There are some things that, despite my continued viewing of movies, I still find myself learning.

I never knew about the Pentagon Papers, or Daniel Ellsberg, or how he and the papers tied into Richard Nixon and Watergate.

I also discovered just how much more of a rat bastard Richard Nixon was (which, considering history already viewed him as one, this just adds more to the fire).

This doesn’t bode well for me, mostly because I am a student (read: was) of history (read: European history).  So, in pursuit of understanding the world, I may just have to get myself a book on the Pentagon Papers.

This documentary is a good starting point, though more of a one-sided affair.  It isn’t that bad actually, the one-sided-ness.  That stems from the fact that Daniel Ellsberg narrates the documentary: he was the one that broke the papers to the media, so it would only seem right to have a film based on his points of view, which are largely in line with the view of history in general.  Five presidents took part in a pursuit of democracy in Indochina through many unscrupulous means: I can’t remember what Truman did (I take responsibility because I should have written this sooner, not five days after seeing the movie), but Eisenhower put in a puppet dictator, Kennedy took some part in this as well, Johnson built up troops without Congressional consent, and Nixon kept the troops in Vietnam mainly to save American face.  Defense Secretary McNamara (under Johnson) blatantly lied on national television about the progress of the war, and Kissinger (under Nixon) was pretty much the reason why Nixon didn’t just drop a nuclear bomb on a Vietnam village.

But the documentary is about Ellsberg as much as it is about the war and the papers.  It goes through his life in a non-linear fashion, focusing on his job in the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation, the beginnings of his second marriage, his dramatic shift from hawk to dove, and the untimely loss of his mother and sister in a car accident.  That last incident also served to shape his views of people in general: he needed to watch people in authority not because they were necessarily bad, but largely because they were inattentive.

His shift from hawk to dove is dramatic in how large of a shift it was.  Ellsberg was in support of the war from the early stages, though opposed to the napalm bombing tactics that dominated a large portion of the war (which, in the general flow of things, he was largely responsible for).  He went to Vietnam for two years and reported to McNamara about the progress of the war (which is the part where McNamara lied about the war progressing well).  He started attending anti-war rallies too, and described his shift as a result of a draft resister’s commitment to going to jail, in spite of his love for his country.  It was then that Ellsberg realized that, if he was going to end an unjust war, he needed to be prepared to go to jail.

Which almost happened, if not for Nixon.  I have to research Nixon more beyond Watergate (and wonder why he won either the first or second largest landslide victory in American history), but Nixon’s legacy is forever marred by the Watergate scandal.

As for Ellsberg (and what I find I admire about him most after leaving the theater), he continued his anti-war activism.  He made public speeches, marched and rallies, and, yes, was arrested at times for general civil disobedience (the movie actually showed one such incident, recorded in 2008).  He just turned 79 last week, and I imagine, even at that old age, he’ll continue being an activist.

Probably the only concerns with the documentary is that one-sided direction the movie goes through, but it doesn’t diminish from the movie at all.  This is about Daniel Ellsberg, his life, and his decision to bring to light the decision making that several American presidents took to bring an unjust war to Vietnam that couldn’t be won, and in the end cost nearly 60,000 American lives.


Note: when Ellsberg went to Vietnam for those two years, he actually led a platoon.  He was a Marine, and graduated first in his class.  He’s also ridiculously smart too (the Ph.D. he has is something borderline crazy, which is a good thing).