The Post with Meryl Streep as publisher Katherine Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee recalls the 1971 battle between The Washington Post and Nixon Administration over publication of the classified Pentagon Papers. In their ruling, the Supreme Court decided for publication, Justice Hugo Black declaring, as the film’s finale quotes: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
Wonderfully performed, the film is an inspirational and patriotic if sometimes sanctimonious homage to freedom of the press. Graham is portrayed as a courageous if sometimes clueless wealthy society doyenne striving to keep faith with both her deceased father and husband, her predecessors as publisher. Hanks is a wholesome version of Bradlee, whose infamous vulgarity and profanity the film mercifully declines to include. Both were patriots in their way. Not mentioned in the film, Bradlee was a WWII navy Pacific combat veteran, a commonality he shared with his good friend JFK. Graham’s son and eventual successor as publisher volunteered for military service in Vietnam, as she notes in the film.
When visiting The Washington Post with my high school journalism class in about 1982 I watched Graham leave her limo and, upon entering the lobby by herself, bend down to the floor to straighten out a large rumpled welcome mat. She struggled with the mat until other staff, recognizing her, rushed to her aid. The vignette captured her modesty and her dutiful ownership of The Post. When she died in 2001 I gladly returned to the Post lobby and signed a condolence book, describing her in my note as a “great American.”
Bradlee and Graham were probably journalistically correct to publish The Pentagon Papers, which were a classified history commissioned by LBJ Defense Secretary Robert McNamara about two decades of American involvement in Vietnam. The film persistently cites two decades of “lies” exposed by the study, from Presidents Truman and Eisenhower through Kennedy and Johnson, with Nixon now trying to protect those lies. Former McNamara aide Daniel Ellsberg, who’s still alive and, in my view, a snake and a crank, leaked the papers. He has across decades touted countless kooky and destructive causes, more recently the outrages of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Unlike Bradlee and Graham, and the Supreme Court, I don’t believe he was motivated by coherent ideals.
As to the allegation of two decades of presidential “lies” about Vietnam, this portrayal is simplistic, conspiratorial and unhistorical. These presidents were part of a Cold War consensus to resist Soviet expansionism. They did in Indochina what they did globally and justifiably, backed by American public opinion, which is support anti-communist forces. The “lies” were largely details of covert action or war strategy not fully shared with the public, as has been true with all wars.
Many details of USA policy in Vietnam may have been withheld but the big picture and purpose were always well known to the American public, which in the early Cold War years demanded no less than aggressive resistance to communist expansion. JFK and LBJ were especially motivated by public opinion, mindful of the “who lost China” debate that had plagued the Truman Administration and Democrats afterward. LBJ repeatedly sought counsel on Vietnam from his predecessors Truman and Eisenhower, who both largely supported his policy, though Ike likely would never have committed so many ground troops to an Asian war. Yet Ike agreed that once so deeply committed the USA must not lose.
The film justifiably focuses on McNamara, a social friend to Graham and a Post board member, who micromanaged and mismanaged the war until he lost faith in victory, and even then continuing. Graham in the film confronts her friend, noting her own son’s war service. McNamara insists that American credibility and hopes for negotiated peace had precluded withdrawal even if victory was unattainable.
Nixon is the film’s chief villain, malevolently shown making late night phone calls demanding reprisals against The Post, with the film relying on actual audio from the infamous White House tapes that would destroy him. Ironically, Nixon had the least to lose and the most to gain from publication of The Pentagon Papers, which primarily targeted his nemeses JFK and LBJ. Yet he thought their publication as classified materials would undermine national security and presidential authority.
Ellsberg escaped conviction based on technicalities, and dirty tricks to undermine his credibility by White House “plumbers,” organized to plug leaks of classified information, would lead eventually to Watergate. Nixon of course achieved what LBJ did not, withdrawal from Indochina and negotiated peace. But Watergate so weakened the presidency and emboldened doves that commitments to Indochinese allies were not kept, ensuring communist victory and murderous horrors.
After his presidency, LBJ visited his old friend Graham and provided her with a lengthy review and defense of his Vietnam War conduct. She recounted in her memoir that his case was compelling if not entirely persuasive. Seemingly she thought his argument wasn’t just based on “lies” but debatable reactions to genuine strategic challenges.
Sometimes public opinion in democracies likes to imagine it’s been deceived by its government. But politicians and their protégés largely act on or respond to public opinion. When policies become messy or fail, much of the public naturally prefers to imagine betrayal rather than assume its share of responsibility.
America was not duped into Vietnam. Contrary to the conspiratorial narrative of The Post, the war was not fueled by “lies” but by American public opinion and by America’s self-understood often semi-messianic global purpose as beacon of democracy, which transcends the policies of any administration. The Post itself, with its intrinsically subversive message of “serve the governed, not the governor” itself conveys America’s messianic message. And likely the film, with its celebration of free speech, will in its overseas showings be resented and opposed by tyrannical governors who reject America’s revolutionary democratic premise.