There couldn’t be a more appropriate time to release a film about press holding a government to account. And thankfully, this Oscar season we’ve got one from Steven Spielberg as he directs Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in The Post, a drama which follows The Washington Post’s exposé of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, revealing the covert involvement of the US government during the Vietnam War.

True Story of The Post and The Pentagon Papers

But what are The Pentagon Papers? What role did Kay Graham (Streep) and Ben Bradlee (Hanks) play in releasing them? And what effect did this mass leak have on the free press? We answer all in the True Story of The Post and The Pentagon Papers.

Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers

In 1967, the US Secretary of Defense – Robert McNamara – commissioned a report on America’s involvement in Vietnam since the WWII titled ‘Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force.’ The report would later be referred to as The Pentagon Papers. Classified in nature, the report drew on material from the CIA and the State Department archives. The study took two years to complete and spanned 47 volumes and over 3,000 pages with over 4,000 supporting documents.

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Having been a Marine Corps officer in the 1950’s and having completed a PhD in Economics from Harvard, Daniel Ellsberg began working in the Pentagon from August 1964 under McNamara, and worked on the report until its completion in 1968. By 1969, Ellsberg had become disenfranchised with the war and began attending anti-war events.

In October 1969, Ellsberg and his friend Anthony Russo photocopied the completed study with the intention of releasing it, believing the public had a right to know the details of the report. Ellsberg approached members of President Richard Nixon’s government arguing his case, including National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, among others, but Ellsberg was consistently rejected.

What Did The Pentagon Papers Reveal?

The Pentagon Papers, among other things, revealed that four US governments (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson) had ‘systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress’ about the role and strategy of the US during the Vietnam War.

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More specifically, the leak revealed;

– The US had expanded its war with the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which had been reported by media in the US and all of which were against the judgements of the US intelligence agency.
– Harry Truman’s Administration had given military support to France to aid its colonial war against the Viet Minh.
– The Kennedy Administration had played a key role in the 1963 South Vietnamese coup, in which President Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated.
– Lyndon B. Johnson had intensified policies into one of ‘broad commitment’ to wage a full-blown war.
– The aim of the Vietnam War was not to secure an “independent, non-Communist South Vietnam”, but according to Robert McNamara, it was “not to help a friend, but to contain China.”

The Washington Post

Katharine ‘Kay’ Graham was born into a wealthy family in New York City in 1917. Her father, Eugene Meyer, was a financier and public official, and later bought The Washington Post in 1933 at a bankruptcy auction. Kay Graham’s husband, Philip Graham became publisher of The Post in 1946, when Meyer handed over the newspaper to his son-in-law. Following Philip’s suicide in 1963, Kay Graham became de facto publisher and later became president of The Washington Post in 1967 and later the chairwoman. At the time of Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Paper release, Ben Bradlee was Executive Editor of The Post.

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Having been largely ignored by members of Congress, Daniel Ellsberg decided to leak the controversial report to the press. Sections of The Pentagon Papers were sent to The New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, who published a series of articles based on the revelations. The first article in the series was released on 13th June 1971 and was titled Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing US Involvement.

As well as The New York Times, Ellsberg’s leak was also picked up by The Washington Post after he gave portions to Ben Bradlee. The Boston Globe and a range of other newspapers also began releasing classified information. The coverage sparked palpable public anger and even street protests.

Richard Nixon Blocks Publication

In the midst of a national uproar, the Richard Nixon Administration attempted to persuade The New York Times to voluntarily cease publication. Having failed to persuade The Times to stop reporting on The Pentagon Papers, Attorney General John Mitchell and Nixon obtained a federal court injunction forcing the Times to cease publication on grounds that the information violated national security. Having appealed the injunction, the case ‘New York Times Co. v. United States (403 U.S. 713)’ quickly rose through the US legal system to the Supreme Court.

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The Washington Post then began publishing its own series of articles based upon the Pentagon Papers. Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, warned reporter The Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein about a forthcoming article on the report, saying, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” The Post refused, forcing the government to ask for an injunction.

The injunction was declined by Judge Murray Gurfein, who stated: “[The] security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”

The Impact of The Pentagon Papers

During The New York Times court case, the US Supreme Court ruled that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was fully justified under the First Amendment – a ruling which has arguably protected the freedom of the press in the United States since.

The Nixon Administration arrested Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo under the Espionage Act of 1917. The pair were indicted by a grand jury in Los Angeles on charges of stealing and being in the possession of secret documents. The trial, however, was soon dismissed after it was revealed that agents acting on Nixon’s orders had illegally broken into the office of Ellberg’s therapist to steal files in attempts to discredit him.

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In June 2011, The Pentagon Papers were declassified and released to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. Each volume of the Papers is available as a separate PDF file from their website.

Kay Graham & Ben Bradlee

Kay Graham became the first female Fortune 500 CEO in 1972. She led The Washington Post for more than two decades, overseeing the Watergate scandal as well as The Pentagon Papers leaks. Her memoir, titled Personal History, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. She died in Boise in 2001 following a fall.

In recognition of his work as Editor of The Washington Post, in 1998 Bradlee won the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism. Bradlee spent his final years suffering with dementia and died of natural causes in 2014 at the age of 93.

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The Post Film (2017)

A film depicting the release of The Pentagon Papers at The Washington Post was announced in February 2017 with Steven Spielberg on directing duties, telling USA Today, “when I read the first draft of the script, this wasn’t something that could wait three years or two years — this was a story I felt we needed to tell today.”

Titled ‘The Post’, the film sees Meryl Streep play Kay Graham and Tom Hanks play Ben Bradlee – marking the first time the trio have collaborated on a project. The film also features an acclaimed ensemble cast including Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons, Matthew Rhys and Michael Stuhlbarg.

The Post is be out in cinemas across the UK on Friday 19th December.

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