AMHERST — They are classmates now, students of a deadly and unpopular American war that divided a nation, a conflict halfway across the world that has come into sharp focus all these years later through lenses both deeply personal and vastly divergent.
“My parents lived through the Vietnam War,” said Will Le, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Massachusetts and the grandson of South Vietnamese colonels. “I thought: Why not? I’ll see what the American side of the war is.”
Tianna Darling was also part of that class called “Truth, Dissent, and the Life of Daniel Ellsberg.” Her view of the war in Vietnam was shaped by her father, who was drafted into the US Army and was sent to Vietnam in 1971.
She listened with steely focus as she heard Ellsberg tell his stories of courage and dramatic dissent that, over the years, have found their way onto the silver screen and into the pages of history.
And, this year, into her classroom.
“It’s hard to describe how fascinating it was,” said Darling, 25, a master’s degree history student. “We had done the reading but just to listen to [Ellsberg] tell the stories that we were reading about was great. He’s constantly adding in details that we didn’t know about before.”
Ellsberg is one of the most celebrated leakers of top-secret documents in American history, a man who 50 years ago this month was the secret hand behind The New York Times’ publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers.
That vast archive exposed deception and mistakes by a series of US presidents, historical records that UMass acquired from Ellsberg in 2019 for $2.2 million, most of which was provided by an anonymous donor.
It’s a fascinating portal into the 1960s and early 1970s that sprang from Ellsberg’s decision to leak the papers, now part of records contained in more than 500 boxes that are, by turn, dry analyses and technicolor details of deception.
The story of the man, the Pentagon Papers, and the consequences of their disclosure, are the foundation of a two-semester seminar that explores the life and times of Ellsberg, who was willing to go to prison for providing the public with 7,000 pages of secret papers that exposed government lying on a vast scale.
The Pentagon Papers were a closely held history of United States decision-making on Vietnam. Commissioned in 1967 by the secretary of defense, they outlined for the first time how successive presidents had intensified American involvement in the war despite doubts about the chances of winning.
“My son has warned me that when I talk about Vietnam and I say names like [former US Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara and [General William] Westmoreland, that the kids really have not heard those names at all,” Ellsberg said when I interviewed him via Zoom at his home in northern California.
“And I’m not talking about little kids. I’m talking about college students. So, it’s a different world. But it’s 50 years ago. What can I say? When I was born, World War I was a dozen years behind. I was born in 1931. I’m 90 now.”
And still sharp. Still asking questions.
And still fascinating to modern-day students, the counterparts to the college kids of the 1970s, whose campuses were roiled by the events of the war in Southeast Asia, the conflict whose inner workings Ellsberg worked to expose.
He said was astonished by the mettle of the UMass students and the rigor they applied to studying what he had lived through.
“It was very gratifying,” he said. “They were passionate about learning from this and applying it in their lives.”
Modern-day relevance was not difficult to find. In fact, it was found on today’s front pages.
“Certainly, the Black Lives Matter movement is a good example of nonviolent resistance,” Ellsberg said. “And, of course, Trump tried to pretend that it was violent, but that was one more of his hoaxes. One difference is that in the 1960s and early ’70s people didn’t know the president was lying all the time. I’m not even sure that Trump lied more than the earlier presidents. He just lied about trivial things when it didn’t matter at all and was easily refutable.”
Ellsberg was a top-rated war analyst at the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research institution where he worked and where he copied the top secret report. The papers found their way onto the front page of The New York Times, a tectonic event in journalism history.
“I can’t think of anybody who has had greater access to power and to classified documents who has taken such personal risk in opposition to the policies he once supported,” said Christian G. Appy, a UMass history professor who taught this year’s course based on Ellsberg’s work.
“You have the opportunity to speak to a person who is really an ultimate insider and believer and a hard-working one to boot. And then to become someone who was an equally passionate outsider trying to transform the system he’d been a part of. It’s one of the most fascinating political and moral conversion stories in US history.”
And that’s the man who became the centerpiece of the UMass course.
One moment Tianna Darling is opening the Ellsberg archives to find the arm band that Ellsberg wore during a nuclear power protest in Colorado. The next moment, there’s Ellsberg, live via teleconference.
“It’s just this little thing,” she said of the arm band. “It didn’t add anything to the research. But it was so cool.”
So cool, yes. A tangible connection to the past that the students could see and touch. And imagine the life of Daniel Ellsberg when the streets were filled with protests, when government lies were exposed, when a president resigned in disgrace.
“What was amazing about this class and the timing of it were the extraordinary events of the last year that gave a kind of profound resonance and relevance to what we were studying,” Appy told me.
No one knew that more viscerally than Daniel Ellsberg.
Few risked as much to defend the truth.
“What I learned from inside the government is the truth of I.F. Stone’s dictum, which is: All government officials lie. And nothing they say is to be believed,” he said.
“It sounds extreme. It doesn’t mean that everything they say is false. But it does mean that anything they say may be false.”
I asked Ellsberg if he still believes that.
“Oh, absolutely,” he told me. “No question about it. Anybody who doesn’t believe that just doesn’t know. Or they don’t want to know. There’s a lot of ignorance about that. People keep their mouths shut in government when they know their boss is lying. Which is approximately every time they speak to the press.
“And that doesn’t mean that everything they say is false. But it does mean that virtually everything they say to the public is — to some degree — misleading. And that it’s leaving out motivations and considerations and side-effects that would be unpopular. They’ll say different things to difference audiences.”
And that’s why Daniel Ellsberg, who all those years ago faced 115 years in prison, pulled back the curtain on closely held US secrets. His case ended in a mistrial because the government gathered its evidence against him illegally, including the burgling of the office of his psychiatrist.
His work allowed the American people to see what their government was doing in their name.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.