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Mr. Ellsberg, a few weeks ago you made public the fact that you’ve been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and that you’ve decided to forego treatment.
And so first of all, I’d like to say I’m sorry and ask how you’re feeling.
Thank you. Well, I’m not. It’s not an enormous change for me at 92. As John Dean said to me, if it’s not one damn thing, it’s another.
So it isn’t that I’m against chemotherapy in principle. I probably will take some and see whether I am one of the relatively few candidates for improvement. But the odds, I might say, are, say, 5 percent. And that’s better odds than I usually deal with politically. So I’m pursuing that a bit, but not to the level of terrible quality of life.
Well, I’m very happy to hear that, that you have found that there are options for you. But I’m also curious why you want to speak to people like me right now. I mean, why are you speaking to journalists with the remaining time that you have?
I’ve long said to my last breath I will be doing what I can to postpone and avert the risk of nuclear war. And I will do what I can to the last — till my last breath.
From New York Times Opinion, I’m Lulu Garcia-Navarro. And this is “First Person.”
Daniel Ellsberg is famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers back in 1971. They helped end the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. After The New York Times started publishing the documents, Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg the most dangerous man in America.
But a few years ago, Ellsberg revealed a secret. The Pentagon Papers were only some of the documents he’d copied and not even the ones he considered most important. There was another set of documents about American nuclear war planning that he had wanted to be his legacy. But a sequence of events involving his brother, a compost heap, the FBI, and a tropical storm kept Ellsberg from ever bringing those other papers to light.
Now Ellsberg is reflecting on his life. And against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and rising tensions over Taiwan, he worries that we’re closer than ever to nuclear disaster and that the American public won’t start paying attention until it’s too late. Today, Daniel Ellsberg’s final warning.
So of course you’re most famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers. But many people might not know that you’ve spent most of your life focused on nuclear war. When did the prospect of nuclear war first enter your imagination?
Really when I was 13 in 1944. And my social studies teacher, Bradley Patterson, assigned us a week to study the following question. What if there evolved what he called a uranium bomb?
Now almost no one in America had recently heard of a uranium bomb because the subject had been essentially censored since about 1940. So he said supposing a bomb became possible that was a thousand times more powerful than the blockbusters we were then using. How would this affect humanity? Would this be a good thing or a bad thing?
And my memory is that all of the students in my class concluded what I did after one week. And it wasn’t that hard. You didn’t have to be a moral prodigy to arrive at the conclusion this would be a bad thing for humanity. We can’t really deal with that.
And then, nine months later, during the summer, I remember very vividly being on a street in Detroit. I can remember a trolley car was going by and was clattering on the wheels. I just had that memory as I looked at a newspaper on a stand saying Hiroshima, a city destroyed by one bomb.
And my reaction immediately was that was the bomb we studied nine months ago. And we got it first. And we used it.
- archived recording 1
The first one was dropped on a Japanese city this morning. It was designed for a detonation equal to 20,000 tons of high explosives.
- archived recording (harry truman)
What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history.
Truman, when he said very exultantly, this is the greatest thing in history, our great triumph of science, which it was, I thought that was a very ominous sign.
- archived recording (harry truman)
Let there be no mistake. We shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.
There should have been more anxiety or anguish in his voice. He was just triumphant about it. I thought, this is a dangerous development.
And that was an unusual thought, I think, for Americans at that time. Because they really had never considered, they hadn’t spent even a week thinking about what it would mean for humanity to have a bomb this powerful.
- archived recording (harry truman)
These bombs are now in production. And even more powerful forms are in development. It is a —
Despite his initial concerns, in the 1950s, Ellsberg came to see the bomb as a necessary evil. And so with the Cold War in full swing, he started working for the Rand Corporation, a military think tank that advised the government on sensitive policy questions. Those included what to do about the Soviet Union and its nuclear program.
So as soon as I got to Rand, I was assigned to be a reporter, a — what’s the word — note taker at a seminar of some of their top thinkers. And I was — that summer I remember sitting at a desk around 11:00, reading reports that the best time for a Soviet submarine attack was at night. I forget why exactly, the weather or something like that.
And I remember looking out at my window, which we were right above Muscle Beach in Santa Monica. I looked out. And the moonlight was streaming over the ocean at about 11:00.
And the hair on the back of my head bristled. I could see missiles rising out of the sea coming at that moment. It was so, so vivid.
That was, like, a hallucination.
Yeah, well, you know, I could just imagine it happening.
