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