitement soon gave way to other emotions. My father went underground to continue distributing the documents to other papers (after the government enjoined the Times and then the Post from publication).
Once his name emerged, our home was surrounded by media. Eventually he was arrested. I was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury, which issued an indictment on seven felony counts. My father faced a total of 115 years in prison. For the next two years, I thought he might well go to prison, or face worse.
HDS: How do you think of the Pentagon Papers now? What’s been their lasting impact on politics, journalism, and your own life?
RE: The publication of the Pentagon Papers was a landmark case in the history of the free press. It encouraged newspapers to take on a more critical role in relationship to government. It exposed Americans to the reality that government officials lie. It galvanize opposition to the war.
The greatest impact, however, turned out to be indirect. Despite the publication of the Papers, Nixon was reelected by a historic landslide. However, the paranoid response of the Nixon administration to the leak of the Pentagon Papers, specifically the set-up of the White House Plumbers operation (initially focused on my father), led to Watergate, the dismissal of charges against my father, and the downfall of the Nixon Administration—thus hastening the end of the Vietnam War.
As for my own life—the example and lessons of my father led me on a search for my own path; how to live a responsible life in relation to the needs of the world. I ended up dropping out of Harvard College for five years to work with Dorothy Day and her pacifist community in New York City.
Later, I went on to study theology at HDS, and for the last 30 years I have worked as a religious publisher (Orbis Books), editing books that connect faith with the struggle for a more just and peaceful world.
I write books about saints. I was pleased to work closely with my father helping him finish his two volumes of memoirs, Secrets, and most recently, The Doomsday Machine. All this has followed from the invitation and the lessons he offered me almost 50 years ago.
HDS: Finally, what do you think of The Post? Did Spielberg get it right?
RE: I thought it was an entertaining and inspiring movie. Of course the focus on The Post belies the real contribution that was made by The New York Times. It shows how much successive governments had relied on a cozy relationship with reporters and publishers. The Pentagon Papers broke that open. And it shows that true patriotism is not a matter of loyalty to the government. I was struck by the idea that we all have opportunities, when necessary, to rise to heroic action.
My father was inspired to take his action by the example of young men who were prepared to offer the only thing they had—their freedom—in order to resist an unjust war. He asked himself, “What could I do if I were willing to go to jail?” I was moved in the movie to see other citizens acting in their professional capacity with the means at hand to, in effect, ask that same question.
We don’t all have to go to jail. But what would it mean if we all took seriously the challenge to be active citizens and, as Thoreau said, “cast our whole vote, not merely a slip of paper, but our whole lives.”
—by Paul Massari