Today, I saw at my local theater The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg worked with the Rand Corporation, which developed strategy for the U.S. Government for the war in Vietnam. His claim to fame is that he took top secret government documents about the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from the Presidency of Harry S. Truman to that of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he leaked them to the press. These documents are called the Pentagon Papers, and they revealed that American Presidents had misled the American people about what they were and weren’t doing in Vietnam. (I saw them in book form at my local public library in Brazil, Indiana.) When President Nixon got an injunction that stopped the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, they appeared in the Washington Post. And when Nixon got an injunction against the Washington Post, they appeared in the Boston Globe!
Nixon didn’t like the fact that Ellsberg was being made into a national hero. And, although John Dean—Nixon’s counsel who turned on Nixon during the Watergate scandal—appeared in the documentary to laud Ellsberg for standing up to an “imperialist President,” he could somewhat understand Nixon’s concern. He said that it wouldn’t be good if Nixon’s coming up with an idea one day, and the next day his idea is splashed on the front page of the New York Times!
I don’t want this to be an “on the one hand…on the other hand” sort of post, so I’ll mention three things in the documentary that stood out to me.
First, we have Nixon on tape telling Henry Kissinger that he (Nixon) does “not give a damn” about the civilian casualties in our bombing raids. Civilian casualties were a big reason that Ellsberg became an opponent of the Vietnam War. And it was sobering to read that the Vietnam War killed two million Vietnamese people. I’m sure not all of those were civilian casualties, but there were many civilians who died. I feel that we should not turn our eyes away from the Communist atrocities that were committed throughout the world, including by North Vietnam. But we’ve done our share of harm as well. My impression is that the left ignores the former while pointing out the latter, while conservatives do the exact opposite.
Second, I gained respect for certain people in the anti-war movement, who faced the prospect of decades in prison for following their convictions. I respect those who fought in Vietnam because they risked their lives. But there were also people who stood against the war who were not “cowards” or “bums”—far from it.
Third, someone on the documentary said that a person told Ellsberg that he’d better hope his jury does not consist of middle-aged males! The reason was that many males of middle age had already compromised their principles for financial security, so they’d resent Ellsberg for doing the opposite. That reminds me of something Ellsberg said on the movie. He narrated how Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, said behind closed doors (with Ellsberg in the room) that the Vietnam War is going poorly, despite the vast number of additional troops that were sent to the region. Right after that, McNamara is beaming in front of the camera, saying that he’s “encouraged” by our progress in Vietnam. Ellsberg said that he hoped never to have that kind of job—one in which he’d have to lie in front of the cameras.
Someone else who was on the movie was one of Nixon’s “plumbers.” He admired Daniel Ellsberg for taking a risk—for sacrificing his job and facing possible time in prison to follow his convictions. The plumber said that he (the plumber) didn’t do that, for he was so enmeshed in the system. I’ve got to admire his honesty there!
The documentary is narrated by Ellsberg and features interviews with him, his wife, people at the Rand Corporation, John Dean, staff at the New York Times, and others. I tended to limit my picture of Ellsberg to the 1970’s, so it was interesting to see him as an old man.
I want to close this post with a few questions/comments. Conservatives tend to distrust the domestic sphere of government, while they trust its national security apparatus. Liberals, by contrast, distrust the national security apparatus, yet they favor entrusting more power to the federal government in the domestic sphere. Is this consistent? And is our government evil, or does it mean well, even as it ends up doing evil in the belief that the ends justify the means?