'The Post': Professor recalls impact of the Pentagon Papers

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By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 left a profound mark on the career path of Michigan State University journalism professor Sue Carter.

“I have a very vivid memory of the event. I was an undergraduate student at (MSU) at the time, and – like many others my age – deeply interested in politics,” said Carter, who’s been a broadcast journalist/talk show host, producer, attorney, professor, press secretary for Gov. James Blanchard, author, and Episcopal priest throughout her long career.

The 1960s and the 1970s were turbulent times in America, given the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy; the election of Richard M. Nixon as the 37th President; the Vietnam War; and the Pentagon Papers.

The saga of the Pentagon Papers, which represented a major victory for freedom of the press in the United States, chronicled in the movie, “The Post.”

Directed by Oscar winner Steven Spielberg (“Schindler’s List”), the movie stars Oscar winner Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, The Post’s hard-driving editor; Oscar winner Meryl Streep as Kay Graham, The Post’s publisher as well as the nation’s first female newspaper publisher (her father Eugene Meyer purchased it in 1946).

The script was co-written by Harvard Law School alumnus Josh Singer, who won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for 2015’s “Spotlight,”

Also appearing in “The Post” are Bruce Greenwood as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower of the Pentagon Papers who was charged with treason (the charges were eventually dropped); Michael Stuhlbarg as Abe Rosenthal, Pulitzer-winning editor/reporter at The New York Times; Justin Swain as Neil Sheehan, a Times reporter covering the military and politics, among many others in this ensemble cast.

“This is the origin story of the Watergate investigation in a sense,” said Singer. “The Pentagon Papers basically changed the way (The Post) operated and led to that possibility.”

In March of 1971, Sheehan obtained unprecedented access to a top-secret report spanning 7,000 pages filled with damning secrets about the U.S. government, particularly the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War. This document – originally called “History of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-66,” which eventually came to be called the Pentagon Papers – was prepared at the behest of McNamara.

The Pentagon Papers revealed how Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson misled the general public about America’s involvement in Vietnam. Rather than pulling out of Vietnam, the CIA was covertly expanding America’s involvement (America pulled out of Vietnam in 1975). The Pentagon Papers also provided evidence of various violations of the Geneva Convention, assassinations, and rigged elections.

Ellsberg, one of the Pentagon Papers’ authors and a military analyst at the RAND Corporation, a government-financed think tank, became disillusioned by the discrepancies between what was actually happening in Vietnam and what was going on in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. He began furtively making copies of the Papers and leaked them to Sheehan.

The higher powers at The Times realized the consequential and controversial nature of the Pentagon Papers. Still, they published an exposé on June 13, 1971 with the front-page headline: “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement.”

On June 15, 1971, the Nixon Administration asked a federal court for an injunction to halt any further publication by The Times, alleging publication of the Pentagon Papers would endanger national security. The request was granted.

Enter The Post, which obtained a complete copy of the Pentagon Papers. It was up to Graham, who inherited the ownership of the newspaper from her late husband Phil upon his death in 1963, to make the biggest decision of the newspaper’s history: Publish the story or kill the story. She faced intense pressure from all quarters, doubted by adversaries and allies alike.

Further, The Post was in dire financial straits at that point and on the verge of an initial public stock offering to remain solvent, so the timing couldn’t have been worse. As if Graham didn’t have enough of a burden to bear, her son Donald, now the chairman of Graham Holdings Co., was serving in Vietnam at this time.

“I think it was really hard for her because she had been just a mother… she was not a journalist. She did not work professionally before my father died… I think it was extremely difficult because she really didn’t have the background as she herself would openly admit,” said Graham’s daughter Lally Graham Weymouth, currently The Post’s senior associate editor.

In the end, Graham – working closely with Bradlee – made the call to publish. On June 18, 1971, The Post became the first newspaper to publish an exposé on The Papers following the injunction against The Times, risking legal action. That same day, the Department of Justice sought an immediate restraining order and permanent injunction against The Post.

However, both were denied in federal court. Subsequently, The Post’s stand inspired other major newspapers to publish stories about the Pentagon Papers.

On June 30, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the injunction against The Times. The majority opinion was that publication of the Pentagon Papers was in the public interest and that was the duty of a free press to serve as a watchdog for the government.

“There was a strong call to be part of the change that was occurring during and as a result of the Nixon Administration,” said Carter. “Journalism was one way to help restore sensibility and democracy in America. It made me all the more dedicated – and proud – to be a journalist.”

Carter recalled meeting Graham during her days at WDIV-TV (Channel 4) in Detroit.

“She was inspiring as a leader and a woman of courage, who recognized the need to publish The Pentagon Papers,” said Carter.

Graham, who died in 2001, later wrote: “Sometimes you don’t really decide, you just move forward, and that is what I did – moved forward blindly and mindlessly into a new and unknown life.”

Nonetheless, fighting against such impossible odds – and winning – has made Graham an inspiration for many women – not just women in journalism, but women in any profession. She is seen as a trailblazer by so many.

“She took a very challenging situation, the helm of a major newspaper upon the death of her husband, and immersed herself in learning the business, pressing forward, and encouraging others, especially women. That action translates across many fields,” said Carter.

 “I recall her saying, only half-joking, that the executive washroom was no longer the purview of men alone. I believe she delighted in that access.”

 

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