Danger Really Was His Middle Name
April 8, 2010
By Hannah Stamler
The story of RAND employee-turned-activist Daniel Ellsberg is a
famous one, especially for the Baby Boomer generation. But in new
documentary by Judith Elrich (The Good War And Those Who Refused to
Fight It) and Rick Goldsmith (Tell the Truth And Run: George Seldes
and the American Press), Ellsberg is reintroduced to the public more
than 35 years after he first made headlines. 2010 Academy Award
nominee for Best Documentary Feature The Most Dangerous Man in
America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is an intimate and
engaging look into the life of Ellsberg, and the effect that the
Vietnam War and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers had on his life
and the lives of those involved.
The film splices between archival footage, interviews with Ellsberg
and his friends and family, and interviews with politicians and
historians, notably the late Howard Zinn. It is half history, half
As Ellsberg explains in the beginning the film, in his youth he never
could have imagined that he would come be involved in anything like
the Pentagon Papers scandal. A Harvard grad in Economics and an
officer in the Marine Corps, Ellsberg joined the RAND Corporation a
think tank designed to supplement research and analysis to the U.S.
Armed Forces as one of its most promising young employees. At RAND,
among other work, Ellsberg was assigned a research project the
results of which contributed to major escalations in bombing
campaigns in North Vietnam under President Johnson.
It was not until Ellsberg heard senior officials contradict to the
press a report that he had just before delivered about the nonsuccess
of the war that he became officially disenchanted. This pivotal
moment, coupled with exposure to the raging anti-war movement in
Washington, turned Ellsberg completely against the war. Inspired by
draft resisters, and supported by friend and former RAND colleague
Anthony Russo, Ellsberg decided to leak top-secret reports to The
New York Times.
The papers, officially named "United StatesVietnam Relations,
19451967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense," was a
study detailing U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945. Released in
1971, the papers revealed the true aims of U.S. in Vietnam, and
showed that four administrations had deliberately deceived the American people.
Though, much to Ellsberg's dismay, the release of the Pentagon Papers
in The New York Times and other major publications did not
immediately end the war, they had far-reaching effects that Mr.
Ellsberg himself could have predicted. Ellsberg's trial led to the
famous decision of the New York Times Co. v. United States case and
some of the measures taken by Nixon to prevent further leaks would
feed into the Watergate burglaries, and ultimately the end of Nixon's
Unlike a History Channel special, or the previous film The Pentagon
Papers, The Most Dangerous Man in America is, as the title promises,
more about Ellsberg than just the Pentagon Papers. Though the
thudding "ominous" music is at times unnecessary, Elrich and
Goldsmith have done a good job making sure that the story of Ellsberg
doesn't get swallowed up in spectacle. The interviews with Ellsberg
are stripped and honest, and at times the film veers off into
effective personal anecdotes.
Instead of a close-up look at the Pentagon Papers affair, or
Ellsberg's life during his mid-30s when he released the papers,
Elrich and Goldsmith allow viewers to get a full understanding of
him, greater than an exhaustive history lesson, or Ellsberg's
occasional recent guest-spots on television news, give. The viewers
are able to see the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers leakage for
what they really were not just moments in Ellsberg's life, but
memories that simply cannot be forgotten.
Indeed, for Ellsberg, as the film makes clear, the guilt and horror
that he felt as a young man about his early involvement in the war is
a fact that has affected him into his old age. On a more inspiring
note, these same experiences have also turned him into a life-long
activist, crusading now against involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And though the parallels between Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are
drawn quite clearly, they are never forced. Elrich and Goldsmith
realized, quite rightly, that Ellsberg's life story was enough to
inspire. Like the quiet, yet firm voice of Ellsberg himself, The Most
Dangerous Man in America makes its point but is never too brazen.
Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
The Most Dangerous Man in the World
By SAUL LANDAU
April 9 - 11, 2010
In 2005, teaching a history class to university juniors and seniors,
I mentioned the Vietnam War. I noticed glazed looks in the eyes of
several students. I asked a young woman born about a decade after
that war had ended: "You know when the Vietnam War occurred, right?"
She wrinkled her brow, bit her lip and said, hesitatingly: "Wasn't it
after the Greco-Roman era?"
Some students knew, but most were unsure. Neither parents nor
teachers had taught them recent history. A new film will now help
fill that void.
"The Most Dangerous Man in America" (produced by Judith Ehrlich and
Rick Goldsmith; photography by Vicente Franco) earned his film title
from those in the heights of power--not by robbing banks or
committing serial murders; rather, he revealed US government secrets.
Ironically, our enemies (the Soviet Union and China at the time) had
no interest in the "top secret" documents Daniel Ellsberg (the film's
narrator) leaked to the media and Congress in 1971 as "The Pentagon
Papers." The US public, however, should have responded to the
contents of those seven thousand super classified pages with shock and anger.
