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If you haven't seen The Post, it is a film I recommend.

It revolves around the Washington Post and its publication of the "top-secret" Pentagon Papers in 1971, one of the most significant conflicts between government and media in our country's history. As others have noted, the current release of the film is both timely and relevant in today's "fake news" era and the Trump administration's fiery attacks on the media.

As is usually the case with "docudrama" films, it is a shorthand version of a complex history. But far better than most The Post focuses on the newspaper's publisher, Katharine Graham, and editor Ben Bradlee, their parts played by two of our most prominent actors, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. The top-line cast was directed by Steven Spielberg.

What became known as the Pentagon Papers was a study commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967 on the history of policy-making on Vietnam, resulting in a massive 47-volume, 7,000-page report.

One of those who worked on the study was Daniel Ellsberg and it was Ellsberg who pushed to have the documents made public. He believed the citizenry needed to know of the misinformation and duplicity that had characterized actions and statements by government officials.

In his zeal to alert the public, Ellsberg secretly photo-copied the top-secret documents and began efforts to get them before the public.

His first move came in November 1969 when he met with Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leading opponent of the U.S. role in Southeast Asia and critic of the executive branch's lack of candor. Ellsberg told Fulbright about the Pentagon study and urged him to divulge the documents.

Fulbright didn't believe he had the authority to unilaterally declassify the documents or should attempt to do so. On Nov. 11, 1969, Fulbright wrote to Defense Secretary Melvin Laird requesting the Pentagon provide a copy of the study to the Foreign Relations Committee. Laird declined, saying that to do so "would clearly be contrary to the national interest."

A series of back-and-forth letters followed. In March 1971, Ellsberg again met with Fulbright, urging use of the documents. When it became apparent that Fulbright didn't believe he was in a position to release them, Ellsberg asked for advice on where he might turn. Norvill Jones, a Fulbright staff member, discussed the possibility Ellsberg might try some other anti-war members of Congress, but when he tried that it was unproductive.

Again, on April 30, 1971, Fulbright wrote Laird asking him either to get the president to claim executive privilege on the documents or turn them over to the Foreign Relations Committee.

By that time Ellsberg had already shown portions of the papers to someone from the New York Times and the showdown was approaching. Stealthily, the Times reviewed the papers provided by Ellsberg, and prepared for publication -- against the advice of some legal counsel.

As Fulbright's press secretary, I knew something was in the works when I received a call from the Times about his correspondence with Laird. But I didn't expect the blockbuster coverage I saw when I picked up my copy of the Times on Sunday morning, June 13, 1971. It was stunning: "Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. involvement" by Neil Sheehan.

More reports appeared in the Times the following two days. Then the Nixon administration stepped in. Although the period covered in the Pentagon Papers preceded Nixon's presidency, he worried that publication might lead to leaking of other classified information that could damage his administration. So, the administration asked the federal court to impose prior restraint on the Times -- blocking publication on grounds that it would be detrimental to national security.

With the Times prohibited from publishing, the Post mounted a feverish effort, led by Graham and Bradlee, to obtain and publish the papers, which they did, as the film portrays.

Meanwhile, the Times contested the injunction, arguing that prior restraint was unwarranted and the public's right to know should prevail. With the Nixon administration also seeking an injunction against the Post, and with the Boston Globe joining in publishing material from the papers, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the case on an expedited basis.

After only four days, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, upheld the right of the newspapers to publish information from the Pentagon Papers, stating that the government had not proved that publication would jeopardize national security. Fundamentally, it was a First Amendment victory.

As Fulbright said, most of the material shouldn't have been secret in the first place.

A few years ago, emerging from a late dinner with one of my daughters near Dupont Circle in Washington, who did we encounter but Daniel Ellsberg and his wife. We talked for 15 minutes on a cold night, with Ellsberg recalling that he really wanted Fulbright to release the papers and was disappointed that he wouldn't. But he said with the way things developed, and the publicity from and about the newspapers, he succeeded in getting the Pentagon Papers before the public.

Not long after the Pentagon Papers controversy, the Post led the way in investigating and reporting on Watergate. And later came the film, All the President's Men, based on the Woodward and Bernstein book.

These episodes and films remind us of the indispensable role of the press in holding power to account, more so in this time of "fake news" rants.

Commentary on 01/31/2018

Print Headline: Historic 'papers'

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