We are an initiative at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst dedicated to the stewardship of Daniel Ellsberg’s legacy and committed to putting the overlapping causes that defined his activism into action—government transparency, freedom of the press, a priority for diplomacy over military action, and social and environmental justice.
Daniel Ellsberg, America’s most famous whistleblower, devoted his life to the nonviolent struggle for peace, nuclear disarmament, and democratic rights. In 1971, he risked his freedom by releasing to the press and public a 7000-page classified history of the Vietnam War—the Pentagon Papers—exposing decades of government lies and deceit. Ellsberg’s principled commitment to nonviolent activism continued until his death in 2023 and remains a model of citizenship that inspires countless people around the world.
In 2019, Ellsberg, impressed by the longstanding UMass commitment to social justice, chose to make it the home for his papers, and the university, with the help of an anonymous donor, invested $2.2 million in the acquisition.
The Ellsberg collection is a vast treasure trove—500 boxes of materials—that documents the still relevant issues of his long life: the rise of the national security state, nuclear policy and war planning, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the proliferation of state secrecy, and the impact of individual whistleblowing and collective dissent.
In 2020–2021, inspired by the arrival of Ellsberg’s papers, the University of Massachusetts sponsored a host of historic ventures to explore his life and legacy—a year-long seminar, the creation of a website (the Ellsberg Archive Project), a series of podcasts by The GroundTruth Project, and a two-day, international, online conference with more than two-dozen high profile scholars, journalists, former policymakers, whistleblowers, and activists that was attended by thousands. Videos of conference sessions hosted on the website have drawn more than 25,000 viewers.
To build on these projects, UMass launched the Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy. Our goal is to create a permanent institute that:
We seek to build alternative practices and institutions that can enrich democracy, reduce international conflict, and create more equitable and sustainable economies.
The need for this initiative could not be more urgent. Recent events make clear how much we need universities to engage students and the public in serious attempts to understand and overcome the many historically rooted challenges we face—public lies and misinformation, institutional racism, endless war, the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons, environmental catastrophes, vast global inequities, and more. Identifying and exploring these challenges is a crucial first step. Even more important is finding effective responses. We want to shine a light on the vast range of concrete actions and proposals that have emerged in recent decades to enrich democracy, create sustainable economies and environments, and reduce the threats posed by war and nuclear weapons. So, for example, there have been important advances in regenerative farming and renewable energy, effective organizing in opposition to nuclear weapons, grass roots struggles for voter rights and institutional transparency, important research on how to convert from militarized and extractive economies to green and peace-based economies. Hopeful alternatives are coming in all fields including science, politics, and the creative arts.
Peace and democracy building requires more than the critical skills necessary to identify and understand challenges; it requires the confidence, hope, and imagination to build on effective movements already in place and create new ones. And while major long- term goals like nuclear abolition are central to our commitment, there are many short-term, pragmatic reforms to be promoted along the way. For example, The Ellsberg Initiative advocates a presidential pledge of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, the removal of all nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert, better whistleblower protection laws, major reforms of the Espionage Act to prevent abuses of First Amendment rights and the unfair prosecution of public interest whistleblowers, greater congressional oversight of the military and intelligence agencies, substantial reductions in military spending and foreign basing, more effective checks on government and institutional secrecy and surveillance, and a de-escalation of global tensions by seeking cooperation on the threats that endanger all nations.
The Ellsberg Archive Project is a major University of Massachusetts Amherst initiative exploring the life and legacy of Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971 and risked life in prison to reveal the truth about the U.S. government’s policy in Vietnam.
In 2022 we held a free online conference that brought together more than two dozen distinguished historians, journalists, activists, whistleblowers, and former policymakers on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers. Details about our 2023 conference will be available soon.
Visit the digital exhibit, Daniel Ellsberg: A Life in Truth. From his days studying economics at Harvard, to his work with the RAND corporation, to his release of the Pentagon Papers, to his anti-nuclear activism, to his vocal support of modern day whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange, he has continued to vociferiously advocate for political and social change.