In 2005, teaching a history class to university juniors and seniors, I mentioned the Vietnam War. I noticed glazed looks in the eyes of several students. I asked a young woman born about a decade after that war had ended: “You know when the Vietnam War occurred, right?”
She wrinkled her brow, bit her lip and said, hesitatingly: “Wasn’t it after the Greco-Roman era?”
Some students knew, but most were unsure. Neither parents nor teachers had taught them recent history. A new film will now help fill that void.
“The Most Dangerous Man in America” (produced by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith; photography by Vicente Franco) earned his film title from those in the heights of power–not by robbing banks or committing serial murders; rather, he revealed US government secrets.
Ironically, our enemies (the Soviet Union and China at the time) had no interest in the “top secret” documents Daniel Ellsberg (the film’s narrator) leaked to the media and Congress in 1971 as “The Pentagon Papers.” The US public, however, should have responded to the contents of those seven thousand super classified pages with shock and anger.
The Papers showed the government had lied to Congress and the public about its reasons for invading Vietnam. The Papers also demonstrated that behind the “stop communism from causing Asian nations to topple like dominoes” rhetoric lay deeper US imperial ambitions that policy makers had pushed for fifteen years. Presidents Johnson and Nixon didn’t send men to die for freedom or for any moral purpose.
When the NY Times and subsequently other major papers published these Papers, their editorials did not stress the outrage they and all citizens should have felt over official prevarication and manipulation. Instead of calling for immediate withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam, in light of the truth that neither the Soviets nor Chinese controlled the Vietnamese communists and that Vietnam posed no domino threat in Asia, the newspapers patted themselves on the back for their “courage” in daring to print classified documents.
None called for indictments of Presidents Nixon and Johnson and their underlings for committing countless criminal acts designed to defraud the public by secretly pursuing an offensive imperial policy.
Official US combat troops landed after the war elite had rigged the 1964 “Tonkin Gulf incident.” Vietnamese war ships supposedly attacked US ships in international water – they didn’t — which Johnson used to sell Congress on the need to send the US armed forces to Vietnam. A decade earlier, the White House, CIA and DoD were already intervening to prevent Vietnamese independence and unity.
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles urged Eisenhower to drop a nuclear bomb on the Vietnamese forces that surrounded the French armies. Ike said he would have to consult the allies before taking such a step – meaning “no.”
The French surrendered and at the 1954 French-Vietnamese Geneva talks pledged free elections to unify Vietnam.
In his memoirs, Eisenhower admits that “80 percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than Chief of State Bao Dai” (Mandate for Change, p. 372). Bao was the US-backed head of the temporary state of South Vietnam. Until 1954, Washington had born the brunt of funding the French military endeavor and, as the Pentagon Papers made clear, Washington had no intention of allowing elections that would make Ho the President of a united and communist-led Vietnam.
In the film, Ellsberg, a gung-ho ex Marine and anti-communist zealot, plays a role in planning US military strategy in Vietnam. He even goes to the country gun in hand to kill commies. Then, Ellsberg has second thoughts and meets his love, the very anti-war Patricia Marx, who helps convince him of his errors.
With equal fervor, Ellsberg began planning anti-war strategy: stealing secret papers from his Rand think tank offices. Rand was preparing a prognosis on the war for the military elite. After Ellsberg delivered these Papers to the media, he expected the “aware” public to stop the war and throw the bums out.
Nixon and Kissinger considered Ellsberg “dangerous” for leaking the classified papers. Like Ellsberg, they believed an enlightened public should have risen in anger, stopped the war and reversed policies based on secrecy and duplicity. But the majority of the American public still doesn’t know why the US fought in Vietnam; nor do they care.
Professors might use this film to enlighten curious students. After all, the government repeated its Vietnam perfidies and crimes in Central America in the 1980s and continues the deception in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Indeed, millions demonstrated against the Iraq War – to no avail. Even when the public discovered Bush and Cheney had misled them, nothing happened to the criminals in chief. A challenge to the citizenry: aware of high crimes and misdemeanors, how to stop them and reverse course?
Perhaps Ellsberg reveals the film’s deeper lesson: becoming an actor on the stage of one’s own history makes life interesting.
SAUL LANDAU is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow who received Chile’s Bernardo O’Higgins award for human rights. CounterPunch published his A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD