Daniel Ellsberg — the man who brought the Pentagon Papers to light in 1971, those secret U.S. government documents detailing the path of deception leading to the war in Vietnam — is today the darling of a feature-length film that was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar (it lost to “The Cove”).
The film is playing at the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax as well as in downtown D.C. at the Landmark E Street Cinema on 11th St., N.W.
Ellsberg is the onetime Cold Warrior and Marine platoon leader in Vietnam, who as a young soldier brandished an automatic weapon in combat and later a doctorate in political science from MIT. Ellsberg was famously dubbed by President Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger as “the most dangerous man in America,” when he and Nixon feared that Ellsberg was ready to make public Nixon administration papers about deception and chicanery over the Vietnam War.
Ellsberg went underground in 1971, on the run while he feared arrest in the days before the New York Times began to publish the secret history of how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had misled the American people as we stepped – almost sleepwalking – “waist deep into the big muddy” of the Vietnam civil war.
“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” is a remarkably dramatic, fast-paced drumbeat of a feature-length documentary film that is must-viewing for anyone who wants to understand how we got into – and then finally out of – a mistaken war in a remote corner of the globe. Sound at all familiar?
The film is a gripping montage of high political drama complete with secret derring-do and an audacious bid for redemption as Ellsberg sought to change the course of history by setting the dominos falling to bring that awful war to an end and in the eventual course of things also to help topple Nixon himself, for the origins of Nixon’s Watergate “high crimes and misdemeanors” were planted in the efforts to uproot the whistleblower Ellsberg and others on the White House “enemies list.”
It all began in the bureaucratic bowels of the Pentagon when then Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in 1967 authorized a top-secret history of U.S. decision-making in Indochina. As a strategic analyst with the RAND Corporation, Ellsberg was an MIT-trained specialist in decision-making. The documents known as the Pentagon Papers comprised 7,000 pages of highly classified documents dating from 1945 to 1967 and was completed in 1969 when Nixon had meanwhile succeeded Johnson in the White House.
As he read through the documents, Ellsberg became convinced that it was a virtual mother lode of proof that the U.S. government had used systematic deception about our purposes in Indochina since the 1940s when we first aided the French into trying to retrieve their colonial power there against the popular nationalist forces of Vietnamese seeking an end to the French empire there, and then, after the French defeat, the U.S. tried to manipulate a puppet regime in the south of the country. And the rest, as they say, is history — deeply tragic history for hundreds of thousands of those killed and maimed.
So Ellsberg then faced the ultimate uncertainty — whether to risk everything, throw away his career, incur possible imprisonment — all in the uncertain hope that he could make a difference, so he rolled the dice, copied the documents and then began an odyssey to bring them to public attention. In so doing, he would also change his life and his footsteps would lead him to a lifetime of resisting U.S. militarism up to and including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The film chronicles one man’s political and spiritual odyssey and reveals what great risks Ellsberg took at the time. Now 78 but decades later still boyishly slender and handsome as a silver fox, he stood before the audience at a recent special screening of the film in D.C. with filmmaker Rick Goldsmith and former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel, who also risked prison to make the documents public at a congressional hearing, after Ellsberg passed him a set of the documents in a secret rendezvous one night in front of the Mayflower Hotel.
After the screening, Gravel moderated an audience Q&A with Ellsberg and Goldsmith, and asked Ellsberg about the differences between the anti-war movement during the Vietnam conflict and today. Ellsberg replied that one difference is that today “grownups, if we can use that term, are not filling the role that they did in the 1960s and 1970s.
Noting that he had taken “an action at some risk” in leaking the Pentagon papers, he pointed out that “without that, the war would have gone on.”
Gravel pointed out with regard to the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan — and the Obama administration’s complicity in escalating the war in Afghanistan — that “today we have our hands tied behind our backs” because the mainstream media “are not in their hey-day,” especially the Washington Post and the New York Times, which had led the way in publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, but today are “shameful.” “They are ginning up war against Iran, playing ‘tic-tac-toe’ with Israel as to who will attack Iran.”
Gravel asked Goldsmith, co-director of the Ellsberg film, why he had picked this topic, and the filmmaker said Juith Ehrlich had begun work on it in 2004-2005, “during two new wars, also begun with lies, and we felt that this film had something to say to America, and for me as a storyteller and dramatist it had all the elements you would want in a story, a protagonist who changes, who in fact goes through a tremendous transformation, and that this story needed to be told.”