Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked Pentagon Papers exposing Vietnam War secrets, dies at 92

The whistleblower inspired acts of retaliation by President Richard Nixon that helped lead to the downfall of his presidency.

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Daniel Ellsberg, co-defendant in the Pentagon Papers case, talks to media outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles on April 28, 1973.

Daniel Ellsberg, co-defendant in the Pentagon Papers case, talks to media outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles, April 28, 1973.

Wally Fong/AP

NEW YORK — Daniel Ellsberg, the history-making whistleblower who by leaking the Pentagon Papers revealed longtime government doubts and deceit about the Vietnam War and inspired acts of retaliation by President Richard Nixon that helped lead to his resignation, has died.

He was 92.

Ellsberg, who announced in February that he was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, died Friday morning, according to a letter from his family released by a spokeswoman, Julia Pacetti.

Until the early 1970s, when he revealed that he was the source for the stunning media reports on the 47-volume, 7,000-page Defense Department study of the U.S. role in Indochina, Ellsberg was a well-placed member of the government-military elite. He was a Harvard graduate and self-defined “cold warrior” who served as a private and government consultant on Vietnam throughout the 1960s, risked his life on the battlefield, received the highest security clearances and came to be trusted by officials in Democratic and Republican administrations.

He was especially valued, he would later note, for his “talent for discretion.”

But like millions of other Americans, in and out of government, he had turned against the yearslong war in Vietnam, the government’s claims that the battle was winnable and that a victory for the North Vietnamese over the U.S.-backed South would lead to the spread of communism throughout the region. Unlike so many other war opponents, he was in a special position to make a difference.

“An entire generation of Vietnam-era insiders had become just as disillusioned as I with a war they saw as hopeless and interminable,” he wrote in his 2002 memoir, “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.” “By 1968, if not earlier, they all wanted, as I did, to see us out of this war.”

As much as anyone, Ellsberg embodied the individual of conscience — who answered only to his sense of right and wrong, even if the price was his own freedom. David Halberstam, the late author and Vietnam War correspondent who had known Ellsberg since both were posted overseas, would describe him as no ordinary convert. He was highly intelligent, obsessively curious and profoundly sensitive, a born proselytizer who “saw political events in terms of moral absolutes” and demanded consequences for abuses of power.

As much as anyone, Ellsberg also embodied the fall of American idealism in foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s and the upending of the post-World War II consensus that Communism, real or suspected, should be opposed worldwide.

The Pentagon Papers had been commissioned in 1967 by then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, a leading public advocate of the war who wanted to leave behind a comprehensive history of the U.S. and Vietnam and to help his successors avoid the kinds of mistakes he would only admit to long after. The papers covered more than 20 years, from France’s failed efforts at colonization in the 1940s and 1950s to the growing involvement of the U.S., including the bombing raids and deployment of hundreds of thousands of ground troops during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Ellsberg was among those asked to work on the study, focusing on 1961, when the newly-elected President John F. Kennedy began adding advisers and support units.

First published in The New York Times in June 1971, with The Washington Post, The Associated Press and more than a dozen others following, the classified papers documented that the U.S. had defied a 1954 settlement barring a foreign military presence in Vietnam, questioned whether South Vietnam had a viable government, secretly expanded the war to neighboring countries and had plotted to send American soldiers even as Johnson vowed he wouldn’t.

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