PSR Tribute to Our Dearly Departed Colleague, Daniel Ellsberg June 21, 2023

Physicians for Social Responsibility celebrates the life of our esteemed colleague, Daniel Ellsberg, who passed away on June 16. Of course, Ellsberg gained most fame as the whistleblower who supplied the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post and other newspapers in 1971. He risked a 115-year prison sentence and hastened the end of the humanitarian debacle of the Vietnam War. Since then, Ellsberg has lectured, written, and protested about wrongful U.S. military interventions, emphasized the urgent need for patriotic whistleblowing, and particularly highlighted the risk of nuclear war. Ellsberg, himself a former nuclear war planner, steadfastly advocated for nuclear weapons abolition.

Ellsberg faced numerous arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience, including his involvement at the Nevada nuclear test site.  

From 1992 to 1994, Mr. Ellsberg actively worked towards placing nuclear disarmament at the forefront of the political agenda while working at the PSR office in DC. On November 8, 2018, in Washington, DC, Physicians for Social Responsibility honored Ellsberg with our Visionary Leader Award.

Here are some reflections from PSR members, staff, and former staff:

“To the end Dan was an exceptionally courageous and inspiring person to so many of us, from the time he risked spending his life in prison exposing the shameful crimes of our government’s war on Indochina, through his unmitigated and outspoken support of other valiant whistle-blowers who have dared to risk their own lives and liberty to expose similar assaults on humanity. And throughout his life and through his final battle with cancer, Dan has been a singular voice of moral leadership and wisdom in warning all of us of the imminent and apocalyptic dangers of nuclear weapons that has become once again such a pre-eminent existential threat in the Ukraine war, and in accelerating great power confrontation in the Pacific. I know in my heart that we all share profound gratitude for all Dan has shown us by how nobly he led his life, and we will carry on the good fight he exemplified at all levels for peace, justice and global survival.”

Robert M Gould, MD, President, San Francisco Bay Physicians for Social Responsibility

“He was a towering figure in the movement to prevent nuclear war, the embodiment of grace, courage, eloquence and persistence, and an inspiration to several generations of activists. His continued work over the last few months, after his diagnosis with terminal cancer, was a further gift to us all. We have lost a great champion, but his work and influence will live on.”

Ira Helfand, MD, PSR Past-President

“One of the great human beings of our time. He tried to save the world right up until his last days.”

Gwen DuBois, MD, PSR Board of Directors

“I had the good fortune to get to know Dan via Richard Falk and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in 2016. We spent a phenomenal weekend, and became friends. My husband David and I helped edit [one of his books] Doomsday Machine, a great privilege. I visited Dan and his wife Patricia several times in Berkeley. We had lovely extended conversations. 

He was a truly Great Man. He will be acutely and painfully missed. His gracious, graceful letter telling friends about his pancreatic cancer suggests not to  waste much time grieving. Go on with the work, abolish nuclear weapons.”

Judy Lipton, MD, Founder of Washington PSR

“Daniel Ellsberg has been a towering role model for me since my high school years. I was fortunate to hear him speak several times and was always struck by his calm demeanor and analytical precision. Let’s continue to be inspired by Daniel Ellsberg!”

Todd Sack, MD, FACP, PSR President

“At a time when he was best known for his release of the Pentagon Papers, Dan Ellsberg returned to Washington, DC from California specifically to work on nuclear disarmament. It had long been his area of deep expertise and abiding commitment. Our mutual friend, Morton Halperin, recommended to Dan that he take his “Manhattan II” project idea to PSR, which had the reputation and outreach to create a significant campaign both inside the Beltway with policy makers and at the grassroots. 

Aside from his brilliance and near photographic memory, Dan was surprisingly gentle, kind, and willing to share his knowledge and experience, but also to learn from those of us on staff about building campaigns, PR, fundraising, and much more. We arranged for him to speak on disarmament to all 15,000 (in person and on video) at the Los Alamos National Lab, to appear at our events with Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Rotblat, and to meet with old Cold Warriors like Fred Ikle and others if they now wanted nuclear disarmament. 

I spent many happy, long hours with Dan in the office and on the road. Along with brilliance and kindness, he was also blessed with a fine, droll sense of humor like the time at a PSR/IPPNW disarmament conference in Sweden right at the Arctic Circle where reindeer was the main source of protein. Dan was scolded by a doctor because he was wandering around carrying a plate of frozen peas and mashed potatoes. “You need to have a healthier diet,” said the doc. Dan, a vegetarian, smiled and glanced at the reindeer carcasses spinning on a barbecue spit. “What, you want me to eat Rudolph?”

Bob Musil, PhD, MPH, former PSR Executive Director

Much has been written about Dan’s commitment to peace and his personal courage, all of which is 100% true and important, and it’s why he was someone I admired long before I came to PSR, where I got to know him a little bit. When I met him for the first time, he was well into his 80s, and from our very first phone call, I was struck by his remarkable energy, inquisitiveness, and intellectual curiosity. From our very first conversation, he asked me what I thought about various issues, and peppered me with questions about prospects for action by Congress. I remember offering him some small little bit of advice about something, and then immediately caught myself thinking, “what on earth makes you think you have anything useful to say to Daniel Ellsberg?” But he never made me feel that way.

On a memorable day on the Hill, I took him to meet a colleague of mine from my education advocacy days. We ended up talking together for almost an hour. He was genuinely interested in what this person did, how the program they advocated for worked. He was interested in me, and wanted me to be successful at PSR. He struck me as someone who was genuinely interested in and cared about people.

Dan’s personal courage and lifelong commitment to peace will continue to inspire all of us, whether we were lucky enough to get to know him or not. But reflecting on those little personal moments I was lucky enough to share with him, I think it was his love for his fellow human beings that drove his commitment to peace. He is no longer with us, but that, in particular, will continue to provide me with an example to look up to.

Jeff Carter, JD, former PSR Executive Director

“Daniel was incredibly inspiring in both the way he lived and how he chose to spend his last days. We are all deeply indebted to Daniel for his courage and initiative. I wish I had the chance to know Daniel personally, as have many others within the PSR family. However, I was inspired by his book, The Doomsday Machine, and for that I am grateful.”

Michael Martin, MD, PSR Immediate Past President

“He was a gift to the world. For sure, he lives on.”   

Gerri Haynes, RN, PSR Past President

“While I was Executive Director of Washington PSR, we lined up Daniel Ellsberg to keynote a WPSR Annual Dinner. It was a memorable dinner, partly because of his story of discovering in the 1960s that the United States was prepared to kill millions of Eastern and Western Europeans in order to repel a Soviet invasion, as well as his riveting account of nights spent secretly Xeroxing — with his son Robert–the Pentagon Papers. Just before the dinner event got underway, I learned that in addition to all other talents, Daniel Ellsberg was a bona fide magician! Totally impromptu, he borrowed my wife’s scarf and pulled a rather slick stunt with the scarf disappearing & then reappearing somewhere else. We were wowed.”

Martin Fleck, PSR Nuclear Weapons Abolition Program Director

Learn more about Daniel Ellsberg
A website devoted to Daniel Ellsberg articles and interviews

“Daniel Ellsberg’s message to us, and to future generations”
Interviewed by Martin Hellman on April 19, published at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on June 16

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