Here’s What Was Really at Stake in the Pentagon Papers Case

In the sure hands of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, history is often a morality play. Take Schindler’s List (1993), the story of a Czech citizen celebrated for saving Jews from concentration camps or worse.

An ethnic German who joined the Nazi Party months after Hitler’s partial annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Schindler had already been acting as a spy for German military intelligence for three years before Czechoslovakia was dismembered. Following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Schindler moved to Krakow to profit from the “Aryanization” of Jewish-owned businesses in the former Polish state. In late 1944, once the war, from Berlin’s perspective, had taken a decisive turn for the worse, Schindler obtained permission to move his factory west and had an assistant draw up “several versions” of a list of essential slave laborers supposedly needed to operate the relocated plant. In this manner, and at considerable risk to himself, Schindler facilitated the survival of up to 800 Jewish men and 300 to 400 Jewish women who otherwise faced extermination.

Spielberg’s depiction was a misleading beatification for, while Schindler was no Nazi ideologue, men and women were put on or taken off his list depending on what wartime valuables they had to offer. Missing from the movie was that he was an opportunistic businessman through and through (though never a particularly good one).

The liberties taken by director Spielberg and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer last year in making The Post—about defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 leak of the so-called Pentagon Papers (formally titled “History of U. S. Decision-Making Process on Viet Nam Policy, 1945-1967”)—are of a similar order. The demarcation line between the bad guys and the good guys (plus one woman) is simple and clear-cut, with complications burnished into nonexistence.

Accordingly, some legal and political history may be in order.

“No Resounding Victory”

Consider the movie’s thumbnail description of the 6 to 3 Supreme Court decision freeing the New York Times and Washington Post to publish articles and documents derived from the Pentagon study as they saw fit. The movie painted this 1971 decision as an unalloyed victory for a free press. To bolster this simplification, viewers hear part of the opinion written by Justice Hugo Black, one of the two First Amendment absolutists (William O. Douglas was the other) on the Court.

The purpose of the press, wrote Black, is “to serve the governed, not the governors,” and these words, when repeated in The Post’s ersatz newsroom, evoke cheers. But as Professor David Rudenstine made clear in The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case (1996), a majority of the justices would have supported the Nixon administration’s request to enjoin the newspapers if only the government had made a good case.

Attorney General John Mitchell had allowed Robert Mardian, head of the Justice Department’s Internal Security Division, to dictate the government’s initial legal strategy, with disastrous results. Mardian staked out a position as absolutist as Black’s and Douglas’ but at the other extreme, arguing that the newspapers could not quote or write articles about classified documents simply because they were classified, nor were the newspapers entitled to possess them. By the time the administration gained its footing, it was too late. The Court ended up taking the middle ground between the absolutes because the justices believed the administration had not met the heavy burden for why prior restraint was necessary.

Even Ben Bradlee—executive editor of the Washington Post, who carries the distinction of having been cinematically portrayed by Jason Robards and now Tom Hanks—realized after initially celebrating the Supremes’ decision that it was no “resounding victory.” Bradlee is quoted by Rudenstine as saying that Justice Byron White, despite joining the majority of justices in lifting the injunction, “was just begging them [the administration] to prosecute us for treason” if the newspaper published any stories that revealed top secrets.

Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, widely considered the architect of U.S. strategy in the  war, seems positioned as The Post’s chief villain at first. Ellsberg (played by a furtive-acting Matthew Rhys) is shown going out on a “search-and-destroy” patrol with U. S. troops, only to encounter an ambush in the Vietnamese jungle. On the flight back to Washington, Ellsberg is summoned to join the defense secretary in a forward compartment, and McNamara (played by Bruce Greenwood) asks him frankly about his assessment of the war. Ellsberg calls it a stalemate; the secretary heartily agrees. Yet when McNamara deplanes, he tells the assembled press corps that what he just saw on the ground was that U.S. forces are making enormous strides. He’s baldly lying, in other words.

