The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg, a documentary just nominated for an Oscar, is the story of the man who gave secret government documents about the Vietnam war to newspapers for publication in 1971. The impact of his leak was seismic. And it continues to reverberate today as many of the same issues of military strategy and government accountability are debated by another generation.
Dr. Ellsberg, a one-time hawk on the war who had served as a Marine and worked in the Department of Defense, wrote his own book about his experiences and his views, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. His dissertation, Risk, Ambiguity and Decision, is still considered a major contribution. I spoke to Dr. Ellsberg about the past, the present, war, peace, and the movie.
Are you the most dangerous man in America?
Not at the moment. Fom the point of view of the Obama administration it would be whoever leaked the secret cables of Ambassador [Karl] Eikenberry, [US ambassador to Afghanistan] to the Times. I had not seen facsimile copies like that since the Pentagon papers. I am sure there is a tremendous search to find out who was responsible. It’s quite contrary to what Eikenberry testified to in Congress about being fully in accord to McChrystal’s recommendations for sending more troupes. The cables gave the lie to that, a warning against any such involvement.
Why were you considered so dangerous?
It wasn’t what has already been leaked that was the problem, it was their worry about what might be next. Kissinger feared I would put out material on Nixon, and that brought him down. It was that fear that led Nixon to get personally involved in illegal activity to try to stop me. And that led to his resignation and that led to the end of the war.
The movie doesn’t make really clear why I was regarded as the most dangerous man. [Egil “Bud”] Krogh referred to the fact that they thought I had documents on Nixon. That was why they went into my doctor’s office. That was the part that involved the president himself, in the case of the actions against me they had a number of witnesses that he ordered that himself. If it weren’t for that, he would not have had to cover up because the trail didn’t lead to him. The important thing was not to find out what I had as much as to keep me from putting it out.
They knew I had some material directly from Nixon’s office, because I had given it to Senator Matthias who wanted to be a Republican white knight. They had to worry about it without knowing exactly what it was, they had to take extreme measures including sending people to beat me up or possibly kill me.
The movie portrays you as a hero to many people. Who are your heroes?
Howard Zinn, one of the greatest human beings on earth. Noam Chomsky. People who have openly refused to go to war. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. I met met Rosa Parks on the way to my arraignment. I took a toothbrush and went off to a football field where they were meeting in New Orleans. If it weren’t for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King I wouldn’t be where I am today. I was talking to her and said “You’re my hero,” and she said, “You’re my hero.” You can imagine what that meant to me.
Why this time? What made the difference? She said, “I had given up my seat to a white woman a number of times but had never been asked to give it up to a white man. I asked myself what I would do? I didn’t know what I would do.” When the moment came, she knew, and she said no. It is the way things happen.
You don’t know what you are doing or how you will respond until you get into it, but it helps to think about it beforehand. The situation has arisen before and people think about it and then they are cocked like a pistol and ready to do it. Now is the time.
You were a team player and then decided to play for a bigger team.
That’s well put! A much bigger team in numbers. The key thing there was meeting people who were on the larger team like Bob Eaton. We stood in a vigil line for him, he was going to prison for draft resistance. Stepping into that vigil line, standing in front of the post office on a hot day, when I had been writing something for Nixon, I could not do both. It was like the first date with Patricia, marching around the White House and worrying that a picture of me might appear in the Post.
I didn’t have a good excuse for getting out of going to the protest. I thought of saying I was sick that day but I was shamed into standing in that line. Once you’re in the line it was like stepping over the line at a recruiting station. I had stepped over a line and was recruited into the anti-war movement. Passing out leaflets instead of writing memos for the President, in my mind I had shifted sides from being an insider to being a citizen. Days later I had the experience of seeing Randy Keeler, but I don’t know if it would have had the same effect except for having been at that vigil.
Pastor Martin Niemoller was testifying while I was at the vigil, and he had a big influence on me. I was at the same war resister’s conference. I am still not a total pacifist. He had been a U-Boat commander in WWI. He was imprisoned in 38 or 39 and spent the war in Dachau. The famous quote always puzzled me.
In Germany, they first came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Catholic. Then they came for me — and by that time there was nobody left to speak up.
He did speak out, so what is he talking about? He is describing the attitude of the average German. He told me that he had not been a pacifist in the second World War. He thought Hitler should have been opposed. He didn’t become a pacifist until 1950 when Heisenberg informed him about the coming H-Bomb. And that made him a nuclear pacifist. I was having lunch with a couple of pacifists and arguing with them as I had often done, a strong argument against total pacifism is the Brits who fired at the bombers over London.
Why do you oppose our military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan?
The last thing that you do is the thing that Al-Qaeda wants to you to do. Osama bin Laden wanted us to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, which was his enemy anyway. Even better would be to attack Iran, his enemy, to get the Muslim world against us. We fell right into Obama’s trap, born and bred in the brier patch; he wanted that oil. I have no doubt that he prefers us to be fighting in Afghanistan forever. I would have cooperated with the rest of the world including people we do not like, make it easy for them to cooperate with us and share their information about those who want to attack us. There are ways to respond without generating recruits for the terrorists. Getting the oil was more important than Al-Qaeda, so that is where Bush went.
But you said you are not a complete pacifist. So how do you decide when force is necessary?
I was giving Niemoller my example of the Brits, etc. You could not stop Hitler’s blitzkriegs with non-violence. Non-violence would not have saved the Jews. As in the old cartoons a light bulb appeared over my head — violence didn’t save the Jews, nothing saved the Jews. They all died. Here was the cruncher, the ace up the sleeve, partly because we didn’t use our violence to save the Jews. It made me remember something by Raoul Wallenberg. The Holocaust could not have been carried out except in wartime conditions. You need the secrecy. I went to Neimoller and said is it possible that the resistance that people put up to Hitler was at the expense of the Jews? I thought he would take time but he said right away, “It cost the Jews their lives.” I have always realized that. It doesn’t mean that people weren’t justified in resisting but far from saving them, it doomed the Jews.
I asked what else am I wrong about?
What do you want from the movie?
If more people see the movie we will have more leakers like the Eickenberry cables and that will be for the good.