Sunday, September 27, 2009

Daniel Ellsberg and His Country: An American Love Story

"The Most Dangerous Man in America," a documentary by filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, is being shown in Los Angeles and New York (until September 29th at the Film Forum) as well as film festivals. I hope it gets a broader release because it's best seen in a theatre, not because of the film's cinematic qualities but because that's one way to feel what Ellsberg and the filmmakers show us: individual conscience is a group activity.

The film, brilliantly edited, tells a number of stories and stories-behind-the-stories (and it was a nice surprise to encounter in the film my friend and co-editor Richard Falk, himself a distinguished anti-war scholar and activist).

As political narrative the opening scenes depicting the Johnson White House's fabrication of Vietnamese aggression to elicit Congressional authorization for the Vietnam War are surreal in their spot-on resemblance to how Cheney obtained approval for the Iraq war. The insidiously crafted bogus threats indicating America was vulnerable worked their magic on two gullible Congresses. In the film, as in life itself, the people's branch of government comes off almost as bad as the imperial presidency.

(When Ellsberg first tries to leak the Rand Corporation's 7,000 page "Top Secret" report documenting U.S. lies behind the conflict dating back to the 1950s, it was to a spineless Senator J. William Fulbright, Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee who, despite his supposed rejection of U.S. policy, pretended as though the report did not exist. Ellsberg was shocked that politicians who had opposed the war for much longer than he had were too scared to release documents that might have ended it. He spent months carefully organizing the report's copying and delivery, and then nothing happened.)

It took months of smuggling out pieces of the report and then copying them in a secret location before Ellsberg had enough copies to share with key politicians. For this, Ellsberg believed that he might go to prison. In a typically thoughtful choice of honesty over secrecy, which also was an attempt to insure his 14-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter would not think him a kook -- what would they think if one day he's suddenly arrested as a traitor? -- he explained what he was doing as he was doing it. More than that, he wanted to honor them by including them in this important work; one evening his son was making the copies and his daughter was cutting off "Top Secret" at the top.

Ellsberg knew that he was putting his children at risk in various ways, including possibly sentencing them to a father behind bars, but preferred this over the certain calamity of lies. One of the film's motifs is calling into question bourgeois ideals of family and security, suggesting that these values corrode integrity and life itself. (If you care more about what your friends and co-workers think of you than you do about government bombing of civilians, innocent people die.)

Children 10 or older will really enjoy this film.

Why is this an American love story? Because it opens with a recently divorced Ellsberg working as a defense analyst and wooing a woman who, while drawn to him, could not abide by his support of the war. She ends their relationship but it seems that she started a process that profoundly changed him. Later, as Ellsberg is on the brink of leaking the Pentagon Papers, they reunite, marry, and Patricia supports him in this decision and goes underground with him for a while.

But more than their personal relationship, this is a story of Ellsberg's commitment to his government and democracy, faith in the idea that if the people knew the truth, they would do the right thing and end the war. A refrain that occurs more than once is Ellsberg's incitements of his fellow citizens to action. Quotations from Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. come easily to him.

Despite the film's concluding notes indicating Nixon's resignation and the end of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers seem to have played more of a role in the former than the latter. Nixon becomes consumed by revenge after the Supreme Court allows the press to publish the Pentagon Papers and this leads him to establish the secret "plumbers" group that would break into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office and, later, bug the Democrats at the Watergate complex.

It seems a little sad but also fitting that the virtues of the woman Ellsberg married and that she admired in him meant so little to the country on whose behalf these passions were devoted. At one point Ellsberg quotes the aphorism "if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country" and tells us that he never understood why anyone would endorse loyalty to a friend instead of one's country when morality seemed to demand the opposite. There are a few other comrades-against-arms we meet who embody the Ellsbergs' ideals, all allies through the peace movement, but America does not come off as an obviously worthy love interest.

True, there is justice and even poetry when the judge in the Ellsberg and Russo case declares a mistrial and dismisses the charges after a Nixon henchman tried bribing the judge by promising him a high-level FBI appointment, but in the end Ellsberg seems to realize that the leaked report, the words themselves, did not really matter and his country would act in the same stupid way it always had. Ellsberg reflects on what it meant that after all he risked and lost, people seemed not to care.


It is unclear whether Ellsberg believes that his love for America has been betrayed, will remain ineluctably unrequited, or whether America might someday reciprocate. Perhaps that's what makes this such a great story.

UPDATE, 9/28/09: Today's column by Frank Rich shows how these debates from the 1960s are being rehashed in the Obama White House.

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