Lessons from a Whistleblower featuring History's Christian Appy
The archive of political activist Daniel Ellsberg offers researchers unparalleled access to history
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.
Today in his 90s, Ellsberg has been 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 has 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.
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.”