April 24, 2018
Review by Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.
The Post debuted in theaters Jan. 12, 2018, a political thriller film that depicts how The Washington Post came to publish the “Pentagon Papers,” documents that disclosed the history of decision-making by the U.S. government, under four presidents, about involvement in the Vietnam War.
The first lesson of The Post is to edify the power and role of a free press to inform the public and provide a critical thinking “check” on public policies and the rhetoric that justifies them. Second, is the portrayal of Katharine Graham, who presided over The Washington Post at a critical time in U.S. history. She was owner, publisher, and chairwoman of the board of directors from 1963-1991, the first female Fortune 500 CEO and the only woman to be in such a high position at a publishing company in her time. The film reveals the pressure exerted on her from her male counterparts to stifle her voice and decision-making power. Third, publishing the Papers is a critical turning point for The Washington Post in transitioning from a family-owned regional newspaper to a publication of national prominence, which it remains today.
For the editor and publisher of a regional, family-owned newsmagazine, and as members of an age cohort who were sent in large numbers as combat soldiers to Vietnam, this film has special meaning. My keen interest in investigative journalism began with the film All The President’s Men, and the book by Woodward and Bernstein, and continues today with work by Jane Mayer, Dark Money.
The primary focus of the film is on the Pentagon Papers. As John Swaine summarized in The Telegraph in 2011, “The leak of The Pentagon Papers in 1971 had a monumental impact on the US government's relationships with the American public and with the media, which resounds today. Across some 7,000 pages, the secret history of the Vietnam War disclosed that successive U.S. presidents – from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson [and Richard Nixon] – had repeatedly misled voters about the war in Indo-China. …Never before had voters been given such direct proof that they were being lied to.”[i]
The author of the Pentagon Papers is Leslie Gelb, who was director of Policy Planning and Arms Control for International Security Affairs at the U.S. Department of Defense from 1967-1969. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (serving from 1961 to 1968 under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson) appointed Dr. Gelb as director of a historical research project that would eventually produce the Pentagon Papers.
The project began in 1967 when McNamara asked Gelb to assemble a team to research the history of involvement in Vietnam. They were to answer about 100 questions that might be asked at a press conference; about eight of the questions were directly historical. His staff analyzed documents from the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department, and the White House. The research was to remain secret, and the team was not allowed to do any interviews. The work was completed in 1969 and resulted in 36 volumes (monographs), which were about 30-50 pages each.
Gelb believes that the Pentagon Papers show how a world view, and a lack of information about the country, shaped foreign policy. The “domino theory” dominated the rationale for the war: that the U.S. was involved in a world-wide struggle with communism and, if we allowed North Vietnam to conquer South Vietnam, then other Asian countries would fall to communism.
Daniel Ellsberg was a military analyst who worked in the Pentagon under McNamara, with a Ph.D.in Economics from Harvard, whose dissertation was on decision theory. He spent two years in South Vietnam, and upon his return, worked for the RAND Corporation and contributed to the Vietnam War study commissioned by McNamara. It was Ellsberg who copied and released the Papers to the press. Ellsberg argued that the lesson from the Pentagon Papers was that they demonstrated that the U.S. was lying and duplicitous about our involvement in Vietnam.
Gelb said. “While the Papers show some lies, the main message of those Papers is that our leaders, who were making decisions about Vietnam and Indochina for all those years, from Truman onwards, didn’t know hardly anything about Vietnam and Indochina. They were ignorant!”
Gelb concludes: “And that’s why it’s important to clarify the real lesson of the Pentagon Papers. We get involved in these wars in places like Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria. We don’t know a ‘diam’ thing about those countries, the culture, the history, the politics, particularly the people on top and even down below. They don’t learn about this in the schools. Most of those middle-Eastern institutes have disappeared, and our expertise doesn’t come from the universities any more the way it did many years ago. And the leadership has no knowledge about those countries at all. And they send troops there to fight. They spend dollars and lives in countries they know nothing about! That was a central lesson about Vietnam! We committed the same kinds of mistakes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Getting involved in wars where we didn’t know the country we were committing to fight in. And that’s essential in fighting wars. These are wars that depend on knowledge of who the people are and what the country is, what the culture is like. And we jumped into them without knowing! That’s the essential message of the Pentagon Papers!
“The conclusion is that we got into this war through a combination of ignorance about Vietnam and Indochina, we knew nothing about the people and the culture and the history. And we got in … because Vietnam represented a domino in our strategic thinking: that if we lost there, we would lose all over Asia.”
Both Gelb’s and Ellsberg’s conclusions about the Papers are correct, and Gelb’s conclusion clearly substantiates Santayana’s statement.
Freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which generally prevents the government from interfering with the distribution of information and opinions. In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the case New York Times Co. v. United States. The question before the court was whether the constitutional freedom of the press was subordinate to a claimed need of the executive branch of government to maintain the secrecy of information. Justice Hugo Black wrote in his opinion: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
Gelb, Leslie H. (2001) “Misreading the Pentagon Papers.” New York Times Op-Ed. June 29. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/29/opinion/misreading-the-pentagon-papers.html
NPR (2011) “Analyst Assigned To Compile Pentagon Papers Discusses Their Release.” Interview with Leslie Gelb. https://www.npr.org/2011/06/14/137182726/analyst-assigned-to-compile-pentagon-papers-discusses-their-release
“What ‘The Post’ Missed,” (2018) WNYC “On The Media” interview with Leslie Gelb, by Brooke Gladstone. (Jan. 10, 2018) https://www.wnyc.org/story/what-the-post-missed
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