(JTA) — Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst whose leak of the classified “Pentagon Papers” exposed American deceit about the Vietnam War, led to a landmark Supreme Court decision on press freedoms and inspired a White House backlash that cascaded into the Watergate scandal, died Friday at age 92.
Ellsberg had announced in March that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Although raised by parents of Ashkenazi descent and attacked as a Jewish traitor by President Richard Nixon, Ellsberg grew up and practiced as a Christian Scientist.
“I think everyone assumed he was Jewish, and Nixon certainly did,” said filmmaker Rick Goldsmith, in an interview with J. The Jewish News of Northern California, about his 2010 documentary, “The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.”
Ellsberg, who was born in Chicago in 1931 to Jewish parents with a passion for Christian Science, “shifted from avowed hawk to antiwar activist in part due to the influence of his girlfriend (and later, wife) Patricia, the daughter of Jewish toy magnate Louis Marx,” according to the California Jewish newspaper.
The Harvard-educated ex-Marine was one of three dozen Rand Corporation analysts who helped prepare a report expressing official government doubts about a war that would claim the lives of some 58,000 American and countless Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. Hoping to hasten the end of the war, he eventually leaked thousands of pages to The New York Times, which began publishing excerpts in 1971.
The Nixon White House challenged their publication on national security grounds, leading to a Supreme Court decision that June that favored The Times and the Washington Post and allowed their publication of the documents to continue.
An enraged Nixon set up a secretive unit, known as the Plumbers, to ruin Ellsberg’s reputation and plug other leaks. “I don’t care how you do it,” Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, according to a White House recording made in June 1971. “You can’t let the Jew steal that stuff and get away with it. You understand? People don’t trust these Eastern establishment people. [Ellsberg is] Harvard. He’s a Jew. You know, and he’s an arrogant intellectual.” Ellsberg was also one of several people that Nixon was alleged to have called “Jew boy” on explosive recordings that captured headlines in 1974.
The Plumbers’ burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office was followed by a series of break-ins at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in Washington. The revelations about the burglaries and the White House’s role in trying to cover them up led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
Facing theft, conspiracy and espionage charges, Ellsberg fully expected to go to jail. But a U.S. district judge declared a mistrial in 1973, citing governmental misconduct.
Stanley Sheinbaum, the liberal Jewish activist who died in 2016, raised nearly $1 million for the successful defense of Ellsberg.
In 2008, Ellsberg told a journalist that his parents considered the family Jewish, “but not in religion.”
“I was a Jew and I am a Jew,” he said. “By [Nixon’s] definition, I’m 100 percent a Jew, as I would be under Hitler’s.”
Ellsberg spent much of the second half of his life as an anti-nuclear activist.
Ellsberg’s leak was one of the factors that turned public opinion against the war in Vietnam, and he remained an advocate for whistleblowers throughout his life. Earlier this week, in an interview with Politico that turned out to be his last, Ellsberg urged other whistleblowers to remain vigilant despite his and their skepticism that their efforts would effect change.
“[W]hen everything is at stake, can it be worth even a small chance of having a small effect?” said Ellsberg. “And the answer is: Of course. Of course, it can be worth that. You can even say it’s obligatory.”