The most dangerous man
by Oren Long
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a State Department and Pentagon planner, leaked the top secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times; 7,000 documents that proved four presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon) had lied to the American people about the Vietnam War. This act inspired Henry Kissinger to label Ellsberg, the most dangerous man in America.
I well remember this incident. I remember how this event, this challenge to American democracy, was the lead story every day on every newscast for at least two weeks.
Ellsberg was the ultimate insider. It was his job to analyze every Vietnam War document. He was the top adviser to those who advised the president. He knew what was happening and what the people were being told. He knew the war was lost. He knew his superiors agreed, yet he saw they kept pushing the war, even when one battlefield document read, “We are in Vietnam 10 percent to save the Vietnamese, 20 percent to hold back the Chinese, and 70 percent to save American face.” (The price of “American face,” 2 million dead Vietnamese and 58,000 dead Americans.)
Ellsberg knew those in charge of our affairs believed it is acceptable to lie to the people to protect the national interest, a term they alone defined.
So Ellsberg faced a difficult decision. Was his duty to the Pentagon? Or to the people? Reports from Vietnam had convinced him the war was not in the national interest since news from the battlefield told him the war was lost, and each day meant further loss in lives and treasure.
So he gave the documents to Congress, since their job is to provide a check on the Executive Branch. But Congress did nothing. So he gave them to the New York Times. They began publication. Nixon was furious. He asked the Times to stop publishing the documents, something no President had ever done. They refused. Nixon took the Times to court. The court issued a temporary stay. So Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to several other newspapers. They began publication; Nixon asked the Supreme Court for a decision. The Court overruled Nixon saying the Pentagon Papers could not be kept “secret.” The public had a right to know what was being done in their name.
Ellsberg believed that when citizens learned their leaders had lied to them they would rise up and demand they be held accountable. They would see they had not asked enough questions. They would see they had failed their duty.
But when the story broke, the public response was largely silence. It seemed no one cared. duty had lost the race to games and bread.
The Pentagon Papers story is being retold because it tells much about the character of American democracy, how the majority of citizens refuse to invest the time and energy necessary to cast an enlightened ballot, Jefferson’s precondition for self-government, his qualification for a people capable of freedom. A truth we need to remember, not choose to forget.
Now a new “Ellsberg” has emerged to tell us things we have not been told. An organization called WikiLeaks has just released 400,000 pages of classified documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars our leaders prefer the public not be told; battlefield details that reveal the dehumanizing nature of war itself, knowledge that suggests what biologists have long believed: a love of violence is endemic to the human animal. It justifies our love of war.
Ellsberg and WikiLeaks tell us what we need to learn, not what we want to know.
Oren Long is a Valley Falls farmer and a regular contributor to these columns.
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