Lessons from a Whistleblower
On the 24th floor of UMass Amherst’s W. E. B. Du Bois Library is a veritable treasure trove of insider information on modern United States history: a collection of more than 500 boxes containing the personal and professional archive of Daniel Ellsberg, one of the country’s foremost political activists and whistleblowers.
The Ellsberg Papers are a diverse set of materials—government memoranda, handwritten notes, correspondence, speeches and interviews, photographs, 8 mm film, reel-to-reel tapes dictated from Vietnam, and articles, magazines, and books that caught Ellsberg’s interest. They provide a unique firsthand account of some of the most critical episodes and issues facing American society throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, from the Vietnam War and Watergate to state secrecy and First Amendment rights, to the threats of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe.
Ellsberg, who passed away in June 2023, was an active force in promoting social and political change for decades. From his early years in government service contributing to war planning, he made a dramatic transformation from “hawk to dove” and became a leading anti-war activist. He is best known for leaking the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971, for which he was indicted on a dozen felony charges and faced a possible prison sentence of 115 years. He was the first American charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 for leaking government documents not to a foreign agent, but to the American public. The Pentagon Papers exposed decades of deceit by the American government during the Vietnam War. President Richard Nixon’s illegal efforts to silence Ellsberg led directly to the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation.
Long after those remarkable events, Ellsberg continued to be a powerful force in American society, from his long-running anti-nuclear activism to his support for modern-day whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. In January 2023, UMass Amherst awarded Ellsberg an honorary degree in recognition of his “lifetime of truth-telling that demonstrates how dissent can be the highest form of patriotism and citizenship,” as Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said.
There are collections of activists and collections of people in government, but there are few, if any, that explore this Cold War time period from someone who held both roles. It’s a really unique insider-outsider perspective.
UMass Amherst’s Robert S. Cox Special Collections & University Archives Research Center (SCUA) acquired the Ellsberg Papers in 2019. In 2020–21, a yearlong seminar, Truth, Dissent, & the Life of Daniel Ellsberg, co-taught by Professor of History Christian Appy and Professor of Journalism Kathy Roberts Forde, was one of only a handful of courses offered in-person during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Graduate and undergraduate students in the seminar studied the life and times of Ellsberg, including interviewing Ellsberg and other key figures. Students conducted research and wrote papers on topics ranging from Ellsberg’s trial to his anti-nuclear activism to his unintended influence on the Peoples Temple cult.
Out of that course grew a website dedicated to UMass’s work around Ellsberg; a podcast; and an international online conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers. In addition, an exhibit of select objects from the collection has been on display in the library since January 2022.
Today, the UMass Amherst history department’s new Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy strives to raise public awareness, scholarship, and activism on the overlapping issues that define Ellsberg’s life and legacy. In 2022-23, the initiative is co-sponsoring with the Department of History a series of programs, “Confronting Empire,” and holding workshops for high school teachers. In the future, if sufficient funding can be raised, it aims to expand its reach by offering fellowships for graduate students and postdocs to conduct research in the archives, and host scholarly conferences, leading to publications. Get involved and support the Ellsberg Initiative.
According to Ellsberg Archivist Jeremy Smith ‘94, the Ellsberg Papers are available to anyone who is interested, whether affiliated with UMass or not. A small selection of documents has been digitized and is available online; the full collection can be accessed by contacting SCUA and visiting the Du Bois Library.
Smith explained the unique value of this archive: “There are collections of activists and collections of people in government, but there are few, if any, that explore this Cold War time period from someone who held both roles. It’s a really unique insider-outsider perspective.”
Learn below about some of the research enabled by the Ellsberg Papers.
Professor of History
Appy is a scholar and author of three books on the Vietnam War. Following the publication of his 2015 book, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, he became interested in studying nuclear weapons for his next project. When UMass Amherst acquired the Ellsberg Papers, he said, “It only took me about two minutes to decide I wanted to write a biography of Ellsberg. His intense focus on the history of the Vietnam War and the significance of nuclear weapons so closely match my own interests, it seemed an obvious choice.”
The working title of Appy’s forthcoming book is “Ellsberg’s Mutiny: War and Resistance in the Age of Vietnam, The Pentagon Papers, and Nuclear Terror.” Rather than thinking of a whistleblower as a referee at a sporting event—whistleblowing to preserve the rules of a game—Appy conceives of Ellsberg’s whistleblowing as a kind of mutiny, seeking to spur a fundamental change in how America conducts foreign policy.
While Appy has interviewed Ellsberg and his associates for the book, he is conducting the vast majority of his research in the archive at UMass.
“Ellsberg’s personal correspondence—letters and, more recently, emails, though we don’t yet have all of those—have been immensely revealing,” said Appy. “Ellsberg was an inveterate notetaker, and we have reams and reams of notes—some of them very sketchy, others more essayistic.”
