Film Review: The Most Dangerous Man in America

I just saw the DVD of the new documentary about Daniel Ellsberg and the 1971 leaking of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam war from 1945 to 1967 commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to figure out how the US had got into that mess. You can see the film online for free until October 27 by clicking here.

Here’s the trailer:

For those who lived through those times and those who did not, the film gives a fascinating inside look at how that drama played out and into the evolution of the thinking of a man who started out being a faithful Pentagon insider and high-level analyst at the Rand Corporation and then became disillusioned by the realization that Vietnam war policy was based on lies by every single administration from Harry Truman onwards. As the Assistant Secretary of Defense told McNamara, the reasons for the US remaining in Vietnam was “10% to help the South Vietnamese, 20% to hold back the Chinese, and 70% to save American face.” One wonders what the corresponding proportions are now for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is also sickening to listen to the tapes of Richard Nixon and his total contempt for the public’s right to know and for civilian casualties, casually talking to Henry Kissinger about the option of dropping nuclear weapons on Vietnam. It was Kissinger’s description of Ellsberg that provides the title of this documentary.

Daniel Ellsberg has written an account about the corrosive effect of knowing high-level secrets, how it shuts you off from people. Ellsberg points out that he and thousands of people like him knew that what the president and others were saying about the war was simply false and that there was this silent collusion to maintain the façade of lies. There was one notable incident where Defense Secretary McNamara heartily agreed with Ellsberg’s judgment that the war was going nowhere while they were traveling together on a plane and then stepped onto the tarmac a short time later and brazenly told the assembled reporters that the war was going great. It is only people who are confident that the people around them will collude in their lies, at least for the sake of preserving their careers, that can do such things.

At that time, leaking those papers was an arduous task. The secret history was 7,000 pages long. Ellsberg had to take home a few volumes from the safe each night, photocopy them page-by-page with his young children as helpers, and then return the originals the next day. It took him months. He then had to find someone willing to publicize them and discovered that even elected officials who were outspoken in their opposition to the war were leery of being associated with such an explosive leak. The notable exception was a young senator named Mike Gravel from Alaska who used his congressional immunity from prosecution to read the documents into the congressional record during a filibuster. Although Nixon tried to stop publication of the papers, the floodgates had been opened as more and more newspapers began to print the documents. This film illustrates the importance of open government and the First Amendment.

Nowadays, it should be much easier to leak documents since they are in electronic form and all it takes is a few keystrokes and one does not need major newspapers or high elected officials to bring them to public notice. Outlets like WikiLeaks can do this and also keep your identity secret. In the film, Ellsberg makes the point that I have made repeatedly, that giving the public access to official documents and allowing everybody to analyze them is better than giving a few people access and depending on what they choose to tell you. Ellsberg has appealed to people in government now to not wait as long as he did but to leak information in order to hold the government accountable and to stop the lies about its current activities. WikiLeaks takes this same attitude, which is why I think they perform such a valuable service.

The film is engrossing and should be viewed along with the classic Hearts and Minds (1974) to get a picture of what it was like in those times, both here and in Vietnam. To get a glimpse of the casual racist attitude that existed towards the Vietnamese during the war, see this short clip from Hearts and Minds that begins with a scene from the funeral of a Vietnamese soldier and then cuts to the commander of the US forces in Vietnam General William Westmoreland.

I cannot watch this scene without tears springing to my eyes at the naked emotions on display of the soldier’s family, and then being jolted to fury at Westmoreland’s words. It is inconceivable to me that the people who planned and executed the war were not prosecuted for war crimes.

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