By: Robert Sarwark
“[T]elling the truth, revealing wrongly kept secrets, can have a surprisingly strong, unforeseeable power to help end a wrong and save lives.”
— Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002)
First things first: Here are the declassified “Pentagon Papers” in their entirety.
In late June of 1971, the Washington Post, at the time a newspaper struggling to remain solvent, faced an excruciating decision. Presented with reams of confidential documents from the so-called “Pentagon Papers,” an in-depth analysis of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the Post’s owner and publisher Katharine Graham ultimately decided to publish this highly sensitive and politically damning information, risking personal indictment and even potential imprisonment.
The “Papers,” a voluminous government report officially titled United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, had been commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (in office from 1961 to 1968). Intended as a chronicle — some say a kind of internal confession — of the conflict for future academics, it exposed the U.S.’s deep, decades-long meddling in Vietnam’s and the Southeast Asian region’s politics in general. Most essentially, according to the study, the high-casualty war with communist North Vietnam was and continued to be an unwinnable conflict, including under the reins of President Richard Nixon.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post, now in theaters, details this dramatic story. The backdrops of 1) ever-increasing discontent with the Vietnam War among the American public, 2) Nixon’s generally draconian policies, and 3) the Washington Post’s initial public offering on the American Stock Exchange (now NYSE American), together set the scene. Hollywood heavy hitters Meryl Streep (as Katharine Graham) and Tom Hanks (as Post Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee) take the lead in performances that will likely be contenders for the Academy Awards in March. Along with Spielberg, the two actors have publicly pointed out the historical parallels with the current moment. Still, Spielberg has attempted to frame the film as even-handed: “This is not a partisan movie by a bunch of Hollywood filmmakers and actors,” he said. “This is a very patriotic film.”
On the other end of the spectrum, at least one conservative reviewer, Peter Van Buren, saw the film as lacking, among other things, historical accuracy, especially for its focus on the Washington Post so much more than the New York Times, which had originally and thoroughly analyzed and then released secrets from the Pentagon Papers before being silenced by a federal injunction.
Nevertheless, the film is a solid addition to the sub-genre of historical drama that one might call “newsroom” or “journalism drama,” a la All the President’s Men or Spotlight. (The Post can be seen as a historical prequel to the former.) But what do its release date and messaging jointly say about our current historical moment?
For one, it’s most immediately tempting to frame the film as a critique of the present political atmosphere. Though no U.S. president has ever had an entirely conflict-free relationship with the press, Donald Trump is famously partial to dismissing as “fake news” any reporting unfavorable to him and his administration’s policies. (It should be noted, of course, that Trump himself appropriated the term from the actual preponderance of false or misleading social-media accounts and news stories from various perspectives, otherwise known simply as propaganda, during the tempestuous presidential campaign of 2016.) But the original script of The Post was written (by Liz Hannah) before Trump was elected president; the film’s initial production began soon after he took office in early 2017. According to one report in USA Today, The Post’s topical poignancy was a combination of happenstance and Spielberg’s shifting of his busy schedule to fast-track the film’s production. “When I read the first draft of the script,” he said, “this wasn’t something that could wait three years or two years — this was a story I felt we needed to tell today.”
The American political and cultural crises of the 1960s and early 1970s are still being litigated in the court of public opinion to this day. In terms of historic import, as well as in the context of intellectual freedom and censorship, the implications of this particular episode are profound. When the Washington Post itself went to federal court that June, soon after the Times had been banned from further publication of the Pentagon Papers material, it was a test of both the American government’s mettle to protect the freedom of the press as promised by the U.S. Constitution. When the Post indeed won its case, a strong precedent was set.
The foremost take on the “Papers” comes from their leaker, former deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and military consultant Daniel Ellsberg. Here’s Rolling Stone Magazine’s 1973 interview with him after he was cleared of all charges of treason. “We were facing a massive and urgent threat to our remaining democratic institutions, a coup on the eve of its completion,” he said at the time. “People who carried out this coup are still in power, starting with the president.”
He, the president, wouldn’t be in power for much longer.
Robert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.