These notes document, in real time, Ellsberg’s transformation from “a supporter of the Vietnam War who viewed it first as a problem to be solved, then as an unwinnable stalemate from which the U.S. should find a face-saving exit, and finally as an unjust war of American aggression, a crime to be exposed and ended immediately,” said Appy.
“No government official with Ellsberg’s access to power and to privileged information has ever broken so radically with the government policies that he helped put into place, and has taken such personal risk to try to overturn those policies."
Having taught a course on the Vietnam War at UMass Amherst nearly every year since 2004, Appy noted that student interest in the subject has never waned, despite the war becoming increasingly distant.
“I think students are curious about the 1960s because they rightly imagine it to be a time of great turmoil and transformation, and also because they’re looking for political and moral inspiration as they confront the crises of our own time,” Appy said. “The ‘60s was a time when every kind of authority was called into question along with the once broad faith in American exceptionalism, the belief that the U.S. is the greatest force for good in the world. The Vietnam War, and Ellsberg’s life and legacy, challenge that faith and make us think hard about our actual role in the world and how it might be transformed.”
UMass Amherst PhD Student in History
When Eric Ross, who earned his bachelor's degree in history from UMass Amherst in 2020, was deciding whether to pursue a graduate degree, the acquisition of the Ellsberg Papers at UMass was a "major draw,” he said.
Ross returned to the university as a master’s student, and enrolled in the Truth, Dissent, & the Life of Daniel Ellsberg seminar. As students in the course sorted through the not-yet-processed boxes of Ellsberg’s papers, he recalled, “It was like a treasure hunt. You never knew what you were going to find. It could be anything from formerly classified documents to fan mail.”
From this initial exploration, Ross decided to focus his research on Ellsberg’s work on nuclear weapons.
“Ellsberg criticizes the public-facing rationale that nuclear weapons exist for deterrence and argues that they are actually evil weapons and a coercive tool of empire,” Ross explained. “When he was at the Pentagon, he worked on plans for nuclear war, which included an estimated fatality toll of 600 million people, mostly innocent civilians. This was, as he pointed out, the equivalent of 100 Holocausts they were planning to carry out.”
Ross’s research on Ellsberg examines the nuclear security state and the throughline from World War II to the Cold War to the Global War on Terrorism. “Essentially, the United States is always coming up with a new boogeyman; a new legitimizing ideology for its empire. It was Hitler, then Stalin, then Saddam. As long as an evil foil exists, the U.S. government feels it’s permitted to continue to have nuclear weapons and threaten to use them.”
Ross was struck by Ellsberg’s prescience, pointing, for example, to a 1986 interview on WBZ Boston about U.S. strikes against Libya.
“Fifteen years before the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, he’s essentially foreshadowing the U.S.’s responding to terrorism with terrorism—striking dense neighborhoods and not caring who gets killed,” Ross said. “He’s connecting the past and present, and trying to create a more just and equitable future.”
According to Ross, the Ellsberg Papers were essential to his research and changing the way he thinks about U.S. policy.
“Ellsberg is such a clear thinker and prominent voice. He’s also a bit of a hoarder when it comes to documents, and his collection contains all these historic documents I never would have tracked down otherwise,” he said. “Ellsberg believes that dissent can sometimes be the most patriotic thing. This has caused me to re-frame my thinking about resistance and activism, and what it means to love this country.”
Talya Torres '22
UMass Amherst BA in English and Journalism
Talya Torres credits her interest in the law to her experience working with the Ellsberg Papers.
Today, Torres is a 1L student at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. She enrolled in the Truth, Dissent, & the Life of Daniel Ellsberg seminar after previously taking a course taught by Appy on the Vietnam War.
Sorting through Ellsberg’s papers was “incredible,” she recalled. “You would open a box and find something entirely new. There’s just such a rich amount of material on a wide variety of topics, from nuclear weapons to protests he attended to his trials.”
It was Ellsberg’s legal trials that captured Torres’ imagination and became the focus of her senior thesis research. In 1971, Ellsberg was indicted on 15 counts, including espionage and theft, for copying and releasing to the press the 47-volume, 7,000-page Department of Defense study that would eventually be known as the Pentagon Papers.
“The archive has a treasure trove of legal documents from the trials. Ellsberg kept everything he could get copies of from his defense team. It offers incredible insights into their motives and legal strategies,” Torres said.
During the seminar, Torres and classmates also had an opportunity to speak directly with Ellsberg on Zoom. She asked him about his relationship with the defense team—which he viewed as positive but later discovered was not a mutual feeling—and learned that singer and actor Barbra Streisand had been instrumental in raising funds for Ellsberg’s legal defense.
“My experience doing research made me think a lot about the First Amendment and the Espionage Act, and sparked my interest in the law," Torres said. She recalled a conversation hosted during the seminar between Ellsberg and Snowden—both whistleblowers who worked in government and knew the legal consequences they could face for their actions. “It gave me a lot of context to understand how much courage they had to do what they did,” she said.
This story was originally published in March 2023, and updated in September 2023.