Daniel Ellsberg, facing multiple felony charges for leaking the Pentagon Papers, speaks to reporters in 1971

Daniel Ellsberg speaks to the press outside a federal courthouse in 1971.

(Photo by Donal Holway/The New York Times)

Against the Unthinkable: Life After Daniel Ellsberg

One day he saw the world as it is and realized what it must become. He acted on this realization and dedicated his life to humanity. Now so must we.

The Trappist monk and socially engaged writer Thomas Merton wrote of what he called “the Unspeakable,” which he described as “the void that contradicts everything that is spoken before the words are said; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment they are pronounced and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss.”

Daniel Ellsberg stared into that abyss more closely than most human beings, and he spent his life fighting what he saw. And now, with the obituaries published and the testimonials read, it’s up to us to look into the mirrored face of a world most of us would rather not see.

As a defense analyst, Dan Ellsberg studied annihilation for years. He kept death’s secrets, until he knew it was time to speak. He watched the machinery of Armageddon, then he knew it was time to act. He had found his life’s work.

The unthinkable is born from the unspeakable, until in the end it becomes inevitable.

The unspeakable has a cousin: the unthinkable. Herman Kahn, who was once one of Ellsberg’s war-planning colleagues, called one of his books “Thinking About the Unthinkable.” Kahn went on to form the right-wing Hudson Institute, while Ellsberg came to understand what people like Kahn could not: that in thinking the unthinkable, you forget why it’s unthinkable. You incinerate the moral universe inside yourself. You tell yourself you don’t want mass death, but you’ve created a mental vortex that swallows everyone who comes too close. It turns generals and politicians and statisticians and weapons designers into technocrats of annihilation. The apocalypse gains mass and momentum until it becomes irreversible.

The unthinkable is born from the unspeakable, until in the end it becomes inevitable.

Ellsberg, of course, became famous for exposing the lies behind the war in Vietnam. Now, eulogizers are working overtime to drain his life and work of their true meaning. They want to distance him from his moral heirs, just as they’ve tried to do with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and so many others. But Ellsberg supported the whistleblowers and journalists who carried on his work, like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, until the very end. If someone condemns Snowden and Assange while praising Ellsberg, they’re speaking for the unspeakable.

Ellsberg understood the machinery of nuclear war, which is why he wrote a book entitled The Doomsday Machine. He understood that this mechanism was waiting to be triggered: by an error, or a misunderstanding, or a zealot. He knew the real doomsday machine was made of flesh and blood.

Ellsberg faced threats of jail and worse. Those threats might have broken others, but he never wavered. A reporter asked him if he was willing to go to prison for releasing the Pentagon Papers. “Wouldn’t you go to prison to stop this war?” he replied. It wouldn’t have occurred to him to do otherwise.

That aspect of his character reminded me of an exchange I had with Chris Hedges when I was interviewing him about his book, Acts of Rebellion. I told Hedges that many revolutionaries and movement leaders seemed to have a quality of serenity, even when facing terror and pain. If you share that sense, I asked, why do you think that is?

“Because they know,” Hedges replied. “They’ve decided.”

Daniel Ellsberg knew. He decided. Ellsberg was rightly celebrated for facing death from prostate cancer with equanimity and even joy. But he had been facing death his entire adult life—not just his own, but all of humanity’s. Through close friends, I had the honor of meeting him several times and interviewing him twice.

There were sides of him that weren’t mentioned enough after his death: his enthusiasm, his humor, his interest in others. He carried darknesses, of course. Who wouldn’t, knowing what he knew? But these other qualities made him seem almost boyish. His blue eyes would light up at a suggestion or idea he liked. It gave him the “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show right here!” air of an actor in a 1930s movie with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

Ellsberg was rightly celebrated for facing death from prostate cancer with equanimity and even joy. But he had been facing death his entire adult life—not just his own, but all of humanity’s.

Now he’s gone, and here we are. Merton’s void still nullifies official proclamations. Joe Biden has spoken of nuclear disarmament over the years, but he’s staffed his administration with thinkers of the unthinkable. He’s proceeding with the deployment of a missile once known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, which Ellsberg campaigned against. (Ellsberg and I discuss it above.) Biden campaigned on reversing Trump’s new nuclear weaponry, but Congress keeps funding it and so far he hasn’t pushed back.

The US military is expected to spend $634 billion on nuclear weapons in the next 8-10 years. The White House’s 2022 nuclear strategy document or “Nuclear Posture Review” (NPR) struck a more moderate tone than the Trump administration’s but, as the Federation of American Scientists observes,

“Although Joe Biden during his presidential election campaign spoke strongly in favor of adopting no-first-use and sole-purpose policies (for the use of nuclear weapons), the NPR explicitly rejects both for now.”

So far, there’s not much pressure on Biden to keep his nuclear promises. Who’ll push for that now, if not us? As for Trump, here’s Ellsberg’s 2017 take on his “crazy” behavior:

“Trump has made people more worried, but what is real craziness? Everything we’re doing here is crazy, but it’s a consensual craziness.”

Ellsberg considered the escalating American posture against China and Russia “insane,” he told Democracy Now. “It is as insane as QAnon or as the belief that Trump is currently the president of the United States,” he said, raising the “real possibility of a nuclear war.”

The playwright Anton Chekov famously said that if you put a gun onstage in the first act you better fire it in the next act or two. The nuclear doomsday machine was introduced in the first act of America’s postwar empire. Now, as we enter its third and perhaps final act, we’re coming closer to firing it: over Ukraine, or Taiwan, or (even likelier) over a misunderstanding or technical failure.

Merton found an escape from the Unspeakable that was consistent with his Catholic vocation. But his description of it applies to secular epiphanies, too. He said it “can be broken open only by a miracle ...”

Dan Ellsberg’s miracle was a simple one. One day he saw the world as it is and realized what it must become. Call it grace, if you like. Now, we must learn to see what he saw so that we can act as he acted.

Additional resources: Ellsberg on the risk of nuclear war. I interviewed Ellsberg about The Doomsday Machine four years ago. We also talked about the ICBM threat last year; there is a print excerpt of that conversation here.

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