For Daniel Ellsberg, the similarities between today’s wars and the Vietnam War are frightening.
“It is amazing that we are in a situation that is at a hopeless stalemate again,” Ellsberg said. “It is another case of those in charge not willing to do something for fear of being called names.”
That is why Ellsberg conveyed the message that truth-telling, no matter the consequences, is worth the risk. Ellsberg screened the Oscar-nominated film about him, “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” on Wednesday night in front of about 350 people in Ford Hall at Ithaca College. He then spoke to the audience, answered questions and signed copies of his book, “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.”
The event was sponsored by the Park Center for Independent Media. Jeff Cohen, director of the center, said he wanted Ellsberg to speak because of what he symbolizes.
“He stands for freedom of the press, transparency in the government and aggressive media,” Cohen said. “He shows what a brave, truth-telling individual can do.”
In 1971 Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers — a secret study detailing the history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War — almost landed him in prison for life.
Ellsberg worked at the Pentagon and for the State Department in Vietnam. In 1967 he worked on a secret study for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on the history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
After Ellsberg saw a young man go to prison rather than participate in the war, he said, he realized he had to do whatever he could to help the country. So Ellsberg photocopied thousands of pages of the study and in June of 1971 the New York Times published it.
Ellsberg was charged with espionage, conspiracy and theft, and faced a sentence of 115 years in prison. A judge dismissed all charges because the government illegally wiretapped his phone and burglarized his psychiatrist’s office.
“I was willing to pay a high personal price,” Ellsberg said. “If there is some chance to change the situation by telling the truth, even at a great personal price, it can be well worthwhile.”
Ellsberg warned that the very things that set him free — government wiretapping and burglarizing — are now legal under The Patriot Act. It is vital, Ellsberg said, to speak to college students because he has not seen many examples of what he did in the last 40 years.
The beginning of one’s adult life, Ellsberg said, is a perfect time to realize going against your boss may be your duty.
“I had been wrong for many years by simply keeping my mouth shut and watching us enter a hopeless war,” Ellsberg said. “There is no better way to serve the country than with the truth. You may have to risk your own career and well-being in order to save many lives.”
The audience was a mix of students, staff and community members.
Mary Jo Wood, a teacher at DeWitt Middle School, said she remembered being elated when the Pentagon Papers were released and called Ellsberg a hero. “He was very brave. We need more Daniel Ellsbergs,” she said.
Ithaca College freshman Michael Johnson saw posters advertising the event all over campus. A music major, he said he’s also interested in political science so was excited to see the movie. “I’ve heard a lot about the Pentagon Papers for a while,” Johnson said. “A chance to hear him speak and see the movie for the first time is really exciting.”