Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers


Denise Morris and I reviewed The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. This documentary, released last year to theaters and this year on DVD, also played on PBS in October , and is available streaming on Netflix, and you can put a hold on one of the several copies available through the Multnomah County library.

The film, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, explains what the Pentagon Papers were, traces how Ellsberg came to release them, and considers some of the consequences. The story resonates with the current wikileaks story, as Ellsberg has noted in his statements of support for Julian Assange and Bradley Manning or whoever the whistleblower was.

The Pentagon Papers were a Rand Corporation study of the history of the US involvement in Vietnam, 47 volumes and 7000 pages long, that included classified documents and revealed the repeated deceptions involved. The report revealed the illegal bombing of Laos and Cambodia, and showed that President Truman financed the French to retake its former colony even though he knew the French were fighting a national movement that had the support of the people; Eisenhower supported a brutal dictator in canceling elections called for by the 1954 Geneva Accords; Kennedy sent in troops in violation of the Geneva Accord; and Johnson started the buildup before he said he was going to.

Ellsberg had been a cold warrior, a marine, had worked for the Rand Corporation on nuclear deterrence strategies, had worked at the pentagon under McNamara and knew firsthand that the public presentation of the Gulf of Tonkin was a series of lies. He knew that the Vietnam conflict was unwinnable and that McNamara and Kissinger knew that, too. But reading the report convinced him the Vietnam conflict was not just a problem, or a mistake, or a quagmire, but a crime. Hearing draft resister Randy Kehler talking about his willingness to go to prison to avoid cooperating with the draft convinced Ellsberg that it was worthwhile to trade his career and possibly his personal freedom for ending the war by releasing the report. He sent copies to antiwar members of congress, but William Fulbright, George McGovern, and Pete McCloskey did nothing with the report.

So he gave it to the New York Times, which began publishing it in 1971. The Nixon Administration got an injunction against the paper to stop the publication. So Ellsberg gave it to the Washington Post, which was also enjoined from publishing. So Ellsberg gave it to 17 other papers, which published part of it, and to Senator Mike Gravel, who read it into the record. The Supreme court ruled that the Times and Post had a right to publish, because proving the need for prior censorship is a heavy burden and the government didn't meet that burden. In the film, ACLU lawyer Ann Beeson stresses the importance of the case for journalism and first amendment rights.

Ellsberg and his former Rand colleague Tony Russo, who had encouraged him to release the report and had helped with xeroxing, were charged with espionage and conspiracy. The Espionage Act is the same that the current administration is rumored to be considering for prosecution of Julian Assange.

Information alone doesn't create the change.

I gave up my job, my career, my clearance, and I staked my freedom on a gamble: If the American people knew the truth about how they had been lied to, about the myths had led them to endorse this butchery for 25 years, that they would choose against it. And the risk that you take when you do that, is that you'll learn something ultimately about you're fellow citizens that you won't like to hear, and that is that they hear it, they learn from it, they understand it, and they proceed to ignore it.

Nixon was re-elected in 1972. But Nixon's anxiety and anger about leaks led to the White House plumbers and the break-in to Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office to try to get material to smear him, and eventuated in the Watergate break-in and the resignation of Nixon--what John Dean in the film describes as a "dark period" at the Nixon White House. The judge ruled a mistrial in the Ellsberg and Russo case, after white house council John Ehrlichman tried to bribe the judge by offering to make him head of the FBI. In 1974, facing probable impeachment Nixon resigned; 9 months later Vietnam war ended.

The web site for The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers includes a teacher's guide with curriculum from the Zinn Education Project.


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