I was rooting, at Oscar time, for the documentary, "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," to win for best documentary (in the event, another good film, "The Cove," won). Those who remember Errol Morris’ 2004 Oscar-winning documentary, "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," will note resemblances, in places, with "The Most Dangerous Man," even to the extraordinary length of their titles.
At one point in "The Most Dangerous Man," Ellsberg, who had worked closely with McNamara, corroborates McNamara’s claim, in "The Fog of War," that he, fairly early on, told President Johnson to pull back from bombings in Viet Nam. Ellsberg recounts his own aversion, however, when, just at the very time McNamara was expressing to him doubts about the war, he appeared on TV, spouting spin—lies about the military progress being, then, made. Ellsberg had, toward the beginning of the Viet Nam war, authored, for McNamara, a sensationalistic account of a soldier’s torture by the North Vietnamese which bolstered McNamara’s initial support for the war. The Most Dangerous Man comes across almost as a cliff-hanger suspense drama. One film critic has speculated that “in another time and culture, a story of this scale would deserve an opera.”
I met Ellsberg once, by chance, as we were both waiting in line at a Berkeley drug-store, pharmacy (It having been Berkeley, I may have just needed to add that clarification: pharmacy!). I introduced myself to him as a Jesuit priest and a long-time admirer of his anti-war work. I also told him that I had a nodding acquaintance with his son, Robert (the editor of the Catholic Orbis Press). Robert shows up in the film, both as a teenager (in old footage) and as an adult. Ellsberg pressed his two children into yeoman’s service, helping him, secretly, photo-copy the 7,000 pages of The Pentagon Papers. Not surprisingly, Ellsberg’s former wife, their mother, was not so pleased.
The epithet, “The most dangerous man in America” was bestowed as a sobriquet on Ellsberg by Henry Kissinger. The two men knew each other quite well. In a profound sense, the movie is about a transformation that was not just political but spiritual. Ellsberg, not the most cuddly guy nor the most lovable, is, nevertheless, someone who is exacting and rigorous. He shows little sympathy for moral weakness (least of all his own). He was also endowed with a strategic cunning. The film recounts the biography of a man of conviction and courage who risked everything, freedom, family, friends and career for his principles.
Most of us enact bad orders, alas, all too well. It is relatively rare for anyone, working at any level in the public or private sector, to give such priority to conscience over career—or over a pay check. I referenced the documentary, a week ago, when I was presenting an adult faith formation lecture in our parish on Ignatian Discernment. I had been using an excellent book by Dean Brackley, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, which talks about cultural biases, collective obstacles to freedom and an integral discernment. The documentary shows a man who had to buck his closest colleagues, old friends and his initial variant of patriotism, in the name of conscience and true patriotism.
Efficiently wedding archival footage to contemporary interviews, "The Most Dangerous Man" tells the story of an initial Cold Warrior, hired to feed rationales for expanding the war to his boss, Robert McNamara. His transformation from hawk to dove came slowly. Ellsberg, who had earlier in his career been one of the youngest Marine commanding officers, made personal visits to the Mekong jungle battlefields. The illuminating moment came when he realized that the war was not truly winnable and would involve many civilian and military casualties. He came to see that its prosecution, even escalation, was more about “saving face” for America than for any true strategic purpose. Working at the Rand Corporation, he read the Pentagon papers which documented a continuous fabric of public lies about Viet Nam, stretching through the Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon administrations.
Ever, in his deepest bones, a patriot, Ellsberg now says of his actions: “I realized I wasn’t discharging my responsibility by keeping these secrets.” Still, he weighed—old cold warrior and Pentagon think-tanker that we was—issues of national security. Initially, he sent copies of the purloined Pentagon Papers to anti-war Senators Fulbright and McGovern. He argued that they, as senators, could use the material, free from any prosecution. They sat on the material and did not seem to act. Then, and only then, did he leak the papers to 17 different newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe.
The documentary makes much of how the Supreme Court, in a landmark 1971 decision for free-speech (New York Times Vs. United States), upheld the papers’ right to publish. One listens in horror, during the documentary, to tapes from the Nixon White House, where the sitting president tells Henry Kissinger to consider a nuclear option in Viet Nam and that he, Nixon, was not concerned about civilian casualties. The Nixon tapes also disclose his plans for Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt to break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to garner confidential and potentially incriminating material. Ellsberg was arrested for felony treason under the Espionage Act of 1917. During the trial, it became apparent that the government had authorized a break-in to Lewis Fielding’s (Ellsberg’s psychiatrist) office, and had conducted wire-taps on Ellsberg without authorization. John Ehrlichman had even approached Judge William Byrne during the 1973 trial of Ellsberg, offering him a high government post. The Judge ultimately dismissed the trial and said: “The totality of the circumstances of this case offend a sense of justice. The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case.”
I came away from the documentary with both a sense of hope and some gloom. My hope rested on the fact that one man of conscience and principle can make a difference. My hope lay in the importance and power of newspapers to hold our government accountable. One irony in the film, however, was that the mere release of the Pentagon papers became much bigger news than their actual content. Despite their release, Richard Nixon got re-elected in 1972 by a landslide. The populist tone of the film leaves also something of a bitter aftertaste which hints that, when we ignore the details, we only ensure that they will be repeated. Repeated they were with the immoral invasion of Iraq and the dubious cover-ups of the Bush administration. As one movie critic noted: “Anyone with any doubt of the importance, in a functioning democracy, of American newspapers—with working newsrooms full of professional, paid journalists—needs to see this movie.” Alas, many of America’s newspapers, today, are struggling to keep afloat. Just maybe, John Adams who wrote a majestic opera, "Doctor Atomic," about another war-tinged figure, J. Robert Oppenheimer, might be induced to write that opera the Ellsberg story deserves.
John Coleman, S.J.