Daniel Ellsberg was born on April 7, 1931 and grew up in Detroit. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University in 1952 and later earned a Ph.D. in economics with his thesis, “Risk, Ambiguity and Decision,” which described a paradox in decision theory now known as the Ellsberg Paradox. He was an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1954-57. From 1959-64, he was a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation and a consultant to the Defense Department and the White House, specializing in the command and control of nuclear weapons, nuclear war plans and crisis decision-making. Ellsberg joined the Defense Department in 1964 as special assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, who reported to President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Ellsberg’s reports on Viet Cong atrocities helped McNamara justify plans for bombing North Vietnam.
Wanting to see the war first-hand, Ellsberg transferred to the State Department in 1965 and served for two years at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, evaluating pacification on the front lines. He returned to the RAND Corporation in 1967, where he worked on the top-secret McNamara study “U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68,” which later came to be known as the Pentagon Papers — a study that more than confirmed Ellsberg’s growing objections to the war. In October 1969, with the help of RAND colleague Anthony Russo, Ellsberg began photocopying the 7,000-page study. From the fall of 1969 through the spring of 1971, he offered copies of the study to several members of Congress, with little result.
In April 1970, Ellsberg left RAND in order to avoid implicating his colleagues in his efforts, and took a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). That summer, Ellsberg married Patricia Marx, a syndicated radio host and anti-war activist whom he had met six years earlier. She supported his decision to risk jail by making the study public. In March 1971, Ellsberg showed the study to reporter Neil Sheehan of The New York Times, which began publishing excerpts from the top-secret document, now dubbed “The Pentagon Papers,” on June 13, 1971. Identified as the source of the leak, Ellsberg turned himself in at the Federal courthouse in Boston on June 28, 1971. He was charged under the Espionage Act with “unauthorized possession” and “theft” of the Pentagon Papers. Russo was included in the indictment when he refused to testify against Ellsberg.
The Russo-Ellsberg trial began Jan. 3, 1973, and lasted four months. On May 11, 1973, presiding Judge Matthew Byrne dismissed the indictment because of massive governmental misconduct, including the revelations that the White House “plumbers” had burglarized the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, and that Nixon aide John Ehrlichman had offered the position of FBI director to Judge Byrne.
Ellsberg wrote about his experiences and analysis of the war in Vietnam in his 1972 book, Papers on the War. He re-visited these experiences in his 2002 book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, which reached best-seller lists across the nation and won the PEN Center USA Award for Creative Nonfiction, the American Book Award and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Prize for Nonfiction and was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, Ellsberg has served as a lecturer, writer and activist on the dangers of the nuclear era, government wrongdoing and the urgent need for patriotic whistle blowing. He has been arrested while protesting more than 70 times over the past four decades. In December 2006, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” in Stockholm. He was acknowledged “for putting peace and truth first, at considerable personal risk, and dedicating his life to a movement to free the world from the risk of nuclear war.”
Ellsberg lives near Berkeley, Calif., with his wife, Patricia. He has two sons and a daughter and five grandchildren.
Patricia Marx Ellsberg is Ellsberg’s second wife. The daughter of toy magnate Louis Marx, she was a nationally syndicated reporter for public radio and an opponent of the Vietnam War when she first dated Ellsberg, who was working at the Pentagon, in 1965. They married in August 1970. Patricia is a social-change advocate with decades of experience in the peace and energy movements and often speaks with her husband at anti-war and anti-nuclear events. A practicing Buddhist, she teaches and writes on the subject.