'The Most Dangerous Man in America' on PBS recalls his actions and
the personal and political tumult that followed.
By Scott Timberg
October 5, 2010
Daniel Ellsberg remembers the day he learned that time may indeed
heal all wounds.
"By the end of the Cold War, around 1989 or so," recalls Ellsberg,
who had been despised and disowned in the '70s for leaking classified
documents about the Vietnam War, "I'd be in a meeting with someone,
and they wouldn't leave the room."
This small triumph he offers a shy smile may not sound like cause
for celebration. But when you've been called "the most dangerous man
in America" by Henry Kissinger, you take your good news where you can get it.
Ellsberg's growing unease about the Vietnam War, his decision to leak
the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers to the press and members of Congress,
and the turmoil he experienced afterward are the subjects of POV's
"The Most Dangerous Man in America," an Academy Award-nominated
documentary that PBS broadcasts Tuesday.
When he leaked documentation of U.S. decision making about the war,
starting in 1971, Ellsberg fully expected to be demonized by the
Nixon White House. But being ostracized by his former co-workers at
the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica took him by surprise.
"It was a good 15 or 20 years before anyone at Rand would be in the
same room with me," he says. "They didn't want the question raised,
'What's your relationship with Daniel Ellsberg?' And not one of them
wrote me a letter because they didn't want a letter of theirs to show
up in my trash which the FBI had been going through."
These days, Ellsberg, 79, lives a more secure and reclusive life than
he did in the tumultuous '70s. He and his wife, Patricia, dwell in a
ranch house tucked away behind redwoods a few miles north of Berkeley
with a street address out of order from his neighbors. The house is
well situated with a view of the San Francisco Bay but not
luxurious: It's got more books than furniture.
Ellsberg was a kind of "insider" decades before Russell Crowe tangled
with the role. A young, serious-minded, Harvard graduate with
legendary analytic abilities, he worked at Rand as a strategic
analyst in the late '50s. A former Marine officer, he was eager to
fight for democracy against what he saw as Stalinist dictatorships
around the world.
He went to work at the Pentagon in 1964, just as the Gulf of Tonkin
incident an ambiguous sea conflict used by President Johnson to
ramp up American involvement broke. When Ellsberg saw that his
research was being used to justify bombing of civilians, and dug
deeper into the history of the U.S. involvement with Indochina, he
began to have serious moral doubts about the war. The civilian
deaths, as he saw it, were effectively murder. "Keeping silent in
public," he says in the film, "made me an accomplice."
So by October 1969, then back at Rand, he walked out of its Santa
Monica offices most nights with folders of the "Vietnam War Study,"
and he and his sons spent evenings in their Malibu home photocopying
7,000 pages on the war and its buildup. The papers showed that the
government had been lying about the scope and aim of the war for years.
When Ellsberg passed the documents to politicians, less happened than
he'd hoped. And for weeks after he handed the information to the New
York Times, the paper published nothing.
But on June 13, 1971, the Times published the first of its related
stories, and after efforts by the White House to squelch the report,
Ellsberg passed his documents to the Washington Post and other papers
as well. He went into hiding even as "the plumbers" who would later
become tangled in the Watergate break-in raided his Los Angeles
psychiatrist's office in an attempt to discredit him.
Ellsberg soon surfaced and was arrested. The best-case scenario, he
thought, was that he might escape prosecution, move somewhere remote,
and teach at a small college. He was indicted on conspiracy and faced
115 years in prison.
He fully expected to go to jail, and never see his children again,
except "through thick glass."
"The Most Dangerous Man in America" follows the turning of Ellsberg
from Cold Warrior to outlaw, as well as the 1973 decision of mistrial
that set him free.
The film, which uses old footage and is narrated by Ellsberg,
includes recent interviews with late historian Howard Zinn; former
New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith; who wrote some of the paper's
stories on the documents, and Nixon counsel John Dean.
Ellsberg was approached about telling his story on film as far back
as the early '70s but had repeatedly rebuffed offers. "I didn't want
to look like I was selling secrets," he says now.
He also wanted to get his story down in print first, and published
"Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers" in 2002. Much
of his narration in the film comes from the memoir.
Back in the house, Ellsberg is a bit worn out after staying up on a
recent night before, drinking green tea while writing an article for
a policy journal about secrecy and whistle-blowing. The subjects
continue to consume him.
Ellsberg was critical of George W. Bush's administration for what he
regards as its disdain for transparency, but also blames the Obama
White House for continuing the cloaked practices in the war on
terror. He's heartened by the recent cache of documents released by
WikiLeaks on the Afghan war, though he thinks newspapers are more
credible places to publish than the Internet. But he applauds the
site for offering a clearer look at what the U.S. government is up
to: "There should be a Pentagon Papers out ever year," he says.
There's very little apparent self-congratulation to Ellsberg.
Although he was attacked by political opponents for betraying his
country, Ellsberg's regret is rather that he didn't leak documents
earlier in 1964 when the conflict was still escalating.
"I'm one of a few dozen people who could have prevented the Vietnam
War," he says, drumming his finger on his wooden table with every
syllable. A Democratic Congress would have turned on Johnson, he
thinks, if they had seen how bogus his war justifications were. "But
I was very inhibited I felt like I was breaking my promise."
It's human nature that troubles him the most.
"Humans are herd animals," he says. "They depend very much on being
part of the group, and to remain part of the group, they'll do
anything. And a much larger number will go along with anything. And
the broadest form of that is keeping your mouth shut."