Tuesday, March 22 at 9 p.m. –The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
(Rochester, NY) – When in 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked a secret Pentagon history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam to the press, the shockwaves it set off may have been due nearly as much to the leaker as to the information leaked. While Americans were painstakingly digesting the documents’ long and byzantine history — which showed the nation’s leaders, both Democratic and Republican, lying about the facts of the war, proclaiming their desire for peace while seeking wider war, declaring fidelity to democracy while sabotaging elections, and exhibiting a sweeping callousness to the loss of both Vietnamese and American lives — Ellsberg himself dramatically embodied the country’s division over the Vietnam War.
As recounted in the new film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, airing Tuesday, March 22 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV/HD (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11), Dr. Daniel Ellsberg was one of the few people who even had full access to the papers, to which he himself had contributed. Far from being an outsider, the Harvard-educated former Marine officer had worked hard, and brilliantly in the view of his superiors, as a Pentagon analyst justifying expanded U.S. military action in Indochina. After The New York Times became the first newspaper to begin publishing “The Pentagon Papers” on June 13, 1971, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger told his staff that Ellsberg was “the most dangerous man in America who must be stopped at all costs.”
To tell this gripping tale, the filmmakers have assembled a who’s-who of participants in the events surrounding the papers’ publication: Mort Halperin, who supervised the “Vietnam War Study,” as it was originally called, at the Pentagon; Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling, a fellow analyst at the RAND Corporation, a military think tank; Egil “Bud” Krogh, the Nixon White House aide who directed the “Plumbers Unit” of Watergate infamy; Anthony Russo, another RAND analyst who encouraged Ellsberg’s leak of the study and later faced charges of conspiracy and espionage; John Dean, Nixon’s White House Counsel, who ultimately broke open the Watergate case; The New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith, who wrote some of the first Pentagon Papers stories; the Times’ General Counsel James Goodale, who gave the go-ahead for their publication in the face of more cautious legal views; Leonard Weinglass, Russo’s defense attorney; draft resister Randy Kehler, whose willingness to go to jail to stop the war profoundly affected Ellsberg; Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA), who recognized the papers’ importance but didn’t know what to do with them; and Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK), who during a filibuster against the draft finally got the entire 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record.
Revelatory archival audio and film footage add the voices and images of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon; Henry Kissinger; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; early Congressional war critic Senator Wayne Morse (D-OR); iconic news figures including Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, and talk-show host Dick Cavett, who all did so much to define the Vietnam War era.
The Most Dangerous Man in America is a comprehensive look at the release of the Pentagon Papers and the political firestorm that may have sealed Americans’ disenchantment with the war, and which certainly sealed the fate of the Nixon Administration. But the film is also an intensely intimate look into the conscience of a gifted and intelligent man who wrestled personally and professionally with what he came to see as the contradictions between American ideals and American power in Southeast Asia. The story is illuminated with special insight from Ellsberg’s wife of 40 years, Patricia; his son Robert (from a previous marriage), who as a boy helped with the onerous job of photocopying the voluminous papers; historian Howard Zinn, one of a group of radical academics that supported and befriended Ellsberg; and Ghandian peace activist Janaki Tschannerl, who helped Ellsberg work through his transformation from, as newscasts of the day put it, “hawk to dove.”
The Most Dangerous Man in America is a dramatic recounting of a watershed turn not only in the struggle over the Vietnam War but in Americans’ understanding of issues of war and peace, the vitality of democracy and higher notions of duty and patriotism. Ellsberg would likely point out that it is not a new turn in American thinking. He’s fond of quoting Henry David Thoreau, America’s first theorist and practitioner of “civil disobedience,” who advised his fellow citizens to “cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”
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