Daniel Ellsberg

Living History

UMass Amherst students learned about Daniel Ellsberg from Daniel Ellsberg himself

By Talya Torres ’22 and
Andrew Bettencourt ’22

It was a warm day in September of 2020 when Daniel Ellsberg first spoke to the class. The anticipation in the room was palpable, and even through the fabric masks and surgical masks, you could see the excitement on students’ faces. However, their long-awaited Zoom meeting began as many do—with technical hiccups.

“OK, all right, I can’t see Dan, but I hear he’s on,” said the professor, Christian Appy. “Dan, can you hear me?”
“He’s muted,” said someone else.
Suddenly, Ellsberg appeared on multiple TVs mounted around the classroom. “So where are you sitting on the small screen?” he asked politely.
“Can you hear me now?” Appy inquired again.
“Yes,” Dan said. “Can you hear me? That’s right.
Good. Great.”

For the next hour and a half, students in the course Truth, Dissent, and the Life of Daniel Ellsberg had full access to the man himself. They asked all kinds of questions to the now 90-year-old whistleblower and peace activist and eagerly absorbed every response. It was the first of three virtual visits that Ellsberg would make to the class via Zoom, each time offering unique, intuitive, and previously untold insights into his life, work, and legacy.

The idea for a year-long course on Daniel Ellsberg came after his personal and professional papers were acquired by the Libraries’ Department of Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) in 2019. History professor Christian Appy and journalism professor Kathy Roberts Forde expressed tremendous excitement about working with the collection. “When I got news of it, I was thrilled,” says Appy. “It was just a kind of lucky thing from my perspective.” Read the Boston Globe article about the papers and the class.

Photo L to R: History professor Christian Appy; Mitch Hanley from the Ground Truth Project; journalism professor Kathy Roberts Forde; Digital Project Manager and Ellsberg Archivist Jeremy Smith.

The two main focuses of Ellsberg’s life—the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons—coincide with Appy’s own academic interests and areas of expertise. He thought that having Ellsberg at the center of a new book would be fascinating, “and that’s what led me to think that a course would be equally interesting to students.”

Forde’s journalism history class was the first to work with the papers back in January of 2020. When Appy found out about it, he connected with Forde about the class he was planning. “He reached out to me, and we started talking, and the next thing you know, I have signed up with Chris to co-teach the class,” Forde explains. She says that the most powerful part of the project was “working with the students and seeing the students grow intellectually but also challenge us, the professors, to grow intellectually.”

Ellsberg speaking to the class via Zoom.

The class met on Tuesdays from 2:30 to 5 p.m. in room N111 of the Integrative Learning Center. It was a year-long course, and the only one in the history department to offer face-to-face instruction amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. A slew of precautions were taken to keep everyone safe: a standing bottle of hand sanitizer greeted students at the doorway; everyone in the room wore masks for the duration of class; 14 students sat at four different tables, spread out so they were a safe distance apart; arrows stuck to the floor directed foot traffic.

Microphones hung over every table and stood in the center of the classroom, set up by Mitch Hanley of the GroundTruth Project. The Boston-based nonprofit organization headed by Charles Sennott, a 1984 alumnus of UMass Amherst, recorded every class in its entirety, incorporating materials from the archive and discussions among students into its new five-part podcast series, “The Whistleblower.” Hanley and Sennott were classroom staples for the duration of the course, learning with the students and from them. No matter how off-topic conversations became, Sennott in particular was always able to guide it back to focus. (Visit the Ellsberg Archive Project.)

Photo: Ellsberg speaking to the class via Zoom.

Nearly every class featured a guest speaker on Zoom, including Daniel Ellsberg, former Boston Globe editor and reporter Ben Bradlee, Jr., filmmaker Peter Davis, and distinguished University of Maine professor Ngo Vinh Long. For each, students prepared relevant questions and posed them from the center of the classroom. After each guest departed, the class discussed the content of their interview as well as the readings assigned for the week.

Photo: L to R: Tianna Darling ’23MA; Emma Lewis ’24; on screen Janaki Natarajan Tschannerl.

Jeremy Smith

Outside of the classroom, students were expected to make good use of the expansive Ellsberg collection by conducting their own research into a specific topic. These fell into four distinct categories: 1) Ellsberg and the Vietnam War, 2) Ellsberg and nuclear weapons, 3) the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. v. Ellsberg and Russo trial, Watergate, and 4) Ellsberg’s life and legacy. Students in each group scheduled weekly appointments at SCUA where they sifted through more than 500 boxes of unsorted material including policy briefs, handwritten notes, unpublished speeches, and top secret memoranda. The UMass Libraries’ Digital Project Manager and Ellsberg Archivist, Jeremy Smith ’94, was always there to assist. Underlying this work was a real sense of urgency ignited by the coronavirus pandemic. The class never knew when their research might be put on hold, so they often scanned items with their phones for later reading, and tried to get through as many documents as they could in one sitting.

Helen Kyriakoudes

Along with ten undergraduates, the class also included four graduate students who wrote longer papers and completed extra assignments. Among them was Helen Kyriakoudes ’23MA, who says she was motivated by both the source material and the possibility of taking an on-campus class during an otherwise virtual semester. “I feel lucky that we’ve been able to get into the archives and go through the papers,” Helen says. “It’s been nice to have an in-person interaction once a week.”

