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FEBRUARY 23, 2010 1:20PM

where have all the daniel ellsbergs gone?

Rate: 14 Flag



I thought I would never see my children again except through thick glass.

--Daniel Ellsberg


I wasn’t expecting, when I went to an early screening of the new documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America, to see a white haired man and his wife in the front of the theater, answering questions about the way their lives had been. “This man is my hero,” said Patricia Marx, Daniel Ellsberg’s wife.


They had just flown in from the east coast. It was 1:00 a.m. their time, and they must have been exhausted, but genuine enthusiasm shows no fatigue.  Ellsberg began, “People usually ask me how I think we’re doing as a country right now, and I tell them ‘we’re fucked.’”


Yet, there’s something freeingly uncynical about his approach.  “I’m hoping that this film will encourage more people to come forward today and to tell what they know.”


As a college student I once attended a speech by Desmond Tutu at Emory University, and I had a similar feeling hearing Ellsberg describe the ways in which citizens can participate in democracy. Some say idealism is for youth, but there’s no one more inspiring than someone who is seventy-eight and idealistic because he lives it.



*   *   *


The title, The Most Dangerous Man in America, is culled from Henry Kissinger’s description of Ellsberg. And the film gives life to that rare archetype, the heroic bureaucrat. Obviously, Ellsberg was more than an ordinary paper pusher. As an early believer in the war, he had served on the ground in Vietnam, before being promoted into the upper echelons of a Pentagon think tank, the Rand Corporation. The documentary follows both his political path and personal life, as his current wife was a 1960’s radio host who insisted that their first date take place at a peace rally. The incongruence of their positions on the war eventually pulled them apart and they didn’t date again until years later, after he had Xeroxed 7,000 pages and 47 volumes of top secret government documents that he had decided to release to the American public.


It’s probably impossible to see this film without seeing the modern parallels with Afghanistan and Iraq. Lies leading to a war. In particular, a memo from the Defense Department under Lyndon B. Johnson, listing the reasons for American persistence in Vietnam:


           70% to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat.
          20% to keep territory from Chinese hands.

          10% to permit people of [South Vietnam] to enjoy a better, freer
          way of life.
          ALSO-To emerge from the crisis without unacceptable taint from
          methods used.

          NOT-To ‘help a friend.’


It feels uncannily familiar the way the war fought “to save face” was passed between American presidents of both parties, not one of whom was willing to consider “defeat” on his watch, even when it became obvious that the war could not be won.  And even after they had made campaign promises that sounded very much to the American public like they sought peace and withdrawal.


Ellsberg said he originally thought the release of the Pentagon Papers would free Nixon to end the war because the Democrats had made so many mistakes that Vietnam was virtually unwinnable. In fact, although American presidents had described the war exclusively in defensive terms, it had been an aggressive action from the start.


Ellsberg also thought that the American people might be so outraged by the revelations contained in the Pentagon Papers that they would demand an end to the war.


That may have been overly optimistic.


Instead, after the papers’ release, Nixon was reelected as president. This must have been dispiriting for Ellsberg who at that point was still on trial for espionage and facing up to 150 years of imprisonment for exposing top government secrets. And although Nixon had a clear mandate from voters to end the war in Vietnam, he showed little interest in bringing the troops home.


Ultimately, the documentary suggests that the Pentagon Papers played their biggest role in an unforeseen, behind the scenes way, in dramatically escalating Nixon’s paranoia over privacy and contributing to his decision to form the infamous “Plumbers division” that would ultimately bring down his administration, and as an important byproduct, end the war in Vietnam.



*   *   *


At an art party in San Francisco I recently spoke to a political artist who said he’s been so dispirited politically in recent months he’s found it hard to work. “I feel fed up with politics,” he said. He sounded like a young spouse who on his honeymoon found his partner not to be the faithful, genteel person of quality he thought he’d married.


“You have to see this film,” I told him.  “You can’t take politics so personally.  Daniel Ellsberg said that the moment his head ‘split open’ was when he was speaking to a member of the peace movement who was 25 years old, and facing several indictments, each of which had a five year jail term, and the courage of this ordinary civilian hit him so hard. He felt a revelation that if he was willing to face the consequences of his actions, by giving up his freedom, he had a bigger freedom to act according to his conscience.  Citizen action…”


He grabbed my shoulder with a look of pain and laughter, “I know, citizen action.”


