By Marjorie Cohn / Truthout
The legendary Daniel Ellsberg has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In a March 1 email to friends, Dan wrote, “I’m sorry to report to you that my doctors have given me three to six months to live … it might be more, or less.” He will turn 92 on April 7.
Dan displayed uncommon courage in 1971 when he publicized the 7,000-page top-secret Pentagon Papers while working at the Rand Corporation. As a consultant to the Department of Defense, Dan drafted Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s plans for nuclear war.
In his book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Dan wrote that the Pentagon Papers exposed the “secrets five presidents had withheld and the lies they told” about U.S. decision-making in Vietnam. “This truth telling set in motion a train of events, including criminal White House efforts to silence or incapacitate me.” The government’s illegal efforts to silence Dan resulted in the dismissal of the charges against him and his codefendant Anthony Russo. “Much more important,” Dan noted, “these particular Oval Office crimes helped topple the president, an act that was crucial to ending the war.”
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In 2014, Dan gave a keynote speech at the 45th reunion of the Stanford Anti-Vietnam War movement. At the reunion, he explainedhow the United States came dangerously close to using nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War. In 1965, the Joint Chiefs recommended to President Lyndon B. Johnson that U.S. forces hit targets up to the Chinese border. Dan thought their real aim was to provoke China into responding and then the U.S. would cross into China and demolish the communists with nuclear weapons.
Now, Dan is urging the world to again avoid nuclear annihilation.
Dan’s Courageous Actions Helped End the Vietnam War
“When I copied the Pentagon Papers in 1969, I had every reason to think I would be spending the rest of my life behind bars. It was a fate I would gladly have accepted if it meant hastening the end of the Vietnam War, unlikely as that seemed (and was),” Dan wrote in his March 1 email.
Dan’s courageous actions did help to end that war, which claimed the lives of more than 3 million Vietnamese people and 58,000 Americans. In an email responding to Dan’s revelation of his terminal cancer diagnosis, Bui Van Nghi, secretary general of the Viet Nam-USA Society, wrote, “We highly appreciate Dan’s good will, friendship and love to Viet Nam and his support of the struggle for national independence and reunification of the country by the Viet Namese people and with his courage to reveal of the truth and machination about the American Viet Nam War by the US Government that waging the waves of peace, anti-war movements, campaigns to call for early ending of the [war] that helped save hundred[s] of thousands of lives on both sides.”
The Pentagon Papers “remain today the most vital discussion of a war from the inside,” journalist Seymour Hersh wrote in a recent tribute to Dan. Hersh broke the story of the My Lai Massacre, which the U.S. government covered up for a year. It was a war crime committed by U.S. forces who murdered more than 300 elderly men, women and children during the Vietnam War.
Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, called Dan “the most dangerous man in America” for leaking the Pentagon Papers. Kissinger’s characterization became the title of an Oscar-nominated film about Dan.
Dan Works Tirelessly to Prevent Nuclear War
For more than five decades, Dan has spent nearly every waking hour working for peace and trying to prevent nuclear war. In spite of his diagnosis, Dan continues the struggle to avoid a nuclear holocaust. “I will continue, as long as I’m able, to help these efforts,” he wrote in his March 1 email.
“I feel lucky and grateful,” he noted, “about having a few months more to enjoy life with my wife and family, and in which to continue to pursue the urgent goal of working with others to avert nuclear war in Ukraine or Taiwan (or anywhere else).”
“The current risk of nuclear war, over Ukraine, is as great as the world has ever seen,” Dan wrote. He warned that nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia would result in “nuclear winter.” That means that “more than a hundred million tons of smoke and soot from firestorms in cities set ablaze by either side, striking either first or second, would be lofted into the stratosphere where it would not rain out and would [envelop] the globe within days. That pall would block up to 70% of sunlight for years, destroying all harvests worldwide and causing death by starvation for most of the humans and other vertebrates on earth.”
Alarmingly, in January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds to midnight due largely to Russia’s war in Ukraine. This is “the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.” The Clock is a universally recognized measure of vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change and other emerging technologies that could pose a threat.
“This is not a species to be trusted with nuclear weapons,” Dan told me in a telephone interview for this article. “It’s urgent to get this war ended. … We need a ceasefire and negotiations before [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is confronted with any prospect of losing Crimea and all of Donbas” which would “make the danger of nuclear war initiated by Russia more dangerous than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
In a March 2 program called “Nuclear Dangers: The Ukraine War One Year Later,” sponsored by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Dan expressed alarm about how the war could escalate, especially given Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s effort, backed by the U.S., to expel Russia from all areas, including those it has held for 8 years. Dan is doubtful that negotiations will ever begin if Zelenskyy continues to insist that every Russian troop leave Ukraine before negotiations can occur. If the U.S. were to enter the war “directly with its pilots and combat troops and missiles … I believe that Putin would very likely carry out his threat to initiate tactical nuclear war … even with a high probability of escalating … which would threaten all of humanity with nuclear winter,” he said.
