The most dangerous man in America

Daniel Ellsberg was seen by President Richard Nixon as the most dangerous man in America. This documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith tells the story.

When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon papers to the New York Times in 1971 he exposed the secrets and lies of four US Presidents who had bombed and invaded Vietnam and Laos. For the previous 15 years Ellsberg had worked for the US military, including several years helping to plan the US war effort for the Pentagon.

Yet President Nixon was re-elected by a landslide in 1972 even after the Pentagon papers had been on the front pages and top of TV news bulletins for a solid fortnight, and American voters must have known that Nixon had lied.

After the publication of the Pentagon papers Nixon was angry and feared that other secrets might be leaked. He set up a “special investigations unit,” which was to become the subject of the Watergate inquiry. Ellsberg was a target, and in the movie Nixon’s voice, the subject of his own telephone taps, orders that Ellsberg be stopped by any means necessary. We also hear Nixon advocating using nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

Nixon hung on until 1974, resigning to avoid impeachment. Then in April 1975 the US withdrew from Vietnam.

One of the themes of the documentary is Ellsberg’s role in the downfall of Nixon and the end of the Vietnam War, through his action as a whistlebower, exposing government secrets. The exposure of the secrets seemed to do more to galvanise and propel the anti-war activist minority than it did to persuade a majority of Americans that Nixon and the war were both wrong. Nixon’s own reaction to being exposed was to behave not just anti-democratically but so blatantly illegally, that he brought about his own downfall.

Another theme is Ellsberg’s transformation from military adviser to anti-war activist. “It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side, we were the wrong side,” he came to say. Ellsberg’s doubts as an adviser began when US Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara lied to TV cameras that the war was proceeding well for the USA, immediately after he had acknowledged to Ellsberg the value of intelligence which categorically contradicted that view.

Then Ellsberg heard draft dodger Randy Kehler speak when he was about go to jail. This set Ellsberg thinking about what sacrifice he would be willing to make to stop the war. He decided to risk jail himself, by spending several months smuggling and Xeroxing 7000 pages of top secret documents, before handing them to the New York Times. He went on to be active in various non-violent protests against the Vietnam war, and to speak widely to the media, especially making a point of beginning with how many tons of bombs had been dropped. He expected this factual information to persuade listeners to oppose the war.

What struck me about Ellsberg was that from being a military adviser to being an anti-war activist, he was constantly curious, inquiring, wanting to understand and know the truth. It was his own energy in pursuing knowledge that made him so shocked by denial or concealment of the truth. And it was his contact with the anti-war movement that enabled him to translate his shock and disillusion into constructive radical activism.

This documentary is narrated by Ellsberg, and deftly combines interviews from the period and contemporary material, news reports, wire tap recordings, re-enactments to present a story of an activist of integrity that is worth understanding.

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  1. Tony

    Really liked this review, especially about understanding how integrity, and a genuine search for the truth, is what drives Ellsberg.
    He might have thought revealing the Pentagon Papers would have been a ‘knock-out punch’ on the War and Nixon, but it is more likely one element (albeit important) in the aggregation of opposition to the war. Inspiring and invigorating the movement on the streets and in unions and other political and community groups was a great contribution by Ellsberg, to the combined efforts that brought the war to an end.




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