Sunday, February 28, 2010

"The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" (review)


The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” (directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, 92 min) certainly got me to relive my own coming of age – particularly my own experience with the draft, Basic Training, and then the shenanigans at my own assignment at the Pentagon. Distributed by First Run Features, it attracted a moderate crowd in a smaller auditorium at the 10 PM show Saturday night at Landmark E-Street in downtown Washington DC. (The name of the film reminds me of the famous Richard Connell story, often studied in high school English, “The Most Dangerous Game”, a WB film in 1927).

The film is narrated by Ellsberg himself, now 78, and the live shots trace his gradual physical transformation. He was striking and virile as a younger man, and served as an officer in the Marine Corps in the 1950s. It’s interesting to me how many times our most dedicated political “liberals” experienced challenging military service (that was the case with my high school American history teacher).

The climax of the film occurs when it conveys his indictment and a lawyer is quoted in saying that jury selection would be difficult. You don’t want middle aged men, the lawyer says, because most of them have made “compromises” with their own principles to have families.

Ellsberg, in fact, used his own teen son to help with the massive Xeroxing of 7000 pages.

The film starts in 1964, right after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which occurred on Ellesberg’s first day at work in the Pentagon. He had already worked as an analyst at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, CA. The buildings are shown, and I vaguely remember them from my own job interview there in December 1969 as I was getting out of the Army. (We had a discussion about the simulation programming language “SIMSCRIPT”.)

He would go to Vietnam as a civilian, but helping lead patrols in uniform. (When I was in Army Basic, drill sergeants, mostly returned from Vietnam, told us that in infantry, everyone went out on patrol every third night, but that had not been true until after the 1965 esclation.) He would go back to Rand, setting up the opportunity to copy the papers.

But Ellsberg gradually became suspicious that government officials had been premeditating a southeast Asia war ever since Korea. After all, after Tonkin, it had been his job to feed President Johnson the evidence that Johnson wanted. He did an all nighter to find NVA atrocities and write the report. The long reach of "military industrial complex" premediation reaches far back in a manner resembling that suggested by the film I saw earlier this evening, "The Ghost Writer" (previous review). The escalation in Vietnam in 1965 ordered by LBJ and McNamara would somewhat contradict the account of Robert McNamara's 1995 book "In Retrospect", which would seem to suggest that LBJ and his think tank friends really believed the domino theory.

The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 is covered, and, lo, there was no secret plan to end the war. Ellsberg became even more determined. Kissinger gets into the picture, and there are playbacks of Nixon tapes with vile language, including a not-so-funny reference to nuking the North Vietnamese.

Once Ellsberg got the New York Times involved, the constitutional questions about freedom of the press became questioned to an unprecedented degree. (The New York Times was publishing and "charging" in book form for material legally in the public domain as far as copyright law goes; it's similar in that respect to the 9/11 Commission Report.) How much prior restraint could be expected of a press when publishing material that it suspected had been acquired “illegally” (no small thing in view of the Espionage Act). This was 25 years before the Web on the Internet, but bloggers could face the same questions today.

The film did not cover Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, whom Nixon’s plumbers bugged. But the film does cover briefly the way Ellsberg help bring Nixon down in Watergate.

The First Run Features trailer on YouTube. It starts with LBJ’s saying defiantly “We are going to win.”


The official site for the film is here.


Here is a summary and master index to the Pentagon Papers online, at Mt. Holyoke, Sen. Gravel edition,link.

The New York Times has a Times Topics link here.

The National Security Archive at George Washington University has a webpage with links to the Supreme Court opinion and all relevant arguments submitted to the court, here.

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