TV Review: The Most Dangerous Man In America, BBC4

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THE deservedly Oscar-nominated documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America, told the astonishing story of Daniel Ellsberg, a onetime US military analyst who waged a courageous war of principles against the corruption of the Nixon administration.

Narrated without self-aggrandisement by Ellsberg himself, this outstanding Storyville acquisition showed how this pillar of the establishment became so vehemently opposed to the war in Vietnam that he was eventually compelled into radical action.

Thanks to his exalted position at the Rand (Research and Development) corporation, Ellsberg gained access to highly classified government documents which proved the war was founded on lies and self-interest, a gross act of "unjustified homicide" secretly supported by every US administration from Truman to Nixon. Horrified by these findings, Ellsberg then made a momentous decision: at great personal risk to himself and those around him, he photocopied the documents and leaked them to the press.

The impact was enormous. Ellsberg's whistle-blowing revealed that the government had blatantly misled the public regarding their intentions in Vietnam. Despite official assurances to the contrary, the welfare of the South Vietnamese populace was actually a very low priority. Instead, the documents explicitly stated that the overriding goal was to avoid a humiliating defeat and "to emerge from the crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used".

With clear parallels to the current conflict in Afghanistan, the Vietnam War was exposed not as a noble crusade in defence of global democracy, but rather as a blood-caked face-saving exercise on a catastrophic scale. We all now know this, of course, but the film – which unfolded like a spellbinding conspiracy thriller – still served as an important and shocking reminder of one of the most heinous episodes in US history.

And yet despite these explosive revelations, the American public – perhaps unable to cope with the knowledge that they had been so ruthlessly deceived by their leaders – subsequently voted Nixon in for another term. Short of releasing photographs of the president cackling delightedly at images of burning Vietnamese villages, what else could Ellsberg do to proved that Nixon was a warmongering crook?

Fortunately, Ellsberg's subsequent trial – at which he faced a prison sentence of up to 115 years – revealed further incriminating evidence from which Nixon couldn't recover. Realising that he would have to ban every newspaper in America in order to stifle the leaked information, Nixon instead tried to discredit Ellsberg via illegal wiretapping and, using the same team who burgled the Watergate hotel, burgling his psychiatrist's office. Never one for half measures, he also offered the judge a directorship of the FBI. Once this information was exposed, a mistrial was called, Ellsberg was released without charge, and Nixon's credibility was ruined beyond repair. Within months, the president has resigned and the war in Vietnam was over.

Ellsberg emerged from this captivating film as that rare beast: a government insider who made a selfless stand for the greater good of truth and compassion. He did what was right because there was nothing else he could do. Although partly influenced by guilt over his involvement in the early stages of the war, his actions were those of someone with the courage and humanity to look government in the eye and say: "enough". If only there were more like him.