Cheers, tears and laughter broke out in a Los Angeles courtroom 37 years ago today as a judge dismissed all charges against Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the press. Federal Judge William Matthew Byrne Jr. brought the four-month trial to an end, saying the burglary of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office by the White House "Plumbers" and other government misconduct "offend a sense of justice."
The saga began a dozen years earlier when Ellsberg, a self-described "dedicated cold warrior" and former Marine, made his first trip to Vietnam as a Defense Department consultant and reluctantly concluded that U.S. prospects for success there were grim.
"The government there in Saigon, that we were supporting, was as illegitimate in the eyes of the Vietnamese people as the Karzai government is in the eyes of the Afghan people," he told the AARP Bulletin.
But the real turning point for Ellsberg came when he heard draft resister Randy Kehler speak in the summer of 1969 about his willingness to go to jail to end the war. Overcome with emotion, Ellsberg wept for an hour after Kehler's speech. In his 2002 autobiography, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, he recalled feeling as if his life had split in two.
"So the question was, how could I now help to end this war, now that I was willing to go to prison," he said in the interview. "And within a few weeks the idea came to me of putting out the Pentagon Papers, which I thought would put me in prison for the rest of my life."
An analyst at the Rand Corporation, Ellsberg had worked on the 7,000-page, top-secret study of U.S. decision making in Vietnam, later known as the Pentagon Papers. At the urging of a former Rand colleague, Anthony Russo, he began removing portions of the study from his office safe and smuggling them out in his briefcase.
He and Russo copied one page at a time on a 1960s-era photocopier at the office of Russo's girlfriend. Ellsberg's 13-year-old son, Robert, also helped. Recently married to Ellsberg, Patricia Ellsberg has said she spent the first year of their marriage helping her husband get the Pentagon Papers out, although she knew it could send him to prison.
The New York Times began publishing the papers in June 1971, and the revelations predictably enraged President Richard Nixon and members of his administration.
"Let's get the son of a bitch into jail," Nixon fumed. Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, called Ellsberg "the most dangerous man in America."
Shortly before the papers were published, Ellsberg resigned from Rand, and has been teaching and lecturing ever since. He has been arrested nearly 80 times and jailed repeatedly for protesting nuclear proliferation "my major concern for half a century"the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other social causes. Patricia is frequently at his side.
Now 79, he is the narrator of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, a documentary that premiered last fall and was nominated for an Academy Award. He hopes the movie will change lives just as his was changed by hearing Kehler speak.
"People's choices are wider than they may think if they realize that it's in their power to tell the truth even at great personal cost,"he said. "And the cost may be great."
The film has led to a resurgence of interest in the Pentagon Papers, and Ellsberg has been lecturing almost nonstop over the past six months. While his health is good, he is exhausted from traveling and speaking.
"I just hope that this film and other examples can lead people to take some risks," he said, "and shorten that time before a million Afghans have died, as happened under the Soviet 10-year occupation."
Although he voted for President Obama, he remains a staunch opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and worries that it will be a long time before the United States leaves Afghanistan, which he calls "Vietnamistan." He said there is still an urgent need for "patriotic whistle-blowing."
Ellsberg and wife Patricia, a Buddhist who teaches and writes about her beliefs, live near Berkeley, Calif., and will celebrate their 40th anniversary this summer. Robert Ellsberg, who edited his father's autobiography, is now editor in chief of Orbis Books, a religious publisher. The couple have two other children: Michael, the author of The Power of Eye Contact, and Mary, vice president at the International Center for Research on Women. They have five grandchildren.
Kitty Bennett is a news researcher and writer living in St. Petersburg, Fla.