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Bombing the Neighborhood: Daniel Ellsberg and the Radical Critique of American Empire

[Still image from [Still image from "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers."]

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. United States, 2010.

“It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side. We were the wrong side.” – Daniel Ellsberg

Two of the most chilling scenes in Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s extraordinary 2010 film, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, involve Richard Nixon. Nixon had just won the 1968 presidential election, a victory that he owed in part to his promise to end the war in Vietnam and deliver to the United States an honorable exit from Indochina. Unbeknownst to anyone outside his inner circle, however, Nixon had no such intention. “For once,” he tells Henry Kissinger in a tape-recorded White House meeting soon after the election, “we’ve got to use the maximum power of this country, against this shit-ass little country, to win the war.” Later, Nixon is caught on tape arguing with Kissinger over the merits of a merciless bombing campaign. The only difference between me and you, Nixon tells Kissinger, is that you’re concerned about civilians. “I don’t care [about civilians].” Kissinger responds that he is concerned about civilians because he does not want “the world mobilizing against you as a butcher.” This is spoken over file footage of carpet bombing somewhere in Indochina. As Daniel Ellsberg—whom Kissinger called “the most dangerous man in America”—notes in an interview during the height of the Nixon administration’s campaign to destroy him following the release of the Pentagon Papers, at its most intensive, Nixon’s bombing campaign was the equivalent of visiting on that unfortunate part of Southeast Asia one Hiroshima per week.

The Most Dangerous Man in America is full of such moments. When I screened the film in my freshman seminar last year, I could almost actually see the scales falling from the eyes of several students. Some students audibly gasped during the Nixon scenes. After the film, at least a couple of speechless souls appeared to be in a state of shock. One of the more dismaying aspects of contemporary higher education in the United States is the increasing conformity of curricula to the pressures of US empire and neoliberalism. One of the valuable services provided by Ehrlich and Goldsmith is the support they give to critically-minded educators who wish to undo the baleful effects of these ideologies. The film gets students to think with increasing disillusionment about the most important questions of the day: What is power and how is it exercised? How do the representations in popular culture and political discourse of other cultures and other places relate to power? Is there a difference between official US rhetorics of freedom, democracy, and stability, on the one side, and the effects on the ground of US hegemony? What is our responsibility as citizens?

More prosaically, the film is simply a great critical military history of US involvement in Vietnam, and is useful even if it is only screened for this purpose. Students will learn about the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, LBJ and Robert McNamara, the RAND Corporation, the Tet Offensive and the rise of Nixon, and much else besides. Only the dim will miss the haunting parallels between those times and the first decade of the twenty-first century. The neoconservative rhetoric of “defending America,” “bringing democracy” to benighted lands, and “saving them” from local tyrannies was uttered almost verbatim by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. (Among other things, the film is excellent at challenging the complacent liberal belief that in matters of foreign policy there is a substantial difference between the two political parties).

The main story turns around the radicalization of Daniel Ellsberg, the one-time Pentagon bureaucrat turned antiwar activist and the protagonist of the film. As a leading RAND Corporation intellectual in the 1950s and 1960s, he was tasked by then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to contribute to a major, secret study of US involvement in Indochina. These are the famous Pentagon Papers that would set Ellsberg—and for a brief, hopeful time, US politics—on a different course.

A skein of official lies soon emerges. Involvement in Indochina had nothing to do with defending America or advancing democracy, Ellsberg discovers. What each president since Truman wanted to do was to avoid the stigma of losing, whether in the Cold War or in the “hot wars” pursued in the service of the former. Viewers will also notice that the criminalization of dissent and the critique of US foreign policy, along with Congressional deference to the executive branch and the military, are not George W. Bush-era inventions. The Vietnam-era establishment media, it must be said, does come across as far more independent of the state, relative to our own “journalists”—or, rather, our actors who get paid to play the role of journalists, to adapt a phrase from Glenn Greenwald.  

To those willing to dig a little deeper, the film poses disturbing questions about the legacies of white supremacy as a discursive formation of empire. The US state, as William Appleman Williams shows in his classic Empire as a Way of Life, as does Greg Grandin in his recent and excellent Empire’s Workshop, has since its founding been engaged in expanding what Thomas Jefferson called the “empire of liberty.” Read between the lines and in its actual effects, this has meant the liberty of white male actors to force anyone standing in their way on a brutal march toward a kind of modernity, in which the market society and individualism can emancipate themselves from any other human desires, aspirations, or restraints. As Grandin has shown, Nixon’s erasure of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian humanity, and the bloodlust, fortified by a sense of messianism, evident in his discourse, finds strong echoes in the discourses and geographical imagination of officers and infantrymen in two of the earliest US imperial campaigns, the late-nineteenth-century Philippines and Nicaragua in the 1920s. In reality, the “empire of liberty” has meant the creation of a world where everyone is dependent on the United States, which, as 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich helpfully informs us, continues to be humanity’s last best hope for self-actualization.

