Monday, December 30, 2013

"The Most Dangerous Man in America" review

I think we cannot let the officials of the Executive Branch determine for us what it is that the public needs to know about how well and how they are discharging their functions. . . . (From Daniel Ellsberg’s TV interview with Walter Cronkite)

I was in college majoring in journalism, taking a Media Law class when I learned about the Pentagon Papers case – one of the most important cases ever decided by the Supreme Court. Tricky Dick Nixon tried to suppress publication of leaked documents about the Vietnam War, but fortunately the high court ruled in favor of the Constitution.

The 40th anniversary of the case brought the Pentagon Papers in the news again. At long last, the government has declassified the entire collection – more than 7,000 documents telling the dirty truth about how four U.S. presidents helped create a war that needlessly ended 58,000 American and 2 million Vietnamese lives.

Daniel Ellsberg, a defense dept. analyst, leaked the Top Secret documents to the press. The court ruled against prior restraint, saying the government could not stop newspapers from publishing the classified papers. While I understood the impact of this decision – a triumph for First Amendment rights -- I knew next to nothing about Ellsberg. I learned that Nixon’s plumbers ransacked his psychiatrist’s office and that’s about it.

This week’s news prompted me to finally watch the 2009 documentary film, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The film, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, educated me about Ellsberg and gave me new insight into this historical drama and its relevance today. POV’s (that’s cinema speak for “Point of View”) website, showed the documentary online for free on Monday and Tuesday this week. If you didn’t see it, I say go to your local library and check out the DVD.

Ellsberg was not a hippie peacenik. He was an Establishment figure. A Harvard graduate, summa cum laude, Ellsberg then attended Cambridge University on a fellowship. Between 1954 and 1957, he spent three years as a U.S. Marine Corps commander. In 1959 he joined the RAND corporation global policy think tank. During the 1960s, he was a Dept. of Defense analyst perpetuating the Cold War line until – in good conscience – he could do it no longer.

He leaked a bombshell government study to newspapers chronicling the history of our Southeast Asian police action. The report – which Ellsberg helped write -- revealed how presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had lied to the public and dragged the United States into an unjust, unwinnable war. Nixon, happy to see his predecessors with their pants down, nevertheless realized a whistleblower could also get dirt on him. So he went after Ellsberg and tried to muzzle the press.

The film’s title is taken from Henry Kissinger. Imagine that, a war criminal calling someone of principle “the most dangerous man in America.” That speaks loudly about the arrogance and hypocrisy of power. Hearing White House tapes of Nixon’s voice is chilling: “You’re so goddamn conscientious about civilians and I don’t give a damn.”

Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers are relevant in 2011. The U.S. military is fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, suicides are on the rise among veterans, wikileaks has revealed things the U.S. government doesn’t want you to know and the guys who blew the whistle are in jail on questionable charges. We would be remiss not to examine history in the context of today’s world and The Most Dangerous Man in America is a great resource for doing that.

The Academy award nominated film is modest, not a hagiography, but I came away from it, seeing Ellsberg as an American hero. It’s a view he would not share. Ellsberg, now 80, feels guilty about the six years he spent in the defense dept., knowing the government was lying to the public, and doing nothing as the death toll mounted in Vietnam.

The “most shameful episode in my life,” he says in the film, was helping Defense Secretary Robert McNamara persuade Pres. Lyndon Johnson to launch the “most disproportionate bombing campaign in the history of the world” on North Vietnam.

Ellsberg’s disaffection with the war evolved gradually, but by the end of the ‘60s, he could no longer remain “a passive bureaucrat.” The most riveting moments of the film reveal Ellsberg anguishing as he confronted a moral dilemma: violate the secrecy contracts he had signed or stay silent as more lives were lost. The man was willing to go to prison for the rest of his life if it meant stopping the war. Hearing this, there was no way I could not respect the man.

Ultimately, a federal judge threw out the government’s case against Ellsberg. (The Nixon administration had compromised the integrity of its investigation with dirty tricks.) But nobody could have foreseen the outcome.

The recent de-classification of the Pentagon Papers was a quiet news item. There were no world shaking revelations. The contents of the documents were revealed by the news media years ago. Really, the public response has been too quiet. We should be asking ourselves: what parallels do we see today? (Wikileaks for one.) Is the government, acting in our name, conducting itself honorably? What are the possible ramifications of our actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya? Is there transparency in government?

I don’t think we’ve learned from our history. Nixonian policy has become a template for the presidency and Vietnam is our template for waging war. History has vindicated Ellsberg, but if we were today fighting a war with American casualties on a scale with Vietnam, and someone leaked documents revealing executive branch weapons of mass deception, I think he would be Typhoid Mary. Most Americans would swallow that hackneyed government stand-by about that person being a traitor, costing American lives and giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

The same old song and dance.

Gateway films: One Bright Shining Moment. An intriguing documentary about George McGovern’s 1972 presidential run, this film is a reminder of a good opportunity lost.
Gateway books: Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg’s memoir, upon which much of the film is based.
The Arrogance of Power by Sen. J. William Fulbright. This book by the late Arkansas senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a must-read. Fulbright was writing about U.S. mistakes related to Vietnam, but he could just as well have been writing about today. If only America had heeded his advice.
There is a clip of Fulbright in The Most Dangerous Man in America explaining on a TV news show why he voted with the rest of Congress to give LBJ a blank check to wage war in Vietnam. A formidable political mind, Fulbright wasn’t perfect.
A Political Odyssey: The Rise of American Militarism and One Man’s Fight to Stop It by Sen. Mike Gravel. The two-term Alaska senator is featured in The Most Dangerous Man for introducing the Pentagon Papers into the public record during a filibuster.
Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House by Egil “Bud” Krogh. The head of Nixon’s plumber’s unit, Krogh served a brief prison term, turned his life around and is the only one of the plumbers to take ownership of his actions. He is interviewed in the Ellsberg documentary.

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