I was reading it at that moment. So I thought, in short, that I and my friends were doing the most important work in the world. We were saving the world from a nuclear attack by deterring it.
So in those early days at Rand, beyond reading reports about the Russians, what was your actual job?
Actually, I was working on a branch of economics called decision theory. My work was how do people reasonably make decisions under conditions of great uncertainty or ambiguity. An enemy attack, this meant a Soviet attack at that time, would inevitably be ambiguous.
Our warning systems misread flocks of geese for an incoming attack, Atmospheric disturbances of various kind for incoming attack, and false alarms occurred all the time. So how would the president decide what to do when he wasn’t sure there might be an attack?
He didn’t want his planes to be caught on the ground. But on the other hand, if he went first, it was on a false alarm. So this was the most consequential decision under uncertainty that any human had ever faced. So that’s what I was working on.
Did you ever actually see a nuclear bomb? Did you ever get close to one?
The only time I actually recall seeing a nuclear weapon, an actual nuclear weapon, was in Kadena in Okinawa. And there was a weapon on a trolley, the kind of thing that carries heavy things, to be loaded on side the plane. And it was, I would have said, six or seven feet long.
I put my hand on it. And uncannily, it felt warm. It was a cold day. But the weapon was warm because there’s radioactivity coming from it. And it felt like animal heat. It felt as though it were alive. And that was an eerie feeling.
As part of his work for Rand, Ellsberg ended up touring Air Force bases in the Pacific, where most of the US’ nuclear bombers were stationed. The bombers weren’t even allowed to take off on training runs in order to safeguard against an accidental explosion. But Ellsberg discovered that there were fewer safeguards when it came to the decision to launch the planes and set in motion a nuclear strike.
This was the day before satellite communications. Cables were run over by trawlers, various things. Atmospheric disturbances occurred. They were out all the time.
And under some circumstances, as I found, if you have reason to believe that this cut off of communications indicates that a war is on, you should do it. Send them off.
And that was, in fact, I discovered, authorized. Not only at the commander-in-chief level in the theaters Pacific, Atlantic, NATO, and so forth, they had delegated in turn. If your communications are out, you’re on your own. You decide whether you’re at war or not, or whether this is a false alarm or not. So they had delegated down to very low levels.
You’re saying that commanders had authority to start a war?
There are many fingers on the button. Let me put it this way. It was not only that a rogue like Commander Jack Ripper, General Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove,” on his own at a base, could send his bombers off.
- archived recording 2
General Turgidson, I find this very difficult to understand.
“Dr. Strangelove,” of course, is that iconic satire about how a single rogue US general ends up blowing up the world.
- archived recording 2
I was under the impression that I was the only one in authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.
To this day we hear that the president is the sole authority to execute nuclear war plans. He is an authority. He’s not to be denied by anybody [INAUDIBLE]. He is not the sole authority under many circumstances. There are many fingers on the buttons.
And the planes were — if they were ordered, nothing could bring you back. Because they were afraid that if there were a code, this is the President, come back, the Russians would get it and would abort our whole attack.
So once you’re on the way, you’re on the way. There’s no way to carry them back. Very few people knew that.
That’s wild. No way to turn them back.
Once they’re gone, you can’t get them back.
- archived recording 3
Now then, Dmitri, we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb.
Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it? Can you imagine how —
Every aspect of that film, “Dr. Strangelove,” was actual — could have happened. It was not — it was a documentary, not a parody [INAUDIBLE].
Clearly it didn’t take long after you started working at Rand for you to start to think that the safeguards in place to prevent nuclear calamity were not as robust as you might have hoped.
No. That was my specialty, investigating that. And that was the conclusion I came to. This is a very dangerous system.
At first, even though Ellsberg could see all these problems, there wasn’t much he could do to fix them. He was a government contractor without any authority.
But when Kennedy became president, the new Assistant Secretary for Defense asked Ellsberg to help revise the nuclear war plans to address some of the problems he discovered on his tour of the Pacific. In the process, Ellsberg asked the Joint Chiefs a question.
If your plan were executed as planned, how many people will be killed in the Soviet Union and China? I was under the impression from an Air Force friend of mine that they didn’t have an estimate for the number of people killed. So I was going to embarrass them by asking whether they had an estimate, what their estimate was.
And instead of saying we have to have more time or we don’t the answer, the answer came back in a week, which was very fast for Washington standards. And it was a chart. It was a very simple chart.
On the horizontal axis, time in months, because it takes some time for the fallout to kill people. And on a vertical axis, millions of dead. And the first figure for the first week for Soviet Union and China was 275 million dead.
