Last weekend my husband, Herb, and I saw Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.” The film dramatizes the struggle against Nixon’s 1971 efforts to stop newspapers from publishing the “Pentagon Papers” and Katharine Graham overcoming her lack of confidence to become the powerful publisher of The Washington Post.
One line struck me particularly hard. When the actor who plays Daniel Ellsberg asks the actor who plays a Washington Post reporter, “Wouldn’t you go to prison to stop this war?” I froze. Thirty-two years after Ellsberg had reportedly asked that important question, he had asked me a similar but even graver one.
In the fall of 2003, Daniel Ellsberg’s book "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers" had just been published and he was planning a book tour. Herb, who was then president of the Houston Peace and Justice Center, sent Ellsberg an invitation to visit Houston. Herb reasoned that Texas progressives would love to meet him. HPJC could raise a little money by holding a reception before Ellsberg’s talk and book signing. Herb would to do the publicity, arrange for radio and T.V. interviews, and provide transportation. And we would host him on the futon in our guestroom. To my amazement, Ellsberg accepted Herb’s invitation.
He arrived the first week in February 2004, stayed at our house for two nights, and graciously participated in all the activities that Herb had arranged. Early that first morning of his visit, members of the press and the chair of the Harris County Democratic Party gathered around our dining room table for bagels and coffee and a chance to talk with Ellsberg about his thoughts on the Iraq War. Eleven months earlier, the U.S. had attacked that nation, justifying the aggression primarily with claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The week before Ellsberg’s visit to Houston, David Kay, the leader of the U.S. inspection team that went in after the invasion, had reported to a Senate committee, “It turns out we were all wrong” regarding Iraq’s having WMDs. This war and its lies, a repetition of Vietnam, had “sickened” Ellsberg, who was deeply troubled by the thought that, had he gone public with the “Pentagon Papers” sooner, thousands of lives might have been spared.
The breakfast broke up about 9 a.m. Ellsberg had a 10 a.m. interview at the Pacifica Radio Network station in Houston. I drove him there. It was the first time he and I had had a chance to talk quietly together. Perhaps because car trips, even short ones, offer an opportunity for confidential conversation, Daniel Ellsberg turned to me and said, “I’ve had something on my mind and I’ve been wanting to talk with someone about it. So I’d like to ask you this question. Do you think if I immolated myself, it might stop this war?”
If almost anyone else had asked me that question, I might have thought it an exercise in egotism. But since it was Daniel Ellsberg, the man who had risked everything by leaking the Pentagon Papers to stop the Vietnam War, I knew he was serious. So I answered slowly, chose my words carefully. I reasoned aloud that although he would be making the ultimate sacrifice for peace, in this age of the 24-hour news cycle his sensational death would make headlines for only a few hours before it would be eclipsed by another story. Then forgotten. His voice was too important to be snuffed out at this critical time in our history.
He responded, “Thank you. I’ll think about what you’ve said.”
Two mornings later when his visit to Houston was over, he gathered his things from our guest room and met me at the front door. Taking both my hands in his, he looked straight into my eyes he said, “Thank you.” Then paused for a few seconds and smiled before saying, “for everything.”
Several days later I made and framed a small sign and hung it on the guest room wall over the futon. It simply read, “Daniel Ellsberg Slept Here — February 4 and 5, 2004.”
— Deborah Rothschild lives in Phoenix.