Like many people born after the Vietnam War, I had never heard of Daniel Ellsberg. That's not a justification or an excuse, just a statement of fact.
After asking a PR firm to send me films I might be interested in for ReThink Reviews, an advanced copy of the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers arrived at my door. So I watched it. You can see the trailer below:
As many of you surely know, Daniel Ellsberg is the man responsible for leaking a beyond top-secret report about Vietnam prepared by the Department of Defense. The report, which became known as the Pentagon Papers, not only detailed covert American meddling in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 and the lies of multiple presidents to hide it, but also the blunt assessment that the Vietnam War had been unwinnable for years and that we were mostly there to save face.
At incredible personal risk to himself, Ellsberg spent months photocopying the 7,000-page report (this was way before the days of autofeed copiers), then took it to Congress, then to the New York Times, then to over a dozen other media outlets to insure that no single cease-and-desist ruling could stop its release. Through a turn of events that even Ellsberg could not have anticipated, this heroic act kept Richard Nixon from escalating the war. It also led to Nixon's eventual resignation, and the defunding of the Vietnam War months later.
I was enthralled by The Most Dangerous Man in America (a name given to him by Nixon's National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger), and when I was told that Ellsberg would be in Los Angeles for a week in late September and would be available for an interview, I jumped at the chance.
I arranged to meet Ellsberg at the Barnsdall Art Park. The day of the interview was an unusually hot one, and since I assumed the interview would be conducted outside, I thought I would wear shorts. Then I paused. I was going to meet a true American hero, a man responsible for ending the Vietnam War and preventing the deaths of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese. When you are meeting a true American hero, it's best to wear pants.
I met Ellsberg and Winston (the PR guy) in the air-conditioned lobby of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery within the park. Winston was carrying a poster for The Most Dangerous Man in America mounted on foamboard. We all agreed that the heat was simply too unbearable for an outdoor interview, which led me on an embarrassingly unprofessional scramble to find an indoor location. A helpful Barnsdall staff member took me to the center's theater (which was closed at the time) and asked the manager of the theater if I could shoot the interview there. The manager, who was probably in his late 40s or early/mid 50s, did not seem very excited, and was even less so when I told him that the interview would last 30-40 minutes. He then asked me whom I would be interviewing. "Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers." The manager noticeably perked up. "Really? Well, of course then! Do you want to shoot it up on the stage? I can turn on some more lights if you want." While I had only recently learned about Ellsberg, I was beginning to understand the importance he held in the lives of those who had experienced the Vietnam era.
I excitedly rushed back to the lobby to tell Ellsberg that I had found a location. I found him surrounded by several museum patrons who had noticed the poster for The Most Dangerous Man in America and wanted to talk to him, thank him for what he had done and shake his hand. I was definitely glad I had worn pants.
The interview lasted about 40 minutes. The topics ranged from Vietnam, the rule of law, the imperial mindset and counterinsurgency to the deepening disaster in Afghanistan, which Ellsberg is gravely concerned about. I've taken some of his answers and grouped them by subject.
On the definition of "winning" in Vietnam (and its likelihood) while Ellsberg was working at the Pentagon:
On continuing misperceptions about the Vietnam War:
Why Ellsberg calls the current Afghan war "Vietnamistan":
On underrating the importance of nationalism when fighting insurgencies:
Why counterinsurgencies almost always fail:
Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview, where Ellsberg discusses torture, the rule of law, the dangers of "smart dumb" people in government, and some amazing and inspirational advice for potential whistleblowers. You won't want to miss it.
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