Great political documentaries (No6) The Most Dangerous Man in America

Secrecy can be a powerful thing. Occasionally there is a valid case for governments to keep things from their citizens. For instance issues relating to national security. However, sometimes the people need to know what’s going on, in order to be able to properly hold politicians to account.  In these instances governments have to walk a very fine line between the right to know versus the need to know. In many cases they get it wrong which can cause all sorts of issues.

Of course there is also a clear difference between keeping something secret and outright lying. This was the problem with the Vietnam War. Politicians like LBJ, Robert McNamara and Nixon, all said one thing in public and another in private. Even this sort of behaviour can be defended to a certain degree. For instance, several military disasters were downplayed during World War Two for fear of the public losing the will to fight. In the case of Vietnam though, this wasn’t just one or two incidents but the fact that the whole war was one massive lie that went on for the best part of two decades.

That’s why Daniel Ellsberg, an employee of the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation, decided to take a stand by making copies of the governments secret study of the war, and distributing them to Congress and the American media. The papers helped prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that successive presidents, going back to Truman, had lied about America’s military involvement in Vietnam. More shockingly they helped demonstrate that America wasn’t winning the war after all, as despite the huge numbers of men and resources being thrown at the conflict, little progress was being made.

Despite Ellsberg’s intentions it is debatable whether the leaking of the Pentagon Papers had a direct role in helping to end the war. The New York Times and other newspapers started to release the documents in 1971 and yet Nixon was re-elected by a landslide in 72. However it could be argued that Ellsberg indirectly helped to end the war. Because Nixon was so infuriated that government secrets were being stolen, he ordered a special group to be set up within the White House to stop the leaks. This group, nicknamed the ‘plumbers’, was led by Howard Hunt and resorted to activities like breaking into Ellsberg’s psychiatrists office in order to find incriminating evidence to use against him. This along with other illegal acts eventually led to Watergate and Nixon’s resignation.

This documentary tells the whole story with interviews with all the major players. Even Nixon is represented via the Oval Office recordings. Ellsberg narrates the film so if you’re looking for an unbiased take on events this probably isn’t the place to start but it’s still a fascinating story. Also I was very pleased that Anthony Russo was given full credit for helping to leak the Pentagon Papers as his role in this is sometimes overlooked in the media.

Clearly the Ellsberg case has a lot of parallels with today e.g. an unpopular war and a government leaking like a sieve. This prompts the question of whether Julian Assange and Wikileaks are following in Ellsberg’s footsteps? Incidentally it was Henry Kissinger who called Ellsberg the most dangerous man in America. Oddly his boss Richard Nixon used almost exactly the same words when attacking drugs guru Timothy Leary.

Here is a trailer for The Most Dangerous Man in America:

For a full lick of great political documentaries click here

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About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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5 Responses to Great political documentaries (No6) The Most Dangerous Man in America

  1. Can’t wait to see this. Ellsberg was a pretty unique fellow.

    • There was a TV movie a few years ago with James Spader as Ellsberg. It also had Alan Arkin in it along with Paul Giamatto as Anthony Russo. I’m not sure if it’s availbale on DVD anymore but I remember it being quite good.

      Who knows, in thirty years time we might have Wikileaks the movie with some young actor playing Assange. :)

  2. I vaguely remember that. I’ll have to look for it.

  3. Pingback: Is it ever ok for journalists to behave unethically? | Dr Matthew Ashton's Politics Blog

  4. Pingback: Great political documentaries (No25) Hearts and Minds | Dr Matthew Ashton's Politics Blog

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