An Oscar-nominated documentary is worth finding in your community, as it goes to the heart of presidential history, national security and the First Amendment, among other things.
“The seeds of Watergate occur in the Pentagon Papers,” says former White House counsel John Dean in “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.”
The documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith is still hitting theaters around the country.
As a lawyer in the documentary says, probably every day some lawyer somewhere cites the Pentagon Papers case.
“Most Dangerous Man” is about much more than the law, though the episode was a precedent-setting case with regard to the principle known as prior restraint. “Most Dangerous Man” is about information and secrecy, conscience and career, right and wrong.
The documentary focuses on Daniel Ellsberg, an American working in our defense industry in the 1960s who had top-secret clearance. As the United States became even more entangled in Vietnam, and with no seeming hope of success, Ellsberg secretly copied top-secret documents about U.S. involvement in Indo-China and eventually gave them to journalists, hoping their publication would help end the Vietnam War (click here for a New York Times special section about the Pentagon Papers). They were published, but their public appearance brought a government injunction to cease publication, which was temporarily granted. The injunction was eventually lifted and the cat was out of the bag.
Ellsberg himself became a media focus in the early 1970s. Was he a hero or traitor? Observers came down on both sides, with President Richard Nixon himself saying Ellsberg had given aid and comfort to the enemy. Regardless, everyone – even legendary CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite – wanted to hear from Ellsberg. (Cronkite got his interview.)
“Most Dangerous Man” includes plentiful archival footage, minimal re-enactments and ample interviews with Ellsberg and other key players – like Tony Russo, Ellsberg’s partner in “crime” to photocopy the secret documents – all 7,000 pages of them, which took months.
The story of Ellsberg’s involvement in the Vietnam War and his access to the secret study – commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara as McNamara’s doubts about success grew – is complicated, but understanding it is critical to understanding Ellsberg’s action.
Consider: Ellsberg had been a Marine lieutenant (and in the documentary, he says his time in charge of a rifle company was his most satisfying professional experience). He had a Harvard doctorate (his specialty: decision-making in uncertain circumstances).
And in one of the film’s most thematically rich moments, Ellsberg recounts the car accident that killed his mother and sister. The cause: his father fell asleep at the wheel. The accident marked a young Ellsberg; even good people can lose control. Ellsberg came to apply that life lesson to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which the secret study said really began with Truman and continued through three more presidents: Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson.
Ellsberg faced his own dilemma as a fifth U.S. president, Richard Nixon, was considering how to handle the war. The documentary includes audiotapes of Nixon at his worst as he wants to “think big” about how to destroy the enemy.
Ellsberg, who turns 79 in a few weeks, faced a crisis of conscience. As an employee of the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, he had actually helped author part of the study. He had traveled to Vietnam to see the war firsthand. But he concluded that the war was unwinnable, even immoral in its waging. His conclusions were ignored. His colleagues in defense agencies were lying publicly.
Ellsberg soon began taking up with peace activists, and their lives and commitments forced him down a road of no return. The hawk metamorphosed into a dove. And like most fundamental changes, it wasn’t painless.
“Most Dangerous Man” reveals more details that enliven the history, more characters that intensify the drama:
- Ellsberg smuggles the documents out bit by bit;
- his young daughter cuts the “top secret” off the Xeroxed pages;
- the Times hunkers down during publication;
- Ellsberg is indicted and faces life in prison;
- the infamous White House “Plumbers” unit burgles the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist;
- and so much more.
But when all is said and done, some argue that Ellsberg’s action cannot be justified. What if everyone betrayed a similar trust?
History shows that Ellsberg’s analysis was correct, and that others in the halls of power who shared that analysis refused to say so publicly. So perhaps the critical question centers not around the betrayal of trust, but rather around the betrayal of truth.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie’s Web site is here.