When I saw the graph, I had that piece of paper in my hand — I remember very much the moment — and thought this should not exist. This plan, not that it should be kept secret, which it was, but that there should be no planning, no system that could possibly accomplish this. This shouldn’t be in people’s imagination. This is the most evil plan that has ever existed in the story of humanity.
And I’ve tried to understand the psychology of people who understood that this is what they were working on, like working on the Holocaust, you know. Except the 600 million we got to was a hundred Holocausts. That’s how I thought of it.
So when people say that SS officers were able to go home from Auschwitz and play with their children and play the violin and listen to records and have dinner and so forth, I understood that. That was not make believe. Those were my colleagues that I drank beer with in the evening.
Seeing those charts was a turning point for Ellsberg. He didn’t stop working on revisions to the nuclear war plan, but he resolved to do everything in his power to make sure they didn’t become a reality.
Then the U.S got involved in the war in Vietnam. And alongside the rest of the country, Ellsberg found himself consumed by the conflict. [MUSIC PLAYING]
- archived recording 4
A battalion of US First air Cavalry clashes with North Vietnamese regulars in a central coastal plain near Bong Son. Heavy and accurate sniper fire, zeroed in by telescopic sights, keeps our forces pinned down and dug in.
In 1961, you see these estimates that hundreds of millions of people would die, what you call this evil plan. And that plan did not come to fruition at that point into nuclear war. But we did end up in Vietnam.
And in the late 1960s, you thought the war was unwinnable. And you decide to leak documents showing that the government knew the war was unwinnable and had engaged in it anyway. Those, of course, were called The Pentagon Papers. And they were published by us at “The Times” as well as “The Washington Post.” Did you understand at the time how consequential what you did would become?
Well, I didn’t copy the Pentagon Papers because I thought the war was not winnable. I think virtually every American, if they were there a year or more, realized what we’re doing is not going to win this war. But how about the people who went to prison rather than going to Vietnam? They were the people who inspired me to do what I did.
- archived recording 5
Jail is not to be feared. Jail is an honorable alternative to this war in Vietnam.
They are the people who put into my head the question what can I do to help shorten this war.
- archived recording 6
There are probably a lot of you that have heard me speak before. And perhaps the only thing that’ll be different about tonight is that you won’t have to hear it again for a while.
The specific reason is that I’m going to spend the next three years of my life in a federal prison.
Not one of them went to prison because he thought the war was not winnable. They went to prison because they thought the war was wrong. And that’s what I thought.
And I thought, well, since I agree with them about that, shouldn’t I be willing to take the kind of risks they’re taking? And that’s when I thought of copying the Pentagon Papers. But after I’d started, I realized, well, the things that really mattered here are the craziest, insane, illegal nuclear plans, including crises where we’d come very close to using nuclear weapons.
So alongside documents about the war in Vietnam, Ellsberg says he started copying all of his nuclear notes from his time in the Pacific, from his days revising the war plan, from the Cuban Missile Crisis. He says he only told one person what he was doing, an anti-war activist named Randy Kehler, who’d inspired Ellsberg to start copying the Pentagon Papers and who was headed to prison for refusing the draft.
He was the only person I told. In fact, I didn’t even tell my co-defendant that some of the stuff he was copying without knowing it was nuclear notes and drafts and reports and things. But I told Randy because he was on his way to prison. I thought he would like to know that he had had an influence on someone to do something.
So I told him. And Randy said, well, you know, we don’t need more information about Vietnam. We have enough information about Vietnam. The nuclear stuff is the important — you should put that out.
And I said, Randy, I agree with you. It is more important. But Vietnam is where the bombs are falling right now.
And if I put out the nuclear stuff, no one will pay any attention to this history on Vietnam. It won’t have any effect. So I’m going to do that after I put out the Pentagon Papers and we’ve run through whatever effect they have.
And so I separated it all from the Pentagon Papers. Didn’t give it to “The Times” or anybody else. I gave it to my brother Harry in New York state. And he, it turned out, hid it in — eventually, in a trash dump, a junkyard.
Wait, wait, wait. You gave top secret nuclear documents to your brother Harry?
Who put it in a trash heap?
No, you have to have a little more detail there. At first he had it in his cellar. And then, I think when the Pentagon Papers first hit and he realized people might be coming for him, he put it in a — what do you call it — where you put vegetation, you know, trash, and so forth.
Compost, a compost heap.
Compost heap, yes. And at 92, I miss words like that.
