Deeply disturbed by the accounting of American deceit in Vietnam, he approached The New York Times. The disclosures that followed rocked the nation.

A black-and-white photo of Daniel Ellsberg and his wife, Patricia, amid a crowd near the Courthouse in Boston in 1971.
Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press, surrenders at the U.S. Courthouse in Boston on June 28, 1971, accompanied by his wife at the time, Patricia.Credit…Donal F. Holway/The New York Times

Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst who after experiencing a sobbing antiwar epiphany on a bathroom floor made the momentous decision in 1971 to disclose a secret history of American lies and deceit in Vietnam, what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, died on Friday at his home in Kensington, Calif., in the Bay Area. He was 92.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, his wife and children said in a statement.

In March, Mr. Ellsberg, in an email message to “Dear friends and supporters,” announced that he had recently been told he had inoperable pancreatic cancer and said that his doctors had given him an estimate of three to six months to live.

The disclosure of the Pentagon Papers — 7,000 government pages of damning revelations about deceptions by successive presidents who exceeded their authority, bypassed Congress and misled the American people — plunged a nation that was already wounded and divided by the war deeper into angry controversy.

It led to illegal countermeasures by the White House to discredit Mr. Ellsberg, halt leaks of government information and attack perceived political enemies, forming a constellation of crimes known as the Watergate scandal that led to the disgrace and resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

And it set up a First Amendment confrontation between the Nixon administration and The New York Times, whose publication of the papers was denounced by the government as an act of espionage that jeopardized national security. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the freedom of the press.

Image

Mr. Ellsberg in 1971, after the release of the Pentagon Papers.Credit…Associated Press

Mr. Ellsberg was charged with espionage, conspiracy and other crimes and tried in federal court in Los Angeles. But on the eve of jury deliberations, the judge threw out the case, citing government misconduct, including illegal wiretapping, a break-in at the office of Mr. Ellsberg’s former psychiatrist and an offer by President Nixon to appoint the judge himself as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“The demystification and de-sanctification of the president has begun,” Mr. Ellsberg said after being released. “It’s like the defrocking of the Wizard of Oz.”

The story of Daniel Ellsberg in many ways mirrored the American experience in Vietnam, which began in the 1950s as a struggle to contain communism in Indochina and ended in 1975 with humiliating defeat in a corrosive war that killed more than 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians.

He was a brilliant young man from Michigan who had known tragedy at 15, when his mother and sister were killed in a car crash after his father fell asleep at the wheel, and who had rallied to march through prep school, Harvard and the University of Cambridge in England with high honors and lofty, disciplined ambitions.

He joined the Marines in 1954, swept through officer candidate school and extended his enlistment to ship out with his battalion to the Middle East for the Suez crisis in 1956. He saw no action, but he mustered out as a first lieutenant with firm ideas about military solutions to international problems.

He earned a doctorate at Harvard, joined the RAND Corporation and began studying game theory as applied to crisis situations and nuclear warfare. In the 1960s, he conferred on Washington’s responses to the Cuban missile crisis and North Vietnamese attacks on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.

By 1964, Mr. Ellsberg was an adviser to Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. As American involvement in Vietnam deepened, he went to Saigon in 1965 to evaluate civilian pacification programs. He joined Maj. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale, the counterinsurgency expert, and for 18 months accompanied combat patrols into the jungles and villages.

What he saw began his transformation. It went beyond the failure to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese. It was a mounting toll of civilian deaths, tortured prisoners and burned villages, a litany of brutality entered in military field reports as “clear and hold operations.”

“I saw it was all very hard on those people,” he told the syndicated columnist Mary McGrory. “But I told myself that living under communism would be harder, and World War III, which I thought we were preventing, would be worse.”

To Mr. McNamara, Mr. Ellsberg forecast a dismal prospect of continued death and destruction, ending perhaps in an American withdrawal and victory for North Vietnam. His reports went nowhere. But Mr. McNamara summoned him in 1967, with 35 others, to compile a history of the Vietnam conflict.

Mr. Ellsberg’s contribution to the study was relatively modest. But he was deeply disturbed by its sweeping conclusions: that successive presidents had widened the war while concealing the facts from Congress and the American people. Mr. Ellsberg returned to RAND in 1968, but he began quietly acting on his changing views, composing war policy statements for Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential race and attending antiwar conferences.

