by W.D. Ehrhart
Anyone who was alive and sentient back in 1966—the year I graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Marines—will surely remember that perhaps the least popular man in America (white America at least) was loudmouthed full-of-himself Cassius Clay, who had defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world only to announce that he was henceforth to be known as Muhammad Ali, proud member of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam.
He further alienated himself from mainstream America—even many Black Americans, including former heavyweight champ Floyd Paterson—when he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army at the height of the American War in Vietnam and declared himself a conscientious objector.
How amazing it was, then, to see Muhammad Ali nearly three decades later lighting the Olympic Torch at the 1996 games in Atlanta, Georgia, while Americans of every religion and race and belief stood and applauded, an amazing outpouring of good will and affection for a man who had once been vilified and hated by a lot of Americans.
Historical analogies are never perfect, and this one certainly isn’t. But I was reminded of the remarkable transformation of Muhammad Ali as I have observed the outpouring of praise and affection for Daniel Ellsberg following his announcement that he has inoperable pancreatic cancer. Once called “the most dangerous man in America” by Henry Kissinger (he should talk, but we’ll let that one go for now) and facing one hundred and thirty-five years in prison for violating the Espionage Act of 1917, he has long since been vindicated for his actions back in the early 1970s.
Only a few years ago, the attorney who represented the New York Times back when publication of the Pentagon Papers was under attack from the Nixon Administration said that Ellsberg “deserves only praise for his heroic conduct.” Like Muhammad Ali, Daniel Ellsberg’s actions and conduct long decades ago have since been re-considered and re-evaluated in the light of what we now know about the history of those times.
And since he announced his terminal diagnosis, he has been receiving praise and plaudits from sources all over the country and the world: AP, CBS, NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Guardian, Reuters. The Petaluma Argus-Courier, for goodness sake! The list goes on and on.
Ellsberg, we now realize, is a true American hero, described by many people as a “national treasure,” an exemplar of doing the right thing no matter the personal cost.
Ellsberg got lucky. Because Richard Nixon and his henchmen were such perfect exemplars of doing the wrong thing no matter how despicable or illegal, the charges against Ellsberg were dropped and he never was convicted of any crime.
But few people seem to want to listen to him when he speaks up in defense of Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden. These people, too, blew the whistle on the underhanded, illegal, and reprehensible activities and actions of a government that supposedly acts in our name and in our interests, yet Manning was tried, convicted, and sent to prison; Assange has been hounded by the U.S. government to the point of insanity; and Snowden is living in permanent exile rather than going to prison.
This is especially ironic since the only people who do not know what our government is up to are the American people themselves. Do you think the Vietnamese didn’t know what we were doing to them until Ellsberg exposed the truth? Do you think the people of Iraq didn’t know what we were doing to them until Chelsea Manning exposed the truth?
And as for Snowden, the reforms made as a result of the Church Committee hearings back in 1975 were supposed to have put an end to domestic spying by government agencies, but thanks to Snowden, we learned that domestic spying was and (almost certainly) still is going on at a level far exceeding what was happening in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The only people in the dark, then and now, were and are the American people. I wonder if a time will ever come when Assange, Manning, and Snowden are viewed in the same heroic light as Ellsberg. I’m not holding my breath.
Recently, I heard an interview Ellsberg did with Christiane Amanpour of CNN. She was eager to ask Ellsberg all about the Pentagon Papers. She had all sorts of questions about that. But she had no questions about Assange or Manning or Snowden, though Ellsberg has a lot to say about all three of them.
And each time Ellsberg tried to talk about U.S. policy in the Russia-Ukraine War, or the threat of nuclear war with China over Taiwan, she quite deliberately cut him off and dragged him back to events of half a century ago, saying, “I want to get back to the Pentagon Papers.” Let’s talk about something safe. Let’s talk about something that is no longer controversial.
Never mind that the world faces today the real possibility of nuclear war on at least two fronts. Never mind that whistleblowers are called “whistleblowers” because they blow the whistle on government lies, government deception, and government corruption, and expose them to the light. Never mind that Daniel Ellsberg has a lot to say about the world we live in today.
We now know that, at 92, Ellsberg won’t be around much longer. He is indeed a National Treasure. And a very wise man. We ought to be listening to him while we still can.
W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.