The Most Dangerous Man in America:
Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
A seven thousand-page report is heavy lifting, especially when it chronicles the cosmic folly of our eleven-year-long war in Vietnam. Unlike the current war in Iraq, Vietnam was an entirely covert operation for several years, until reluctant print and TV editors began to resist the government’s efforts to keep it all under wraps and began to write, photograph, and film the carnage. Yet even when it became the daily news, Americans were slow to recognize that, as Ellsberg said, “We weren’t on the wrong side; we were the wrong side.”
Daniel Ellsberg (called “the most dangerous man in America” by Henry Kissenger, and “that son-of-a-bitch” by then-President Richard Nixon) was a high-level cold war warrior who dramatically changed horses in mid-stream. As America’s “military advisers” in Vietnam, approved by President Kennedy, ballooned from a “few hundred” to a full-scale deployment of over half-a-million troops by 1968, Ellsberg began having doubts about the war; initially because he had become convinced it was unwinnable.
After methodically copying the Pentagon Papers’ 7,000 pages, he made them available to 17 newspapers—all of them published the documents whole or in part—and to Senator Mike Gravel, who read from them and entered them into the Senate record. Ellsberg was accused of conspiracy and eight other charges, with a maximum penalty of 115 years.
Actions, they say, have consequences: The Pentagon Papers debacle led directly to Richard Nixon’s order to break into both Democratic headquarters (at the Watergate Hotel) and the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Eventually, Nixon would escape impeachment only by resigning and being pardoned by President Ford.
This is one hell of a story, and the film puts it into perspective by telling it from the vantage point of history. But, like so much history, it offers some choice object lessons: after eleven years
of escalation and the often-violent division of American citizens over how to stop the madness, the war ended in May of 1973 when Congress voted to simply cut off the funds that had supported it. It had never, you see, actually been declared by Congress in the first place and so, technically, had never happened. Despite its phantasmagorical profile, it left more than two million Southeast Asians and 58,000 Americans dead in its wake.
For those who prefer to focus on the economic imperative, there is another angle: when Lyndon Johnson steeply escalated the war early in his administration, he also launched ambitious (and well-meant) plans for the Great Society. The cost of the two programs was more than the country could support. The national debt soared and triggered catastrophic long-term financial fallout. More recently, when President George W. Bush beat the drum for invading Iraq (yes, it was overt this time around), he was also cutting taxes. That, too, was more than the country could support. We are struggling with the results.
Think about it! And don’t, under any circumstances, miss The Most Dangerous Man in America. It will either refresh your memory, or teach you some things you really need to know.