Veterans For Peace Convention
August 25, 2023
By Marjorie Cohn
We dedicate this convention to Daniel Ellsberg, a beloved member of our Veterans For Peace Advisory Board. Dan died on June 16 at the age of 92.
Dan displayed uncommon courage in 1971 when he publicized the 7,000-page top-secret Pentagon Papers which he had helped write while working as an analyst at the RAND Corporation. As a consultant to the Department of Defense, Dan also drafted Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s plans for nuclear war which Dan later spent his life trying to prevent.
Dan joined the Marines in 1954 and served in the Middle East but saw no action. He was very pro-military. But in 1968, while at RAND, his views began to change. In 1969, Dan attended a War Resisters League meeting in Pennsylvania. It was there he heard Randy Kehler voice his intention to refuse the draft. Dan was deeply moved. He later said, “I left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room. I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing. The only time in my life I’ve reacted to something like that.”
Dan began to oppose the war – joining antiwar demonstrations, writing articles and letters to the editor, and testifying at trials of draft resisters. He resigned from RAND.
In his book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Dan wrote that the Pentagon Papers exposed the “secrets five presidents had withheld and the lies they told” about U.S. decision-making in Vietnam. “This truth telling set in motion a train of events, including criminal White House efforts to silence or incapacitate me. Much more important,” Dan noted, “these particular Oval Office crimes helped topple the president, an act that was crucial to ending the war.”
Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, called Daniel Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America,” who “had to be stopped at all costs.” But Dan was not stopped. Facing 115 years in prison for violation of the Espionage Act and conspiracy charges, he fought back. The case against him was dismissed due to egregious government misconduct. Dan’s story was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film, “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” Edward Snowden told Dan that film strengthened his intention to release the NSA documents.
In 2014, Dan gave a keynote speech at the 45th reunion of the Stanford Anti-Vietnam War movement. He explained how the United States came dangerously close to using nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War. In 1965, the Joint Chiefs recommended to President Lyndon Johnson that U.S. forces hit targets up to the Chinese border. Dan thought their real aim was to provoke China into responding and then the U.S. would cross into China and demolish the communists with nuclear weapons.
Dan wrote in an email, “When I copied the Pentagon Papers in 1969, I had every reason to think I would be spending the rest of my life behind bars. It was a fate I would gladly have accepted if it meant hastening the end of the Vietnam War, unlikely as that seemed (and was).”
Dan’s courageous actions did help end that war. In an email responding to Dan’s revelation of his terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis, Bui Van Nghi, secretary general of the Viet Nam-USA Society, wrote, “We highly appreciate Dan’s good will, friendship and love to Viet Nam and his support of the struggle for national independence and reunification of the country by the Viet Namese people. And with his courage to reveal of the truth and machination about the American Viet Nam War by the US Government, that waging the waves of peace, anti-war movements, campaigns to call for early ending of the [war] that helped save hundred[s] of thousands of lives on both sides.”
The Pentagon Papers “remain today the most vital discussion of a war from the inside,” Seymour Hersh wrote in a tribute to Dan. Sy Hersh broke the story of the My Lai Massacre, which the U.S. government covered up for a year. It was a war crime committed by U.S. forces who murdered hundreds of elderly men, women and children during the Vietnam War.
Dan helped launch the anti-nuclear movement. For more than five decades, he spent nearly every waking hour working for peace and trying to prevent nuclear war.
After his diagnosis, Dan continued the struggle to avoid a nuclear holocaust. “I will continue, as long as I’m able, to help these efforts,” he wrote in an email to family and friends 3-1/2 months before he died.
“I feel lucky and grateful about having a few months more to enjoy life with my wife and family, and in which to continue to pursue the urgent goal of working with others to avert nuclear war in Ukraine or Taiwan (or anywhere else).”
Until he died, Dan spoke out wherever he could – in the media and on webinars – imploring us to prevent nuclear war.
Those who make the nuclear weapons and the investment banks that finance them “have never been interested in limiting them. Their only interest is to have better ones,” Dan told me when I interviewed him in mid-March for Truthout. Those same people “have never been interested in keeping Russia from having H-bombs [hydrogen bombs], ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] or MWHs [multiple warheads] at the cost of giving up ours.”
