In 1971, Gar Alperovitz played a vital, clandestine role in making the Pentagon Papers public.
Photograph by Sharon Alperovitz
Speaking publicly for the first time, a historian reveals the crucial role that he and a small band of others played in helping Daniel Ellsberg leak the documents to journalists.
In June of 1971, Gar Alperovitz, a thirty-five-year-old historian, sped through suburban Boston, looking for an out-of-the-way pay phone to use to call a reporter. Alperovitz had never considered himself much of a risk-taker. The father of two ran a small economic think tank focussed on community-building. He had participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and rung doorbells with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Boston, as part of an antiwar campaign. But what he was doing on this day, propelled by his desire to end the conflict, could lead to federal prison.
He pulled his old Saab up to a phone booth on the outskirts of Harvard Square, and rang a hotel room nearby. When the reporter picked up, Alperovitz identified himself with the alias he had adopted: “It’s Mr. Boston.” Alperovitz told the journalist to open the door. Waiting in the hallway was a cardboard box, left minutes before by a runner working with Alperovitz. Inside were several hundred pages of the most sought-after documents in the United States—the top-secret Vietnam history known as the Pentagon Papers.
The handoff was one of about a dozen clandestine encounters with journalists that Alperovitz orchestrated over the course of a three-week period, when he and a small group of fellow antiwar activists helped Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst at the rand Corporation, elude an F.B.I. manhunt and distribute the Pentagon Papers to nineteen newspapers. Ellsberg, who had smuggled the documents out of rand’s Santa Monica office two years earlier and copied them with the help of a colleague, has long been the public face of the leak. But Ellsberg was aided by about a half-dozen volunteers whose identities have stayed secret for forty-six years, despite the intense interest of the Nixon Administration, thousands of articles, books, documentaries, plays, and now a major film, “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, about the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg told me that the hidden role of this group was so critical to the operation that he gave them a code name—The Lavender Hill Mob, the name of a 1951 film about a ragtag group of amateur bank robbers. He has referred obliquely to his co-conspirators over the years. But he held back from identifying them because some in the group still feared repercussions.
Now, Alperovitz, who is eighty-one, has agreed to be revealed for the first time. “I’m getting old,” Alperovitz told me, with a laugh. Several other members of the group told me that they still wished to remain anonymous, or declined interview requests. One former Harvard graduate student who also played a major role—she hid the papers in her apartment and organized hideouts for Ellsberg—considered coming forward in this piece, but she ultimately decided not to, after conferring with lawyers. As a green-card holder, she worried that her involvement could lead to her deportation by the Trump Administration. Still, she remains proud of her role. “Those were extraordinary days,” she told me. “It was about questioning the government and being against the government. I was very, very angry about what was happening in Vietnam.”
Alperovitz said that the renewed interest in the Pentagon Papers, brought on by “The Post,” pushed him to finally acknowledge his role, but he also alluded to the “very dangerous” climate under President Trump. A historian and political economist, whose writings have focussed on the dangers of nuclear war and economic inequality, Alperovitz said that Trump’s “outrageous and destabilizing” rhetoric on North Korea compelled him to tell his story and “to suggest to people that it’s time to take action.”
“We were trying to stop the war,” Alperovitz told me in, in an interview in his home near Washington. “I’m not heroic in this, but I just felt it important to act,” he said. “There were lots of people dying unnecessarily. There were lots of people who were taking risks to try to end the war, and I was one of them.”
Ellsberg told me that Alperovitz, in particular, was “critical to the way this thing worked out,” organizing the broader distribution of the papers. Ellsberg had initially turned over the documents only to Neil Sheehan, a reporter at the Times, which published the first front-page article on the Pentagon Papers, on June 13, 1971. (The Nixon Administration quickly secured an injunction to halt the Times from continuing to publish the documents.) But it was Alperovitz who devised the strategy of distributing the papers to as many news organizations as possible, including the Washington Post, an approach that later proved to be crucial from both a legal and public-relations standpoint. And it was Alperovitz who came up with the elaborate techniques for slipping the documents to reporters while evading the authorities. “Gar took care of all the cloak-and-dagger stuff,” Ellsberg said.