Last week, I saw a TV show that was both riveting and disturbing. And no, I’m not referring to Michael Bolton getting kicked off “Dancing With the Stars” (a show whose success mystifies me).
“The Most Dangerous Man in America” is an Oscar-nominated documentary, which aired on PBS (available online). It’s the transformational story of Daniel Ellsberg, a State Department analyst and advocate of the Vietnam War, who was driven by conscience to leak the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in June of 1971. So began a constitutional scandal, which culminated in Watergate, sent shock waves across America and forced a presidential resignation.
The Pentagon Papers were government files that exposed lies told by JFK, LBJ and Nixon in their prosecution of the Vietnam War. Weeks after its publication in The Times, Ellsberg was arrested and faced 115 years in prison.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but recognize the parallels of the 13-year Vietnam War to Iraq and Afghanistan. (Oct. 7 began our 10th year in Afghanistan!) I was also reminded of the Santa Monica connection as Ellsberg worked at the RAND Corporation.
The Pentagon Papers began as a top-secret study conducted at RAND chronicling our inglorious history in Vietnam. It was commissioned in 1967 by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had growing doubts about the war. LBJ, however, was determined at all costs not to be the first president to lose a war to the Communists (an indefensible rationale for an indefensible war).
Curiously, Ellsberg had first-hand knowledge of perhaps the biggest lie of Vietnam. On Aug. 4, 1964, Ellsberg, a Harvard graduate and former marine officer, began working at the Pentagon. That day, cables were received from U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, claiming that the North Vietnamese had fired on them. Within hours, however, another cable arrived saying that “all previous cables are in question.”
As it turned out, the so-called “attacks” were likely radar malfunctions. (LBJ even joked, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales.”) In 2005, a National Security Agency report stated, “It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened.”
And yet, on Aug. 7, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving LBJ authorization to use military force in Southeast Asia. (Eight years ago tomorrow, Congress authorized George Bush to invade Iraq, proving the lessons of Vietnam had been sadly forgotten.)
Faced with a painful moral dilemma, in 1969 Ellsberg decided to sneak the incriminating files out of RAND and photocopy the approximately 7,000 documents. For a year and a half, he tried to get Congressional leaders to hold hearings, but to no avail. Finally, he went to the press. On the morning of June 13, 1971, a shocked nation read portions of the Pentagon Papers on the front page of the New York Times.
“The Most Dangerous Man in America” plays like a political thriller. Among the highlights (or lowlights) are that JFK sent troops to Vietnam in violation of the Geneva Accords; that LBJ, while campaigning as the “peace candidate” in 1964, planned to widen the war; and that Richard Nixon secretly bombed Cambodia and Laos and contemplated nuking Vietnam. (On the audio we hear Nixon bark at Henry Kissinger, “Are you afraid to drop a nuclear bomb on these people?”)
Paranoid about intelligence leaks, Nixon orchestrated the aptly named “plumbers,” a clandestine operation that wiretapped Ellsberg’s phone and broke into his psychiatrist’s office (and later, the Watergate Hotel).
Due to gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering (and offering Ellsberg’s trial judge the directorship of the FBI) on May 11, 1973, all charges against Ellsberg were dismissed. On Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon resigned in disgrace, and in April 1975, the Vietnam War finally ended. And so concluded one of the darkest chapters in American history.
In retrospect, among the more disturbing revelations in the Pentagon Papers was the CIA coordination of the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, our handpicked dictator in South Vietnam. This was just one example of our “dancing with dictators,” a list that includes Norriega, the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein, to name but a few.
Even Tea Partier Glenn Beck deciphers the downside of dealing with despots. (Alliteration, anyone?) Shortly after 9/11, Beck commented, “Did we deserve to be attacked? No! Were we minding our own business? No. Were we in bed with dictators? Yes! Does that cause problems. Yes!” (To which I respond, is it weird to be agreeing with Glenn Beck? Yes!)
“The Most Dangerous Man in America,” directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, and narrated by Daniel Ellsberg, is online through Oct. 27 at www.pbs.org. For fans of the show, I apologize because I have no idea when the next “Dancing with the Stars” airs.
When Jack isn’t busy lamenting disastrous wars, he can be reached at Jnsmdp@aol.com.