It took three Democratic presidents (Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson) and one Republican (Ike) to produce, maintain, and expand the initial tissue of lies that got us bogged down in Southeast Asia. It took a final Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, to practically drive us over the edge. At one point, Nixon is heard on those infamous "White House tapes" saying to Henry Kissinger that he wanted all the Vietnam dikes bombed -- "That'll drown 200,000, right?" -- and then saying he wanted a good-sized nuclear bomb in the center of Hanoi as an option. Kissinger is heard demurring: "I don't know if that would be a good idea, Mr. President," and Nixon taunting him back, "You don't like the idea of nuclear bombs, Henry?" At another point on those tapes, Nixon practically pounds the table: "I don't give a good goddamn about civilian deaths."
Aside from the obvious lesson of American history, that an executive who's exempted himself from checks and balances is a rouge elephant capable of pulling down the whole temple of democracy, there are two other indelible lessons in "The Most Dangerous Man in America":
1. It's possible to change. Daniel Ellsberg himself went from war apologist and Pentagon insider, who actually fed material to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara which McNamara used to convince Johnson to escalate the bombing of North Vietnam, to the most successful whistle-blower in American history.
2. A single man can do much to change history, if he has access to information and is willing to suffer whatever consequences come. Ellsberg reached that moment when he met a young draft resistor who said he was prepared to go to jail. That simple declaration by a "nobody" American college student changed Daniel Ellsberg's life.
Those are lessons I like.
Daniel Ellsberg is by no means the only such brave American we can celebrate. He just happens to have been sitting on 7,000 pages of top secret truth that the American people didn't know and needed to know. I think of others, most instantly of Ollie Combs, the Knott County, Ky., woman who sat down in front of a bulldozer and refused to budge, because the dozer's owner was planning to strip mine the ridge directly above her fragile homeplace. Or for a more recent example, I think of the four Connecticut public librarians who refused to cooperate with the USA Patriot Act in surrendering records of patrons' book-borrowing records.
There are a lot more, going all the way back to John Peter Zenger. We need to remember them. We need to celebrate their bravery. This documentary film about Daniel Ellsberg does that.