So he had it in the compost heap. And then he decided that might be not safe enough. And he transferred it in a large cardboard box and garbage bags inside garbage bags to keep it — the moisture out. He buried in the side of a sort of wall of trash next to the road with this stove above it so it would identify where it was.
And the next day, this is now while the FBI is hunting for me, the next day a neighbor tells him that they’ve seen men probing his compost heap with flexible long metal rods. So he had moved it just in time.
Then he told me during the summer after my indictment, a problem, Long Island, had been hit by a hurricane, or it was another name for it, a typhoon or something. And it had dispersed the trash and the [INAUDIBLE] on the side of the road, down the road, down a hillside. And the stove had been moved about a hundred yards by this hurricane.
And for another year. he and some friends of his did their most to find this. And they found a lot of buried garbage bags, green garbage bags. But none of them had top secret documents inside.
Were you mad at your brother?
No. What he’d done seemed reasonable. I was unhappy that all of the nuclear stuff had now gotten lost with him. But you know, what he did was — he did what he could.
So I was very, very unhappy with the situation. It kept me from being very triumphant about the Pentagon Papers. Because I felt, really having failed at what I most wanted to do, was get out the nuclear material.
After sharing the Pentagon Papers with “The Times,” Ellsberg spent almost two weeks on the run from the FBI as the Nixon White House strategized behind closed doors.
- archived recording 7
I just say that we’ve got to keep our eye on the main ball. Your main ball’s Ellsberg. We got to get this son of a bitch. And —
When Ellsberg did finally surrender, he was charged with espionage and found himself facing up to 115 years in prison.
- archived recording 8
[INAUDIBLE] indictment says 115 year prison term and a $120,000 fine for maximum. Are your thoughts still the same, that you’re willing to accept any consequences?
How can you measure the jeopardy that I’m in to the penalty that has been paid already by 50,000 American families here and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese families? It would be absolutely presumptuous of me —
- archived recording 7
We can’t be in a position of ever allowing — just because some guy is going to be a martyr — of allowing the fellow to get away with this kind of wholesale thievery. Or otherwise, it’s going to happen all over the government.
In the end, Ellsberg never went to jail. The judge declared a mistrial after it came out in court that Nixon had ordered a break in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, similar to the one at the Watergate that would end his presidency. A free man, Ellsberg became an activist against nuclear proliferation.
- archived recording 9
Today, the members of the science and security board moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward, largely because of the mounting dangers in the war in Ukraine. We moved the clock forward the closest it has ever been to midnight. It is now 90 seconds to midnight.
That’s after the break.
I’m thinking of you as a young man discovering how faulty the systems are that keep us safe from nuclear war. Do you think things are any better now, considering what a dangerous situation we’re in with Russia and other places?
We’re in a more dangerous situation than any time in my lifetime.
- archived recording 10
It was on state television that President Putin dropped his nuclear bombshell.
You could say the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I was involved in, in fact had a comparable risk of all out nuclear war. That’s true. Nothing since then.
- archived recording 10
Tactical nuclear weapons will soon be deployed to neighboring Belarus, he announced. Not for decades has Russia stationed these powerful battlefield weapons outside its own borders.
There are people saying right now Putin is totally bluffing and you can act as if he is. I think that’s asinine. And to say that you don’t have to have any concern about that this could develop in such a way. In repelling his aggression, you can do it without restraint.
Because he will never carry out his threats. And nobody ever has. I think that is a gamble that is unconscionable at this point.
- archived recording 11
Putin already this morning threatening Russia would use all the means at its disposal, adding this is not a bluff.
I don’t think he’s bluffing. He will not hit London, Washington, or anything. But he’s talking about small implicitly, talking about small, tactical nuclear weapons.
So why would he do that? To shock the US and the world into negotiations that Zelenskyy says he’s not willing to enter. He uses one or two little nuclear weapons, but with the effect of saying, stop. Rethink this. Don’t keep this going. This thing may escalate. And we’ll all regret it.
What the Russians call escalating to de-escalate. Cause the other side to draw back, to think, again, stop it. And negotiate on our terms.
Well, given the difficulty of managing nuclear weapons, do you believe that the only answer now, at 92, is getting rid of them all? I mean, can we ever be safe in a world with nuclear weapons?
Well, well, here I depart from a lot of my colleagues in the nuclear movement, including those who have pressed total abolition as the only objective worth thinking about, that anything else is a distraction from that. I disagree with that.
Who would advise the US to dismantle all of its nuclear weapons right now as fast as they could, no matter what Russia did? Well, I wouldn’t be one of those. Most of the world wouldn’t.