It’s hard to continue on loving after your heart’s been broken, and hard to continue in politics when you feel exhausted and cuckolded, but what other options are there?


Giving up?


What will it take to create more whistleblowers in the age of Obama, and a public that demands and doesn’t stop demanding honesty from its elected officials, regardless of political party?


Recently on Rose Aguilar’s San Francisco radio program, Daniel Ellsberg discussed Colin Powell’s role and said that he doesn’t feel have the high ground to judge Powell since he believes he too could have acted earlier in order to save thousands more lives.


He said one of the most astounding realizations of his life was that, “risks can be taken in civilian life, just as they are routinely expected on the battlefield.”


Watching this film, it’s not difficult to many imagine people in significant positions that even now have access to documents that could change the course of history.  As Ellsberg states, “we can’t afford to let the president run the country himself.” 


And, I like this; “cast your whole vote. Not a strip of paper but your whole influence.”


Daniel Ellsberg testifies


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Not a strip of paper but your whole influence.....
A very interesting account of the documentary and your own related background. rated.
thanks caroline. this is what we need in the world. more dangerous people....
what make it clear in my view was that so few stepped forward during the Bush years and still have not. it tells you just how canny and oppressive they were, and just how much amerika today is a place where fear rules. it was also one of the first things Obama changed (preferring agreement rather than fear among his advisors) and that he gets little or no credit for.
ben sen,

Obama has opened up a lot in terms of transparency, but its also important that whistleblowers come forward regardless of which political party is in charge. ellsberg was a democrat who voted for kennedy, and probably this hindered him from stepping forward earlier when he might have made more of a difference.

people shouldn't let loyalty to obama keep them from speaking the truth about matters of war or anything else.

I worry that politics today have become a game in loyalty and party ties, and have little to do with making sure the public good is served. Unfortunately, we're suffering from some pretty deep consequences of this cynicism....

both parties have proven themselves capable of gross lying when it comes to seducing the public into further war making.....
I love this. I want it to be on the front of Salon. Well done and thanks for reporting!
thank-you, carolofcarol!! "70% to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat..."

feels so familiar....
The more things change...

Gah. I really do think human beings are sort of hopeless, in spite of the Daniel Ellsbergs. But I'm not helping here, am I?
mumbletypeg...well there's daniel ellsberg, and there's you...
I'm not quite ready to throw in the towel yet....
dolores, you meant Daniel. Cool! I always wanted to but never did, tho I did meet David Dellinger, Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, and a few other counter-culture A-listers. Always had enormous respect for Dan and wanted to thank him for saving us from Nixon.

desmond tutu and ellsberg are the two public figures I've been most thrilled to meet. each one has played an amazing historical role. your list is pretty impressive too.

I also liked the reminder that as hard as the left feels betrayed by obama--kennedy, who's now often held up as a beacon of liberalism, enmired us in Vietnam and lied to the american people about his administration's involvement in southeast asia from the start.

it's important to remember that this stuff has been going on a long time in american politics.
Great post! I remember as a kid watching the hearings, and hearing my (pinko commie academic) parents talking about Ellsberg and how brave he had been. I plan to watch this, and I think they'd love to see it, too.
I met Abbie and my picture is in His book, "Steal This Book." (this, by the way, gorgon, is how one delineates a book title).

I, also met and was privileged to have extended conversations with Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Jerry Garcia, Ramsey Clark, and my favorite, the late great Bill Kuntsler.

May those departed r.i.p. We need them now more than ever.

ann nichols: thank-you for reading. My dad's an intense republican but he was actually impressed that I'd met ellsberg too. I was amazed that he has some cross partisan appeal to those who think whisteblowing IS patriotic....

mark: this film will make you miss howard zinn. He's in it. I envy you your extended conversations. you should write a post about that. I would love to know the kinds of things that those guys said in person. fascinating.
This is magnificent, dolores. Wow, what a tribute to idealism in the face of dispiriting reality. I love this line:

Some say idealism is for youth, but there’s no one more inspiring than someone who is seventy-eight and idealistic—because he lives it.

It's true that idealism is lived. I marvel at people like Phil Donahue, too, who seem not to have lost their passion for humanitarianism in the face of their own trials and the ugly underside they may be privvy to.