The Papers showed the government had lied to Congress and the public
about its reasons for invading Vietnam. The Papers also demonstrated
that behind the "stop communism from causing Asian nations to topple
like dominoes" rhetoric lay deeper US imperial ambitions that policy
makers had pushed for fifteen years. Presidents Johnson and Nixon
didn't send men to die for freedom or for any moral purpose.
When the NY Times and subsequently other major papers published these
Papers, their editorials did not stress the outrage they and all
citizens should have felt over official prevarication and
manipulation. Instead of calling for immediate withdrawal of US
forces from Vietnam, in light of the truth that neither the Soviets
nor Chinese controlled the Vietnamese communists and that Vietnam
posed no domino threat in Asia, the newspapers patted themselves on
the back for their "courage" in daring to print classified documents.
None called for indictments of Presidents Nixon and Johnson and their
underlings for committing countless criminal acts designed to defraud
the public by secretly pursuing an offensive imperial policy.
Official US combat troops landed after the war elite had rigged the
1964 "Tonkin Gulf incident." Vietnamese war ships supposedly attacked
US ships in international water they didn't -- which Johnson used
to sell Congress on the need to send the US armed forces to Vietnam.
A decade earlier, the White House, CIA and DoD were already
intervening to prevent Vietnamese independence and unity.
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles urged Eisenhower to drop a
nuclear bomb on the Vietnamese forces that surrounded the French
armies. Ike said he would have to consult the allies before taking
such a step meaning "no."
The French surrendered and at the 1954 French-Vietnamese Geneva talks
pledged free elections to unify Vietnam.
In his memoirs, Eisenhower admits that "80 percent of the population
would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather
than Chief of State Bao Dai" (Mandate for Change, p. 372). Bao was
the US-backed head of the temporary state of South Vietnam. Until
1954, Washington had born the brunt of funding the French military
endeavor and, as the Pentagon Papers made clear, Washington had no
intention of allowing elections that would make Ho the President of a
united and communist-led Vietnam.
In the film, Ellsberg, a gung-ho ex Marine and anti-communist zealot,
plays a role in planning US military strategy in Vietnam. He even
goes to the country gun in hand to kill commies. Then, Ellsberg has
second thoughts and meets his love, the very anti-war Patricia Marx,
who helps convince him of his errors.
With equal fervor, Ellsberg began planning anti-war strategy:
stealing secret papers from his Rand think tank offices. Rand was
preparing a prognosis on the war for the military elite. After
Ellsberg delivered these Papers to the media, he expected the "aware"
public to stop the war and throw the bums out.
Nixon and Kissinger considered Ellsberg "dangerous" for leaking the
classified papers. Like Ellsberg, they believed an enlightened public
should have risen in anger, stopped the war and reversed policies
based on secrecy and duplicity. But the majority of the American
public still doesn't know why the US fought in Vietnam; nor do they care.
Professors might use this film to enlighten curious students. After
all, the government repeated its Vietnam perfidies and crimes in
Central America in the 1980s and continues the deception in Iraq and
Indeed, millions demonstrated against the Iraq War to no avail.
Even when the public discovered Bush and Cheney had misled them,
nothing happened to the criminals in chief. A challenge to the
citizenry: aware of high crimes and misdemeanors, how to stop them
and reverse course?
Perhaps Ellsberg reveals the film's deeper lesson: becoming an actor
on the stage of one's own history makes life interesting.
The Most Dangerous Man in America
by John Coleman, S.J.
I was rooting, at Oscar time, for the documentary, "The Most
Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,"
to win for best documentary (in the event, another good film, "The
Cove," won). Those who remember Errol Morris' 2004 Oscar-winning
documentary, "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert
S. McNamara," will note resemblances, in places, with "The Most
Dangerous Man," even to the extraordinary length of their titles.
At one point in "The Most Dangerous Man," Ellsberg, who had worked
closely with McNamara, corroborates McNamara's claim, in "The Fog of
War," that he, fairly early on, told President Johnson to pull back
from bombings in Viet Nam. Ellsberg recounts his own aversion,
however, when, just at the very time McNamara was expressing to him
doubts about the war, he appeared on TV, spouting spinlies about the
military progress being, then, made. Ellsberg had, toward the
beginning of the Viet Nam war, authored, for McNamara, a
sensationalistic account of a soldier's torture by the North
Vietnamese which bolstered McNamara's initial support for the war.
The Most Dangerous Man comes across almost as a cliff-hanger suspense
drama. One film critic has speculated that "in another time and
culture, a story of this scale would deserve an opera."
