In the immediate aftermath of the explosions at the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, guest speaker Dan Ellsberg's story could not have been more timely.
Invited by the Issues Committee to share his experiences, Ellsberg detailed how and why he came to photocopy and distribute 7,000 pages of classified information regarding decision-making in the Vietnam War, subsequently causing him to face trial for 12 counts of felony and the possibility of 115 years in prison. These documents, now known as "The Pentagon Papers," would later influence the impeachment of Richard Nixon and the prosecution of several White House officials.
Issues Committee member Thomas Carpenter further explained the motivation to bring Ellsberg to UT, not only as an interesting lecturer but also as a defining figure of our time.
"His role with the Pentagon Papers and Watergate was such a huge part of our nation's history, and he played such an integral role," Carpenter, an undecided freshman, said. "I think he's going to educate a lot of people."
From his first day as special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert McNaughton in 1964, Ellsberg was forever tangled in the deceptive dynamics of presidents who willfully lied to the American public.
It was this period of his life, serving under both presidents Lyndon Johnson and Nixon, that compelled Ellsberg to finally blow the whistle in 1971, sealing his fate as a traitor and a hero in equal proportion.
Through his proximity to the central figures of the American war effort, Ellsberg witnessed countless inconsistencies between what the presidents claimed on the campaign trail and what they privately planned to do if re-elected.
Most notably, early in his career, Ellsberg stood by as President Johnson claimed he "sought no wider war," while simultaneously planning to attack North Vietnam. Johnson also blamed South Vietnam for aggressive American covert actions that he, in fact, had authorized. However, to win favor with voters and Congress, these egregious acts were hidden.
"I knew the president was lying ..." Ellsberg said. "Lyndon Johnson should have been impeached. There is no doubt in (my) mind."
Yet Ellsberg did not reveal these crimes until his second encounter with duplicity within the presidency when he could no longer condone such deception. Although Nixon's platform centered on ending the Vietnam War, a source close to Henry Kissinger reported to Ellsberg that the President had no intention of doing so and had actually threatened escalation and the use of nuclear weapons.
Looking back, Ellsberg lamented not exposing the truth earlier, believing that if the American public had known, they would have called Johnson and Nixon’s plans “a murderous crackpot strategy that they did want to be a part of,” or alternately, “madmen theory.” Convinced of this notion, Ellsberg said he regrets keeping silent until 1971.
“There wouldn’t have been any war if they had gotten that information,” Ellsberg said. “I did have it in my palm to prevent that war.”
Despite his bravery, Ellsberg did not deny the difficulty of acting against sworn secrecy and allegiance to certain institutions.
“Most of you would not choose to leave that group,” Ellsberg said. “That is human. Humans will go along with anything to avoid ostracism.”
Citing President George W. Bush’s weapons of mass destruction blunder, the Wikileaks scandal and parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam, Ellsberg emphasized the ubiquity of such opportunities to fight corruption.
As sophomore political science major Hannah Davis put it, “You have to have the courage to stand up for what you believe in even if you’re facing death or prison.”
To Ellsberg, though, these great personal costs, like losing a job and reputation, are far outweighed by the potential to prevent tragedy.
“You might well have the chance, by taking a personal risk, to save some lives,” Ellsberg finished, “And to those who do it, I thank you.”