'The Pentagon Papers' revisited

There is that wonderful adage: If you remember the '60s, you weren't there.

Well, Daniel Ellsberg was there and remembers clearly his remarkable conversion from Vietnam War hawk — working for the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation — to anti-war activist, a transformation that would alter the course of U.S. history beyond anything he could have imagined.

The documentary film, "The Most Dangerous Man in American: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," narrated by Ellsberg, recounts one of the most tumultuous periods in recent American history. During the late '60s, the Vietnam War was then in full stride and anti-war, anti-draft, and anti-government protests were sweeping the country from seaboard to seaboard, from college campus to college campus. Looking back, it was a remarkable period, a zeitgeist of cultural and political change like no other.

Part of that history, obscured now by time and romantic revisionism, was the Daniel Ellsberg-Pentagon Papers affair that rocked beltway Washington, the White House and the Pentagon. At the time, as events coalesced, it was deemed a pivotal moment in politics and in the conduct of the war. And the unintended consequences, like a stone dropped in a still pond, rippled in all directions, resulting, eventually, in the war finally ending, followed by the resignation of President Richard Nixon after scandalous revelations were disclosed about break-ins and cover-ups, orchestrated by the White House.

This was the context for this compelling film about one man's crisis of conscience. In essence, "The Most Dangerous Man" is a profile in courage — Ellsberg was indicted and could have been sentenced to prison for 115 years — and it begs the question, who among us would have stepped forward while understanding that the full weight of the federal government would be brought to bear as a result?

Nevertheless, Ellsberg, in a stunning act of civil disobedience, photocopied and then leaked 7,000 pages of government papers about the conduct of the war to the New York Times. Papers that put the lie to much of the rationale and execution of the war in Vietnam, a lie that threaded its way through the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.

President Lyndon Johnson, in search of a rationale for escalating the Vietnam conflict (it was then a conflict), created out of whole cloth an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, telling the American people that our naval ships had been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. He then used that faux incident to extract from Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that was, in effect, a declaration of war against Vietnam. It was pure theater.

The film also offers cogent testimony as to why our democracy needs a robust free press. Initially, it was the New York Times that stepped forward and printed the Pentagon Papers. And when the Times was enjoined from publishing, 17 other national newspapers then picked up the story.

The public's right to know, the editors and publishers decided, far outweighed any damage that the papers might do to national security. In the annals of a free press, it was a stunning moment and for those papers involved also a profile in courage.

Share This Story