Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America

Most kids experience an amount of emotional turbulence on the way to adulthood, and I was no exception. And although there were aspects of my adolescence that make me cringe to this day, I could always be certain that at the end of the school day, I had a home to return to with my own bedroom, a dinner table, heating in winter and a backyard to assist in the fantasy of one day playing for the Australian cricket team.

I mention this because the foremost image remaining with me after a viewing of The Most Dangerous Man in America – a compelling documentary on Daniel Ellsberg who leaked a comprehensive RAND Corporation study officially titled United States-Vietnam Relations 1945-1967, otherwise known as the Pentagon Papers, to the New York Times in 1971 – is of a young Vietnamese girl in obvious distress as US marines burn her village to the ground. Such images help explain why Ellsberg sacrificed a promising Government career to inform the American public that the Vietnam War had been packaged and sold as containment of the Communist threat, when in fact the historical record, as recorded in the Pentagon Papers, illuminated fervent imperial ambition across successive US administrations.

The Vietnamese girl’s home had been torched as an outcome of the inappropriately labelled pacification program whose stated aim was to deter the influence of the NLF (National Liberation Front) on the rural South Vietnamese population. Often times villages were razed to the ground, food sources destroyed and the inhabitants relocated to designated ‘strategic hamlets’, which could turn out to be barbed wire encampments.

When Daniel Ellsberg arrived in Vietnam in 1965 to engage in evaluation work for the US State Department, he witnessed the pacification program in action. Ellsberg had noted in 1966 that among the Vietnamese there was an, ‘almost total absence of any organised popular support, or even sympathy for the American backed regime [in Saigon].’ (Young, The Vietnam Wars, p168)

Isn’t it amazing how history has a way of repeating itself, particularly when you consider the questionable level of Afghan civilian support for the American backed Presidency of Hamid Karzai? The current war in Afghanistan is a whole other can of worms that nevertheless deserves further consideration in this particular context.

But let’s return to Daniel Ellsberg and his crisis of conscience after returning to the US from Vietnam in 1967 and his subsequent involvement with RAND. This government-funded think tank had been tasked by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to put together a comprehensive history of US involvement in Vietnam so that interested parties could make better sense of what was actually going on.

At that point, Ellsberg, although still a faithful Government employee, nevertheless started to express doubts about the validity of the war and increasingly substituted strategic analysis with a moral perspective. He began to view his discontent as an active protest against an executive authority that no longer reflected the will of the people and had become murderous in intent.

This transformation within Ellsberg’s conscience is what makes The Most Dangerous Man in America such compelling viewing. Ellsberg had been an active and willing participant in the Pentagon war machine and had made a successful career for himself both as an academic and government advisor with access at the highest levels. But he increasingly began to perceive the war in terms of the consequences for the young girl with her home destroyed.

US president Lyndon Johnson had escalated the war in the mid 1960s with little concern for the effect on the Vietnamese population. His ‘Great Society’ vision for America seemingly encompassed a belief in preserving and enhancing an enriched culture on home turf while the savagery of the US war machine in Vietnam intensified. The war became all-consuming to the point where Johnson’s tone when discussing Vietnam contained an aura of aggression and violence.

And similar to both Bush administrations linking the promotion of democracy, human rights and self-determination with the overwhelming use of military force to protect powerful domestic interests – which, when looked at more closely, had little to do with spreading freedom and democracy, as large numbers of people throughout the world can attest – the resort to violence in Vietnam became so consuming that such lofty goals as the great society and the promotion of freedom and democracy went right out the window.

The war ground Johnson down and resulted in his decision not to contest the 1968 election. The winner, Richard Nixon, had committed himself to ending the war and loudly proclaimed as much throughout the election campaign, while increasing troop numbers and bringing neighbouring countries Cambodia and Laos into the war through a massive bombing campaign, which Christopher Hitchens, some years back, declared as reasonable grounds for Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to face trial for crimes against humanity.

The Ellsberg documentary reveals Nixon as a truly frightening character, prone to vicious and irrational outbursts. His severe paranoia resulted in the taping of many private conversations documenting a litany of absurd discussions, including wondering aloud whether nuclear weapons should be used against the Vietnamese, with Kissinger chastised for not thinking big enough to seriously consider such an option.

As time went on, it seems that Ellsberg came to an understanding that the preservation of democracy espoused in grand terms by a succession of American Presidents masked an ongoing commitment to violence and terror. When Ellsberg realised that the exercise of executive power by Nixon had gotten completely out of control, he took the necessary steps to alert the public as to what the Vietnam war was actually about by releasing the Pentagon Papers to a number of Senators and then to the New York Times in 1971.

Noam Chomsky notes these documents ‘provide extensive evidence … that American policy in Vietnam was a conscious application of principles of imperial planning that formed part of a consensus established long before the specific period, the 1960s, to which attention is generally restricted.’ (The Essential Chomsky, p175) In terms of imperial planning, Chomsky is referring to such antecedents as the NSC-68 document submitted to US President Harry Truman in 1950 which depicted the escalating Cold War in crude terms as a conflict between Western freedom and Soviet-imposed slavery.

This particular document in effect acted as the blueprint for the prevention of self-determination in those countries outside of the US sphere of influence such as Vietnam. It should not be forgotten that Ho Chi Minh had openly spoken of independence, unification and self-determination for Vietnam shortly after the end of the Second World War, during the time the US supported the demise of European colonialism.

Much like the 2002 US National Security Strategy, which employed the term ‘freedom’ at every available opportunity while also advocating the unilateral use of military force and pre-emptive warfare in direct contravention of the United Nations Charter, so too did NSC-68 proclaim the spread of freedom while promoting a policy of military aggression, the consequences leading to widespread suffering for civilian populations in Africa, Latin America and South East Asia.

In contrast, Ellsberg identified a terrible wrong and did something about it. He consequently faced charges of treason and a lengthy prison term, but a mistrial was declared when it turned out elements within the Nixon administration had intervened to dig up dirt on Ellsberg, and subsequently tainted the case against him. Nixon resigned shortly afterwards in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

The irony of this should not be lost on those capable of rational thought. Anyone who is interested in the abuse of power by those elected to govern should pay close attention to The Most Dangerous Man in America. And given that Australia is currently entrenched in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, violence remains a part of everyday life in Iraq, and US Army Intelligence analyst Bradley Manning has recently been charged with distributing footage of a US military helicopter attack on unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007, there remains little doubt that the world needs more people like Daniel Ellsberg.

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  1. I was struck by Ellsberg’s explanation of the link between his distrust of authority and the death of his mother when he was a young boy. His father was at the wheel of the car in which she died and Ellsberg experienced a profound loss of faith in his father’s strength of character. He regarded his father’s negligence as a fatal flaw and he carried that lack of faith in authority into his professional life. Interesting too that he enlisted the help of his two young children in the clandestine photocopying of the many thousands of pages of what became the Pentagon Papers.

  2. It’s a salutary experience thinking about the political actions in the sixties and seventies, and how they’d be treated by the security state today. I’ve just been reading Mark Aarons’ new book, which discusses the East Timor actions he was involved in during the seventies, including maintaining an illegal radio transmitter to communicate with Fretilin. It struck me that if someone was doing that today — that is, they were in regular radio contact with a guerrilla movement — they’d quite possibly be looking at many, many years gaol under the anti-terror laws.
    Likewise, of course, with the anti-apartheid movement and it’s enthusiastic embrace of the Nelson Mandela, a man who only got off the State Department’s terrorist watchlist a few years ago.

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