Back to top

The Most Dangerous Man in America

An anti-war activist talks with students about becoming a catalyst for social change

Photos by

Even through the dimmed house lights of the Campus Center Auditorium, you could still see the standing ovation that welcomed Daniel Ellsberg, 89, to the stage last October. He effortlessly commanded the audience’s attention as he regaled them with the story of how he obtained and exposed alarming government secrets about the Vietnam War in the Pentagon Papers.

This keynote address capped a whirlwind week of appearances, including a visit to WGBH television in Boston, a talk and panel session sponsored by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), and guest lectures in various UMass classes.

A few buildings south of the thundering applause, the Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library prepared to receive the more than 500-box collection of Ellsberg’s private papers. The archive documents the majority of Ellsberg’s life, which, as he has noted, coincided with the development of the United States’ nuclear program and the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons. Ellsberg first learned of the possibility of an atom bomb as a 13-year-old from his teacher. Months later, the first use of the bomb would spark his fervor for activism.

There was a certain sense of awe simply to be in the presence of Ellsberg.

—Michael Ash

In the summer of 2019, Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of economics and the codirector of PERI, fortuitously heard that Ellsberg was seeking a home for his papers. Pollin, recognizing the significance of the collection, seized the opportunity and immediately reached out to Ellsberg. After only a few weeks—thanks to a $1.35 million gift from an anonymous donor—the university’s proposal was accepted, and UMass Amherst was able to purchase the papers for $2.2 million, becoming the new home of the Ellsberg archive.

The publicly accessible collection will provide an inside look into the government decision making that led to the Vietnam War. Also part of the collection are Ellsberg’s personal notes, which show the compelling inner thoughts of a dissenter in the making and how he became a catalyst for social change. “I so much appreciate the fact that my archive will be here,” Ellsberg says.

s20_sr_ellsberg_wide2.jpg

Ellsberg looks at some items that are part of his archive
Photo by
John Solem

The late Rob Cox, who was head of the SCUA, noted that having the archives of W.E.B. Du Bois and Ellsberg together creates " an archival bulwark for the study of some of the major moral and ethical issues of the 20th century." He pointed out that Du Bois and Ellsberg each proudly bore the label “the most dangerous man in America” in their respective times, and that “both are fluent writers and incisive, synthetic thinkers on peace, democracy, and social justice.”

The motivation to acquire the Ellsberg papers—now among the papers of other agents of social change at the SCUA—stems from UMass’s mission to improve the lives of people around the world by illuminating our need for government transparency and accountability, in tandem with what Ellsberg calls “a moral revolution.” In addition, the papers create a profound research opportunity—as History Professor Christian Appy notes, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I start to get interest from prospective graduate students who want to do a PhD on the Ellsberg papers.”

In the short week he spent here, Ellsberg inspired students, faculty, and staff who caught a glimpse of his moral courage. After a guest lecture, Economics Professor Michael Ash noticed the impact that Ellsberg’s analytical mind and intensity had on his students. “There was a certain sense of awe simply to be in the presence of Ellsberg,” he says. “As the awe passed, the students appreciated the depth that could emerge from simple, accessible thought experiments.”

s20_sr_ellsberg_wide3.jpg

A dark green metal trunk crisscrossed with multiple strips of masking tape, one of the items in the Ellsberg archive
Photo by
John Solem

The papers aren’t the only way UMass Amherst will benefit from Daniel Ellsberg, however. He has also graciously accepted the positions of Distinguished Researcher at the Du Bois Library and Distinguished Research Fellow at PERI. Ellsberg will offer seminars, classes, and guest lectures and is available to meet with those interested in working with his archive. And as Rob Cox explained, “When I talk about teaching and research, Dan himself is an incredible asset. The students here, getting a chance to meet a guy whose name you see in the history books, and hear directly his version of events—it’s a key part of the undergraduate experience.”

Daniel Ellsberg talks to Charles Sennott ’84 about his collection.