You have to be deep into middle age to know, first-hand, what Daniel Ellsberg did in the early 1970s to expose the top-level lies that created and perpetuated the Vietnam War. Ellsberg was the Defense Department insider who leaked the now famous Pentagon papers to the New York Times and helped turn the tide of public opinion against the war. Ellsberg’s is a story of courage and principle that deserves retelling to a new generation, and that should be a role model for action.
Whether Ellsberg’s story is old news or completely new to you, the documentary, “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” offers a powerful chronicle not to be missed. Released earlier in 2010, it’s making the rounds of film festivals, receiving award nominations, and is, at last, available on DVD.
With Ellsberg himself as the narrator, the documentary reveals his gradual transformation from conventionally defined “patriot” to anti-war activist. In a matter-of-fact tone, he describes his evolutionary path from a stint as an officer in the U.S. Marines, to State and Defense Department policy analyst, to anti-war activist labeled a “traitor” and convicted of illegal possession of top-secret documents. Each step is documented via still photos, contemporaneous news film, dramatically staged re-enactments, and interviews with politicians, news reporters, Ellsberg’s family, his contemporaries and his co-conspirators.
Putting one’s subject in the role of principal narrator of his own story always runs the risk of creating a self-laudatory portrait. Ellsberg’s commentary is anything but that. He bares it all: his unabashed, gung-ho attitude as a Marine; his complicity in helping to create paper-thin rationales that enabled military escalation in Viet Nam; his inability to speak out when top-level, Johnson-administration officials publicly lied about facts he knew to be untrue; and his regret at having jeopardized the careers of co-workers.
Eventually, no longer able to tolerate the lies and fabrications, Ellsberg risked it all—his livelihood, his reputation, his family, his freedom—to do what he knew was right. In a particularly poignant moment in the film, we see Ellsberg—now 79, and still speaking out against government hypocrisy—sitting at a table with Randy Kehler, another renowned war protester. As he talks with Kehler, Ellsberg chokes up, remembering how Kehler inspired him to act, and how that moment was the turning point in his life.
The film is a masterful retelling of a time in American history that still has relevance today. Who among us would respond as Ellsberg did, when asked by a reporter, outside the federal courthouse where he was being tried, whether he was willing to go to jail for what he had done? Ellsberg replies, “Wouldn’t you go to jail to stop this war?”
Ellsberg’s act of conscience had repercussions that still resonate today. When the New York Times published the first excerpts from the Pentagon papers, the Nixon administration attempted to block further publication. The Supreme Court ruled against Nixon’s attempt at “prior restraint,” thereby institutionalizing a firewall between government and the press. How well that firewall has held is a question that is worth discussing: Today’s corporate news media can be seen as an extension of America’s plutocracy. Seeking profits over facts, newsrooms are underfunded, under-trained and understaffed, resulting in lazy journalism that routinely fails to challenge the statements of public officials.
Another issue raised by Ellsberg’s story is the believability of government pronouncements. We learn in the documentary that every President who was involved in Southeast Asia—Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon—lied about America’s rationale for and management of the war in Viet Nam. We already know that the Bush administration lied about “weapons of mass destruction” as a reason for pre-emptive action in Iraq. Watching “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” one cannot help but wonder about what additional lies we have been told—and may be hearing right now—about our involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and potential action regarding Iran.
I attended the movie with a small group of high-school students who are interested in current events. Their reaction was that, as Ellsberg’s story was completely unknown to them before they walked into the theatre, it would have helped to have had some explanatory material at the beginning. For them, the movie assumed too much prior knowledge. I can only hope that they left the theatre with an urge to be more courageous and with the inspiration to be part of a new generation of truth-seekers and principle-driven activists in the spirit of Daniel Ellsberg.
[Editor’s note: This review first appeared on Occasional Planet in April 2010.]