'Most Dangerous Man in America' Revisits War Dissenter Daniel Ellsberg's Critical Choice
If one theme animates "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg
and the Pentagon Papers," it's the theme of decision-making. The film's
subject, Vietnam War-era whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, earned his PhD
in economics at Harvard in the arcane subject of decision theory.
There's even an Ellsberg Paradox in experimental economics, which
describes people's behavior when faced with uncertain outcomes.
As a strategic analyst with the Rand Corp. and the Pentagon in the
early 1960s, Ellsberg specialized in decision-making in crisis
conditions. His expertise led him to contribute to a top-secret report
commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967, studying the
history of U.S. decision-making in Indochina.
That 7,000-page document, completed in 1969, came to be known as the Pentagon
Papers. After reading its account of American presence and escalation
in the region since the 1940s, and systematic government deception
about that involvement, Ellsberg concluded, "We weren't on the
wrong side, we were the wrong side." That stunning realization
compelled Ellsberg, a former Marine and committed Cold Warrior, to make
the most momentous decision of his life: to share the classified study
first with Congress and, eventually, with the press and the American
"The Most Dangerous Man in America," the compelling documentary that
chronicles Ellsberg's journey, opens Friday night. In a lengthy phone
interview last week, Ellsberg, now 78, talked about that choice --
which eventually changed the course of the war, American politics and,
perhaps most dramatically, the meaning and focus of his own life,
putting it in the context of the very paradox that bears his name.
"A lot of people thought [that if] I was willing to go to prison, I must have been sure
it would end the war, and it's not true," he said. "Now, why would they
think that? Because they want to tell themselves that unless they're
sure it will end the war, it's no use doing it."
It was the very uncertainty of the outcome that led him to act so
decisively. "I thought there was a small chance what I did would
shorten the war, so that's the gamble I took. If I'd been sure it would
have no effect, I wouldn't have done it."
That simple, even elegant calculus, as well as Ellsberg's formidable
logic -- intellectual and moral -- propel "The Most Dangerous Man in
America," which transports viewers back to one of the most heady and
contentious chapters of American history.
The broad contours of the story -- Vietnam, domestic unrest,
governmental mendacity and journalistic heroics -- are well known. But
with the taut pacing of a thriller and judicious balance of archival
footage, audiotapes, present-day interviews, reenactments and
Ellsberg's own narration, filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith
inject even the most familiar facts with a surprising jolt of fresh
urgency. What's more, they connect those dots to reveal something of a
political-historical Rosetta stone, reminding viewers that Ellsberg's
release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 resulted not only in the
eventual end of the war, but in the Watergate investigation that would
force President Richard Nixon from office. (The infamous "plumbers" who
burgled Democratic Party headquarters were first detailed by Nixon's
White House with breaking into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office.)
"The Most Dangerous Man in America" has deservedly been nominated
for an Oscar. And with its gripping mix of politics, history and the
derring-do of one of the era's most audacious capers, it often plays
like a mash-up of two previous documentary Oscar winners, "The Fog of
War" and "Man on Wire." But in addition to providing a charismatic
portrait of one man's political and spiritual growth -- not to mention
delectable fodder for history buffs, policy wonks and news junkies
alike -- "The Most Dangerous Man in America" offers a primer in the
peculiar logic of Washington, a place driven in equal measure by the
bare-knuckled pursuit of power and the cowardice born of the fear of
"It's puzzled me that no one has seen fit to do what I did in a more
timely way," Ellsberg said from the UCLA campus, where "The Most
Dangerous Man in America" had just been shown. "I don't understand why
Ellsberg, who has been a political activist and lecturer since the
1970s, applauded recent whistle-blowers who emerged during the Iraq and
Afghanistan conflicts: former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who
was an early critic of the 2003 invasion, and Matthew Hoh,
a foreign service officer in Afghanistan who resigned in October in
disagreement with U.S. policy there. But Ellsberg admitted that he's
been hoping for more internal critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars
to emerge. One variable, he thinks, is a skewed sense of loyalty on the
part of most high-level bureaucrats.
"Yes, people need their job, their pension, they don't want to lose
their [security] clearance," he said. "But there's also a sense of
morality. Their morality says, 'It's wrong to bite the hand that feeds
me, it's wrong to embarrass the man who appointed me.' . . . What these
people never consider is a possible conflict between a promise to keep
secrets and a promise to defend the Constitution. And that conflict
occurs every day."
But even when secrets are disclosed, there's no guarantee people
will listen. One of the more sobering passages in this new documentary
recounts how, after Ellsberg has risked his career, his reputation, a
lifetime in jail and maybe worse (Ellsberg points out that Nixon had
ordered the plumbers to "totally incapacitate" him), the American
public largely ignored the most troubling implications of the Pentagon
Papers and the administration's efforts to squelch them. "The problem
with the public is not that they desire war and massacre and torture,"
Ellsberg said. "The problem is that they can easily be frightened or
fooled into killing and massacring and torturing. It just isn't that
hard. And it's very hard to stop."
The government and the governed may not come off entirely well in
"The Most Dangerous Man in America," but the press can be seen in its
finest hour, with such venerable institutions as the New York Times and
The Washington Post helping Ellsberg to disseminate the documents, and
standing up against the Justice Department's attempts to enjoin them
from publishing. Ellsberg ultimately took the documents to 17 outlets
in all, leading one observer to note that trying to stop publication
was "like herding bees."
To watch this film is to simultaneously re-experience and mourn a
bygone common culture, when press outlets now derided as the lockstep
MSM could declare something important by putting it on the front page
with a 72-point headline. Contemporary Web-centric media culture, with
its proliferation of voices and reigning ethic of decentralization,
makes everything equally important and unimportant, with each bit and
byte of information just another bee to be herded, heeded or tuned out.
Had the Pentagon Papers first been published on the Web, one wonders,
would they have been all the more easily marginalized or ignored?
One way to rise above the buzz, in fact, is exactly what Ellsberg
and the makers of "The Most Dangerous Man in America" are doing, by
appearing whenever possible at screenings for Q&A sessions. Taking
a page from Al Gore and "An Inconvenient Truth," they're making an
otherwise conventional theatrical release a consciousness-raising event
and grass-roots organizing tool.
"I have some real hopes for this movie," Ellsberg said. "It could
show people two things: one, that taking a risk in your personal life
in order to expose a wrong or to tell the truth can have an effect. And
two, that the voice in you that says 'Don't go against the crowd' is
Ellsberg is acutely aware that screening "The Most Dangerous Man in
America" in Washington possesses special resonance -- and potential. "I
would like nothing better than having this movie shown in the Pentagon
and CIA," he said, adding, "I really believe it has a chance of
changing the lives of a fraction of the people who've seen it." An
uncertain outcome, to be sure. But as Ellsberg pursues it, he sees no
paradox at all.