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The Most Dangerous Man in America

If you can remember Nixon, you probably know the name Daniel Ellsberg.

Either way you’ve almost certainly heard of the Pentagon Papers — the explosive documents detailing government deception of the public during the Vietnam War, which Ellsberg leaked to the New York Times and other papers in 1971.

The Most Dangerous Man in America, a new documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, tells Ellsberg’s story, from his early role as a top military analyst under Robert McNamara to his growing doubts and decision — and subsequent struggle — to expose the truth.

After the alleged Gulf of Tonkin attack on a U.S. ship by North Vietnam, the Pentagon rushed to make the case for war. Daniel Ellsberg, who had just arrived at the Pentagon as a military analyst, played a key role — digging to find an incident of prisoner abuse to further justify a U.S. attack on North Vietnam.

Yet what became known to the public only much later became clear “within days” to the Pentagon, according to Ellsberg.

There had been no attack.

No one spoke out. It was a conspiracy of silence perpetrated by thousands. And the war in Vietnam rolled forward.

The film invites comparisons with the invasion of Iraq — a war sold to the public with faked intelligence. At the film’s Boston debut, with Ellsberg present afterward, the first audience comment made the link. But Ellsberg’s story offers much more than a history lesson about citizen responsibility in the face of government deceit.

From the start, Ellsberg was personally against a bombing campaign yet justified the war because he saw it through an overarching Cold War lens. This powerful mental frame, reinforced all around him, turned Ellsberg into a living contradiction — facilitating something he opposed morally.

Ultimately, it was reading the war’s secret history in the Pentagon Papers, to which he himself had contributed, that convinced Ellsberg the conflict had been “a crime from the start.”

And more, as he says in the film, that “keeping silent in public about what I’d read and heard made me an accomplice.”

Ellsberg began showing up at anti-war events where he was exposed to the courage of young draft resisters — notably Randy Kehler. Ellsberg’s self-justifying mental frame shattered as he met men willing to be imprisoned rather than fight in a war they opposed.

In his words: “My life split in two.”

Here, for me, is the film’s edge that extends beyond war or any single issue. It speaks to the hearts of millions of Americans who sense their democracy is being taken from them. With $3.5 billion spent lobbying last year, privately held government — the ultimate oxymoron — seems disturbingly apt. Eighty percent of Americans disapproved of the January Supreme Court’s decision that only made matters worse, further unleashing corporate campaign spending.

In Getting a Grip2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want, I suggest that many Americans are experiencing something akin to what Ellsberg felt: a “moment of internal dissonance” where one realizes that a long-held way of seeing no longer helps make sense of the world.

For Ellsberg, suddenly he saw the entire situation differently and his action followed suit.

Copying the Pentagon Papers to get them to the press was a Herculean task involving 7,000 pages of documents, copied one page at a time. Then, when getting the explosive reports to liberal congressmen had little effect, Ellsberg risked everything — his career, his credibility and his very freedom to do what he thought was right.

He took the highly-classified documents from the RAND Corporation to the press himself. Government charges against him piled up and he eventually faced up to 115 years in prison.

Ellsberg’s act of courage worked.

It wouldn’t have worked if he’d been alone, but he wasn’t, for a simple yet powerful reason:

Courage is contagious.

Ellsberg’s wife Patricia, whom he had earlier rejected because she didn’t support his role in the war, encouraged his stand, and went into hiding with him. Randy Kehler inspired Ellsberg, too. Ellsberg’s willingness to act in turn inspired others, like his friend Tony Russo, who helped copy the papers and later risked 35 years in prison for refusing to testify against him. And the chain of courage continued — from the New York Times and Washington Post editors who sent the stories to press, the newspaper publishers who resisted enormous government pressure to kill the story, and to a young Sen. Mike Gravel, who read the Pentagon Papers in an emotional and daring filibuster to enter them into the public record should the Supreme Court rule against the newspapers’ right to publish them.

Recent science shows that when we observe an action it affects our brains, via “mirror neurons,” as if we ourselves were acting. It literally changes us. So, in a basic sense, seeing courage in action can actually makes us braver.

Why was Daniel Ellsberg so “dangerous”?

Because one person’s courage has such unpredictable power — the power to effect others and, in doing so, the power to generate broad and lasting change. Ellsberg’s actions, for example, played a role in Nixon’s later impeachment and helped establish a Supreme Court precedent on the freedom of the press, thereby affecting the very nature of American democracy.

Daniel Ellsberg said “no” to an immoral war, but in today’s collective moment of dissonance, our courage to say “no” to privately held government won’t get us far unless it is combined with a “yes”: a practical vision of democracy that does work because it is accountable to us. Henry David Thoreau, whom the film quotes, perhaps says it best:

“Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”

Ellsberg’s story shows us what’s possible when a citizen summons the courage to engage fully in democracy — to cast his whole vote — and to act.

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