"The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers"

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

Director Judith Ehrlich’s documentary film(co-written by Michael Chandler; also co-directed with and Rick Goldsmith),“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” belies the current opinion that you can’t equate Iraq and Afghanistan to the debacle that was the Vietnam War. Watching it, you can’t help thinking about the similarities: the secret planning, the lies, the war and its effect on soldiers and their families.

Ehrlich interviewed people closely associated with Daniel Ellsberg, Ellsberg himself, and used archival film footage in creating this stunning, thought-provoking work. The film, which runs more or less chronologically, takes us back to the Truman and Eisenhower eras, when Truman in 1950, authorized $15 million in military aid to the French colonialists in Vietnam; then Eisenhower sent American advisors along with military supplies there to help the French fight liberation forces. In the early 1960s, Kennedy lied about there being only “advisors” in Vietnam. He sent 400 Green Berets to help the Vietnamese soldiers fight the Viet Cong guerrillas. By the time of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, there were 16,000 American military “advisors” in South Vietnam. By the end of the war, more than 2 million soldiers had served in Vietnam in various capacities during the US’s fifteen year involvement; 500,000 saw actual combat; 58,261 were killed.

Daniel Ellsberg, born in 1931, graduated at the top of his class from the Marine Corps Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, and served as an officer for two years. He deployed to Vietnam as a company commander. Film footage and still photos show him puffed up and grinning in full military gear, weapon ready. He admits that his favorite movie characters were the macho-men played by John Wayne. At that time, as the film illustrates, Ellsberg was a staunch anti-communist. He believed we had to go to war in Vietnam to stop the Communists from taking over that country and other Southeast Asian democracies. After two years of leading troops into villages, shooting at, and being ambushed by, men wearing shorts and sandals, his eyes were opened to the fact that the war was unwinnable.

Once discharged, he became an analyst at the non-profit think tank RAND Corporation. He was given top security at the Pentagon. That he had access to all top secret documents allowed him to discover the lie of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a trumped up event Johnson used as a valid reason for the US military to make a formal entry into Vietnam. An archival clip shows Ellsberg on a private plane flying back to the US with Robert McNamara, Johnson's Secretary of Defense, from a fact-finding mission in Vietnam. During the flight, Ellsberg thought he had convinced McNamara that no way could the US win this war. To Ellsberg, what the US was doing was “justified murder.” McNamara agreed, assuring him that he was going to tell Nixon to end it. They are shown after landing and being met by reporters and White House correspondents on the tarmac. Ellsberg watches as McNamara, in front of a bank of mics [microphones], lies through his teeth that in Vietnam “everything was going well.”

Nixon wanted to increase the war power and did, authorizing a secret bombing of Cambodia and moving in thousands more troops. Nixon comes off almost as comic relief. Thank the comic gods that he left his tape recorder on all the time so that we get to see and hear him swearing, using the foulest language, going ape-shit over Ellsberg, Watergate, Vietnam, and more, as he rails and spumes to Kissinger and other aides. Even knowing what the Pentagon documents contained, Ellsberg just went along - - for a while. Several film clips, his occasional narrative, as well as those of his friends and colleagues, illustrate just how conflicted he was about the Pentagon and the White House secret: There was no basis for the war in Vietnam. Soon Ellsberg became completely disillusioned.

One interesting fact the movie brings out is that Ellsberg, still a self-avowed hawk, working at the Pentagon, fell in love with a pacifist. Their first date was at an anti-war rally. He then joined the War Resisters League. He says he “felt ridiculous,” at rallies and hoped his bosses wouldn’t see him on camera. A clip shows him in a crowd listening to a speech by a draft resister say he was going to prison, proudly. Ellsberg narrates that he felt as though “an ax split[ting] not only his head in two, but his life.” He found himself in a men’s room, on his knees, sobbing, wondering how he could have done what he did (in Vietnam).” He knew he had to act. It was a life changing experience.

Many associate Ellsberg with the leaked Defense Department documents, which came to be known as The Pentagon Papers. The film recreates the process by which he obtained them. His security clearance allowed him to keep the files, detailing the facts of and plans for the Vietnam War, in his safe. He borrowed them a few at a time over several months, took them home in his bulging briefcase, and Xeroxed the 7000-page, multi-volume documents marked “Top Secret” with the help of his son and daughter, then returned the originals. He had a sworn, dedicated accomplice at RAND, Anthony Russo, who ended up being arrested and going to trial with Ellsberg in 1971 on espionage charges. (If convicted, they would have faced 115 years in prison.) Fortunately, because of Nixon’s admitted Watergate screw-up and subsequent break-in of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, a mistrial was declared in 1973. Ellsberg and Russo were free. He and Russo, like the draft resister who had impressed him with his dedication, had been willing to put their lives on the line for the truth.

Ellsberg had approached several anti-war politicians, including Democrat anti-war presidential candidate George McGovern, to make the documents public. None would risk their careers. He went to The New York Times. Recognizing the importance of the documents, it began printing them until a court injunction ordered them to quit. The Washington Post took over the job, and it too was ordered to cease. The court was overturned and several major newspapers across the US began printing excerpts. However, enough material was already in the hands of the general public who were shocked by its content exposing the atrocities, the numbers of troops deployed and plans for more, those slaughtered, and the dispassionate, cold-hearted attitude of the administration in ordering the death sentences of millions. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the government had knowledge, early on, that the war was unwinnable and that continuing would lead to more casualties than was ever admitted publicly. Moreover, the papers showed the cynicism toward the public that Pentagon officials held, and its blatant disregard for the deaths and injuries suffered by soldiers and civilians. We, of course, watching the film couldn’t help thinking about the lies that got the US into Iraq.

Ellsberg also gave a 4,000+ page copy to Alaska Senator Mike Gravel who agreed to read them as a way of prolonging his filibuster in Congress. An in-house taping of Gravel reading the document, included in the film, shows Gravel literally breaking down and sobbing as he read.

Today, because of the economy and cultural changes, major newspapers like The Times struggle to stay afloat. Corporate-owned, mainstream broadcast news media producers are beholden to corporations and to their sponsors. If classified information were to reach any major news outlet today that exposed the truth about the US’s actions in and plans for the Middle East (or anywhere else), it would not be published. We have to thank the alternative press (this paper for one) and independent media outlets, the Internet, anti-war websites, and military veterans and defectors, for speaking out. Ignorance of reliable information keeps the general public from aligning with peace and anti-war organizations and staging demonstrations equaling those joined by the hundreds of thousands who had protested the Vietnam War - - people who had risked being shot at, killed, beaten, and/or arrested by National Guard troops, as shown in the footage of this documentary.

Ellsberg had been a consultant for the government at the Pentagon since 1958 through the presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and, in 1964, Johnson. He has since stated: “I had seen a lot of classified material by this time—I mean, tens of thousands of pages—and had been in a position to compare it with what was being said to the public. The public is lied to every day by the President, by his spokespeople, by his officers. If you can’t handle the thought that the President lies to the public for all kinds of reasons, you couldn’t stay in the government at that level, or you’re made aware of it . . . . The fact is Presidents rarely say the whole truth—essentially, never say the whole truth—of what they expect and what they’re doing and what they believe and why they’re doing it and rarely refrain from lying, actually, about these matters.”

Still active in the anti-war movement, Ellsberg was arrested, in November 2005 at age 74, for violating a county ordinance for trespassing while protesting against George W. Bush’s conduct of the Iraq War. Ellsberg spoke at the recent, March 20anti-war rally in San Francisco, which marked the Seventh Anniversary of the "war" in Iraq. Though not a hero in the John Wayne sense, he is a true hero nevertheless.