Image

Mr. Ellsberg in Vietnam, where he joined Maj. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale, the counterinsurgency expert, on combat patrols into the jungles and villages.Credit…Daniel and Patricia Ellsberg

In August 1969, he went to a War Resisters League meeting at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and heard a speaker, Randy Kehler, proudly announce that he was soon going to join his friends in prison for refusing the draft.

Profoundly moved, Mr. Ellsberg had reached his breaking point, as he was quoted saying in “The Right Words at the Right Time” (2002), by the actress Marlo Thomas. “I left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room,” he said. “I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing. The only time in my life I’ve reacted to something like that.”

Mr. Ellsberg began to oppose the war openly. He wrote letters to newspapers, joined antiwar protests, composed articles and testified at the trials of draft resisters. He also resigned from RAND, under pressure.

With Anthony J. Russo Jr., a RAND colleague he had met in Vietnam, Mr. Ellsberg, who had a top-secret security clearance, photocopied the 47-volume Pentagon study. Still believing he could work within the system, Mr. Ellsberg in 1970 gave partial copies to Senator J. William Fulbright, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and others in Congress. All cautiously refused to act.

Frustrated, disillusioned and aware that he might be committing a crime and could be sent to prison, Mr. Ellsberg approached Neil Sheehan, a veteran New York Times correspondent he had met in Vietnam, with the documents. The transfer was a delicate matter. In an account that was withheld at his request until after his death in 2021, Mr. Sheehan told a Times colleague, Janny Scott, a dramatic story of how he had obtained the 7,000-page scoop of a lifetime.

Mr. Ellsberg, he said, first agreed to turn over the papers if The Times would publish them and do its best to protect the identity of its source. But when Mr. Sheehan arrived at an apartment in Cambridge, Mass., where the papers were stashed, Mr. Ellsberg changed the terms, saying Mr. Sheehan could study the papers and take notes, but not photocopy them. He gave Mr. Sheehan a key to the apartment and left town.

Mr. Sheehan, believing the papers were “the property of the people” and had been paid for with “the blood of their sons,” as he said, broke the deal, had copies made and took a set to New York, where teams of Times reporters and editors worked in a hotel suite around the clock for weeks to prepare the trove of national secrets for publication. Mr. Ellsberg did not learn of Mr. Sheehan’s duplicity until June 13, 1971, when The Times published the first of nine installments of excerpts and analytical articles on the Pentagon Papers. The reaction was swift.

Attorney General John N. Mitchell, citing espionage and conspiracy statutes, warned The Times that it had jeopardized national security and said the newspaper faced ruinous legal action. Editors, lawyers and The Times’s publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, conferred, and publication resumed. After the third installment, however, the Justice Department obtained an injunction, halting publication.

Mr. Ellsberg, meantime, leaked the papers to other publications, including The Washington Post. The government sued. The Times and The Post carried their cases to the Supreme Court, which lifted the injunction on June 30, allowing publication to resume. The case reinforced a constitutional doctrine that the press, absent a national emergency, should not be subject to prepublication censorship.

The Pentagon Papers revealed not only that successive presidents had widened the war, but also that they had been aware that it was not likely to be won. The documents also disclosed rife cynicism among high officials toward the public and disregard for the enormous casualties of the war. Mr. Ellsberg called the conflict “an American war almost from the beginning.”

The White House soon began to pursue Mr. Ellsberg, who had gone into hiding. Under President Nixon’s domestic affairs adviser, John D. Ehrlichman, a unit called the “plumbers” was formed to plug leaks and carry out covert operations, including burglaries at the office of Mr. Ellsberg’s psychiatrist (no damaging files were found), and in 1972 at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. The arrest of the burglars there began an unraveling that led to Mr. Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Mr. Ellsberg, who surrendered, and Mr. Russo, his colleague, were charged with espionage, conspiracy and other crimes carrying a total of 115 years in prison. After a procedural mistrial in 1972, they were tried in 1973 before Judge William M. Byrne Jr. in federal court in Los Angeles. Before the case went to the jury, however, the judge dismissed all the charges on the grounds of government misconduct.

