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Daniel Ellsberg strengthened public opposition to the Vietnam War in 1971 when he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.
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When the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded a year later, Ellsberg was immediately summoned to Washington, D.C. to serve on the various working groups reporting to the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. That same year he completed his Ph.D. in economics at Harvard with a thesis titled "Risk, Ambiguity and Decision." He published an article presenting his findings in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that popularized the concept now dubbed the "Ellsberg Paradox,
" exploring situations in which people's choices violate the expected utility hypothesis.
In 1964, Ellsberg went to work for the Department of Defense as a Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John T. McNaughton. In a fateful coincidence, his first day of work at the Pentagon, August 4, 1964, was the day of the alleged second attack (which in fact did not occur) on the USS Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of Vietnam—an incident that provided much of the public justification for full-scale American intervention in the Vietnam War.
Ellsberg's primary responsibility for the Defense Department was to craft secret plans to escalate the war in Vietnam—plans he says he personally regarded as "wrongheaded and dangerous" and hoped would never be carried out. Nevertheless, when President Lyndon Johnson chose to ramp up American involvement in the conflict in 1965, Ellsberg moved to Vietnam to work out of the American Embassy in Saigon evaluating pacification efforts along the front lines. He eventually left Vietnam in June 1967 after contracting hepatitis.
Returning to the RAND Corporation later that year, Ellsberg worked on a top-secret report ordered by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara entitled U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-1968. Better known as "The Pentagon Papers," the final product was a 7,000-page, 47-volume study that Ellsberg called "evidence of a quarter century of aggression, broken treaties, deceptions, stolen elections, lies and murder." Although he worked as a consultant on Vietnam policy to new President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger throughout 1969, Ellsberg grew increasingly frustrated with their insistence on expanding upon previous administrations' policies of escalation and deception in Vietnam.
Inspired by a young Harvard graduate named Randy Kehler who worked with the War Resisters League and was imprisoned for refusing to cooperate with the military draft—as well as by reading Thoreau, Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King—Ellsberg decided to end what he saw as his complicity with the Vietnam War and start working to bring about its end. He recalled, "Their example put the question in my head: What could I do to help shorten this war, now that I'm prepared to go to prison for it?"
In late 1969, with the help of former RAND colleague Anthony Russo, Ellsberg began secretly photocopying the entire Pentagon Papers. He privately offered the Papers to several congressmen including the influential J. William Fulbright, but none was willing to make them public or hold hearings about them.
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