The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers–The Most Famous Whistleblower of Our Time?

Nominated for a 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary, this past June marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which was forced to stop publishing by a cease-and-desist order mandated by the Nixon administration. “The Most Dangerous Man in America” tells the inside story through the narration of Daniel Ellsberg himself, of this game-changing event that ended the Vietnam war and transformed our nation’s political discourse. This documentary is riveting because of the historic footage of Ellsberg, his colleagues, family and critics and White House tapes of President Nixon and his inner circle of advisors. “The Most Dangerous Man” reveals how the Pentagon Papers were the catalyst that drove Richard Nixon to take the law into his own hands.

The Pentagon Papers are a shattering indictment of America’s role in the Vietnam war, based on decades of lies involving four presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). “The Most Dangerous Man In America” is a compelling history lesson for those young enough not to know of these events and the rest of us who do not realize what happened behind the scenes.  Ellsberg casts a shadow on Deep Throat, his worthy successor. Every high school student should be required to see this documentary!

A Marine officer with Vietnam experience and a PhD in economics from Harvard, Ellsberg was a “war theory” expert at the Rand Corporation, and was granted the highest security clearance by the Defense Department in the Nixon administration. At first Ellsberg supported the war in Vietnam, but his perspective gradually changed as he saw internal Pentagon documents that described the war as hopelessly stalemated. Encouraged by his girlfriend, Patricia Marx (later his wife) and by student activist Randy Kehler, his change of heart was crystallized when Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, ordered a brutally honest analysis of US military involvement in Vietnam: United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967. Evidence that government officials knowingly and repeatedly lied about the war deeply disturbed Ellsberg. Unsure what to do, Ellsberg did nothing for three years, before deciding to give the “Pentagon Papers” (the informal name for the confidential report) to a reporter at the New York Times, to the Washington Post, and to 17 other newspapers. In the film Ellsberg confesses that he is still haunted by the three years he wavered before leaking the Pentagon Papers, and he wonders how many American soldiers might have been spared if he had started his photocopying sooner.

The USA’s trust in government was shaken to its foundations.  The New York Times demonstrated how four presidents consistently lied to the American people about the Vietnam War, killing millions and tearing the country apart. Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America,” who “had to be stopped at all costs.” It was not so much the telling of the truth as a revolutionary act that disturbed Kissinger and Nixon, but that the precedent would inspire Americans to question the previously unchallenged pronouncements of its leaders.  In a haunting clip of Kissinger, we see the foreshadowing of Watergate.

Under the Espionage Act Ellsberg was the first American prosecuted for passing along classified documents to newspapers, not to a foreign power, and he faced 115 years in prison had he been found guilty. Meanwhile, in an attempt to discredit Ellsberg, the Nixon administration (under John Halderman’s supervision) spread  rumors that Ellsberg was homosexual, and had committed war crimes while in the Marines. White House “plumbers” were sent to burglarize Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to obtain his files. The White House also sent several Cuban CIA “assets” to assassinate Ellsberg at a rally, but the size of the crowd made their mission impossible. An Appellate Court judge dismissed all charges against Ellsberg because of the government’s misconduct. Later, the Supreme Court would rule 6-3 that freedom of the press prevailed over Nixon’s complaints, and allowed the publication of the documents to resume. Would that be the same outcome today? Ellsberg and his Rand colleague, Anthony Russo, were not acquitted of violating the Espionage Act, but were freed due to a mistrial based on irregularities in the government’s case.

“The Most Dangerous Man in America” is a timely documentary indeed. Ellsberg himself notes in the film that he was struck that the publication of the Pentagon papers had not produced the uproar that he expected. Nixon was soon re-elected with a landslide.

There’s sufficient drama to keep your interest–not just talking heads — like Ellsberg’s late-night photocopying when security guards were prowling the office building or the general counsel of the New York Times arguing for management to publish the Pentagon Papers. I hate to think what would have happened had he failed to convince them.  Also striking is the contrast between methodically photocopying each page (which took months,) and then seeking a publisher  with today’s use of thumb drives and  WikiLeaks to disseminate information.

Some viewers will have a depressing sense of history repeating itself, and Ellsberg himself ruefully asks why the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate seemed to fade so quickly.  Ellsberg is a complex and difficult man whose principles, whether you agree with them or not, can’t be denied.  Whether that makes this preeminent whistleblower the country’s “most dangerous man” is a question that seems almost incomprehensible in today’s context!  See this movie to revisit a touchstone of American culture, politics, and government in the twentieth century.