Sometimes, one man can make a different. Sometimes, if rarely, you can fight city hall – or in this case, the entire Federal Government. For Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon policy analyst and member of the influential Rand Corporation think tank, the war in Vietnam was a necessity…at least, at first. As he poured over briefing papers and military projections, he saw the conflict as a clash between self-determination, the domino theory, and a long standing unrest in the area. From his time in the Marines to his work with Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, he believed in the strength of the US position. But after a fact finding tour of the troubled nation and a thorough reading of the 7000 page report commissioned on the war, Ellsberg had a change of heart. Radicalized, he knew he had to do something. That “something” would soon change the course of modern American history.
Thus began the cynicism and suspect nature of the political process that is rampant in today’s hyper-partisan environment. Ellsberg’s eventual leaking of the so-called “Pentagon Papers” so pissed off the Nixon White House that he became the target of the administration’s infamous “dirty tricks”. Eventually, a break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office would be tied to Watergate, the President’s closest advisors, and the Commander in Chief himself. For anyone who grew up in the turbulent and troubled years between 1967 and 1975, Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers, and the eventual resignation of Richard Nixon would come to define the generation. While his noble intentions helped to shine a much needed light on the misdeeds of a nation, Ellsberg more or less lived up to his nickname – The Most Dangerous Man in America. As we see in the amazing documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, the legacy he left behind is more troubling than the actions he took in defense of his beliefs.
There are times during this terrific fact film where, if you skew your vision just a little, you can imagine the conversations leading up to the War in Iraq. Bad intelligence, outright lies, a President (or in the case of Vietnam, Presidents) intent on keeping America’s imperialistic nose clean, a flawed strategy – these were the building blocks of our bungle in Southeast Asia, and they mimic the mess we currently find ourselves in a few thousand miles to the West. Ellsberg was initially part of the problem, a deep thinker from Harvard whose brain was pilfered by a bureaucracy hell bent on figuring out its new nuclear powerbase. As events in Vietnam escalated, he was asked to consider even further, to find a means of making what looked like a lost cause into a patriotic celebration. When the answers came back in, few were happy, even Ellsberg himself.
Now in his late ’70s and as feisty as ever, the man who more or less reconfigured the debate on the Vietnam War doesn’t come across as a victor. He knows he is right, and with history on his side, his position is just a little pat. But what’s most fascinating about this documentary is how far reaching Ellsberg’s actions were. Anyone whose read the Woodward and Bernstein book All the President’s Men, or seen the sensational motion picture adaptation, has heard of this supposedly ancillary player in the Watergate case. The celebrated “burglars”, breaking and entering to keep Nixon in the Oval Office, actually came into being because of this rogue whistleblower. Had Ellsberg not succeeded, had the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and several other news outlets not thumbed their nose at the government, we might never have uncovered the administration’s misconduct. It just goes to show you the lengths to which an angry leader of the free world would go to discredit who he believed was a traitor.
From the historic Supreme Court case involving the First Amendment and the boundaries of free speech and a free press to the equally important criminal trial, Ellsberg’s actions reverberate to this day. The best part of this engrossing film is how easily Ehrlich and Goldsmith set the stage. We get snippets of the subject’s past – his previous marriage, his initial attraction (and ideological dismissal of) to second wife Patricia, his days at Rand, his love of military order and duty, his embracing of the Peace movement. Interspersed is a sensational story of necessitated espionage, of one man in the custody of a undeniably disturbing truth who just couldn’t keep it to himself. One of the best sequences discusses a conversation with Henry Kissinger regarding security clearances. Ellsberg makes it clear that, once you know all the secrets the government is keeping, you go through several sensible reactions…and one very damaging one: you stop listening to anyone but yourself.
Luckily, Ellsberg listened to his own conscious, as well as the growing throng of anti-war demonstrators, and decided to do something about it. The entire “covert Xeroxing” sequence in the film is fascinating, from the endless months in front of the copier to the collusion of his own minor children (later on, his oldest son was subpoenaed to testify in front of a Grand Jury over his involvement in the case). We also meet many of the people who participated in the leak, from former colleagues to those put in charge of discrediting him. Their perspective is crucial, since they add in the opposing viewpoint the narrative often lacks. What’s abundantly clear is that, if they could, the US would have stayed in Vietnam until there was nothing left. Nixon even argued – theoretically (?) – about using a nuclear bomb to end the conflict. What’s even more chilling about such a decision is that via the release of the notorious White House audio tapes of the era, we hear the President saying these words in his own defiant voice.
With its multilayered denouncement of the era’s politics and its desire to not turn Ellsberg into a martyr, The Most Dangerous Man in America becomes the best kind of historical supplement – it tells the truth without taking an obvious position on it. Certainly, no one believes our involvement in Vietnam was anything but wrong from the start – ethically or strategically. The Rand studies and Pentagon reports consistently confirmed that. What’s most important here is that, beyond the hippy shelter of the college campus, few in the mainstream were making such pronouncements. Daniel Ellsberg was the first insider to take his concerns outside. The results changed the course of the conversation, and a country.