“The Post” is fairly dry history made more interesting by putting two world class actors Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep together with Steven Spielberg. Other major players include Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) and Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”). It’s the story of how the press handled the infamous “Pentagon Papers” in 1971, leading to one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in modern history.
June 30, 1971- Justice Hugo Black: ” Madison and the other Framers of the
First Amendment, able men that they were, wrote in language they earnestly
believed could never be misunderstood: “Congress shall make no law . . .
abridging the freedom . . . of the press. . . .” Both the history and language
of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to
publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or
The production and, of course, direction of the film is immaculate. Hanks and Streep are the world class performers that they are. It all comes together to form a very convincing potboiler, but the real history of Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is diluted somewhat by the drama surrounding owner of the Washington Post, Katharine Graham’s quandaries as to whether to go against Nixon et al, who promised to destroy the paper. Frankly, I think the producers of the film thought the hand wringing Kate Graham was more interesting than the Papers, especially in this era where women want to be portrayed as more decisive than they have been portrayed in the past. Of course, Streep does a masterful job.
But I thought the history of the Pentagon Papers is much more interesting and not explored fully in the film. The film actually starts with the collection of the Papers but the history behind that collection is important. Accordingly, what follows is an explanation (by me) that lays out the real history of how the Pentagon Papers came to be. The film then explains their importance in terms of the attempt by Nixon to undermine a free press. The film does a good job of that.
So, brace yourselves, here is a mercifully brief history of what happened that set the stage for Daniel Ellsberg copying the 7000 or so pages that describe in detail how the American public was systematically lied to regarding a conflict no one believed could be won but refused to quit and appear as “losers”. If you understand the history, the film makes more sense.
The history behind the “Pentagon Papers” (Daniel Ellsworth, 1971) The 19th and early 20th century were the years of colonialism, powerful countries conquering and occupying foreign areas mainly for the purpose of acquiring natural resources. Following World War II, the Japanese overthrew the French Colonial regime but were overthrown in 1945 by Ho Chi Minh and it’s military arm, the Viet Minh. The anti-communist State of Vietnam was established under Bao Dai in 1949.
Ho Chi Minh extended the conflict to unite Vietnam under communism until the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the French departed Vietnam. Following the Geneva Accord of 27 April 1954, agreements were made granting Vietnam independence from France. On July 20, 1954, the countries attending the Geneva Conference agreed that there should be a cease fire and a partition line at the 17th parallel should be established to separate the powers and that free elections should be held to establish reunification in July of 1956. This accord was signed only by the French and the (Northern) Viet Minh, who were assured of winning any such election because of their national popularity. However, the United States (under then President Dwight Eisenhower) and the anti-communist portion of the country in the south, under it’s president Bao Dai refused to sign the accord, essentially guaranteeing free elections would not occur.
The communist influenced north under Ho Chi Minh then continued active warfare against the south to unify the country under communism. This was the beginning of President Dwight Eisenhower’s influence in the evolution and revolution of Vietnam. Eisenhower was very wary of what’s popularly been called the “horizontal spread” of communism, a political culture anathema to the United States. This notion was created following the Soviet Union’s violent annexation of numerous border states following World War II. Eisenhower and others believed that if Vietnam were allowed to unify under communism, it would be impossible to curtail the spread to other neighboring countries. Eisenhower didn’t want to be accused be accused of having lost Indochina to the Communists as Truman had lost China after communists had been successful in capturing that country.
Accordingly, Eisenhower began that strategy of military assistance to the anti-communist forces in the southern area of the country under Ngo Dinh Diem who refused to hold national elections. He had previously assisted French military actions in the action before Dien Bien Phu. Eisenhower’s role in the evolution of Vietnam as a country is important for the following reasons:
1. His fear of the spread of communism overwhelmed the premise that countries should have the right to self-determinism, and that they may freely choose outcomes not necessarily friendly to all other countries.
2. His “cold war” bias obliterated the fact that he was supporting a brutally repressive regime, at least as unacceptable as and probably worse than any communist regime.
3. Eisenhower continued the political objective began by Truman in 1950 to contain the spread of communism by providing military assistance to the non-communistic forces.
In 1955, Eisenhower provided the Military Assistance Advisory Group” to train the South Vietnamese troops. This action begins the “official” military action in Vietnam and American soldier deaths from this point on are memorialized in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. In 1967 and especially 1968, the Democratic Party in the United States was in turmoil over the Vietnam conflict. The 1968 Democratic Convention on Chicago escalated to a full-scale riot, contributing to the spin off violent activists. Bowing to increasing criticism of the war effort, especially following the violent Tet Offensive in January of 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew his candidacy for the 1968 election.
The assassinations of and Martin Luther King on April 4,1968 and Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, 1968 further threw the Democratic Party into shambles. Nixon shrewdly assessed the situation as amenable to a Republican candidate to gain a strong portion of the voting public looking for stability in the country. This was a correct assessment. Running on a “unite the country” and “End the Vietnam conflict (Peace with Honor)” platform, Nixon was elected by a wide margin against his opponents Hubert Humphrey and Alabama Governor George Wallace who may have split the Democratic vote. When Nixon took office on January 20, 1969, the war was extremely unpopular in the United States and there were violent protests against it, including attacks on military installations and providers of military supplies.
In mid-1969, Nixon began negotiations with North Vietnam to find a peaceful solution. Peace talks began in Paris but did not produce any significant accord. Meanwhile, Nixon had approved secret bombing missions in North Vietnam and also in Cambodia. Every month that elapsed between Nixon’s promise to end the war and its continuation resulted in hundreds of American troops killed. The tragic massacre at My Lai in March of 1968 and the shooting of four students at (then) Kent State College on May 4, 1968 sparked International outrage as to American conduct during the war.
The Nixon administration was viewed as callous and indifferent to the escalating outrages related to the deteriorating war effort. In 1971, Daniel Ellsburg, a former State Department operative and anti-war activist, surreptitiously copied a study prepared by the Department of Defense showing that the Johnson administration had systematically lied to the public and congress about the potential for the Americans to actually win the war. Nixon was aware of the content of these missives and reacted by trying to obtain an injunction for their publication, which failed via the Supreme Court.
The so-called “Pentagon Papers” revealed that the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, had progressively misled the public regarding reality of the war intentions and possible outcomes, especially Eisenhower negating the Geneva Accords of 1954. However, Nixon reasoned that the actions of past presidents might soften his own actions. Ellsburg was important also as he provided the incentive for Nixon to break the law in search of future “leakers” of sensitive government documents, eventually leading, of course, to the Watergate drama. The film is world class good. It gets four and a half Hairpieces. Could have explained the history a little better.
David Crippen, MD, FCCM
University of Pittsburgh (Ret)