Not a few of my students, and probably many American students at other institutions, will no doubt aspire to the kind of trajectory represented by the young Ellsberg (my hope is that they admire and emulate, instead, the older, radical Ellsberg). Educated at Harvard, widely considered a “brilliant man,” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a leading if not the leading war thinker in the United States, as interviewee Richard Falk notes. At the age of twenty-eight, Ellsberg went to work for the Pentagon, at RAND in Southern California. Anticipating the reformist talk of today’s Human Terrain System and counterinsurgency projects, Ellsberg in his RAND days believed that he was a conscience of reform and decency within the military establishment. He was, for example, against aerial bombing, and was trying to figure out ways to “moderate the killing” in Vietnam. Also central to the film is Ellsberg’s wife, Patricia. Accompanying him on a 1965 trip to southern Vietnam, she more than he is horrified by the slaughter and begins to fundamentally challenge the “whole Zeitgeist of that war.” Patricia would break up with Daniel after this trip. They inhabited increasingly different worlds, she antiwar on moral and human grounds, he remaining committed to a Cold Warrior mentality, if moderated by the gap he was beginning to notice between Washington’s rhetoric and the execution of the war in Southeast Asia. They would only reunite after Daniel finally went over to the antiwar side in the late 1960s.  

That experience in 1965, however, would begin to gnaw at him, and would be cast in a new, more radical light by his reading of the final draft of the secret study commissioned by McNamara. This is where the film gets truly interesting, for it handles with nuance the narrative of the banality of evil. The US war on Vietnam was of course embedded in banality and bureaucracy, and was undeniably evil. Ellsberg, as one of his antiwar comrades says, for a long time lived and thrived within the entrails of the machine. But there is more than this. Had Ellsberg been a simple, apolitical bureaucrat, he may not have had the conversion he did. He actually believed that the rhetoric of democracy and decency used to legitimate the US imperial project had substance. What he began to doubt and eventually reject was the notion that US imperialism was the means to achieve these. The values, and the passion for them, remained, but the connotations and the means changed. Now, a commitment to true democracy and human rights often meant resisting the US state and the hegemonic cultural and political-economic structures by which success is achieved in a society mobilized to support US imperialism.

“It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side,” Ellsberg concluded upon reading the secret study. “We were the wrong side. It was a crime from the start [i.e., Truman’s funding of French efforts to retake Indochina]…The hundreds of thousands we were killing was unjustified homicide, and I couldn’t see the difference between that and murder. Murder had to be stopped.” It is inspiring to witness the process by which Ellsberg comes to realize that he is complicit in, if not in part directly responsible for, the “most ridiculously disproportional [sic] bombing campaign in the history of the world” (as Thomas Oliphant of the Boston Globe puts it). The ultimate achievement of The Most Dangerous Man in America is to hold a mirror to a liberal academy’s facile self-image of empowerment, self-actualization, and freedom. Ellsberg and his fellow travelers show the serious risks entailed by real critical thinking and substantive critique of the status quo. They risked not only losing material comfort; they risked serious prison time. Randy Kehler, who guided Ellsberg’s early entry into the antiwar movement, left Stanford to focus on antiwar activities. For resisting the draft, the government indicted him on five counts, each carrying a maximum of five years in prison. Today, Ellsberg reflects on how he realized at the time that “the best thing that the best young men of our country can do is go to prison…what had really happened was that my life was split in two…and then I thought, OK, now what can I do to help end this war, now that I am ready to go to prison?” Ellsberg at one point faced the possibility of 115 years behind bars. Were it not for Watergate, which caused a mistrial in the government’s conspiracy case against him, he might very well have gone to prison.  

There is much in this film that speaks to our contemporary struggles (indeed, Daniel and Patricia continue to be active in the antiwar movements in the United States). The resonances with our times are almost too numerous to mention. A fitting summary of the Ellsbergs’ radical commitment to justice, I think, is captured in a recent comment that Daniel makes to Patricia: “When I knew we were going to bomb Vietnam forever, that was like bombing the neighborhood. The people were more than pictures for me and they were more than numbers.”

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