The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Here’s an irony: It wasn’t until after he’d left the Marine Corps and forfeited his job as a 1960s Defense Department policy analyst, which is to say a professional maker of war, that Daniel Ellsberg ever struck anybody as dangerous. And not just anybody, but Henry Kissinger, who at the time was taking heat from Richard Nixon for not thinking big enough to consider a nuclear option in Vietnam. What a world.

Later Nixon would record his hope that Americans “quit making heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in the newspapers.” To which Berkeley filmmakers Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith now say: Tough luck, eh Dick? In the estimation of Erlich and Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” we’re actually way overdue to rev that particular hero-making engine up again.

Ellsberg, lest we forget, is among the most unambiguously influential whistleblowers in American history — a man whose public radicalization from dutiful hawk to dove of conscience seems inherently movie-worthy. James Spader played him on TV a few years ago, but really it ought to have been a big-screen part for Paul Newman, whom the young Ellsberg resembled and apparently admired, and who became unavailable by dying in 2008. Pragmatically, Erlich and Goldsmith have just gone ahead and let the real man tell his own story. It’s a story good enough to withstand the conventional documentary formula of archive footage and talking heads — and maybe even good enough to withstand a few ill-advised sprinkles of hokey music, animation and reenactments.

In addition to personally whipping up the specious pretext for LBJ’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and subsequent aggression in Vietnam, Ellsberg also had a demoralizing experience of his own on the ground there, whereupon he inquired of a fellow Marine, “You ever feel like the Redcoats?” On Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Vietnam history task force, he ascended through stages of security clearance as if through stages of grief — sussing out “a pattern of presidential lying” that had metastasized across five administrations, and gradually coming to terms with the bitter truth left in its wake. “It wasn’t just that we were on the wrong side,” Ellsberg concluded. “We were the wrong side.” Soon enough, in 1971, 7,000 pages of top-secret CIA documents supporting this analysis found their way into the New York Times, setting a dramatic First Amendment precedent and steering a fiendishly paranoid president straight toward his destiny of self-ruination.

This should not imply a path of least resistance. Whether you call it treason or civil disobedience, what Ellsberg did sure as hell wasn’t easy. Enlisting his own children and last remaining Rand Corporation friend Anthony Russo to photocopy all those pages in the middle of the night was just the beginning. Ellsberg’s appeals for attention to outwardly antiwar lawmakers including William Fulbright and George McGovern went neglected; only Alaska senator Mike Gravel, alone and increasingly overcome by exhaustion and emotion, dared to read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record.

The Times, meanwhile, had taken its time vetting the material and considering the implications of making it public. One implication, manifested right away, was an injunction from Nixon’s Justice Department against further publication. Meanwhile, other dailies passed the story around and kept it burning, like an Olympic torch. But eventually, perhaps inevitably, the substance of the Pentagon Papers seemed less important than the sensation of their release. It’s important to remember that before resigning in disgrace, Nixon got reelected in a landslide, while the war Ellsberg helped launch raged lethally on. And never mind the disastrous déjà vu in Iraq a generation later. It’s the irony that keeps on giving!

Gloom enthusiasts may recall that McNamara’s own retrospective self-inventory made for compelling documentary fodder in Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War” — by contrast to which, Erlich and Goldsmith’s hagiographic portrait of a clever, handsome, righteous radical does seem less essential. Is it morbid and cruel to want more on the family tragedy that spurred Ellsberg’s sensitivity to fatally inattentive authority figures? Or to want at least some resistance to his privileged narration? Ellsberg’s still active as an activist; can’t we let him stay at least a little dangerous?

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