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Megan Sunderland
Dr. Schroeder
Communication Law
15 September 2015
Ellsberg: An American Hero
More than forty years ago, Daniel Ellsberg made the decision to photocopy and release
the Pentagon Papers, a secret government document concerning the Vietnam War. The events
and Supreme Court decision that followed forever impacted the relationship between the United
States government and the media. Such an impact has garnered opinions about Ellsbergs
behavior from many, and it can certainly be argued that his actions were heroic, even patriotic.
By releasing the document, Ellsberg broke the cycle of government secrecy surrounding the war
and empowered citizens with invaluable knowledge, furthering the efforts of many to bring the
troops home from Vietnam.
One of the most important aspects of the release of the Pentagon Papers is the way in
which it shattered the countrys perception of government transparency. Heidi Kitrosser, a
professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, addresses this concept in her essay, What
If Daniel Ellsberg Hadnt Bothered? She discusses the way in which the media assisted in
maintaining government secrecy during the Cold War, relevant to her statement that, The
Papers thus erupted along pre-existing fault lines within a culture of deference and trust toward
the executive (Kitrosser 100). Soon after, she quotes author Jonathan Schells assertion that,
Unlearning the misinformation we lived by for years is going to be as different and painful as
reversing the effects of a brainwashing (qtd. in Kitrosser 100). It is interesting to note that both
Kitrosser and Schells sentiments parallel some of the problems faced in Nazi Germany during

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World War II. Citizens blindly following authority aided Hitlers rise to power, as well as the
plight of those targeted in the Holocaust. Possibly the most detrimental of followers were the
government officials and officers under Hitlers authority, a category that Ellsberg falls into for
the United States with his involvement in drafting the Pentagon Papers (Kitrosser 100).
However, the difference between the two is that Ellsberg, in realizing the detrimental nature of
his work, took a stand against the government in order to protect the interests of the American
people. It is possible that many lives could have been saved had similar action been taken during
the Holocaust. It is certain, though, that the release of the papers changed the relationship
between the people and government of the United States. This is echoed in Kitrossers work by
Thomas Powers, an author and intelligence expert, expressing that, I think we live, as a result,
in a much more skeptical country that the one I went to high school in (qtd. in Kitrosser 100).
Powers wrote that in 2004, looking back on the documents publication and continued effect on
Ellsbergs heroism was not only shown through his initiative in releasing the Pentagon
Papers, but also his perseverance in doing so. The Pentagon Papers, a short documentary from
the Newseum, gives a timeline from the documents creation to the Supreme Court hearing
regarding publishing. The New York Times was the first newspaper that Ellsberg brought the
document to, but the government successfully obtained a restraining order against the paper in
order to prevent publication (Newseum). Despite the setback, Ellsberg subsequently approached
The Washington Post and The Boston Globe in a continued effort to have the document
published (Newseum). In 2013, Jonathan Capehart, an opinion writer for The Washington Post,
articulately addressed Ellsbergs perseverance in two articles, condemning the then-recent
comparisons between him and Snowden. In his article, Snowden failed to follow Ellsbergs

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example, Capehart deems Ellsberg a badass and is most notably frustrated with Snowdens
escape to Hong Kong, writing that Ellsberg didnt leave his family or his country. He stayed
right here to face the consequences of leaking top secret documents. Knowing this, Snowdens
preaching from the other side of the world is bit hard to take. In Capeharts second article, he
further discusses the stark differences between Snowden and Ellsberg, fueled by Snowdens
move to seek asylum in Russia. He notes Snowdens lack of courage of his convictions in
leaving the United States, again giving support to Ellsbergs actions (Capehart). Thus, Ellsbergs
persistence in having the Pentagon Papers published and his decision to face the potential
consequences of his actions further attest to his heroism.
Ultimately, though many have written in support of Ellsberg, he is his own greatest
advocate, as evidenced in his article, Secrecy Oaths: A License to Lie? In it, he discusses the
issues with government employees having to sign contracts promising secrecy, as well as being
unaware that by signing, he was entering an agreement to participate in major governmental
conspiracies and grave obstructions of justice by remaining silent, actively misleading or lying,
or even committing perjury under oath (Ellsberg 17). Ellsberg offers the solution of
deconstructing such agreements by including the clarification that in singing, one is not required
nor allowed to lie to Congress, in court, or under oath (Ellsberg 18), essentially establishing that
contracts are subordinate to higher loyalties and laws and obligations, and limited by the US
Constitution and the Bill of Rights (Ellsberg 17). With such statements, Ellsbergs heroism is
again demonstrated, fighting for the rights of the public and the preservation of democracy.
Ellsbergs decision to release the Pentagon Papers made an incredible mark on history,
impacting the publics view of the government and the Vietnam War. From the variety of
literature presented, it is clear that Ellsberg was, and remains, a hero for the actions he took. For

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decades, the example he set has been a powerful guide for citizens to follow, both those working
for a difficult cause and those dreaming to. Ellsbergs story will surely continue to serve as an
inspiration, and its legacy will forever remain an important defense for the rights of the
American people.

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Works Cited

Capehart, Jonathan. "Edward Snowden Jumps the Shark in Moscow." The Washington Post. The
Washington Post, 1 July 2013. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.
Capehart, Jonathan. "Snowden Failed to Follow Ellsberg's Example." The Washington Post. The
Washington Post, 13 June 2013. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.
Ellsberg, Daniel. "Secrecy Oaths: A License to Lie?" Harvard International Review 26.2 (2004):
16-19. Academic OneFile. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.
Kitrosser, Heidi. "What If Daniel Ellsberg Hadn't Bothered?" Indiana Law Review 45.1 (2011):
89-129. Indiana University: Robert H McKinney School of Law. The Trustees of Indiana
University. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.
Newseum. The Pentagon Papers. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 10 June 2011. Web.
13 Sept. 2015.