AMHERST — The historic records have lost none of their tectonic punch over the last half century. Dark memos of war. Details of deception.
A porthole into a time when there were marches in the streets and the United States seemed on the verge of a national nervous breakdown.
“Secrecy is very dangerous to our democracy and to human survival,’’ Daniel Ellsberg said. “Officials in any country want to keep their secrets. What defines a democracy is that they don’t get to.’’
And now Ellsberg, a top-rated war analyst who in 1971 leaked a massive, top-secret history of the American involvement in Vietnam — the so-called Pentagon Papers that exposed deception and mistakes by five US presidents — has chosen a home for his massive archive.
The papers are going to the University of Massachusetts’ flagship campus here, where researchers will be able to pore over a catastrophic conflict in Southeast Asia, where 58,000 American lives were lost in a foreign war whose fateful lessons have echoed now across two generations.
The university has acquired the papers for $2.2 million, most of which — $1.35 million — was provided by an anonymous donor, the university said Monday.
The rest of the money will come from the university’s special collections fund.
Ellsberg’s papers include his evolving assessment of the Vietnam War, documentation from his criminal trial for leaking the Pentagon Papers, and records from his work in the antiwar and antinuclear movements.
“The focus of our archive is social change,’’ said Robert S. Cox, head of special collections and university archives at UMass. “People, organizations, and individuals who go about trying to change the world consciously for the better. And so social change becomes what we do. And Dan fits that.’’
He certainly does.
When I caught up with him by telephone late last week, he was just leaving a climate change protest in California on a day when marches and rallies reverberated across the globe, crafting this message for world leaders headed to a summit at the United Nations: The world is warming. Act now.
He’s 88 years old now. But the fire within him has not diminished.
“Both the Democrats and the Republicans are giving more money to the Pentagon than the Pentagon asked for,’’ Ellsberg said. “It’s keeping the danger alive. I’d say the world is not more dangerous than it was in the past, but it’s not less dangerous.’’
Cox said any archive that measures more than 100 linear feet usually is considered large. Ellsberg’s measures about 600 linear feet, or more than 500 boxes. The university estimates it will take the equivalent of two years of a full-time archivist’s time to process and catalogue the collection.
“That’s huge,’’ Cox said.
Huge. And fascinating. And historic.
There is a 1969 onion-skin letter to Ellsberg from Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., who had served as ambassador to South Vietnam and who, at the time the letter was written, served as delegate to the Vietnam peace talks in Paris.
There’s a letter to Ellsberg written by Henry Kissinger when Kissinger was serving as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser.
There’s a formal invitation to a wedding reception hosted by Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and his wife at their home in Washington, D.C.
“In the course of eight days in Vietnam I talked to a great many people,’’ Philip A. Hart, then a Democratic senator from Michigan, writes to Ellsberg’s father in a 1967 letter in the archive. “From no one did I learn more than from your son.’’
That letter was written four years before Ellsberg was to take his place in American history after he opened his safe at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research institution where he worked, and began copying a 7,000-page, top-secret report.
The Globe’s Thomas Oliphant broke a story that said the few people who had reviewed the papers copied by Ellsberg supported withdrawing from Vietnam. Oliphant had interviewed Ellsberg and learned of the documents’ backstory.
But Neil Sheehan’s front-page story in The New York Times on June 13, 1971, was a genuine journalistic bombshell.
“A massive study of how the United States went to war in Indochina, conducted by the Pentagon three years ago, demonstrates that four administrations progressively developed a sense of commitment to a non-Communist Vietnam, a readiness to fight the North to protect the South, and an ultimate frustration with this effort — to a much greater extent than their public statements acknowledged at the time,’’ Sheehan wrote.
The Nixon administration asked the Times to stop publication. The Times refused. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order barring further publication. But then The Washington Post obtained the papers and began publishing. As the two national papers went to court to oppose Nixon’s efforts to stop them, Ellsberg reached out to other newspapers, including The Boston Globe.
“It was a huge coup for the Globe,’’ former Globe editor Matt Storin told me. “Much like today, The New York Times and The Washington Post were considered the top papers in the country. So when we got [the papers], we were quite pleased with ourselves — and quite excited.’’
At UMass, Cox said Ellsberg’s papers will be rich material for scholars who are examining warfare or nuclear power or governmental secrecy — or ethics and morality.
“He could have stayed in his lane,’’ Cox said when I visited with him in his 25th-floor office at the library here. “He could have been a guy sitting up in the highest echelons of war planning, and if he had been one of those guys who was willing to live with that, we wouldn’t know him today.’’
Ellsberg faced 115 years in prison, but his case ended in a mistrial because the government gathered its evidence against him illegally, including burgling the office of his psychiatrist.
Ellsberg, who has a PhD in economics, will join UMass as a distinguished researcher and will become a fellow at UMass’s Political Economy Research Institute.
He is scheduled to visit the UMass campus here and will attend an event in Boston in late October.
He considered placing his papers with the University of California Santa Cruz. But decided on UMass after meeting with officials from the school. “They really wanted it,’’ Ellsberg said. “And they got it.’’
It’s clear from talking to Ellsberg that age has not dimmed the fire that burns within him.
“I would say I’m still at it,’’ he said. “I continue to be at it. But who’s winning? The secret keepers are winning.’’
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.