"The Most Dangerous Man in America" talks on the documentary about him and his time at the Pentagon
Although he credits his dear departed friend Howard Zinn as a chief inspiration, for many truth-minded patriots there's no greater hero than Daniel Ellsberg. As a top-level Pentagon official, he bravely leaked more than 7000 pages of damning top-secret documents in 1971, charging the mounting peace movement and ultimately turning political and popular tides against the Vietnam conflict. Discussing the Oscar-nominated documentary about him by Rick Goldsmith and Judy Ehrlich, the "most dangerous man in America" reveals still more: about clandestine nuclear strategies and America's continued march into Middle Eastern and Asian quagmires, and how Barack Obama compares with Richard Nixon.
You participated quite a bit in this documentary. Why was it finally time for someone to put the story of the Pentagon Papers on film?
One factor was that I was reluctant to do a feature film or a documentary until I had written my own story, and I didn't get around to doing that for 40 years. Finally it came out in 2002. I got several offers, and I liked the previous work of Rick and Judy.
What part of the story — if any — has been perverted through the years, and how did you go about setting things straight with this film?
It wasn't that people had it wrong, they just didn't know why I had done what I did. There's an aspect that still isn't fully explained in this film because of time constraints, which had to do with Nixon's own policy, and [then–Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger's fear that I would expose his secret strategy. A lot of historians get that wrong even to this day. Nixon did have a secret plan, and I knew that it involved making threats of nuclear war to North Vietnam.
What's worse — not being able to sleep at night because your conscience is nagging you, or not being able to sleep at night becuase the FBI is after you?
I was very anguished about the war, period. Actually, putting out the Pentagon Papers did not seem like a very obvious thing to do right away, because it stopped with the Democrats. I didn't think it could very much affect Nixon. And then I made the connection that it might help him to blame it on the Democrats and get out, just like Obama had a good opportunity now to say what Nixon could have said in '69 — that this was a good war to be fighting, but it's been so screwed up by his predecessors from a different party that it's hopeless.
Is it more painful for you than it is for the rest of us that America was misled into another war and is now ramping up involvement in Afghanistan?
It's excruciating. Watching this movie, and seeing the bombing, it was horrible to think that the same thing is going on right now in Iraq and Afghanistan and will continue to go on for some time. It's terrible — I had the same feeling when we were going into Iraq in 2002.
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