THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA:
DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS
It has been over 40 years since the commencement of the Vietnam War, which unlike past wars, was played out on television. The sight of body bags being carted off US military planes was enough to instil a sense of rage and made people question the futility of the exercise which caused the death of over two million Vietnamese and fifty-eight thousand US troops. That does not negate the number of Australian troops who also lost their lives in battle.
Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, follows the series of events which were kept secret by the US Government in a part of the world which Nixon referred to as a ‘shitty little country’. The documentary shows interviews with all the key players using original footage. However, we only get to hear Nixon and Kissinger on the White House tapes. The footage is brilliantly edited, it has no narration, but the story moves along at a dramatic pace, driven by the interviewees.
Daniel Ellsberg was a top military analyst employed by the Pentagon. He looks back on a career which radically changed his view of the Vietnam War. A period in US history when four Presidents had lined up to support a war which was based on lies and deception and yet they persisted in sending more troops to fight a battle which they knew was already lost. It makes you think how history has an uncanny way of repeating itself.
In 1971, Ellsberg released the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, in the hope that they would be published and expose the truth to the American public. At the same time knowing he could be sent to prison for years, after previously wrestling with his conscience, believing that it was deemed unpatriotic to go against the political decisions that prevailed.
The filmmakers use cartoon footage to show how Ellsberg actually managed to copy the papers. It was the period before downloads and he engaged the help of his son and daughter to photo-copy the 47 volumes and 7000 pages of documents. This is just one of the many tales which makes this documentary compelling viewing.
The Nixon administration managed to place an injunction on not only the New York Times publication (which Nixon referred to as a ‘goddam expose’), but also the Washington Post’s, in a desperate attempt to stop the information going public. It was only through sheer determination, unbelievable commitment to tell the truth and a groundswell of anti-war sentiment, that saw the papers eventually being published.
This is a film which clearly demonstrates the need to put conscience above careers. There is a telling moment when Ellsberg says he knew he had to go through with the publication of the papers following Gandhi’s dictum, ‘You should not cooperate with the Devil’. Four decades later, we can smile wryly at Kissinger’s declaration that Ellsberg was, ‘the most dangerous man in America’.