Daniel Ellsberg and Randy Kehler

Along with fellow graduate student Tianna Darling ’23MA, Kyriakoudes helped plan the end-of-the-academic-year conference and prepared many documents for the collection’s website. Her topic for the class was the two-year period after Ellsberg’s return from Vietnam when his thinking began to radically change. One of Kyriakoudes’s favorite finds from the archives was a photo of Ellsberg at a War Resisters’ International conference in 1969. It shows Ellsberg sitting at the far right hand corner of a lecture hall, just before what he would later describe as a pivotal moment in his life. After listening to draft resister and anti-war activist Randy Kehler speak, “Ellsberg talks about having this emotional feeling overcome him, and he had to run out of the room and go into the men’s restroom and just weep,” Kyriakoudes recalls. From reading Ellsberg’s book Secrets and doing a little research, she found that this was the moment Ellsberg’s opinion on the war changed, the moment he decided he would have to do something.

Photo: Ellsberg visiting Randy Kehler (right) at the La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution in Anthony, Texas in 1971.

Maia Fudala

Maia Fudala ’22 found that one of the most exciting parts of the class was the opportunity to speak with so many visitors to the class: “All of the interviews and getting to talk to Daniel Ellsberg himself and learn so much about him was so cool.” Like some other students, Fudala found Ellsberg a bit intimidating at first because “everything he says is so well-worded and eloquent.” In the end, she found the ways that she and her classmates engaged him with their own questions to be incredibly rewarding: Ellsberg “kept on telling us that he’s done so many interviews, and that [the questions] are all kind of the same… And then we’d ask some questions that you could just tell he hadn’t been asked. And he got excited and just went in on them.”

For Fudala, one of the most incredible moments in the class came in response to a question she asked Ellsberg, where he confessed that he went to Vietnam to die. The entire class looked shocked and stunned at hearing this. It was a piece of information that had never been shared before.

William Le

A unique perspective on Ellsberg’s life came from another student, William Lê ’22, whose personal connections to the course material were unique among the class. “I’m Southern Vietnamese. I’m very southern, actually,” he explains. “But I’m also việt kiều, which means I’m Vietnamese American. My parents were immigrants from the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam as it is colloquially known, and they emigrated here after the Vietnam War because of political persecution.”

Lê was thrilled about the opportunity to do hands-on primary source research on the Vietnam War. The topic he chose was the time Ellsberg spent in Vietnam, and his own background helped him tremendously in his research: “There are nuances in Vietnamese culture that, if you weren’t part of Vietnamese culture, you would just not understand or not pick up on.” One of Lê’s favorite finds in the archives was a rather curious one: an instruction manual kept by Ellsberg on how to play the bongos. “I didn’t know my man played the bongos,” he joked.

“But here we are.”

Daniel Ellsberg with pigeons on head and shoulder while he's holding up the Herald Tribune newspaper.

When asked about what it was like to interview Daniel Ellsberg, Lê has this to say: “He’s very personable, very friendly. I say it all the time to my friends, I would adopt him as my grandfather…. He has a way of, when you’re talking to him, making you feel like the most important person in the room. I really appreciated his aura of caring and emotional intelligence, not to mention his regular or intellectual intelligence.”

Photo: Daniel Ellsberg holding up the Herald Tribune newspaper with pigeons on head and shoulder.

Erik Plowden

In addition to the research informing individual essays written by each student in the class, the students participated in the development of a two-day conference on April 30 and May 1 celebrating 50 years since Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers.

The conference consisted of eight panels, including a roundtable discussion with the students and a plenary panel with Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden. Professors Appy and Forde worked incredibly hard to put the conference together, with the help of many others: “There were just so many people at the university; from the university relations department, to the news and media relations department, to the Fine Arts Center colleagues who actually did the production of the conference, to Chris Appy organizing all of the amazing panels with so many amazing panelists,” Forde says.

The student panel started at 10 a.m. on April 30, and provided a look into a typical Ellsberg class discussion. Students were buzzing with energy and excitement as it started, nervous but ready to share their findings and thoughts on the many topics brought up. After a brief period of technical difficulties, Appy introduced the students, and the conference started.

A larger theme of the panel and the class was Ellsberg’s life and legacy compared to the issues of today, especially truth telling and social problems. “Ellsberg was…keeping tabs on the social issues of the time. It’s remarkable to me how some of these issues have changed, but some of them have stayed the same,” said Lê about documents he found in the archives. Erik Plowden ’21 wrapped up the panel by reflecting on this very thing: “It can be discouraging at times to see the same struggles being repeated again and again against foreign intervention, against lies, but I think that one of the more inspiring things that I’ve learned from this class is…just a little bit of the truth can start to tip those dominoes and make it all fall down.”

Collage illustration for the Ellsberg Archive Project

The Libraries co-hosted a conference, “Truth, Dissent & the Legacy of Daniel Ellsberg,” this past spring, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers public release. The online event engaged more than 5,700 people over the course of two days, and launched The Ellsberg Archive Project website and The GroundTruth Project’s compelling podcast series The Whistleblower.

Read updates on the collection and find links to more articles.

Talya Torres ’22 was a student in Professor Appy’s Ellsberg class and studied Ellsberg’s trial when he was prosecuted by the United States Government. She is a Journalism and English major and will be graduating in the spring of 2022.

Andrew Bettencourt ’22 is an undergraduate political science and history major from Providence, Rhode Island. He spent most of his time in the course studying Daniel Ellsberg’s work on the command and control of U.S. nuclear weapons from 1959 to 1962. He is also interested in international security, imperialism, and global conflicts.

Tayla and Andrew are library student assistants working with the Daniel Ellsberg Papers.