Robert Ellsberg, son of the man responsible for ‘The Pentagon Papers,’ speaks in Santa Cruz
In 1971, at 13-years of age, Robert Ellsberg helped his father, Daniel Ellsberg, photocopy thousands of classified U.S. government documents, later dubbed “The Pentagon Papers.” These papers revealed to the world the government’s conscious pursuit of a losing the war on Vietnam, and earned his father, a former Vietnam War strategist, the title of “Most Dangerous Man in America,” according to then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. More recently, Daniel Ellsberg’s story was the subject of a 2009, Academy Award-nominated documentary.
“I was an early witness to my father’s act of conscience, and the factors that helped inspire him…the power of truth, and the power of non-violence and civil disobedience, particularly the young men who were going to prison at that time to protest the draft, which inspired my father to ask himself to question what he would be willing to do, if he were prepared to go to jail to help end the war,” says Ellsberg, who is currently the editor for Orbis Books in New York. “That set in motion questions I would pursue in my own way, as a writer and editor.”
Ellsberg will publicly share his personal story about growing up within the U.S. Peace Movement for the first time at the local Holy Cross Parish Hall in Santa Cruz on Thursday, June 9 at 7:30 p.m., free of charge. Donations will benefit the St. Francisco Soup Kitchen and Holy Cross Food Pantry. “I hope [the stories I share] can challenge other people and enlarge their own sense of responsibility and possibility,” he says.
Pax Christi and The Social Justice Ministry of Holy Cross Parish, as well as the Resource Center for Nonviolence (RCNV), will host the event. The speech is entitled “One Candle Lights Another: The Pentagon Papers, Ghandi, Dorothy Day, and My Life with the Saints.”
“Sometimes in a dark time it is important to show that not everything is darkness, and that there is a candlelight of justice and truth,” says Ellsberg. “Even just in the telling of those stories that candle is kept from being extinguished, and can travel across decades and centuries and light others.”
Like his father, Ellsberg is heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. Ellsberg dropped out of college in 1975 at age 19 to travel to India. When he was unable to move to India due to a national declaration of “state of emergency,” he stayed in the states and joined the Catholic Worker, a pacifist movement that participates in nonviolent direct action, and provides food and shelter to the poor and homeless. There, he met Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Day’s cause for canonization or sainthood, as one of the most inspiring figures of recent history, remains pending in the Catholic Church.
“I was largely inspired by the lives of the saints and heroic people I met and worked with in the community [of the Catholic Worker],” Ellsberg says. “People like Dorothy Day, who also introduced me to a much wider tradition of prophets and witnesses—not just in the Catholic church, but artists, philosophers and peace makers. ”
Ellsberg is now a devout Catholic and firm believer in the power of saints. However, veering from tradition, he celebrates the humanity and reality of everyday saints. His book, “All Saints,” depicts the lives of saints both ancient and modern.
“The system wants people to think they don’t have much power, but we all have a lot more power than that, and a lot of responsibility,” Ellsberg says. “In the Catholic tradition, we spend a lot of time talking about the saints, but we tend to put them on a pedestal … It makes it harder for us to challenge ourselves in our own call to be our best selves because we think there is some special standard that applies to saints.”
Ellsberg attempts to challenge this perception by showing the humanity in the saints he writes about: “They weren’t perfect people, but struggled really hard to understand what God was asking from them in their own moment in history.”
Ellsberg was the managing editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper for two years, and worked closely with Day for five years. After she passed, Ellsberg became the official editor of her Personal Papers. He has also edited writings by Gandhi, Flannery O’Connor, Thich Nhat Hanh, Charles de Foucauld, Fritz Eichenberg, and Carlo Carretto.
“We’re all exposed to so many different examples all the time of people that we admire and model ourselves after,” says Ellsberg. “It’s important always to be aware of examples that display the highest possibilities of human-being—our capacity for compassion and sense of solidarity with others, sense of responsibility—so that we don’t just see ourselves as powerless consumers, but that each of us has a really enormous power to choose what it is that we will honor, what we will obey, and who we are responsible to.
“In my father’s case,” he continues, “although what he did had far-reaching implications, he was very influenced by the example of individual young men who had no access to security clearances or government influence, but simply the power to withhold their consent to the selective services. [They were] willing to pay that price without the knowledge or assumption that [they] would have any enormous impact on anything—that had an enormous influence on him.”
The Robert Ellsberg “One Candle Lights Another” event will be free of charge, at the Holy Cross Parish Hall on Thursday, June 9 at 7:30 p.m. Donations benefit the St. Francisco Soup Kitchen and Holy Cross Food Pantry. For more information call 831.423.1626 or visit rcnv.org.