Henry Kissinger called Daniel Ellsberg “The most dangerous man in America,” when the Pentagon Papers were leaked. It may have been more accurate to have called him “The most dangerous man to Richard Nixon’s presidency.” While the Pentagon Papers themselves were a big story, the leaking of them led directly to the series of events that ultimately brought down Nixon’s presidency.
In June, 1971 The New York Times first published the official documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. When this occurred, Nixon was absolutely furious. He vowed that nothing like that would ever happen again, and formed a special White House strike-team called the “Plumbers.”
Their job was to make all the leaks go away, by whatever means necessary. The first stop for them was the office of Mr. Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, to search for dirt to smear him with. They then moved on to a D.C. hotel called The Watergate. When the break-ins, and subsequent cover-ups were discovered, Richard Nixon became the only sitting President to ever resign from office.
The excellent two-hour film The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) details this incredible story from beginning. to end. Ellsberg was certainly no threat to the nation when he began his career with the Pentagon. He was a Harvard graduate who had worked at the think-tank Rand Corporation as a consultant to the Department Of Defense for years. When he actually joined the DOD he reported to the top dog, Secretary Of Defense Robert McNamera.
Ellsberg spent two years in Saigon as a State Department bureaucrat, to see the war first-hand. He then returned to Rand and was put to work on a top-secret project of McNamera’s called “U.S. Decision-Making in Vietnam 1945-1968.” This report is what was eventually leaked to the press as the Pentagon Papers. The study indicates that U.S. involvement in Vietnam stretched all the way back to the Truman-era. Every president since had maintained the disastrous course, despite mounting evidence that the war was unwinnable.
Ellsberg was brought to trial in 1973 for espionage, and faced a twenty-year prison term if convicted.. But the Nixon administration shot themselves in the foot with the plumbers’ activities before the trial even began. When their actions were revealed in court, the judge dismissed all charges.
Daniel and his wife Patricia continue to work towards ending war throughout the world to this day. The story of their courtship provides an interesting backdrop for his gradual awakening to the horrors of what was occurring in Southeast Asia at the time. When Patricia first met him, she could not get past the fact that he worked in the Pentagon, the heart and soul of evil to her. Later, after Ellsberg had read the documents and was radicalized, their paths crossed again. This time around they married.
This is an outstanding documentary of a pivotal moment in American history. So good in fact, that it was nominated for an Academy Award this year. While The Most Dangerous Man In America did not ultimately take home the statue, it is the very model of what a flawless historical documentary should look like. The PBS POV series’ airing will conclude the 23rd season of POV, America’s longest running independent documentary series. It is a telecast that should not be missed.