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Daniel Ellsberg Talks Psychedelics, Consciousness and World Peace

Daniel Ellsberg Talks Psychedelics, Consciousness and World Peace

I was working as Daniel Ellsberg’s assistant in Berkeley, California when the following conversation took place on September 12, 2018. 

Ellsberg is a legend. He is best known as the “father of American whistleblowing,” after forgoing his elite military analyst position at RAND Corporation and illegally copying nearly 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force. 

The report is a history of U.S. political and military actions in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 which revealed what Ellsberg describes as “a quarter century of lying by four previous presidents on every aspect of Vietnam policy.” After months of duplicating highly classified military documents on an early Xerox machine, Ellsberg leaked them in 1971 to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other newspapers. 

Ellsberg’s public release of the Pentagon Papers caused a national scandal. His actions prompted widespread scrutiny of U.S. military activities, upended public opinion on the Vietnam War, and eventually contributed to the war’s end in 1975. In 1973, Ellsberg was prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 and also charged with theft and conspiracy. After facing a maximum sentence of 115 years in prison, all the changes against Ellsberg were eventually dismissed. 

Ellsberg has been open about the elements that influenced his decision to smuggle and expose the Pentagon Papers. For example, he was deeply affected by the passionate convictions of a proudly jail-bound draft resister named Randy Kehler who he witnessed speaking at a War Resisters League Conference in 1969. 

He also integrated the opinions of colleagues and friends, such as anti-war radio host Patricia Marx, who would become his second wife. In the almost fifty years since he revealed U.S. government war plans for Vietnam, Ellsberg has continued to work tirelessly towards world peace. 

Daniel Ellsberg & Patricia Ellsberg August 25, 2020 by Christopher Michel.

Ellsberg is a self-proclaimed “psychedelics person,” who says he has had several hundred experiences with psychedelics. He isn’t convinced, however, that psychedelics hold the key to unlocking world peace and freedom from the impending nuclear and climate-related doom that he explores in his most recent book, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.” 

But Ellsberg does believe that a shift in consciousness is necessary for the types of changes that we need in the world. When Ellsberg revealed to me that he’d been taking LSD as early as 1960, I asked him if he might sit down with me to talk about psychedelics. This in-depth conversation will be published by Lucid News as a three-part series. My most burning question, of course, was: 

Did psychedelic use influence your decision to release the Pentagon Papers?

No. I’d be glad to say, if it were true, that LSD had an effect. But I can’t say that it did. 

[My first trip] was back in 1960. But I gave the Pentagon Papers, I copied them eight years later. And I’d spent two years in Vietnam. 

​​[By the time the Pentagon Papers were released, Ellsberg had already come to the personal conclusion the war was unwinnable and unethical. He had left RAND, and was working as a senior research associate at the MIT Center for International Studies.]

I am curious as to whether you see any connection, if there is one, between peace movements and psychedelic use?

I once asked my friend, the poet Gary Snyder, if it was true what I’d heard when I was in my thirties and in Vietnam, that young people in the 60s believed that revolution was at hand, that the world could really change altogether at that point? Because I thought that was probably a delusion, as it turned out to be, in effect.

And he said, yes, they really did believe that. And I said, “How could they have thought that?” And he said, “acid.” He said, it wasn’t that they all had acid, although perhaps most of them did, or a lot of the activists did. But he said the leaders did. And of course, LSD, as it does, gives you the reality that your perception of the world, and your attitudes toward the way things are, can change almost instantly, you know, just with a little chemical change here. But it was with the perceptions you get on acid, that it was possible to imagine a very different way of relating to each other and to the world. And they had been led by that to think that society could change almost as quickly. 

It’s very clear that consciousness could change. And a consciousness change is necessary for the kinds of changes we need in the world. And it would not merely be nice to have a better world. Yes, it would be nice if we had a better world, but that’s not the way it is. We have a desperate need to have a better world. It’s urgent, in a number of ways. And without changes in consciousness, it’s hard to imagine that this will come about.

Now, things that we don’t imagine do come about, it’s true. But they’re like miracles, and fortunately, miracles do happen. And of course, miracles are very easy to believe in on acid. And acid itself is a miracle!

But you know, the acid perception, I think, confirms one side of what Albert Einstein once said, that there are two ways of looking at the world. And one is that there are no miracles. And the other is that everything is a miracle. And I think, it’s a very classic acid perception that what we’re involved in and what we are immersed in, and you know, everything, is miraculous – which is the case, actually. Imagine the meaning of the fact that two people coming together can conceive a child and that after nine months of gestation, a baby emerges. There’s no other way to think of that, and to think of what comes of that, than to see it as miraculous. 

With acid, when you look at your hand, when you look at a flower, when you look at the world, everything you perceive is breathing, everything is alive, everything is connected. This is one acid experience, which I’ve often had. I don’t say that everybody has had it, or that you have it all the time, but it’s a reality of [acid experiences.] It’s also in some ways close to the mystical perceptions of unity that religious people get from meditation or as a matter of grace or in various times, and it is possible to have these religious perceptions from acid.

Yes, it sure is! So, I’m hearing that there is a perception, or almost an ideal, that can come from psychedelic use that the world is as malleable as our minds are, or as our consciousness could be. That perhaps countercultural leaders extrapolated the miracles in their heads to what they wanted for the world, or thought they could change the world as easily as they could change their minds?

There were effects that LSD did have on many activists in the 60’s. So obviously, it can go together. It wasn’t my particular experience. But obviously, it can have that effect. But that can be illusory, or, you know, overplayed, or mislead you. 

