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Unplugging the Doomsday Machine: New at Reason

Daniel Ellsberg on nukes, leaks, and the lost documents he copied along with the Pentagon Papers

When he last spoke with Reason in 1973, Daniel Ellsberg was on trial for leaking the Pentagon Papers. The Harvard-educated military analyst at the RAND Corporation had long wrestled with many of the moral quandaries of war, but was a consummate Washington insider up until the moment he decided to release a classified Department of Defense study of the Vietnam War, with its damning proof that President Lyndon Johnson had misled Congress and the public about the conflict.

While it looked like Ellsberg might spend the rest of his life behind bars, he was saved—ironically—by Richard Nixon's paranoid dealings, which included sending goons to break into Ellsberg's former psychiatrist's office and allegedly plotting to have him killed.

If the original leaking plan had gone Ellsberg's way, he suspects he might be in prison still. As he relates in his new book, Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner(Bloomsbury), along with the now-familiar thousands of pages on Vietnam, he had unprecedented civilian access to nuclear planning documents in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. He swiped and copied them as well. Unfortunately, Ellsberg gave the nuclear documents to his brother, who buried them for safekeeping until the Pentagon Papers trial was over. A hurricane collapsed the hill where they were hidden, and they were lost to history. Ellsberg has had 45 years to wonder what would have happened if they hadn't been, and more than 60 years to be unnerved by the recklessness, poor planning, and misinformation rampant in an area of policy with the highest possible stakes.

Today, Ellsberg is the 86-year-old elder statesmen of whistleblowing. He calls Edward Snowden "a hero of mine." In return, Snowden has said he was following in Ellsberg's footsteps when he leaked his own cache of secret government documents in 2013.

Reason spoke with Ellsberg by phone in October about his new book, his belief that nobody needs more nuclear weapons than Kim Jong Un has, and why the Cold War's apocalyptic threats still hang over us. Check out the entire interview.

Photo Credit: Chris Felver/Getty

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