Image

Anthony J. Russo Jr., left, and Mr. Ellsberg outside the federal court in Los Angeles in 1973 after Judge William M. Byrne Jr. dismissed all the charges against them. Mr. Ellsberg’s wife, Patricia, was at right.Credit…Associated Press

Judge Byrne said that G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, who engineered the Watergate burglary, had broken into the office of Lewis J. Fielding, Mr. Ellsberg’s former psychiatrist, in a failed attempt to find damaging evidence against him; that the F.B.I. had illegally wiretapped Mr. Ellsberg’s conversations; and that during the trial Mr. Ehrlichman had offered the judge the directorship of the F.B.I.

While Mr. Nixon resigned and Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Ehrlichman and other Watergate figures went to prison, Mr. Ellsberg continued to be active in the antiwar movement, speaking at rallies and campuses across the nation. He also advocated disarmament and spoke against nuclear weapons, and he was arrested in 1976 with others in a demonstration outside the Pentagon.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Ellsberg denounced President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan in a hunt for Osama bin Laden, who was blamed for the attacks, and to suppress a fanatical Taliban regime that sheltered terrorists. He was also scathingly critical of the United States-led war in Iraq, which in nearly nine years of conflict claimed thousands of American lives and by some estimates cost $2 trillion.

Mr. Ellsberg was the author of many articles in newspapers and magazines, and of several books, including “Papers on the War” (1972) and “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers” (2002). “Secrets” won several awards and was praised by reviewers, including Tran Van Dinh in The Christian Century, who called it “the moving story of an enlightened citizen who dared to speak truth to power and had faith in the protection afforded him by the Bill of Rights.”

In 2021, at a time of renewed tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan, Mr. Ellsberg made headlines by highlighting a long-classified government study that he had secretly copied. The report indicated that the Pentagon drew up plans for a nuclear strike on China in 1958 when Mao Zedong’s communist forces began shelling islands controlled by Taipei in the Straits of Taiwan. The crisis ebbed when China broke off the attacks, leaving the islands in control of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Republic of China.

Mr. Ellsberg’s memoir, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner” (2017), which drew on his time in the 1950s and ’60s with the RAND Corporation and the Pentagon, described an era of terrifying nuclear proliferation and hair-trigger controls, and sounded an impassioned warning that the perils of a nuclear holocaust still existed. Graham Allison, in a review for The Times, praised “Ellsberg’s effort to make vivid the genuine madness of the ‘doomsday machine,’ and the foolishness of betting our survival on mutually assured destruction.”

Mr. Ellsberg was awarded Sweden’s 2018 Olof Palme Prize for “profound humanism and exceptional moral courage.”

Daniel Ellsberg was born in Chicago on April 7, 1931, to Harry and Adele (Charsky) Ellsberg. His father, a structural engineer, moved the family in 1937 to Detroit, where Daniel grew up. His mother hoped he would become a concert pianist and required him to practice many hours a day, despite his clear lack of enthusiasm. His mother and sister were killed in a car wreck on a Fourth of July outing in 1946.

Image

Mr. Ellsberg in 2006. He once said of his epiphany in 1969: “There was at this time no question in my mind that my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger.”Credit…Jonas Ekstromer/European Pressphoto Agency

On a scholarship, he attended Cranbrook, a prep school in suburban Detroit, and graduated first in his class. At Harvard, again attending on a scholarship, he edited a literary magazine, was on the editorial board of the campus newspaper The Crimson and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, with high honors, in 1952. He then received a fellowship to study advanced economics at King’s College, Cambridge, and he returned to Harvard in 1953 for a master’s degree in economics.

In 1951, he married Carol Cummings, the daughter of a retired Marine Corps brigadier general. The couple had two children, Robert and Mary Carroll Ellsberg, before divorcing in the mid-1960s. In 1970, he married Patricia Marx, a toy company heiress and longtime antiwar activist. They had a son, Michael.

He is survived by his wife, his children, five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

After his Marine Corps service, he joined the RAND Corporation in 1958 to study war games, and in 1962 he received his doctorate in economics from Harvard. By 1969, he had begun to confront the Vietnam War’s moral issues. That August at Haverford, he heard the draft resister, Mr. Kehler.

“He was going to jail as a very deliberate choice — because he thought it was the right thing to do,” Mr. Ellsberg recalled. “There was at this time no question in my mind that my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger. Thousands of young men were dying each year.”

Robert D. McFadden is a senior writer on the Obituaries desk and the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. He joined The Times in May 1961 and is also the co-author of two books.

Read More