This should be on the cover--it's comprehensive in its arc and inspiring in a way that feels very down to earth.

PS I can't believe you met (or at least saw close up) Daniel Ellsberg! How cool. My personal experience with someone who broadcast heroism was when Sister Helen Prejean spoke at my son's high school. She is the one who wrote Dead Man Walking and rallies against capital punishment. The woman just oozed warmth and light and I felt like reaching out and touching her, just to capture some of her radiance.
Also wanted to say that I had no idea that Ellsberg was originally in favor of the war. That really surprised me.
Hey dolores, this documentary got 100% on rottentomatoes.com. Do you ever go to that site? I love reading movie reviews, but unlike others, I prefer to do it after I've seen a movie. I love finding those great writers who capture precisely the way I felt about a movie, sometimes without even knowing it.

The Most Dangerous Man in America--rottentomatoes.com
Wow. Thanks for the personal touch of this review. I'll put the movie on my Netflix list.
Abbie, may He r.i.p. was a clown with a clear message and purpose behind the veneer of His clowning. When out of the public eye, He was just another guy, the kind one would like to have as a best friend. There was nothing material He owned that He wouldn't gladly give to another.

Sorry for the late response, Dolores, but despair is all around, and frankly, I hardly feel like writing, but I will tell You a tad about the people I mentioned:

Chomsky was like a walking encyclopedia -- never a pause between any question on any subject thrown thrown His way. If, however You asked Him about something trivial, He, again without a pause, nor with any hint of condescension would express that it was a topic He felt little concern about. If an answer he gave about anything was too complicated for the listener to follow, He would patiently re-phrase it in more basic step by step terms. One could make Him laugh at Himself on occasion.

Howard Zinn, may He r.i.p. was more thoughtful in His replies and came across as the kind of guy that it would just be delightful to spend a whole day with.

When I met Jerry, the first time, it was before the Dead had become a household name, and in the intimate confines of the old Fillmore, he immediately offered me some libation to share. What surprised me most was the following year when they returned for another midnight show, he remembered my name.

Ramsey Clark was all business. His object was to document Gulf War I war crimes, and anyone who would help was appreciated. He never dressed anyone down for errors, but gently guided them toward a more analytical approach.

The one I felt closest with was Bill Kuntsler, may He r.i.p. If one were to google His name, they would find that He defended some pretty controversial figures, many whose views were diametrically opposite His.

He TOTALLY believed that EVERYONE had a right to MOST competent defense possible whether they could afford it or not. He never was rich and did much pro bono work.

Outside of work, His laugh was so deep, that not only did You appreciate the wit that inspired it, but one felt really good to see this workaholic enjoy Himself.
PS - I saw the film and loved EVERY moment of it. Maybe some of our resident repugnican'ts should see it and know what a true american hero is like.
Lainey: I'm sorry I've been so slow to respond. I love what you say about Sister Helen Prejean. I had a sentence that was similar written about Ellsberg, but I took it out because it sounded too unjournalistic =) but I felt that same quality.

Gwendolyn: thank-you! I'm sure you'll love it.

Mark: thank-you so much for those stories. The way you describe chomsky sounds exactly like I would picture him. And that Jerry Garcia remembered your name a year later is amazing. I wish especially I could have met Howard Zinn. I remember watching his documentary you can't stand still on a moving train and my grandmother came in and watched it with me for a little while. When it was over she said, "he sure is angry, isn't he?"

Yes he was, but for all the right reasons. I hope a lot of people see this film and are moved by it.
"Some say idealism is for youth, but there’s no one more inspiring than someone who is seventy-eight and idealistic—because he lives it."

This is so true, I loved this line. Once in a while I'll run across old folks like this and I imprint them in my memory. It can happen.

thanks so much for this.
Y heron, thank-you so much for reading. I hope you get a chance to see the film. You'll see what I mean.
A nice account. I'll look forward to seeing the movie.
It is encouraging to hear about people like Ellsberg who have found a way to maintain hope in the face of dispiriting realities about our crazy little world. I am reminded of that Simone de Beauvoir quote, which I adore:

"Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition. They know themselves to be the supreme end to which all action should be subordinated, but the exigencies of action force them to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means. The more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces...In spite of so many stubborn lies, at every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men...Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore try to look truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity. It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting."