Ellsberg, born in Detroit, graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1952 with a degree in economics. After three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served as a rifle corps commander, he returned to Harvard to earn his Ph.D. in economics.
From 1959 through 1971, the economist worked as a strategic analyst for the RAND Corporation; as a consultant for, and then special assistant in the Department of Defense; and for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Beginning in 1969, while working again for the RAND Corporation, he privately photocopied a 7,000-page top secret study of America’s intentions in Vietnam. Driven “by an urgent sense that [President] Nixon was about to escalate the war,” Ellsberg gave the documents (known as the Pentagon Papers) to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1969 and, two years later, to the New York Times, Washington Post, and 17 other newspapers. He explained that he did this in order “to reveal patterns of official deception.”
After going underground for a brief period, Ellsberg was arrested and held for trial. The charges were dismissed, however, when it was learned that burglars working for the White House had broken into his psychiatrist’s office, looking for evidence to use against him.
Secrets (2002) is Ellsberg’s “memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.” Since the end of the Vietnam War, he says, “probably my main activity has been anti-nuclear lecturing, writing, and activism. I’ve been arrested between 60-70 times in that connection.” In the early 1990s he also worked for three years with Physicians for Social Responsibility, lobbying to end the nuclear arms race. In July 2004, Ellsberg announced The Truth-Telling Project, his call for White House, Pentagon, and other federal employees to come forward and expose government lies and cover-ups. Accused by some of treason, he responds, “We live in a country, thank God, where telling the truth to Congress is not treason.” A person who sees what he did as treason, he says, “in my judgment does not understand the founding principles of this country very well.”