“Every person in the world has a stake in preventing that from happening,” Dan noted during the March 2 program in which Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk also participated. Chomsky said, “Either there will be a diplomatic solution or there will be species suicide.” Falk called this an “apocalyptic tipping point in human history.”
Those who make the nuclear weapons and the investment banks that finance them “have never been interested in limiting them. Their only interest is to have better ones,” Dan told me. Those same people “have never been interested in keeping Russia from having H-bombs [hydrogen bombs], ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] or MWHs [multiple warheads] at the cost of giving up ours.”
To reduce the risks of nuclear war, “it is essential that members of NATO press the U.S. and others to renounce the atrocious NATO backing of the first-use of nuclear weapons,” Dan said.
President Joe Biden’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review inexcusably allows the first use of nuclear weapons and says that “nuclear weapons are required to deter not only nuclear attack, but also a narrow range of other high consequence, strategic-level attacks.”
“Contrary to public understanding,” Dan wrote in his book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, “[the] strategy has not been a matter of deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States, but rather the illusionary one of improving first-strike capability.”
All U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaties Have Been Renounced or Suspended
Dan noted in The Doomsday Machine, “The arsenals and plans of the two superpowers represent not only an insuperable obstacle to an effective global anti-proliferation campaign; they are in themselves a clear and present existential danger to the human species, and most others.”
The anti-proliferation regime was dealt the ultimate blow in February when Russia suspended participation in the New START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty]. It was the only remaining nuclear arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia that had not been suspended or renounced. Russia and the United States together possess about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads.
New START was signed by President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010. It puts a cap on the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the U.S. and Russia may deploy and provides for inspections of each other’s countries three times a year. The treaty also requires regular communication between the U.S. and Russia to avoid accidents or misunderstandings.
In December 2001, President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that it signed with the Soviet Union in 1972. The cornerstone of the Cold War nuclear arms control regime, the ABM treaty stated that in order to reduce offensive nuclear forces in the U.S. and Russia, both countries would have to agree to limit anti-ballistic missile defenses.
Bush stated that “the hostility that once led both our countries to keep thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, pointed at each other” had ended when the Soviet Union disbanded. He claimed that the treaty was impeding U.S. ability to protect against “future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks.”
Putin said the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, a cornerstone of international security, was “a mistake.”
In 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union adopted the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), to eliminate missiles on hair-trigger alert for nuclear war due to their short flight times. This was the first time the two countries agreed to destroy nuclear weapons. The treaty outlawed nearly 2,700 ballistic or land-based cruise missiles that had a range of about 300 to 3,000 miles.
But, in 2019, President Donald Trump suspended the U.S. obligations under the treaty and Russia pulled out of the treaty the following day.
Dan’s Courage Inspires Whistleblowers and All of Us
The whistleblowers and truth tellers who have followed in Dan’s footsteps include Chelsea Manning , Katharine Gun, John Kiriakou, Edward Snowden, Daniel Hale, Reality Winner and publisher Julian Assange. Dan is one of the co-chairs — with Chomsky and Alice Walker — of Assange Defense.
“Every empire requires secrecy to cloak its acts of violence that maintain it as an empire,” Dan testified at the Belmarsh Tribunal held on January 20 in support of Assange, who faces 175 years in prison for exposing U.S. war crimes. “If you’re going to use the [Espionage] Act against a journalist in blatant violation of the First Amendment,” Dan stated, “the First Amendment is essentially gone.”
In 2008, when I served as president of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), Dan delivered the keynote address to the NLG convention in Detroit. He warned of the dangers of unchecked executive power, stating, “The U.S. president is not a king.”
Dan is a brilliant, intense, compassionate man with a remarkably curious mind. I can’t count the times he has called me for analysis of the legal ramifications of the U.S. government’s illegal action du jour. I am proud to call him my friend.
What does Dan’s diagnosis portend? “As the most important American truth teller/whistleblower and nuclear weapons analyst of the last 50 years, it’s hard to imagine a world without him,” investigative reporter Barbara Koeppel, who has written about Dan in several articles, told me.
We must honor Dan’s extraordinary legacy by committing ourselves to the struggle to protect the world from nuclear annihilation.