AMHERST — Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked classified Vietnam War information known as the “Pentagon Papers,” received an honorary degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in a ceremony held in San Francisco last weekend.
Ellsberg was an employee of RAND Corp., a US military think tank, and worked at the Pentagon under former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War years. After becoming disappointed with the way the war was going, Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and The Washington Post, revealing that the US government had lied about some of its actions in Vietnam. Ellsberg was tried for espionage as a result of his actions, but the charges were dismissed by the court.
The awarding of the honorary degree to Ellsberg follows UMass Amherst’s decision to be the archive for all of Ellsberg’s papers, consisting of approximately 500 boxes, acquiring them in 2019 for $2.2 million. . Robert Pollin, a prominent economics professor at UMass, was one of the first people involved in connecting Ellsberg to the university and spoke at the ceremony held in San Francisco.
“I will never forget being an undergraduate student, sitting in the student union building at the University of Wisconsin, watching Dan being interviewed by Walter Cronkite on CBS Evening News about the release of the Pentagon Papers,” Pollin said in his remarks at the ceremony. “The impact on me and the hundreds of other students watching with me was profound. Dan gave us affirmation and confidence that what we were doing was right.
Other speakers at the event included UMass President Marty Meehan, U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, D-California; former California Governor Jerry Brown and UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.
In an interview with the Gazette, Subbaswamy recalled immigrating to the United States in 1971, around the time the Pentagon Papers were making headlines across the country.
“I learned my share of modern American history in the haze of Vietnam,” he said. “What we draw attention to are relevant internal issues around the preservation of democracy, the importance of telling the truth and holding governments accountable.”
Although he is a Harvard graduate, a former employee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and currently resides outside of Berkeley, this is the first time Ellsberg has received an honorary degree from an institution of higher learning. .
“This is actually the first institutional community I’ve been in for 50 years,” Ellsberg said at the ceremony, “since I left RAND IN 1970 and MIT in 1972 when they ended my scholarship at the Center for International Studies because I was on trial.”
Subbaswamy said the lack of recognition for Ellsberg’s work may indicate that the subject of government whistleblowers is still a sensitive one in the United States.
“It kind of shows that I think our country still hasn’t quite accepted government whistleblowers,” Subbaswamy said. “[The question of] what is truth and patriotism is something that I think as a society we may not be entirely comfortable with.
In 2020-21, inspired by the arrival of Ellsberg’s papers, the university sponsored a host of historical endeavors to explore his life and legacy – a year-long seminar, the creation of a website ( the Ellsberg Archive Project), a series of podcasts by The GroundTruth Project, and a two-day online international conference with more than two dozen scholars, journalists, former policymakers, whistleblowers and critics. high-level activists, in which thousands of people participated. Videos of the conference sessions hosted on the website attracted over 25,000 viewers.
The university also announced the creation of the Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy, which “will underscore the value of the Ellsberg archives and engage the public in vital issues so central to Ellsberg’s legacy,” according to the university.
“The initiative is really about trying to capitalize on the momentum created by the acquisition of the newspapers,” said Christian Appy, a UMass history professor and director of the initiative. “It will advance public awareness, scholarship, and activism on the overlapping issues that define Ellsberg’s life and legacy: peace, anti-militarism, First Amendment rights, truth, public interest whistleblowing, nuclear disarmament, and social and environmental justice.”
Alexander MacDougall can be reached at email@example.com.