Daniel Ellsberg In Memoriam

Remembering The Legend: Indispensable Truth Seeker Daniel Ellsberg

Remembering the legendary life of a rare legend in American history.
ScheerPost publisher Robert Scheer and Daniel Ellsberg. Photo by Barbra Frank.

By Diego Ramos / Original to ScheerPost

It is with great sadness that ScheerPost has learned of the death of legendary American figure Daniel Ellsberg. His work as a whistleblower, activist and advocate for government transparency is irreplaceable and without him, the country would be missing a crucial part of its history. His courage, conviction and commitment to challenging government secrecy and ensuring accountability ushered in a lasting dialogue in American politics that led to the revelations of people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. We send our condolences and best wishes to Daniel’s family and friends.

Feel free to explore this archive of Ellsberg’s appearances on Robert Scheer’s Scheer Intelligence podcast over the years as well as links to his other works on the site:

From November 2017: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg talks about why he leaked the Pentagon Papers and why there aren’t more whistleblowers today, diving into the revelations from Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Ellsberg also discusses the beginnings of his career and the importance of nuclear deterrence for the future of the planet. To read the full transcript, click here.

Some quotes from this episode:

I waited almost 40 years for someone else to put a lot of information out, and that was Chelsea Manning, then Bradley Manning. And then three years later, Ed Snowden. Had there been a Chelsea Manning or Ed Snowden, both willing to risk their lives and certainly their freedom forever, in order to tell these truths about the war, which were–they were telling nothing that was unknown–what they were telling was known to hundreds to thousands of others, as you’ve said. That was also true of going into Iraq. Had they been at a high enough level to have that access–they didn’t have to be officials, they could be staff assistants, like myself, or researchers or whatever–or they could be officials who knew that we were being lied into a hopeless, desperate, aggressive war, as happened in 2002 to our attack on Iraq. Had they been at a high level and told us what was going on, I believe there would be no attack in Iraq, and the Middle East would look entirely different, and entirely less bad than it does now. But they don’t come very often. They do exist, and why not? People don’t ask themselves, what should I be doing about these lies that I know of? What should I be doing about this desperate–and they–should I be willing to risk my career?

[W]ar with Russia, which is a real possibility over Ukraine, should not be on the table. Because war with Russia is very different from war with Vietnam or Iraq or Iran. It means almost surely escalation to nuclear war, which leads–and this is another factor in my book–we now know leads to nuclear winter. The diminution of sunlight by the smoke from burning cities, which will kill harvests and starve nearly everyone on earth. So what the book shows is that our leaders, one of the things that they have needed to keep secret is that they have been consciously gambling with the possibility of ending most life on Earth all this time.

{W]e are, I think, a covert empire in the sense where “covert” means an operation that is not merely secret, but it’s plausibly denial. It is denied that we are an empire. The means we use are secret and denied; “We don’t torture, we don’t assassinate”; actually, we do. But we not only do that secretly, but we deny that we do it. And you produce evidence. By the way, it gets into what we’ve been talking, in a way–you deliberately arrange for evidence that will support your denial, which is untrue. Cover identities, cover actions of various kinds, that seem to be suggesting that you were something other than what you are, like a spy. In particular, to protect the president from being recognized as the author of any of these criminal, murderous, and often hopeless actions to protect him from accountability. To imply that if it’s not American, it’s not even happening; but if it is happening, it’s not by us; if it’s by us, it’s not by the defense department, it’s some rogue element.

From April 2022: Putin Is Already Using His Nuclear Weapons

On this “Scheer Intelligence,” Ellsberg joined host Robert Scheer to discuss just how close the world is coming to annihilation in the context of the Ukraine conflict. While the two disagree on certain nuances relating to US officials’ eagerness or “giddiness” to actually deploy nuclear weapons, throughout the lively discussion they arrive at stark warnings about what direct conflicts with Russia over Ukraine, and China over Taiwan, would mean to the future of the human race. The whistleblower’s most recent book, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,” illustrates just how precarious the US hold over its own nukes is, highlighting that weapons with the power to cause the extinction of mankind belong in no country. Upon rereading Ellsberg’s book, Scheer, who reported on the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl and interviewed President Ronald Reagan about his perspective on nukes, says he has become even more terrified of the prospect of nuclear war than ever before. To read the full transcript, click here.

Some quotes from this episode:

[W]e can’t really afford for the U.S. to win such a war against Putin. Because with his perhaps 1,500 tactical nuclear weapons, the temptation for him to reverse that defeat, to avoid that defeat, by using a nuclear weapon or more—a number of them—would be very great. And in the current world, with two doomsday machines poised at each other, each on a launch-on-warning status—in intercontinental ballistic missiles that means, “use them or lose them”—that any indication that they might be attacked by the other side in the near future is a very strong incentive given our doctrine and our training and our readiness to launch first. To preempt, as they say, and avert that first strike by the other side.

