Daniel Ellsberg, Christian Appy: Peace, Democracy And UMass

W.E.B. DuBois — the writer, professor and civil rights activist — was once called “the most dangerous man in America.”

Decades later, Henry Kissinger said the same thing about Daniel Ellsberg.

It’s fitting then that The University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s W.E.B. DuBois Library houses hundreds of boxes of Ellsberg’s papers.

UMass is also home of the Ellsberg Institute for Peace and Democracy. Its director is professor of history Christian Appy.

Appy — one of America’s foremost Vietnam scholars — is an apt choice to oversee the institute named for one the most historic figures from the Vietnam era.

Christian Appy

Appy’s love for history began in Westport. A 1973 Staples High School graduate, he earned a BA in history at Amherst College, a Ph.D. at Harvard, and taught at MIT before moving to UMass in 2004.

He earned the school’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2013, and a university-wide graduate mentoring honor in 2019.

His Vietnam books include a social history of American combat soldiers; an oral history from multiple perspectives, and a history of the war’s impact on American national identity, culture, and foreign policy.

The other day, Appy talked about his work on — and with — Ellsberg. At 91, the former military analyst whose daring release of the Pentagon Papers led to his indictment under the Espionage Act, precipitated a landmark court ruling, and was the first criminal act committed by President Nixon’s Plumbers, has “more intellectual energy than most people of any age.”

Ellsberg works with Appy — and his students. And, the professor says, “I learn something every time I talk with him.”

Appy has been immersed in the multi-faceted Ellsberg project since the papers arrived 3 years ago.

He never knows what he’ll find. There are pamphlets, underground journals, and reams of personal papers.

Ellsberg is not “organizationally gifted,” Appy laughs. “But he saved everything.”

Daniel Ellsberg at work, around 1982. (Photo courtesy of University of Massachusetts)

There was a lot to save. The more he studied, traveled and had access to high-level reports, the more the RAND military analyst and Department of Defense aide became first a skeptic, then a critic and finally an activist against the Vietnam War.

Appy calls it “one of the most dramatic reversals ever by a government official with access to information and power. He broke so radically, and at such great personal risk.”

Daniel Ellsberg emerging from a National Liberation Front tunnel in Vietnam, around 1966. (Photo courtesy of University of Massachusetts)

Ellsberg tried for 2 years to publish the Pentagon Papers — photocopies of classified documents that revealed that government officials knew that winning the war was nearly impossible, and the Johnson administration lied to both the public and Congress about it. 

In 1971 the New York Times published the first excerpts. The Nixon administration tried to block further publication. While eluding an FBI manhunt for 13 days, Ellsberg leaked the documents to The Washington Post. On June 30, the Supreme Court ordered the resumption of publication.

Soon a group of men, including E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, broke into the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. The goal was to obtain damaging information, to discredit the activist. That was the precursor to the more famous break-in of Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building, 9 months later.

The psychiatrist break-in — and evidence of illegal wiretapping — helped Ellsberg at his Espionage Act trial. He was the first American charged with leaking classified papers to the press, public and Congress — not to a foreign agent or country.

In 1973, a judge dismissed all charges, due to gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering,

Appy’s students — just over a dozen, including juniors, seniors and post-grads — are learning all that and more, in a special seminar. Begun in 2020 — and continuing through COVID, the Black Lives Matter movement, the presidential election and January 6 — it “had the same crisis feel as the late ’60s,” Appy says.

“I’ve never seen students so engaged.”

Ellsberg — who joins occasionally via Zoom, from his home near Berkeley — says they ask questions he has never, in his long public life, heard before.

Daniel Ellsberg, today.

A 2-day conference at UMass commemorating the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers drew more than 2 dozen whistleblowers and journalists, including Edward Snowden, John Dean, Frances FitzGerald and Hedrick Smith.

As director of the Ellsberg Initiative, Appy is planning 5 years of programming. Upcoming events will examine US imperialism, threats to democracy, secrecy and surveillance, and existential threats.

Ellsberg — who was once a nuclear war planner — has long been an ardent proponent of nuclear disarmament. The Ellsberg Initiative will also address those issues — and other concerns, like the environment. “The military is the biggest user of fossil fuels on the planet,” Appy notes.

After decades of political activism, the professor says that Ellsberg “gets depressed at how little things have changed. The same problems are still here.”

Daniel Ellsberg, after one of his 80 arrests for civil disobedience. (Photo courtesy of University of Massachusetts)

Appy tries to bolster his spirits. “I tell him our work at UMass may lead to good things. He tries to be optimistic. But he’s dubious.”

Appy, though, is motivated by his students. Most came to his class knowing little about Ellsberg, or even the Vietnam War.

Still, he says, “they’re looking for political, even moral, inspiration, as they face this dangerous world we’ve passed on to them.

“Daniel Ellsberg is a model of civil disobedience for them. He’s been arrested about 80 times. He is an inspiring model for everyone.”

(To learn more about the Ellsberg Initiative for Peace & Democracy — including how to donate — click here. To see the Ellsberg Archive Project, including a timeline of events and podcast, click here. For a story by Professor Christian Appy on how Nixon’s obsession with Ellsberg and Pentagon Papers sowed the seeds for his own downfall, click here.)

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5 responses to “Daniel Ellsberg, Christian Appy: Peace, Democracy And UMass

  1. Very impressive work by Chris. And I especially love how he has successfully brought together his students and a 91-year-old activist as part of the seminar he teaches. What a remarkable learning experience that I imagine his students will have vivid memories of for the rest of their lives,

  2. Lynda Shannon Bluestein

    Back in 1971, Beacon Press, the publishing house of the Unitarian Universalist Association, edited and bound all the documents that became The Pentagon Papers after three dozen publishers declined Senator Mike Gravel’s proposal to publish them. Though it was no easy task, Beacon’s then director Gobin Stair saw a moral obligation to make them available to the public—which wasn’t without risk. Beacon came under investigation. President Nixon called Stair to voice his disapproval and, literally, stop the presses. Members of the Defense Department soon showed up at the office. There is another connection to Westport in this story. Bob Lavender, member and of The Unitarian Church in Westport was on the Board of Beacon Press struggling with a decision to publish or not. Bob was if favor.

  3. Chip Stephens SHS 73

    I think Chris graduated Staples in 73 and was the starting QB for the football team in 72.

  4. Thanks for this! … I just watched “The Post” over the weekend — an inspiring little movie by Mr. Spielberg — and then was reading about Ellsberg yesteday … Well done!!

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