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

Director: Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
Cast: Daniel Ellsberg

(US DVD: 31 Dec 1969)

Review [26.Oct.2009]

“It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side – we were the wrong side.”

—Daniel Ellsberg

The above comment was the unhappy conclusion reached by Daniel Ellsberg, the man who famously leaked classified documents to the media in 1971, a move which led, fairly precipitously, to Watergate and the eventual resignation of Richard M. Nixon. This singular act of bravery – his crimes amounted to charges carrying well over 100 years in prison – was designed to alert the public to the myriad ways it had been manipulated into giving up society’s blood and treasure for nearly two decades in Vietnam.

Ellsberg, we are told, felt he had to do something with the terrible knowledge he had acquired through his years at the Pentagon and the State Department. “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public,” he said. Moreover, he felt certain that the American people both needed and wanted to know these truths.

Unfortunately, he was wrong about that second part. Why did so few people want to know what he was telling them? 

The American war in Vietnam was indeed a travesty, and had no reasonable historical justification. Indeed this was, more than anything else, what Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers demonstrated. However, even in the face of the evidence that the American presence in this impoverished country was never about democracy, never about freedom, never about self-determination, the majority of Americans didn’t want to listen. They would re-elect Nixon a few months later in the biggest landslide in American history over George McGovern, an explicitly anti-war candidate.

For many peace activists, this was the darkest of all possible scenarios: Ellsberg’s so-called Pentagon Papers had proven that the war was an historic wrong, an illegal show of aggression, and a campaign that had been sold to the American people through a systematic propagation of lies and fear mongering. Yet, even in the face of the facts, the vast majority of Americans refused to accept the truth.

This Academy-Award nominated documentary is a triumphant examination of this awful realization: that the American people were unwilling to accept the possibility of their own culpability in world affairs. A study of hubris, as well as being a quick-paced espionage thriller, this is also a poignant story about Ellsberg’s crushing disappointment as he comes to grips with the public response to his scheme.

The parallels between this story and the present American war in Iraq – a war which has perhaps even less going for it in the way of justification than did the war in Vietnam – are obvious and striking. This documentary, which is narrated by Ellsberg himself, goes a long way toward demonstrating just how little Americans (and many of the rest of us) have learned in the decades since that debacle in Indochina.

The willingness of the American people to follow their leaders into a one-sided conflict with an unthreatening sovereign nation is just as apparent today as it was in the ‘60s. Perhaps the only difference is that this time around, we had hundreds of “Daniel Ellsbergs” who offered us proof that the Bush Administration was manufacturing consent for the war on Iraq, and we paid them even less mind. At this writing the US is still in Iraq, still fighting and killing, and it’s been almost five years since we’ve known for certain that the whole thing was based on carefully orchestrated lies about WMDs and Saddam’s plot for regional domination. This straightforward, no frills documentary should be seen—and learned from—as widely as possible.


Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu

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