We gave the Russians, as Brzezinski put it, we gave the Russians their Vietnam. I think the intent right now is to give—that was the Soviets—to give the Russians another Afghanistan. To bleed them—to make them, as we say very openly, weaker, more isolated in the world, at the cost of Ukrainian lives. In other words, kill Russians indefinitely, to the last Ukrainian, because what that means in terms of historical insurgencies is for every Russian who gets bled, who gets killed, there are five to 10 Ukrainians who are killed in retaliation. So this prospect of doing this—instead of negotiating, instead of trying to negotiate, which we’re not doing as far as we can see seriously—is a vicious policy with respect to Ukraine.

So it’s very dangerous. Take the climate problem. What’s the chance now with the—we’re actually increasing madly, desperately, the production and emission of fossil fuels right now, oil in particular. And to compensate for Russian sales, which we’re trying to avoid. But even beyond that, what’s the prospect—at this point, in this world, where the world is divided, especially with this crisis now in the last two months, divided into at least two halves that don’t negotiate, don’t trust each other. What’s the chance of the collaboration that’s necessary to save civilization from climate catastrophe? I would say on this ship, we’ve hit the iceberg. I don’t see that collaboration happening. That’s been a casualty of this war. 

Letter from Ellsberg written after learning about his diagnosis:

Dear friends and supporters,

I have difficult news to impart. On February 17, without much warning, I was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer on the basis of a CT scan and an MRI. (As is usual with pancreatic cancer–which has no early symptoms–it was found while looking for something else, relatively minor). I’m sorry to report to you that my doctors have given me three to six months to live. Of course, they emphasize that everyone’s case is individual; it might be more, or less.

I have chosen not to do chemotherapy (which offers no promise) and I have assurance of great hospice care when needed. Please know: right now, I am not in any physical pain, and in fact, after my hip replacement surgery in late 2021, I feel better physically than I have in years! Moreover, my cardiologist has given me license to abandon my salt-free diet of the last six years. This has improved my quality of life dramatically: the pleasure of eating my former favorite foods! And my energy level is high. Since my diagnosis, I’ve done several interviews and webinars on Ukraine, nuclear weapons, and first amendment issues, and I have two more scheduled this week.

As I just told my son Robert: he’s long known (as my editor) that I work better under a deadline. It turns out that I live better under a deadline!

I feel lucky and grateful that I’ve had a wonderful life far beyond the proverbial three-score years and ten. ( I’ll be ninety-two on April 7th.) I feel the very same way 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).

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). Yet in the end, that action—in ways I could not have foreseen, due to Nixon’s illegal responses—did have an impact on shortening the war. In addition, thanks to Nixon’s crimes, I was spared the imprisonment I expected, and I was able to spend the last fifty years with Patricia and my family, and with you, my friends.

What’s more, I was able to devote those years to doing everything I could think of to alert the world to the perils of nuclear war and wrongful interventions: lobbying, lecturing, writing and joining with others in acts of protest and non-violent resistance.

I wish I could report greater success for our efforts. As I write, “modernization” of nuclear weapons is ongoing in all nine states that possess them (the US most of all). Russia is making monstrous threats to initiate nuclear war to maintain its control over Crimea and the Donbas–like the dozens of equally illegitimate first-use threats that the US government has made in the past to maintain its military presence in South Korea, Taiwan, South Vietnam, and (with the complicity of every member state then in NATO ) West Berlin. The current risk of nuclear war, over Ukraine, is as great as the world has ever seen.

China and India are alone in declaring no-first-use policies. Leadership in the US, Russia, other nuclear weapons states, NATO and other US allies have yet to recognize that such threats of initiating nuclear war–let alone the plans, deployments and exercises meant to make them credible and more ready to be carried out–are and always have been immoral and insane: under any circumstances, for any reasons, by anyone or anywhere.

It is long past time–but not too late!–for the world’s publics at last to challenge and resist the willed moral blindness of their past and current leaders. I will continue, as long as I’m able, to help these efforts. There’s tons more to say about Ukraine and nuclear policy, of course, and you’ll be hearing from me as long as I’m here.

As I look back on the last sixty years of my life, I think there is no greater cause to which I could have dedicated my efforts. For the last forty years we have known that nuclear war between the US and Russia would mean nuclear winter: 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 envelope 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.

So far as I can find out, this scientific near-consensus has had virtually no effect on the Pentagon’s nuclear war plans or US/NATO (or Russian) nuclear threats. (In a like case of disastrous willful denial by many officials, corporations and other Americans, scientists have known for over three decades that the catastrophic climate change now underway–mainly but not only from burning fossil fuels–is fully comparable to US-Russian nuclear war as another existential risk.)

I’m happy to know that millions of people–including all those friends and comrades to whom I address this message!–have the wisdom, the dedication and the moral courage to carry on with these causes, and to work unceasingly for the survival of our planet and its creatures.

I’m enormously grateful to have had the privilege of knowing and working with such people, past and present. That’s among the most treasured aspects of my very privileged and very lucky life. I want to thank you all for the love and support you have given me in so many ways. Your dedication, courage, and determination to act have inspired and sustained my own efforts.

My wish for you is that at the end of your days you will feel as much joy and gratitude as I do now.

Love, Dan

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