If we didn’t have any nuclear weapons, Russia would be attacking Polish bases right now. There are people who say yes, we should sign the treaty for the prohibition of nuclear weapons right now. Which would mean we had to set up a tight schedule for getting rid of all of our nuclear weapons no matter what anyone else did, unilateral disarmament without inspection.
People aren’t going to sign on to that to leave Russia as a monopolist of nuclear weapons. But we can reduce enormously. You don’t eliminate nuclear war. You make it much less likely. But it eliminates the possibility of killing nearly everyone.
50 years ago you made a decision to leak the Pentagon Papers and to sit on the nuclear documents you copied. How do you think the world would be different today if you’d done the opposite and leaked the nuclear documents first? I mean, what effect do you think those documents would have had if they’d been released then?
That’s a good question which no one has ever asked me. And I haven’t spent that much time thinking about it. But I have a little.
Above all, everybody knows, everybody can see you shouldn’t push the button on all out war. But how about threatening it? Or risking it? Taking actions that increase the risk but is still much less than certainty?
It turns out humans live with that very well. They don’t feel guilt. And they feel it’s necessary. And it would be bad to do it. But it’s a necessary evil to be able to do it.
So supposing I had done it all then. What would have happened? Probably nothing. Humans’ imagination is not capable of dealing with powers of destruction of this scale.
You were born in 1931. And you’ve seen so many eras and been at the center of so many consequential moments. What are your thoughts about this moment in 2023? I mean, do you find yourself being cynical about our future? Or are you someone who still believes that it’s possible to change the course of history, even for one person to change the course of history?
Oh, I’m very hopeful. I’m hopeful that my expectations are totally wrong, as they often have been. So that’s not an idle hope. No one would have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mandela becoming president of South Africa without a violent revolution. Impossible.
And now one thing that I saw as impossible was the Vietnam War ending in 1975. No chance. There’s no chance of it. It’s impossible. And it happened. So that, to me, is a miracle.
You’re asking me now whether I’m cynical. It’s not a matter of cynical. It’s what do I think now is the realistic appraisal of my species and my country.
You’re coming to the end of a very long journey. And I’m wondering —
— how you assess your own impact on this country?
Well, there have always been people willing to take risks for other people. However, the other people you’re willing to take risks for our family, our tribe, or whatever. But there’s always a “them” that we really don’t care about.
There are also humans who will risk and sacrifice for them, others. How much do most American people care about how many Ukrainians die? It’s negligible. That’s what I’ve learned.
But there are people who do care. And they are my family. They’re my tribe. You know, they’re people who go to jail, civil disobedience, who really protest, who are activists on climate and 10 other causes.
So I do think, I know, I’ve been told by many, that my action has been an example for others in the same way that Randy Kehler and Bob Eaton, and David Harris, and a lot of others, and Rosa Parks very specifically, who I met, by the way, and told her she was my hero — well, people have said that to me. And I think to myself when I hear that, for the better, I hope. Knowing that being changed by me, believe me, is not a good career move really and probably worse than they even realize.
But still, you know, nice. And they’re part of my tribe. So that exists. Do they have a chance of changing things?
Yes, because it turned out that the Pentagon Papers and the whole anti-war movement did do that, unforeseeably. There was no way to foresee it, that this would happen. And it happened by a chain of events that most people don’t understand to this day.
So the answer is it’s possible. It is not impossible. The odds, I can’t bring myself to say that the odds are any more than low. I can’t bring myself to say there’s so many of us. All together, we can, we will change the world. No, that’s not the way I see it.
But it’s not impossible. And my own case shows that. The challenge will be with us all the way. But is it worth trying? Yes.
Daniel Ellsberg, thank you so much.
My pleasure, really, my pleasure.
“First Person” is a production of New York Times Opinion. Tell us what you thought of this episode. Our email is FirstPerson@nytimes.com. And you can follow. and review the show wherever you get podcasts.
This episode was produced by Wyatt Orme. It was edited by Stephanie Joyce and Kaari Pitkin with help from Anabel Bacon. Mixing by Pat McCusker. Original music by Isaac Jones, Sonia Herrero, Pat McCusker and Carole Sabouraud. Fact checking by Mary Marge Locker.
The rest of the “First Person” team includes Olivia Natt, Rhiannon Corby, Sophia Alvarez Boyd, Derek Arthur and Jillian Weinberger. Special thanks to Kristina Samulewski, Shannon Busta, Allison Benedikt, Annie Rose Strasser and Katie Kingsbury.