by Bob Edwards
Daniel Ellsberg graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, but interrupted his doctoral studies to enlist in the Marine Corps. Today he says being a company commander was the most satisfying job he ever had. Back in civilian life, Ellsberg went to work for the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation, eagerly participating in the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. On a visit to Vietnam, he actually went on patrol and fought with Marine units. But it was also on this visit that Ellsberg learned the true nature of the Vietnamese insurgency—concluded that the war could not be won—and that American officials were lying about the prospects for success. When the Pentagon commissioned the Rand Corporation to compile a history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Ellsberg tried to share it with the doves in Congress. He got a cool reception from Congressional members nervous about having access to classified information. So Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and disappeared for a couple of weeks. He became the most prominent whistle-blower in American history and the consequences of his action reached far beyond the war. The Nixon Administration obtained a restraining order halting Times stories about the papers, so Ellsberg sent a copy to the Washington Post. When the Post was restrained, Ellsberg gave a copy to the Boston Globe, then Newsday, and so on. The papers fought the restraining orders all the way to the Supreme Court, resulting in the most important First Amendment decision ever. The court ruled that prior restraint of the press’s right to publish was unconstitutional. Ellsberg himself was charged with multiple violations of the Espionage Act, but the government bungled the case and charges were dropped when it was revealed that the presiding judge had been offered the job of FBI director.
There were still more consequences. Because of Ellsberg, the Nixon Administration created the plumbers unit—so-named because they were to plug leaks. The plumbers broke into the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist—and later broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office building in Washington. Those actions ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation in disgrace and the elevation of Gerald Ford to the presidency, even though no American outside Ford’s Michigan Congressional district had ever voted for him.
That’s a whole bunch of history for a boy from Chicago whose mother made him practice piano. Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America.” That’s the title of a new documentary film by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. The filmmakers have the Nixon White House audio tapes at their disposal and hearing how much Ellsberg drove Nixon crazy is one of the more entertaining features of the documentary. Ellsberg today opposes the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was very passionate about that in our interview.
It’s hard to think of Daniel Ellsberg as a “whistle-blower” because he sounded something much louder than a mere whistle. He called out our highest leaders for their lies and had the courage to face the consequences for doing so. History has vindicated him.
Ellsberg’s 2002 memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers is called Secrets.
Click here to buy your own DVD copy of The Most Dangerous Man in America.
Here is the trailer for the documentary, which has been nominated for an Academy Award.