UMass exhibit plumbs the life of famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg

  • A new online and in-person exhibit at the University of Massachusetts Amherst examines the life of famed whistleblower and peace activist Daniel Ellsberg. IMAGE COURTESY OF ROBERT S. COX SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES RESEARCH CENTER, UMASS 

  • A new online and in-person exhibit at the University of Massachusetts Amherst examines the life of famed whistleblower and peace activist Daniel Ellsberg. UMASS

  • This image shows Daniel Ellsberg getting arrested at an anti-nuclear protest in the early 1980s. CONTRIBUTED/UMASS

Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2022

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts has opened a new exhibit, available for both in-person and online viewing, on the life of Daniel Ellsberg, the famous peace activist and whistleblower who leaked government papers about the Vietnam War to the press in 1971.

“Daniel Ellsberg: A Life in Truth,” which can be viewed in person at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, is based on a huge trove of documents, photographs, letters and other personal materials — 500 boxes worth — that the university acquired from Ellsberg, who’s now 90, in 2019.

The project is designed to offer a comprehensive look at Ellsberg’s multifaceted life, in which the Harvard graduate served as a Marine, a U.S. Department of Defense analyst and a government contractor, and later as a writer, teacher, peace activist and public speaker.

Jeremy Smith, the archivist for the university’s Ellsberg collection, is the primary organizer of the exhibit, but he says UMass students Andrew Bettencourt, Talya Torres and Maia Fudala have selected most of the items. All three were part of a special class on Ellsberg taught last year by history professor Christian Appy.

The exhibit also follows an online conference UMass hosted last spring on Ellsberg’s legacy that featured over two dozen speakers — historians, journalists, former policymakers and activists, whistleblower Edward Snowden — and Ellsberg himself.

Ellsberg became famous in 1971 when, deeply disillusioned with the country’s involvement in Vietnam and the growth of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, he gave copies of secret government papers to the New York Times, which published a series of stories detailing how successive U.S. presidential administrations had lied to the public and at times to Congress about our involvement in Vietnam.

Ellsberg was working at the time for the RAND Corp., a defense contractor with the federal government.

Publication of what became known as “The Pentagon Papers” led the government to indict Ellsberg for violating a number of federal laws, including the Espionage Act of 1917, and he faced a possible sentence of 115 years. But charges were dismissed in 1973 following revelations that the administration of President Richard Nixon had illegally wiretapped Ellsberg’s phone and broken into his psychiatrist’s office to find incriminating information on him.

The new exhibit recounts all this and more, including some aspects of Ellsberg’s youth that may not be well known. He was a serious piano student for years, for instance, and in 1946, when he was 15, he was severely injured in a car crash when his father, who was driving the family car, fell asleep at the wheel. Ellsberg’s mother and sister both died in the crash.

After working on Vietnam policy with the Department of Defense in 1964 and 1965, where plans for military escalation were well underway, Ellsberg went to South Vietnam as a State Department employee to examine U.S. progress on the ground, and he also served in 1966-67 as an assistant to the U.S. deputy ambassador to South Vietnam.

As the exhibit outlines, Ellsberg’s appraisal of the war, and of conditions in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, turned increasingly bleak, laying the groundwork for his later work with The Pentagon Papers.

The project also looks at Ellsberg’s activism over the past 50 years, during which he has spoken out (and been arrested numerous times) about “the dangers of the nuclear era, wrongful U.S. interventions, government secrecy and the urgent need for patriotic whistleblowing,” as exhibit notes put it.

The exhibit, which runs until September, begins on Floor 25 of the Du Bois Library, in the Reading Room of the Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, and continues on the Lower Level in the Learning Commons. The online exhibit can be seen at umass.edu/ellsberg/2022-exhibit/.