The more common effect I think, is, especially with the right set, is what people experience as a religious experience is meditative, Buddhist, the notion of oneness, the mystical vision, that everything is interrelated and interdependent in various ways, that everything is alive is the sense that you get. And I think the new physics is dissolving this boundary between, you know, inorganic and organic. Not everything is particles, there are waves, different things at the same time, energy flowing. Well, that wouldn’t be a perception hard to get on acid. And if I’d heard that some physicists had been influenced by that, I would think yeah, right. That’s logical, if that’s the right word. 

[Ellsberg laughs.] 

As both a seasoned psychedelics user and activist, what advice would you have for someone who wanted to integrate the visions and thoughts and feelings that they have had on psychedelics with their activism or peace work?

I haven’t thought so much about this…. Well, I’ll mention two things that are rather obvious. To someone who’s had the experience with acid, I would say, in particular, you realize how precious each second is, each moment of life, each moment of existence. How amazing, you know, wow, awe inspiring, miraculous. And to think of losing it all, with nuclear war, or with losing all this with climate change…

Well, you would still have an earth, you would still have microbes as a matter of fact. But if you do value this earth, with all its limitations, as it is, bad as some of it is, especially in the human sphere, I think you very much could get a sense that it is wrong and outrageous to allow humans to destroy so much of this. 

Second, the MDMA, I think, can definitely get beyond these rigid [ideas of] us, them, others, and the idea of it being acceptable to threaten others with elimination or extermination. And the way of working together and cooperating and seeing the possibilities of cooperation with virtually anyone. I’m tempted to say, just a figure of speech. ‘“God knows….”

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[Ellsberg laughs.] 

It’s not the way I think, but “God knows” there has to be change pretty fast in the world of various kinds. And I don’t know other ways to do it. I can’t say I’m a believer now that [MDMA] will do it. But we need new approaches to changing consciousness quickly.

[Ellsberg’s ideas on how psychedelics might impact activism and communication between world leaders are subversive, considering the U.S. government’s long history of using drug laws to persecute political activists. Ellsberg himself remembers destroying his stash on the day the Pentagon Papers were released.] 

Daniel Ellsberg, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Cindy Fredericks, and Marilyn Young at Mayday protests, May 3, 1971. Daniel Ellsberg Papers (MS 1093). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

I didn’t feel free to say this while my friend Howard Zinn was alive. But we had an experience, which I did say at his funeral as an obituary, the day the Pentagon Papers were coming out, which was June 13, at around midnight, of 1971. We learned in the afternoon that The New York Times building was embargoed, that you couldn’t go in and out without checking in with a hired rent-a-cop, because they were afraid of an injunction at any moment. I hadn’t been told by The Times that they were coming out with it at that point. 

So at that point, I had in my room a copy of the top secret Pentagon Papers, which I hadn’t kept in my apartment until then, lest it be pounced on. That day, I had it in there because I wanted to give it to Senator Mike Gravel to use in a filibuster shortly. And there I was, they were worried enough to embargo. And the FBI might jump in on me any minute, practically. 

I was due to go to a movie that night with Howard Zinn and his wife, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” actually, which I’d seen several times before, and he hadn’t. And so I called him. I had given him already about 1,000 pages of the 7,000 pages, as a historian, to look at, as I did to my friend Noam Chomsky and to one or two others. And other than that, only to the newspapers and to the Senate. 

So I said, “Howard, I have something I better hand off to you.” Well, we went over to his house. And I gave him the copy of the Pentagon Papers to keep, but also somebody had given us a lid [an ounce] of grass. Just before that…this is in Cambridge, some Harvard student. And I didn’t want that found by the FBI. So we smoked what we could, and then flushed the rest down the toilet. And the effect was that their home was filled with smoke from weed, and their son came back. And of course, they’d been telling him forever, don’t do this, you know. And so he was going sniff, sniff…he knew what was going on here. 

Anyway, we went to the movie, we enjoyed it very much, even more than before, perhaps. And I do remember that afterwards, we came out of the theater in Harvard Square, still very, very high. And there was an ice cream store – Brighams, right next to it – that doesn’t exist anymore. And we bought ice cream cones. But we were going along the street, passing the ice cream from one person to the other. And I was saying, as we were in Harvard Square, that any student here would know what we’ve been smoking!

Actually, there was one funny aspect, which will hardly be meaningful now, in a way, I’ll tell you why: We were walking along in Harvard Square, and the street in front of us suddenly was blocked by four people in Bolivian native dress, you know, very, very colorful orange, purple, blue, and whatnot. And they were rather square-looking, I mean, in shape, and wide and not too tall, and they were blocking the sidewalk. And frankly, at this point, I was wondering, is this a hallucination? You know, it was a strange sight. And so one of them the woman held out her hand, you know, to stop us. We said, “Yes?” And she said, “please, can you tell us where we find striptease?” 

Do you know what striptease is? I’m talking to an audience now where there are no more striptease joints. There are topless, you know, but it used to be a very slow removal of clothes in a burlesque show. These, I think, don’t really exist anymore, as far as I know. And a younger audience here won’t even have heard probably, perhaps, about a striptease. But it was a very strange, you know, request. Where will you find striptease? So we told her about the Combat Zone in Boston, where you could find striptease and topless dancing, and they went off with the rest of the family to see a striptease. 

But what was striking about that was it was so hallucinatory, but I think it was real, as far as I know. Just one of the weird things in life.

This is part one of a three-part series, “‘I Am a Psychedelics Person,’ Daniel Ellsberg,” edited by Ann Harrison.

Featured Image: Credit – Albertson, Jeff. Daniel Ellsberg at the podium, speaking at a press conference following the Supreme Court decision to allow publication of the Pentagon Papers: Ellsberg leaning into the podium, speaking, July 1, 1971. Jeff Albertson Photograph Collection (PH 57). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

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