All greater and lesser militaristic demagogues and genocidal dictators share a gene for persecuting intellectuals. Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Pinochet, Milosevic--all the Fun Kids from History's Hellspots shared this proclivity. University professors teaching critical thinking, liberal judges, institute scholars trying to research and publish on how to create a more just and egalitarian society were in the crosshairs. This is well known.
In the last few months of Richard Nixon's reign one of the marks of just how close he was to dictatorial rule was that there were rumors sweeping just below the surface inside the Beltway in many insider Washington DC circles that he was going to stage a military coup of some sort to retain and stregthen power. People who worked in those circles at that time were, for once, actually lending some creedence to such conspiracy theories. Nixon made one of the most credible US moves toward becoming a militaristic demagogue in our modern democracy. Indeed, those moves in that era were enough to guarantee his ouster--the corrupt anti-democratic tactics uncovered in the Watergate investigation doomed his regime in the America of the early 1970s. There were two episodes that viscerally gripped average Americans and many of their elected representatives.
One, the break-in at Democratic party national headquarters campaign offices at the Watergate hotel.
Two, the break-in to steal files from Daniel Ellsberg's therapist.
While many of us who were trying to learn the significance of the so-called Pentagon Papers might have never paid much attention to someone named Daniel Ellsberg--an unknown to the public--learning that our warmonger president was so terrified of him that he sent in a squad of crooked agents to grab the most private files they could find, now that was profoundly troubling. Who is this guy? we wondered.
Daniel Ellsberg is first an intellectual. Yes, he put in time in the Marines. But his primary life's work was to cognitively engage insoluble problems and work on solving them, familiarizing himself with the research, learning how to conduct research and doing so, and then applying his results and that of others to actual problems of public policy. His intellectual capacity was and is quite impressive and his thinking was tapped at the highest levels, including spending the days of the Cuban missile crisis at the White House with a handful of strategic thinkers advising the highest level policy makers, and including his role in formulating and promulgating US policy in Vietnam. Ellsberg is no pacifist and certainly had no intentions in those years of ruining his own insider career.
But he did, once that inconvenient and all-too-rare special human phenomenon called 'the conscience' escaped the inner cage in which we keep it in order to 'get by.' Ellsberg agonized over his role in lying to the American public about a war that we should never have entered and one that many were working to end. He was in turmoil about what he knew and how that knowledge might shock and galvanize the American people into finally insisting on the end to that war. He also knew that all the others with that insider knowledge were not afflicted by a powerful conscience--and even if they had twinges, those nagging little problems were not rising to the level of actually spilling the beans. It was him or no one. It was his career or no one's. It was his freedom or no one's. It was his family life or no one's. And the war slogged on, running through the usual long lugubrious litany of lies to justify it.
Ellsberg made up his mind and took the steps necessary to get the volumes of information to the public. His insider information was all about the massive theft of lives from my generation of American youth--I turned 18 during the Tet Offensive and knew, along with my entire American cohort, that we were the meat being grabbed by the draft to be fed to the war--and far more from all generations alive in Vietnam. It was secondarily but importantly about the justification for the preposterous amount of money taken directly from the paychecks of all working Americans, and finally it was about the war system itself, which lives on lies and other people's lives and always has.
Ellsberg faced 115 years in prison as soon as the papers hit the presses. Nixon sent out orders to silence him by any means--he was literally in physical danger. But our democracy proved robust enough to protect Ellsberg. It was a bet he made despite the evidence about Nixon and his whole corrupt and vicious team, from Attorney General John Mitchell to Spiro Agnew to Robert Ehrlichman to minor thugs like G. Gordon Liddy. While the victory was not assured, and in fact looked dubious at the time, Ellsberg made the right decision by all lights. He will be recorded as a great American hero and judged quite favorably by history, despite all Nixonian efforts to label and eliminate 'the most dangerous man in America' (see the film).
A public peace intellectual is the precise opposite of the imperial intelligentsia, and rogue dictators have always had their pet geniuses. Hitler had Goebbels. Nixon had Kissinger. These are the bright ones without conscience who place self-aggrandizement above all else and act in service to the worst rulers. Both kinds of intellectual can be found on every campus, but the tendency of the most maniacal despots is to treat intellectuals much as the 13th century papal legate advised the military to treat the people who could be Catholic or Cathar alike: "Kill them all. For the Lord knows them that are His."
Daniel Ellsberg would have died roasting on a spit in previous eras or in other countries. We are fortunate to have him in our pantheon of truthtellers. May other intellectuals find their consciences and speak out.