It doesn’t happen often these days, but I was sitting in a darkened movie theater last weekend when the crowd erupted in applause as the movie credits for “The Post” began to roll.
I was one of them.
Granted, it is a newspaper movie where a heroic publisher puts her company at risk over the public’s right to know, so I could relate, but it’s not the type of subject matter most might find inspiring.
I’d like to think that the applause was not so much about being entertained by a great piece of filmmaking, but an acknowledgement that the public continues to long for the truth about a government that regularly lies to it.
The movie is about the New York Times‘ and Washington Post‘s 1971 legal battle to publish the Pentagon Papers, which was eventually decided by the Supreme Court.
I was surprised how little I knew about the landmark case in which a former senior official in the Defense Department and intelligence analyst at the Rand Corporation, Daniel Ellsberg, leaked over 4,000 pages of a 1967 report commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to define the history of the Vietnam War.
Ellsberg was familiar with the report because he was one of the 36 scholars who worked on it. The Pentagon Papers documented how people inside the national-security apparatus in multiple administrations had repeatedly come to the conclusion that Vietnam was an unwinnable war, even as they escalated it.
Ellsberg, a former Marine who served in Korea and went on to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard, eventually ended up at McNamara’s Defense Department, and then the Rand Corporation.
After reading the report, Ellsberg was so incensed that he went to the Senate, where he tried to convince politicians to hold public hearings. When that failed, he put the report in his briefcase, hoping that security guards at the Rand Corporation would not check for the top-secret document. They did not.
Each night, he took another volume of the report — there were 47 of them — to a friend’s advertising agency where he could use the copying machine. He would work all night copying the documents.
He eventually put them in the hands of the New York Times.
But after The Times published two installments, the federal government was granted an injunction to stop the publication in the name of national security.
The reality was the injunction was to spare the Nixon administration political embarrassment that could have hurt Nixon’s re-election chances.
Here is what struck me the most: We as Americans continue to trust in a federal government that regularly lies to us.
Big lies like the Vietnam War. At the time McNamara’s report was presented, 35,000 Americans had died in Vietnam. Another 20,000 more would die after the report was finished.
It wasn’t national security the government was worried about, it was political embarrassment. Neither the Johnson nor Nixon administrations wanted to be labeled as the first to lose a war.
That was unconscionable.
It set the standard that would lead to the search for weapons of mass destruction and our continued involvement in Afghanistan in another unwinnable war.
On “60 Minutes” this past week, the president of Afghanistan was asked how long his troops could fight without American aid.
“Six months,” he answered.
Another unwinnable war, unless we commit American troops to being there forever.
The Pentagon Papers was a victory for American journalism and the public’s right to know, but I don’t think we learned anything from it.