The Rumpus Review of The Most Dangerous Man in America


On June 13th, 1971, in the midst of the Vietnam War, the New York Times began to publish excerpts of an internal Pentagon document that detailed the top-secret history of US-Vietnam relations from 1945 to 1967. Soon known as the Pentagon Papers, its seven thousand pages added up to an unambiguous picture: four consecutive Presidents had misled the public into supporting and sustaining an unwinnable war, largely from a desire to avoid the national humiliation of a defeat.

The story immediately exploded into the wider media, though the revelations about Presidential duplicity were less discussed than the question of who had leaked this document and why. The FBI identified the probable source: Daniel Ellsberg, a highly respected military analyst, formerly employed by the Department of Defense and the Pentagon-funded RAND Corporation. Soon, he was the target of one of the largest manhunts in the history of the country.

But Ellsberg managed to elude the manhunt for over two weeks, long enough to ensure that the entire document would reach the public. When the New York Times was forced by the White House to stop publication, he leaked it to the Washington Post, which picked up where the Times had left off; when the Post was forced to stop, the Boston Globe continued with the story. Ultimately, this relay race would include 17 newspapers, and a sympathetic Senator (Mike Gravel) would enter more than half of it into the Senate Record, whereupon that portion became a public document.

His task complete, Ellsberg simply turned himself in, on June 28th, 1971. He had now committed the most spectacular act of whistle-blowing in US history. But he had called out wrongdoing by the US government, and the secrets he revealed were state secrets. So very soon, Ellsberg faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison, on charges of espionage and conspiracy.

So why did he do it? Why did Ellsberg, a trusted Pentagon insider, betray his colleagues and risk life in prison to make this information public? The answer he gave to the press was straightforward enough: he hoped that this information, once made public, would help bring the war to an earlier close, and thereby save the lives of unknowable multitudes, American and Vietnamese. His moral convictions left him no other course of action. But he had arrived at the decision to act on his convictions only after an extraordinary personal transformation.

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The story of that transformation is told well in the Academy Award-nominated documentary now in wide release, The Most Dangerous Man in America. With suspenseful pacing and a staggering quantity of detail that somehow never slows down the forward momentum of the narrative, the film reveals a man who started as an insider and true believer in US policy, who began to have reservations and doubts, and who finally became so disillusioned he was unable to support or cooperate any longer with the government he had spent half his life working for.

The main story begins in 1964, when Ellsberg joined the Johnson Administration as an assistant of the assistant of the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Ellsberg was a committed Cold Warrior, convinced the United States had an obligation to protect South Vietnam against the encroachment of Communism from the North, and he was instrumental in planning and justifying the expansion of the war. “We truly believed that what was good for the US was good for Vietnam,” he says in the film. So he did his job with skill and with admirable intent.

But one less-than-admirable incident would come to haunt him: for Ellsberg, it would eventually represent his entire complicity with the war. Early in his tenure, Ellsberg was instructed by McNamara to look for evidence of torture or of abuse of an American soldier. And he found it: a single gruesome atrocity, and he reported it. But as Ellsberg says in the film, it was “the only such incident in the country, the only one in the entire war up to that point,” and the details he had reported would soon be used as partial justification for the intensive bombing campaign that would begin in February 1965 and continue for the next three years, Operation Rolling Thunder. “He felt everything deeply,” says Boston Globe reporter Tom Oliphant of this incident, in the course of the film, “but nothing more deeply than his own culpability” in cherry-picking evidence in order to help sustain and bring about an expansion of the war.

After his stint in the Johnson Administration, he would travel to Vietnam to study the situation at first hand; after two years he came to the conclusion that, as he puts it, “we were not going to win this war in their back yard.” He wrote and, on the flight back home, submitted a 100-page report to McNamara, who actually read every page on the flight, in Ellsberg’s presence. Though McNamara was obliged to present a false optimism to the press on the tarmac (an incident of duplicity that dismayed Ellsberg) McNamara was apparently convinced that Ellsberg was on to something, and in order to learn how the US involvement had begun and had developed, he comissioned the Pentagon Papers study from the RAND Corporation.

Ellsberg returned to his former employer to work on the study, and it would finally disillusion him completely: the longer he worked on it, and the more he read of it, he came to realize, in his much-quoted words, that “it had been an American war from the start. It wasn’t a question of being on the right side or the wrong side; we were the wrong side.” But he still didn’t know what he could do in order to effectively oppose the war; his paycheck, after all, was still underwritten by the Department of Defense.

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In his search for an answer, he began spending time with anti-war activists, and even rekindled a romance with one of them, Patricia Marx. (She had accompanied him to Vietnam, but they broke up when he refused to stop trying to do good from the inside.) These activities led to the defining event of his life. In an emotional sequence, Ellsberg tells of listening to a speech given by draft resister Randy Kehler. When Kehler stated that he was going to prison for his beliefs, it had a cathartic effect on Ellsberg: “I felt like my head had split in two, but really, my life had split in two.” After he pulled himself together, he realized that he was also willing to go to prison to help end this war. So what could he do now?

What he could uniquely do was make known the information in that 7,000-page document. At first he attempted to use channels that were within the law — he tried to convince Henry Kissinger, without success, to convince Nixon to withdraw, and he leaked copies to those Senators and Congressmen he felt were in sympathy with his position. But nothing came of those legal channels, and he was forced to consider going to the press.

That phase of the story is told with a great deal of flair by filmmakers Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich. They play well the tension of the countless nights of smuggling pages from his office safe to a photocopier elsewhere in the city, and the ultimately comic moment when he was almost caught.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →