During our first year of marriage, in 1971, my husband, Daniel Ellsberg, was indicted on 12 felony counts for espionage, theft, and conspiracy, which carried a possible sentence of 115 years in prison. His release of the Pentagon Papers (a 7,000-page set of top-secret documents that revealed how the U.S. Congress and the American public had been lied to about the Vietnam War) to the New York Times and 18 other newspapers resulted in a trial that lasted more than two years—and fortified our own deep commitment to the power of truth telling.
This period was one of the most intense, frightening, and meaningful times of my life. I was terrified that my husband would be physically harmed or sent to prison for the rest of his life. At the same time, he and I were gratified that we could use our access to the press to help stop what we felt was an unnecessary, immoral, and disastrous war. What is little known is that Daniel was inspired to release the truths in the Pentagon Papers in part by the example of Mahatma Gandhi and his concept of satyagraha. The literal translation of satyagraha is “holding to the truth,” and Gandhi spoke of it as “truth force” or “soul force” or “love force.”
The truth Gandhi referred to was the universal truth that we are all one. Through this recognition we can find a deep commitment to non-harming and nonviolence, and a willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of others. Gandhi inspired people to be willing to endure suffering as they participated in acts of nonviolent resistance, and to withdraw cooperation from people and institutions that deny the truth of our oneness by oppressing or harming others.
After spending two years in Vietnam while working in the State Department, Daniel was asked to write one of the volumes of the Pentagon Papers and then was given access to the whole 47-volume study. It documented how four presidents in a row, from Truman to Johnson, deceived the public and Congress about our country’s involvement in Vietnam, their aims, their strategies, and the costs and prospects for success or stalemate. After Daniel read the whole study, he felt that Americans needed to know the truth. Despite being aware that he risked spending the rest of his life in prison, he decided to reveal the top-secret study to the public.
The impact of this revelation was profound. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and two other newspapers were enjoined from publishing the documents—the first injunction of the press in American history. Immediately after the Nixon administration enjoined the New York Times, Daniel and I went underground for 16 days.
With the support of a small group of friends, some of whom were Gandhian nonviolent activists, we managed to distribute portions of the documents to 18 other newspapers and elude an FBI manhunt. In our pursuit of the truth, we had a support group and felt connected to oneness. Luckily, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the newspapers’ right to publish.
Charges against Daniel and his codefendant, Tony Russo, were eventually dismissed due to gross governmental misconduct. White House crimes against Daniel, including the burglary of his former psychoanalyst’s office, illegal wiretapping, an abortive effort to physically “incapacitate him totally,” and subsequent attempts by the White House to cover up these actions contributed to the impeachment proceedings against President Nixon, his resignation, and the ending of the Vietnam War.
I vividly remember the moment we came out of hiding to attend Daniel’s arraignment. The press and a crowd of people surrounded us. Standing in front of a sea of shouting reporters, Daniel showed his commitment to the truth by taking full responsibility for the release of the Pentagon Papers. While we were standing together in the middle of utter chaos, I was holding Daniel’s hand. I had the feeling that an electrical current was pulsing through the two of us and we were grounded in the truth.
We stood in a field of power much greater than we were, a truth force that guided and protected us. I felt a profound sense of peace, of oneness with all beings, and of strength to face whatever consequences would come our way. I believe all of us can tap into the power of the truth force when we stand up for the truth and act with integrity and compassion.
In the years since the trial, in addition to continuing my work as a social-change activist, I have practiced Buddhist meditation in the Theravadan tradition and am leading and teaching reflection as a spiritual practice and as a means to knowing our personal truth and the universal truth of our oneness.
Tune in to Your Truth
If you’d like to dedicate some time to exploring the power of truth, simply take a few moments to tune in to yourself. Get comfortable. Become aware of your breath, breathing deeply and slowly.
On the inhalation, breathe in a sense of calm and relaxation. With the exhalation, send this energy to any part of your body that is tense or holding uncomfortable emotions. With each breath, become more and more relaxed, finding your own way to the still, quiet center of your being …to a place of wholeness, completeness, and integrity.
Now, imagine that you are breathing in and out through your heart and, with each breath, filling your heart with warmth and light. Imagine that you are immersed in a field of love. Let this loving energy fill your whole being, until you feel you are being breathed by it.
Open to the truth of our oneness and interconnectedness—how we all breathe the same air and are sustained by the same Earth. Let a sense of the sacredness of all life come into you and fill you.
Remember a time when you acted from this sense of interconnectedness and oneness, when you listened to the voice of your own conscience and experienced the power of holding to your truth. What does that feel like in your body? What does that feel like in your being?
Now open to any ways you are not acting with integrity at this point of your life. When is your behavior clouded by desire or by aversion or wishful thinking? How does that feel in your body? How does it feel emotionally? From the perspective of your wisest self, ask yourself: How can I live with greater integrity in my own life now? What truths do I need to recognize? What patterns of behavior do I want to change? What resources or guidance can I call on to give myself the strength to behave more in alignment with my values? Imagine what it feels like to live from a place of greater integrity and wholeness. What does it feel like to be more fully connected to the truth force or soul force of your being? What do you need and intend to do to realize this aspiration?
Now take a moment to make a commitment to yourself to take a brave step in the direction of greater integrity and truthfulness. When you feel that you are ready, slowly and gently bring this truth meditation to a close. Taking a few deep breaths, return to the present moment, feeling your connection to your own truth and to all of life.