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SAN FRANCISCO — Daniel Ellsberg, one of the nation’s foremost political activists and whistleblowers, was awarded an honorary degree by UMass Amherst in a ceremony held Saturday, Jan. 21 in the San Francisco, where Ellsberg resides.

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy lauded Ellsberg’s devotion to public service, saying, “we honor you for a lifetime of truth telling that demonstrates how dissent can be the highest form of patriotism and citizenship. We thank you for inspiring others to follow your example.”

Following a decade as a high-level government official, researcher, and consultant, Ellsberg distributed the top-secret Pentagon Papers in 1971, exposing decades of deceit by American policymakers during the Vietnam War. Since the end of the war, Ellsberg has been a lecturer, scholar, writer, and activist on the dangers of the nuclear era, wrongful U.S. interventions, and the urgent need for patriotic whistleblowing. Ellsberg has been deeply engaged with UMass Amherst since 2019, when, impressed by the university’s longstanding commitment to social justice, he chose to make it the home for his papers.

The ceremony, attended by family, friends, and dignitaries, included an academic processional and remarks by Subbaswamy; UMass President Marty Meehan; U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of California; former California Gov. Jerry Brown; Barbara Krauthamer, dean of the UMass College of Humanities and Fine Arts; Lynda Resnick, vice chair and co-owner of the Wonderful Company; Robert Pollin, UMass distinguished professor of Economics; and Christian Appy, UMass professor of History and director of the university’s Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy.

Ellsberg expressed deep appreciation for the honor, noting that he has found an institutional home at UMass that supports his work and ideals. “This is actually the first institutional community that I’ve been in for 50 years, since I left RAND IN 1970 and MIT in 1972 when they terminated my fellowship at the Center for International Studies because I was on trial.”

The Ellsberg collection at UMass is a vast treasure trove — 500 boxes of materials — that documents the still-relevant issues of his long life: the threats posed by nuclear weapons, the expansion of U.S. imperial ambition, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the proliferation of state secrecy, freedom of the press and First Amendment rights, the struggle for a more democratic and accountable foreign policy, and the challenges of civic courage and nonviolent dissent.

In 2020-21, inspired by the arrival of Ellsberg’s papers, the university sponsored a host of historic ventures to explore his life and legacy: a yearlong 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.

As a next step, UMass is launching the Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy to highlight the value of the Ellsberg archive and to engage the public in the vital issues so central to Ellsberg’s legacy. The initiative, under the direction of Appy, believes that, with democracy under attack at home and abroad — and the dangers posed by climate change, disease, and warfare as great as ever — the need for this initiative could not be more urgent. The events of the past two years alone suggest the need for universities to engage students and the public in serious learning and discussion about the historical roots of our most pressing problems and the actions that our society might take now to resolve them.