I met Ellsberg once, by chance, as we were both waiting in line at a
Berkeley drug-store, pharmacy (It having been Berkeley, I may have
just needed to add that clarification: pharmacy!). I introduced
myself to him as a Jesuit priest and a long-time admirer of his
anti-war work. I also told him that I had a nodding acquaintance with
his son, Robert (the editor of the Catholic Orbis Press). Robert
shows up in the film, both as a teenager (in old footage) and as an
adult. Ellsberg pressed his two children into yeoman's service,
helping him, secretly, photo-copy the 7,000 pages of The Pentagon
Papers. Not surprisingly, Ellsberg's former wife, their mother, was
not so pleased.
The epithet, "The most dangerous man in America" was bestowed as a
sobriquet on Ellsberg by Henry Kissinger. The two men knew each other
quite well. In a profound sense, the movie is about a transformation
that was not just political but spiritual. Ellsberg, not the most
cuddly guy nor the most lovable, is, nevertheless, someone who is
exacting and rigorous. He shows little sympathy for moral weakness
(least of all his own). He was also endowed with a strategic cunning.
The film recounts the biography of a man of conviction and courage
who risked everything, freedom, family, friends and career for his principles.
Most of us enact bad orders, alas, all too well. It is relatively
rare for anyone, working at any level in the public or private
sector, to give such priority to conscience over careeror over a pay
check. I referenced the documentary, a week ago, when I was
presenting an adult faith formation lecture in our parish on Ignatian
Discernment. I had been using an excellent book by Dean Brackley, The
Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, which talks about cultural
biases, collective obstacles to freedom and an integral discernment.
The documentary shows a man who had to buck his closest colleagues,
old friends and his initial variant of patriotism, in the name of
conscience and true patriotism.
Efficiently wedding archival footage to contemporary interviews, "The
Most Dangerous Man" tells the story of an initial Cold Warrior, hired
to feed rationales for expanding the war to his boss, Robert
McNamara. His transformation from hawk to dove came slowly. Ellsberg,
who had earlier in his career been one of the youngest Marine
commanding officers, made personal visits to the Mekong jungle
battlefields. The illuminating moment came when he realized that the
war was not truly winnable and would involve many civilian and
military casualties. He came to see that its prosecution, even
escalation, was more about "saving face" for America than for any
true strategic purpose. Working at the Rand Corporation, he read the
Pentagon papers which documented a continuous fabric of public lies
about Viet Nam, stretching through the Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon
Ever, in his deepest bones, a patriot, Ellsberg now says of his
actions: "I realized I wasn't discharging my responsibility by
keeping these secrets." Still, he weighedold cold warrior and
Pentagon think-tanker that we wasissues of national security.
Initially, he sent copies of the purloined Pentagon Papers to
anti-war Senators Fulbright and McGovern. He argued that they, as
senators, could use the material, free from any prosecution. They sat
on the material and did not seem to act. Then, and only then, did he
leak the papers to 17 different newspapers, including The New York
Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe.
The documentary makes much of how the Supreme Court, in a landmark
1971 decision for free-speech (New York Times Vs. United States),
upheld the papers' right to publish. One listens in horror, during
the documentary, to tapes from the Nixon White House, where the
sitting president tells Henry Kissinger to consider a nuclear option
in Viet Nam and that he, Nixon, was not concerned about civilian
casualties. The Nixon tapes also disclose his plans for Gordon Liddy
and E. Howard Hunt to break into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office to
garner confidential and potentially incriminating material. Ellsberg
was arrested for felony treason under the Espionage Act of 1917.
During the trial, it became apparent that the government had
authorized a break-in to Lewis Fielding's (Ellsberg's psychiatrist)
office, and had conducted wire-taps on Ellsberg without
authorization. John Ehrlichman had even approached Judge William
Byrne during the 1973 trial of Ellsberg, offering him a high
government post. The Judge ultimately dismissed the trial and said:
"The totality of the circumstances of this case offend a sense of
justice. The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution
of this case."
I came away from the documentary with both a sense of hope and some
gloom. My hope rested on the fact that one man of conscience and
principle can make a difference. My hope lay in the importance and
power of newspapers to hold our government accountable. One irony in
the film, however, was that the mere release of the Pentagon papers
became much bigger news than their actual content. Despite their
release, Richard Nixon got re-elected in 1972 by a landslide. The
populist tone of the film leaves also something of a bitter
aftertaste which hints that, when we ignore the details, we only
ensure that they will be repeated. Repeated they were with the
immoral invasion of Iraq and the dubious cover-ups of the Bush
administration. As one movie critic noted: "Anyone with any doubt of
the importance, in a functioning democracy, of American
newspaperswith working newsrooms full of professional, paid
journalistsneeds to see this movie." Alas, many of America's
newspapers, today, are struggling to keep afloat. Just maybe, John
Adams who wrote a majestic opera, "Doctor Atomic," about another
war-tinged figure, J. Robert Oppenheimer, might be induced to write
that opera the Ellsberg story deserves.
"The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon
March 30, 2010
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?