There couldn't be a better time to announce a film that focuses on the vital role of the free press in keeping a government honest. And thankfully, such a feature appears to be well on its way to becoming a reality and it stars none of other than Hollywood icons Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.
Titled The Post, the film — directed by Steven Spielberg — will bring to the forefront the true story behind the Washington Post's exposure of the Pentagon Papers back in 1971, a moment that both challenged the federal government and highlighted the bravery of journalists in ensuring political justice prevails.
Playing editors Bradlee and Graham, Hanks and Streep will expose the classified study into the Vietnam War brought to light by military analyst and activist Daniel Ellsberg, revealing secret and previously unreported facts about the escalation of troops and destruction in what was swiftly becoming a losing war — a sombre reality that was relentlessly hidden from the American public. Here's the whistleblowing, true story behind #ThePost:
The True Story Behind 'The Post'
What Were The Pentagon Papers?
In 1967, the Secretary of Defense of the United States — Robert McNamara — commissioned a classified report on America's involvement in Vietnam since the Second World War titled "Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force." Drawing on a huge amount of material from the archives of the CIA and the State Department, the study was finally completed two years later and bound into 47 enormous volumes containing 3,000 pages (with over 4,000 supporting documents.)
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A man called Daniel Ellsberg, who had been a Marine Corps officer in the '50s and who had been a strategic analyst for the government contributed to the preparation of this study, later to be known as the infamous "Pentagon Papers." By the time the report was completed however, Ellsberg no longer believed that the United States could win the Vietnam War. He was also adamant that the public had the right to know the details of the report, becoming increasingly opposed to the nation's involvement in the conflict.
Photocopying the study page by page over many sleepless nights, he approached members of Congress but was largely ignored. As a result, he sent sections to a reporter at The New York Times called Neil Sheehan, who published a series of articles based on the revelations within the Pentagon Papers. Among many things, these stated that:
- The Johnson administration had systematically misled the public, as well as Congress, over involvement and the nature of the Vietnam War.
- Harry S. Truman's administration had given military aid to France to aid its colonial war against the Viet Minh, directly involving the U.S.
- The U.S. 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 U.S. had secretly enlarged the scale of the War by bombing Laos, Cambodia and Northern Vietnam against judgements of the U.S. intelligence agency.
The Nixon Administration Attempts To Block Publication
In addition to The New York Times, the study was also picked up by The Washington Post (after Ellsberg gave portions to editor Ben Bradlee), the Boston Globe and a host of other newspapers, sparking street protests and growing political controversy. Amid national uproar, the government attempted to block the publication on grounds that the information violated national security but 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."
This then led to a landmark court battle on June 30, 1971, that saw the U.S. Supreme court ultimately rule that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was fully justified under the First Amendment — a law which vowed to protect the freedom of the press. During the ruling, Justice Black hailed the vital importance of this, saying:
"Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell."
By this point, 15 other newspapers had also received the study and were preparing to publish it. The events were such a huge embarrassment to the Nixon administration and the President secretly authorized illegal efforts to discredit Ellsberg.
'I Could No Longer Cooperate In Concealing This Information From The American Public'
As a result, Ellsberg was arrested in Boston, where he took the opportunity to reveal why he had leaked the papers in the first place, saying:
"I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision."
Later, he was indicted by a grand jury in Los Angeles on charges of stealing and being in the possession of secret documents. However, the trial was soon dismissed when it became apparent 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. The administration had allegedly also approached the judge with FBI job offers to sway his decision. As a result of these misdemeanors, Ellsberg was freed due to a mistrial.
The Impact Of The Pentagon Papers
Ultimately, the true story behind The Post focuses on the shocking fact that four administrations (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson) had heavily misled the American public regarding their intentions in Vietnam.
Fast forward four decades since the Pentagon Papers press leak to 2011 and all 7,000 pages of the report have since been made readily available to the American public. Speaking about the full publication of the study, Ellsberg recently acknowledged that there were many lessons to be learnt from the scandal:
"It seems to me that what the Pentagon Papers really demonstrated 40 years ago was the price of that practice. Which is that letting a small group of men in secret in the executive branch make these decisions — initiate them secretly, carry them out secretly and manipulate Congress, and lie to Congress and the public as to why they’re doing it and what they’re doing — is a recipe for, a guarantee of Vietnams and Iraqs and Libyas, and in general foolish, reckless, dangerous policies."
Ultimately, his words could not ring louder and more true than during the unsettling times of the controversial Donald Trump presidency — an administration that has repeatedly attempted to cover up unflattering stories about itself, discredit honest journalists and label respected media outlets as enemies of the state. Quite frankly, Steven Spielberg's The Post could not be coming at a better time.
Were you already familiar with the true story behind The Post?