Daniel Ellsberg Wanted Americans to See the Truth About War

In an interview before his death, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower urged the media and the government to be more honest about America’s bombing of civilians.

Daniel Ellsberg outside his home in Kensington, Calif., in March 2021. Photo: Justin Maxon

On a warm autumn afternoon, I sat with Daniel Ellsberg on the deck next to his house. The San Francisco Bay shimmered off in the distance behind him. It was 2021, and more than 50 years had passed since Ellsberg — risking prison for the rest of his life — had provided the New York Times and other newspapers with 7,000 pages of top-secret documents that quickly became known as the Pentagon Papers. From then on, he continued to speak, write, and protest as a tireless antiwar activist.

I asked what the impacts would likely be if pictures of people killed by the U.S. military’s bombing campaigns were on the front pages of American newspapers.

“But why were they lied to? How much would they do if they weren’t lied to?”

“I am in favor, unreservedly, of making people aware what the human consequences are of what we’re doing — where we are killing people, what the real interests appear to be involved, who is benefiting from this, what are the circumstances of the killing,” Ellsberg replied. “I want that to come out. It is not impossible, especially [with] social media, where people can be their own investigative journalists and they can get it out and so forth. Where I have been somewhat disillusioned is not to think that can’t help, but to be aware it’s very far from being a guarantee that anything will change. There’s no question that the media, like the government, collaborates in keeping this from the [public’s] awareness and attention — and that, to some extent, is surely to the credit of the American people, who are surely less responsible having been lied to, than the ones doing the lying. But why were they lied to? How much would they do if they weren’t lied to?”

Ellsberg died today from pancreatic cancer, at the age of 92. While he is best known as the whistleblower who gave the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War to the world, he went on for 52 years to expose other types of secrets — including hidden truths about the psychology and culture of U.S. militarism. His stunning intellect and vast knowledge of the American warfare state were combined with great reservoirs of emotional depth and human compassion, enabling him to lay bare the social pressures and fear operating within the media and politics of a country addicted to waging aggressive war. After his disclosure in early March that he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, media coverage of him and his life was extensive. Yet the public discourse scarcely touched on core aspects of the ongoing “war on terror” that he explored when we spoke for an interview that appears in my new book, “War Made Invisible.

Ellsberg talked about differences between media coverage of September 11 and, later, the U.S. military’s “shock and awe” missile attack on Baghdad that began the Iraq invasion. In response to the horrors of 9/11, he recalled, the Times “did something very dramatic. They ran a picture, a head picture, of each person who had been killed — with some anecdotes from their neighbors, their friends, and their family. This person liked to skydive, or this person liked to play in a band, or little anecdotes about what made them human, what people remembered about them in particular, very gripping, very moving.”

After the Iraq War began, Ellsberg had an idea: “Imagine if the Times were to run a page or two of photographs of the people who burned on the night of ‘shock and awe.’ … It wouldn’t be that hard, if you were on the ground, we weren’t then but we were later, to find the people who were relatives of those people. And say, look, each one had friends, had parents, had children, had relatives — each one had made their mark in some little way in the world until that moment when they were killed — and these were the people we killed, and these were the people who were dying under the bombing, exactly as in our case, where two planes filled with gas burned two buildings.” But such U.S. media coverage was unthinkable. “Of course it’s never happened — nothing like it,” Ellsberg noted.

Looking back at patterns of American attitudes toward war deaths, Ellsberg was not optimistic: “It’s fair to say, as a first approximation, that the public doesn’t show any effective concern for the number of people we kill in these wars. At most, they are concerned about the American casualties, especially if they’re too many. They will put up, to an almost surprising degree, [with] a considerable level of American casualties, but especially if they’re going down and especially if the president can claim success in what he was trying to do. But in terms of people killed in the course of that, the media don’t really ask the question, the public doesn’t ask the question of the media, and when it does come out, one way or another, occasionally, nothing much changes.”

“How difficult is it to deceive the public? I would say, as a former insider, one becomes aware: It’s not difficult to deceive them.”

What is concealed from Americans, he went on, “is that they are citizens of an empire, they are in the core of an empire that feels itself as having the right to determine who governs other countries, and if we don’t approve of them because of their effect on corporate interests, or their refusal to give us bases, or through pipelines of a kind that we need, we feel absolutely right and capable of removing them, of regime change.”

Ellsberg added, “Virtually every president tells us, or reassures us, that we are a very peace-loving people, very slow to go to war, very reluctant, perhaps too slow in some cases, but very determined once we’re in, but it takes a lot to get us to accept the idea of going to war, that that’s not our normal state. That of course does go against the fact that we’ve been at war almost continuously. … That there is deception, that the public is evidently misled by it early in the game, in the approach to the war, in a way that encourages them to accept a war and support a war, is the reality. How much of a role does the media actually play in this, in deceiving the public, and how difficult is it to deceive the public? I would say, as a former insider, one becomes aware: It’s not difficult to deceive them. First of all, you’re often telling them what they would like to believe — that we’re better than other people, we are superior in our morality and our perceptions of the world.”

This article is an adapted excerpt from the new book “War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of its Military Machine,” by Norman Solomon (The New Press, June 2023).

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