Dan wrote in his book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, “Contrary to public understanding, [the] strategy has not been a matter of deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States, but rather the illusionary one of improving first-strike capability.”
To reduce the risks of nuclear war, Dan told me, “it is essential that members of NATO press the U.S. and others to renounce the atrocious NATO backing of the first-use of nuclear weapons.”
“The current risk of nuclear war, over Ukraine, is as great as the world has ever seen,” Dan wrote. He warned that nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia would result in “nuclear winter.” That means that “more than a hundred million tons of smoke and soot from firestorms in cities set ablaze by either side, striking either first or second, would be lofted into the stratosphere where it would not rain out and would [envelop] the globe within days. That pall would block up to 70% of sunlight for years, destroying all harvests worldwide and causing death by starvation for most of the humans and other vertebrates on earth.”
Dan told me, “This is not a species to be trusted with nuclear weapons. It’s urgent to get this war ended. … We need a ceasefire and negotiations before Putin is confronted with any prospect of losing Crimea and all of Donbas” which would “make the danger of nuclear war initiated by Russia more dangerous than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Dan was alarmed at how the Ukraine war could escalate, especially given Zelenskyy’s effort, backed by the U.S., to expel Russia from all areas, including those it has held for 8 years. Dan was doubtful that negotiations would ever begin if Zelenskyy continued to insist that every Russian troop leave Ukraine before negotiations can occur. If the U.S. were to enter the war “directly with its pilots and combat troops and missiles … I believe that Putin would very likely carry out his threat to initiate tactical nuclear war … even with a high probability of escalating … which would threaten all of humanity with nuclear winter,” Dan told me.
The whistleblowers and truth tellers who have followed in Dan’s footsteps include Chelsea Manning , Katharine Gun, John Kiriakou, Edward Snowden, Daniel Hale, Thomas Drake, Reality Winner and Julian Assange. Dan was one of the co-chairs — with Noam Chomsky and Alice Walker — of Assange Defense.
“Every empire requires secrecy to cloak its acts of violence that maintain it as an empire,” Dan testified at the January 20 Belmarsh Tribunal opposing Assange’s extradition from the UK to the U.S. where he faces 175 years in prison for exposing U.S. war crimes. “If you’re going to use the [Espionage] Act against a journalist in blatant violation of the First Amendment,” Dan stated, “the First Amendment is essentially gone.”
In 2008, during the Bush administration, when I was president of the National Lawyers Guild, Dan delivered the keynote address to our convention in Detroit. He warned of the dangers of unchecked executive power, saying, “The U.S. president is not a king.”
Dan was arrested 90 times. He referred to his fellow arrestees as “my tribe.” During a webinar honoring Dan on Nagasaki Day, Tarak Kauff said, “We respected him for all that he did, but loved him for who he was. He showed the world how to live with courage and joy – even in the darkest times. He always smiled when getting arrested, which was often. Witnessing him smiling and flashing the peace sign behind his back when in handcuffs was priceless.” Dan demonstrated “a profound humanity and a life of principled resistance.”
Tarak said that Dan “was a rare human being, truly a spiritual giant who loved and cared for others more than himself. Yet, he was always approachable, always one of us. He was a friend and a brother to everyone in Veterans For Peace. And he always signed his e-mails, ‘Love, Dan,’ as if you were family. He showed by example how to live, and as we all know, faced death with the same dignity, joy and love that he lived with.”
Dan’s wife Patricia said that in the 4 months between his diagnosis and his death, she “never saw him happier. He had lived such a noble life. His death was as blessed as his life.” Dan told her, “I feel so relieved. I don’t feel the weight on my shoulders anymore.” He enjoyed eating lox and bagels and salty foods he was forbidden from eating for so many years by his cardiologist.
Dan was a brilliant, intense, compassionate man with a great sense of humor and a remarkably curious mind. I cannot count the times he called me for legal analysis of the U.S. government’s illegal action du jour. I am proud to have called him my friend.
The theme of this convention is “Choose peace, Stand up, Speak out.” Dan chose peace. He stood up. And he spoke out.
We must honor Dan’s extraordinary legacy by committing ourselves to peace, and the struggle to protect the world from nuclear annihilation.
Dan Ellsberg, Presente!