WHEN HE LAST spoke with Reason in 1973, Daniel Ellsberg was on trial for leaking the Pentagon Papers. The Harvard-educated military analyst at the RAND Corporation had long wrestled with many of the moral quandaries of war, but was a consummate Washington insider up until the moment he decided to release a classified Department of Defense study of the Vietnam War, with its damning proof that President Lyndon Johnson had misled Congress and the public about the conflict.
While it looked like Ellsberg might spend the rest of his life behind bars, he was saved--ironically--by Richard Nixon's paranoid dealings, which included sending goons to break into Ellsberg's former psychiatrist's office and allegedly plotting to have him killed.
If the original leaking plan had gone Ellsberg's way, he suspects he might be in prison still. As he relates in his new book, Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (Bloomsbury), along with the now-familiar thousands of pages on Vietnam, he had unprecedented civilian access to nuclear planning documents in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. He swiped and copied them as well. Unfortunately, Ellsberg gave the nuclear documents to his brother, who buried them for safekeeping until the Pentagon Papers trial was over. A hurricane collapsed the hill where they were hidden, and they were lost to history. Ellsberg has had 45 years to wonder what would have happened if they hadn't been, and more than 60 years to be unnerved by the recklessness, poor planning, and misinformation rampant in an area of policy with the highest possible stakes.
Today, Ellsberg is the 86-year-old elder statesmen of whistleblowing. He calls Edward Snowden "a hero of mine." In return, Snowden has said he was following in Ellsberg's footsteps when he leaked his own cache of secret government documents in 2013.
Reason spoke with Ellsberg by phone in October about his new book, his belief that nobody needs more nuclear weapons than Kim Jong Un has, and why the Cold War's apocalyptic threats still hang over us.
Reason: Do you still get people calling you a traitor, and do you anticipate getting more of that on Twitter, now that you have a presence there?
Daniel Ellsberg: For decades I used to say that being called "traitor" is something you never get used to. But the truth is, for humans, you get used to anything. After 40 years, it doesn't get a big rise out of me anymore.
It did very much at first. As a person whose identification was patriotism in a very conventional way--after all, I did go into the Marines, and I volunteered to go to Vietnam--the idea of being called traitor was very, very painful. But even at the beginning, I felt that people who would use that term didn't understand our country very well, or our Constitution.
In many other countries, you work for a fuhrer, to use the German word: a leader. And the leader is the government. You can't criticize the administration without being regarded as treasonous. That's one of the reasons that a revolution was fought over here, a war of independence.
In my case, the loyalty was to the Constitution and to the country rather than to the administration. Every officer in all the armed services and every member of the Congress and every official in the executive branch all take the same oath. The president's is a little bit different, but everybody else has the same one, and it's not to a leader, and it's not to secrecy. It's to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I had been violating that oath, I would say, when I knew that a president was violating the Constitution and waging war under false pretenses. In the end, I felt that the right thing to do, definitely, was to tell the Congress and the public what was being done in their name. That certainly seemed to me like being a better patriot than I had been.
When you last spoke to Reason more than 40 years ago, you said you were a former Cold War Democrat who was "in transition" and "very influenced by the people who are radical pacifists and anarchists." I'm curious about how you would describe your politics since then.
I was influenced really by nonviolent activists in the Gandhian tradition and the Martin Luther King tradition. Giving the Pentagon Papers was a radical action. It involved truth telling and risk to myself. I expected to go to prison for life.
I still want to live up to that tradition. But I never became a total pacifist. I don't agree with those of my friends who are critical of all wars. The truth is, though, that there hasn't been one since the Second World War that I could really recognize on our part as having been justified or worthwhile. So I remain very much anti-imperial and very skeptical of intervention.