McNamara Actually Favored Publication

McNamara is only a place-holder for the movie’s real heavies. Later, the newspaper’s publisher, Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep), confronts McNamara about his deceptions during the previous (Johnson) administration, and warns him that the Washington Post is intent on publishing excerpts from the Pentagon Papers notwithstanding their longstanding friendship. McNamara voices his opposition, but not because revealing the documents would further impugn his reputation. He is more concerned about his friend Katharine than himself. President Nixon “has some very bad people around him” who “will crush you,” he warns her.

For the balance of the film, it is Nixon and his henchmen—not the Presidents or architects who deceived the American public into the war—who are the adversaries, consumed as they are with keeping the Pentagon Papers secret almost out of sheer spite. The spite is not given any basis, though; the film never actually explains why the incumbent administration got so exercised about exposing decisionmaking that had occurred before Nixon assumed power.

If this encounter between McNamara and Graham happened (they actually were close friends), it simply would not have included him cautioning her not to publish. As Graham noted in her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography Personal History (1997), McNamara had already encouraged the New York Times to keep publishing the Pentagon Papers in the face of the administration’s threat to enjoin it.

To be sure, Graham learned from others that the administration was hopping mad and looking for ways to retaliate. Therefore having McNamara deliver the message might be simply written off as dramatic license. Still, there is a deeper reason why this scene, which depicts the Nixon administration as a menace to a free press, is profoundly misleading.

Rudenstine, after taking an objective look at the entire controversy, changed his mind about what might be termed the conventional wisdom. His research included access to some never-before-seen court documents. While he still strongly approved of the Supreme Court’s ruling, he wrote that:

The conclusions I eventually reached differed substantially from the conception of the case I once held and from what I think was (and remains) the dominant view . . . . I no longer regard the legal dispute as an effort by the Nixon administration merely to withhold deeply embarrassing information. Nor do I understand the legal attack on the [New York] Times simply as part of the administration’s general campaign to intimate the press or view the case as one in which the ultimate outcome was relatively predictable . . . .

Rudenstine goes on to assert that the government’s legal reaction was in good faith and arose out of a genuine worry about the ramifications of Ellsberg’s massive leak. Moreover, the legal tussle over the Pentagon Papers ought to be seen as distinct from the extralegal and ultimately self-destructive steps the Nixon administration subsequently took against the defense analyst, beginning, most notably, with the creation of the White House “plumbers.”

Where The Post seems to ring true is in its depiction of Graham. This portrayal starts out as if it’s going to be a subplot but ends up taking over the movie, no doubt owing to Meryl Streep’s typically strong (and Oscar-nominated) performance. Streep captures Graham’s maturation from an accidental, self-doubting publisher to someone who becomes decisive and tough in a world of corporate men, investment bankers, and the profane boys’ club of newspapering. In fact, a better title for the screenplay might have been “The Katharine Graham Story.”

Yet even this facet of the film also begins to teeter if one starts digging. According to David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be—a 1979 account of the (now eclipsed) communications empires that dominated postwar America—after Graham’s decision to publish, but before the Supreme Court ruled, Ben Bagdikian, the national editor and the hero of the affair insofar as the Washington Post’s coverage was concerned, noticed a “curious phenomenon.” Graham had abruptly become unfriendly to him.

“Well, what kind of trouble did you get us in today?” she coldly said to Bagdikian one day as she went to strategize with the newspaper’s lawyers. Only the energetic efforts of  Bagdikian (the newsman, portrayed by Bob Odenkirk, knew Ellsberg and correctly guessed he was the source of the leak to the New York Times) enabled the Washington Post to barely get its hands on a portion of the documents and “get a piece of the action,” as Bradlee put it.

After the Supreme Court ruled in the newspapers’ favor, Graham, according to Halberstam, made a point of telling Bagdikian that she had been kidding when she made that remark. But Bagdikian never saw it that way. A highly respected editor and press scholar, Bagdikian believed that Graham’s sudden coolness reflected a lingering ambivalence, unease, and resentment at having had to choose between openly defying the President of the United States or facing a newsroom revolt. Her dinner parties, at least up until the Nixon administration, were the “best ticket” in town—and that in turn depended on having men of power and position around the table, and the least amount of tension with the White House.

Perhaps the most that can be said about The Post is that, like Schindler’s List, it gives us what Hollywood imagines we would like to believe. And we find comfort in believing it.