He was called the most dangerous man in America. In 1971, government contractor Daniel Ellsberg was awarded that moniker by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. While Ellsberg spent his days analyzing the ongoing war in Vietnam, he spent his evenings photocopying top secret documents that he sneaked home so he could distribute them to various national newspapers in an effort to stop — or at least slow the progress of — the war.
These documents, which would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers, showed that both President Richard Nixon and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara knew that America could not win the war, but that they were going to continue to fight it in an attempt to save face.
“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” the Oscar-nominated documentary that opened at the E Street Cinema last week, explores Ellsberg’s changing feelings toward the war and his eventual struggle to stop it.
The war was “unjustified homicide,” Ellsberg, at the time a military analyst for the RAND Corp., says in the film. “The murder had to stop.”
The 92-minute film was directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith and shot over five years. In addition to examining Ellsberg’s motives, the film also provides a history of the Vietnam War. Video images of fighting in Asia are spliced with various presidential speeches and footage of young Americans protesting.
“The [present day] parallels to that period — the Pentagon Papers and the Vietnam War — are unmistakable, and what Dan did at that time seemed to have so much to say to the American public. To tell the story seemed like a no-brainer,” Goldsmith says.
While the film certainly tells a political narrative, it also tells of the love story between Ellsberg and his wife, Patricia, both of whom were interviewed for the documentary. The couple first met early in the war, but they split up because of their differing views on the conflict. Initially Daniel Ellsberg supported the war, while Patricia was adamantly against it.
“I was the one who broke it because I didn’t want that degree of criticism. I thought, How can I live with someone who doesn’t give me the benefit of the doubt?'” Ellsberg says.
The couple spent three years apart and eventually reunited after Ellsberg changed his opinion on the war. He says the turning point for him came when he realized that young men in America either had the option of going to fight an unwinnable war or going to jail for refusing to fight for something they didn’t believe in.
Upon this realization Ellsberg reunited with and soon married Patricia. Together the two became active in trying to put an end to the conflict by photocopying and distributing government documents. The couple sent the papers to the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and others.
“From that time on we were very much partners,” he says. “That was a very bonding experience.”
Ellsberg enlisted the help of his children from a previous marriage, who were 13 and 10 years old at the time. The kids spent evenings helping their father make photocopies. Ellsberg says he was motivated to have them help by a fear that he would soon be sent to prison for the rest of his life and thus wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.
“I didn’t even think I’d have bail. I would just see them through thick glass and meanwhile they would be hearing all kinds of things about me,” he says. They would hear “that I had gone crazy or that I was a traitor. So I wanted my son — he was old enough to understand — I wanted him to see that I was doing this in a straightforward, businesslike way. I hadn’t gone crazy.”
In the end, Ellsberg was not sent to prison and the leaked papers did help change the public opinion of the war. His involvement in affecting such change spurred Ellsberg to be a lifelong activist. The now-78-year-old has been arrested nearly 70 times for protesting the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nuclear proliferation and a host of other issues. He hopes the documentary will inspire young people around the country to take action and begin protesting.
“I really think this film has the power of inspiring people to change their lives, to think specifically of telling the truth in situations where that’s necessary, but dangerous in career terms or personal terms,” Ellsberg says. “I think that it can really show them the need for moral courage, for civil courage.”