Last night I watched the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. I was 20 years old on June 13, 1971 when The New York Times printed its first installment of the 7,000-page document leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg. I lived in Springfield, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. Although I was against the Vietnam War, I was no more politically engaged then as I am now. I avoided most of the antiwar protests, preferring to stay away from the agitation.
Not at all like Ellsberg, who many considered a traitor. But Daniel Ellsberg can be a traitor, then as now, only to those who insisted on looking the other way in face of the truth. What the Pentagon Papers revealed was that during Harry Truman’s administration through Lyndon Johnson’s, every president (including Eisenhower and Kennedy) lied about our intentions and scope of involvement in Vietnam.
For years, Ellsberg had been complicit in the lie. He was the brilliant Pentagon analyst and strategist who, as an employee of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, dug deep to find the evidence Lyndon Johnson demanded in order to escalate the war. Johnson, meanwhile, insisted our involvement would be minimal. Later, as we got more deeply immersed, Ellsberg accompanied McNamara and others on a fact-finding mission the Vietnam. On the way back, during an inflight meeting with other dignitaries, McNamara argued that things were no better now than they were the year before. He asked Ellsberg’s opinion. Ellsberg, who had spent much time in the combat zone, agreed that nothing had changed. For McNamara, no change meant things were getting worse. However, as the documentary so vividly points out, immediately upon disembarking from the plane McNamara, standing in front of a cluster of microphones, announced to the country that conditions in Vietnam had vastly improved over the past year.
McNamara himself commissioned the study that would eventually become the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was was one of the few people who had access to the entire document. Ellsberg’s regret was that he didn’t make the document public years before. In the end, though, he was willing to go to prison for his conviction that the United States was responsible for the murder of millions of Vietnamese and the war needed to end. On top of that, 58,000 Americans died so America could “save face” in the face of one blunder after another carried out by egoistic and jingoistic leaders.
Shortly after the release of the Papers, Ellsberg gave himself up to the authorities. In a public statement Ellsberg said, “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.” If convicted, Ellsberg would have gone to prison for conspiracy and other crimes against the state (maximum sentence of 115 years) had his trial in 1973 not been thrown out due to government misconduct.
During the documentary, one of the interviewees involved with the trial said that the defense attorney cautioned against selecting middle-aged men for the jury. The reasoning was that most men who reached middle age did so at the expense of their convictions, and they would hold disdain for Ellsberg.
Regardless of whether you think Ellsberg a traitor or a patriot, the Pentagon Papers revealed one thing about our government that went far beyond the Vietnam War: the leaders of the United States will lie to their constituents. In the wake of that revelation, particularly in regards to the invasion of Iraq, a large number of American citizens don’t mind being lied to.
Has anything changed?