Famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg joined my Intensive Peace Studies of the American Century class on February 2, 2021. Ellsberg came prepared to answer questions from George School students, which he did, but only after being surprised by a number of luminaries who had previously agreed to join the famous whistleblower and peace activist. The guests included James Galbraith, Peter Kuznick, Katharine Gun, and Peter Dale Scott.
The class is one that I developed in collaboration with filmmaker Oliver Stone and American University history professor Peter Kuznick. To prepare for Ellsberg’s visit, my students read excerpts from his two memoirs—Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, and The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. They also watched The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, the Oscar-nominated documentary that Edward Snowden credited for inspiring his own act of whistleblowing.
Each of the surprise guests shared anecdotes and insights about Daniel Ellsberg’s life and historical legacy. American University history professor Peter Kuznick recalled how in 2003 Ellsberg flew to Washington to speak to Peter’s students. The speaking engagement almost fell through because Ellsberg intentionally got himself in thrown jail as an act of civil disobedience to protest the impending US invasion of Iraq. Kuznick also recounted how decades earlier, Barbara Streisand held a fundraising party for Ellsberg’s legal defense in the Pentagon Papers case—a party where three members of the Beatles asked for Ellsberg’s autograph.
The acclaimed poet, scholar, and retired UC Berkeley professor Peter Dale Scott spoke of Ellsberg’s commitment to Ghandian non-violence and satyagraha or truth force. Scott recalled an incident in Colorado in which Daniel Ellsberg and the poet Allen Ginsberg sat together on railroad tracks to disrupt a shipment of weapons destined for the Vietnam War. Thankfully, the train stopped. Scott said he believed that in 400 years, Ellsberg’s commitment to non-violence may be remembered as more historically significant than his revelations about Vietnam and US nuclear policy.
James Galbraith, the Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government/Business Relations and Professor of Government at the University of Texas, shared a touching photo with an accompanying anecdote about Ellsberg’s magician skills and his love of children. Galbraith also spoke about Ellsberg’s connection to John Kenneth Galbraith, the professor’s father. An illustrious scholar and the US Ambassador to India under President Kennedy, John Kenneth Galbraith testified in defense of Ellsberg during the Pentagon Papers trial. In a humorous footnote to history, Galbraith revealed that as a student at Harvard, he had procured sections of the Pentagon Papers before they were leaked. A friend who worked at a copy shop recognized the family name and reproduced the many sections of the Papers which made reference to Galbraith’s father—an active opponent of US involvement in Vietnam from his position in the Kennedy administration.
Ellsberg himself gave a warm and glowing introduction for Katharine Gun, the British woman who was charged under the UK’s Official Secrets Act after she blew the whistle on US efforts to spy on, blackmail, and coerce UN member states into supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq. Ellsberg credited her for doing what he wished he had done—leaking materials to expose state crimes in order to stop a war before it started. Gun recounted how after her story broke, Ellsberg reached out immediately to provide support by publicizing her case, advocating for her exoneration, and even helping her obtain her first laptop computer after her heroic deeds cost Gun her job. She described how years later in 2019, Ellsberg was present with Gun at the Bay Area premiere of Official Secrets. That critically acclaimed film depicts Katharine Gun, played by Keira Knightly, as she sacrifices her career and risks imprisonment to prevent a war she considers illegal.
Said Professor Galbraith afterward, “Dan Ellsberg is one of the most distinguished citizens of our Republic, or of any republic. He is also a very decent human being and it was a pleasure to be there with him for a few minutes.” Peter Dale Scott also offered his thoughts later, saying, “It was a great event today. Good to see Dan smiling, and memorable to see—and above all hear—Katherine Gun.”
Ellsberg also took questions from the students and offered his insights on subjects like civil disobedience, the Assange case, and his tragically doomed plans to serve as point man for Vietnam in a Robert Kennedy presidential administration. Commenting on the recent violence at the capitol, Ellsberg stressed the need to better educate the American public to protect democracy in the long run.
Attendee Sarah Yanchunas ’22 spoke later about Ellsberg’s decision to inform the US public about the truth of Vietnam by leaking the Pentagon Papers: “Daniel Ellsberg uniquely recognized and exposed the institutions which had given him power, prestige, and a comfortable lifestyle. He was inspired by people who challenged his complicity in the system of oppression, who offered him perspective on the needless suffering caused by the war in Vietnam. One of these people was the woman who explained her Ghandian perspective: One should not regard a person as an ‘enemy,’ but malevolent actions are ‘not merely to be condemned, but to be resisted—nonviolently but militantly, at personal cost to oneself.’” Sarah continued, “If Ellsberg’s colleagues ever were conflicted about their roles in this system, none of them ever followed through with his courage and dedication—visiting peace conferences, getting arrested at protests, exposing evidence of wrongdoing that they had been blind to, and sacrificing the status and power they enjoyed as parts of this violent system.”
Aqua Withers-Carello ’21 asked Ellsberg about the New START treaty with Russia which limits US and Russian nuclear capabilities. Said Aqua, “He knew it didn’t mean much in terms of the larger nuclear crisis. It is all interrelated to this American Empire, and the only way we can fix these issues is through re-education. We must educate ourselves and others as a means of separating ourselves from how the powers-that-be want us to think. We need an education that critiques these forces—teaching us to be media literate and to question authority.”
Daniel Ellsberg is a national treasure. His sacrifices for a better world should be studied and analyzed by everyone committed to peace, justice, and truth. He also has tremendous energy and generosity of spirit. This is the third event that Dan has done with me at George School. As a teacher, I can’t imagine a better way for students to learn about these subjects. There may be no living historical figure whose life better embodies Quaker values regarding peace and the sanctity of human life. It is my hope that the footage of this event can educate and inspire others far beyond the virtual classroom where it happened.
Postscript: I felt somewhat nervous as I awaited Dan’s response to the first version of this article. He soon responded generously, writing that the article “happily allowed me to relive one of the most heartwarming events of my life.” And of the original event he wrote, “I love surprise parties; and this couldn’t have been better! It’s wonderful to hear tributes and warm memories from people who are among those you most respect in the world!! It’s an experience I wish for every one of you, in your lives.”
Aaron Good is a member of the George School History Department. He earned his PhD in Political Science from Temple University in 2020. His 2018 discussion with Daniel Ellsberg in front of a George School audience can be found here. His article and audio files from a series of interviews with Daniel Ellsberg and Peter Dale Scott can be found here: Empire, the Deep State, and the Doomsday Machine. He is currently working on getting his dissertation published.
An earlier version of this article was published at Project Censored on March 2, 2020.