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The Post Reporters Who Exposed the Truth About the Vietnam War

In 1971, the "Washington Post" risked everything to publish government secrets after their competitor was indicted for the same crime.

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  • Photo Credit: Dreamworks

During a time in which the media faces daily accusations of spreading “fake news,” perhaps the true story behind Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film, The Post, couldn't be more relevant. Set to hit theaters on December 22, the movie follows a pivotal moment in the history of one of our greatest media giants: The Washington Post.

The year was 1971. Daniel Ellsberg, an employee of a government-funded R&D firm, secured a set of photocopied, confidential documents known as the Pentagon Papers. This classified intelligence exposed damning truths about the Vietnam War—particularly the scope of America's involvement in the conflict. Fiercely anti-war and enraged by the government's deception, Ellsberg had a ticking time bomb in his hands. But he also had an important choice to make: Which of the two leading papers, The New York Times or The Washington Post, would he ask to detonate it?

Ellsberg eventually settled on the Times. Thus, the Pentagon Papers were delivered to Neil Sheehan, a Times reporter who, like Ellsberg, had never supported the Vietnam War. Four months later, the Times published the Papers in a series of excerpts—and the government promptly stepped in. Under a federal court injunction obtained by Nixon, the newspaper was told they could not release the rest of the documents.

With publication stalled at the Times, there was still another place Ellsberg could turn to. That place was The Washington Post.

At the time, Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep in The Post) was the first female owner of a major news corporation, and Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) served as the Post's executive editor. When Ellsberg leaked some of the Pentagon Papers to Post reporter Ben Bagdikian, Bagdikian brought them to Graham and Bradlee—the latter of whom saw them as an opportunity to level the playing field between the Post and the Times. Still, there were serious considerations to be made. Was the Post truly willing to risk not only government ire, but its own future, for the sake of the truth?

Before you catch The Post in theaters, you can learn the finer details of this monumental decision in the New York Times bestseller The Powers That Be. Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam pulls back the curtain to explore the history of media juggernauts like like CBS, Time magazine—and, of course, The Washington Post. The excerpt below describes the high-stakes, back-and-forth debate between Ben Bradlee, Katharine Graham, Ben Bagdikian, and more, over the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.




The Powers That Be

By David Halberstam

...In June 1971 [Bagdikian] was the one man who could save the Post on the Pentagon Papers. He went to Cambridge and brought back the Papers on June 17. That morning, even as Bagdikian was returning to Washington, the Post executives had met and Gerry Siegel, the in-house counsel, a man who had come from Lyndon Johnson’s old senatorial office, not knowing the Post had a set of the Papers, had begun to talk about what the Times was doing. He hoped to God, Siegel said, that the Post would not do anything like that, so unpatriotic, such a disservice to the country. Siegel went on and on, a tirade against the Times. Katharine Graham, who knew the Post had a set of the Papers, said nothing. She simply sat and listened and her eyes were absolutely cold. By the afternoon Bagdikian had returned. With great secrecy, he raced, not to the newsroom, but to [Ben Bradlee]’s house. Right then it seemed as though the whole world, and in particular the government of the United States, was in hot pursuit of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg and anyone else who might have a copy of the Papers. Bradlee carefully selected the reporters he wanted to work on the project, and went up to them quietly, one by one, rather than calling them all to his office, which would tip off that something big was up. He chose them—Chal Roberts and Don Oberdorfer and Murrey Marder—for speed and for knowledge of the subject, and they all slipped out of the city room one by one and went to his house. There they looked at the Papers—some 4,000 sheets of paper, all unsorted, all shuffled cards. No order, no index. So, working against a desperate set of deadlines, they began reading and writing while the editors were meeting with corporate executives and lawyers in another room. By the time the Post received the Papers, the Times had already been enjoined by the government. There was a restraining order against printing more, and the. conflict was going through an accelerated process of adjudication on its way to the Supreme Court. Which in the minds of the Post people placed them in a more vulnerable position than the Times, since when the Times had published originally, there had been no government injunction (in the minds of the Times executives, of course, their decision had been harder, since they were the first). Might the Post, by publishing now, be violating that same injunction which restrained the Times? Might that make its legal position even weaker than the Times’s?

Katharine Graham, who knew the "Post" had a set of Papers, said nothing. She simply sat and listened and her eyes were absolutely cold.

The second problem was purely financial. The Washington Post Company had coincidentally gone public only two days before. On June 15, 1971, the Post stock had been listed for the first time, with 1.35 million shares of Class B common stock going on sale. Within forty-eight hours the crucial editorial meetings on the Pentagon Papers had taken place. The shadow of the stock issue hung very much over the editorial deliberations, the timing for everyone concerned could not have been worse. In addition to everything else, there was one little clause in the legal agreement for the sale of the stock that said that the sale could be canceled if a catastrophic event struck the company. Perhaps a government injunction halting distribution of the paper if it published the Pentagon Papers might be considered a catastrophic event, or an indictment for contempt, for violating a restraining order. There were several very real possibilities. It was just the type of pressure that Katharine Graham had feared in the first place when the idea of going public was broached to her.

While the reporters were working in one room of Bradlee’s house, the executive lawyers, and businessmen were meeting in another room, and it was not going well. Bradlee, sensing that it was going to be a longer day than he had imagined, moved to keep the reporters as distant from the legal struggle as possible; he did not want them distracted and depressed by the possibility that their work might go for naught. It was difficult enough trying to sort out that mass of papers and write for a deadline.

For what was going on in the main room was fast turning into a classic legal-journalistic struggle. . .Because the Post was tilted mostly to liberal, Democratic causes, the paper, in part to hedge its bets, had chosen Bill Rogers’s law firm, a connection to the Republicans, a connection to Nixon. The Post had liked that, it was a good sound conservative practice. But the young lawyers from the firm of Royal, Koegel and Wells were, in the minds of the editors, creatures of Bill Rogers, sound, conservative, and cautious. And now they were in no way receptive to the idea of publication. Their former senior partner was at the right hand of Richard Nixon, and they did not like the legal, the political, or the moral course that publication implied. What became increasingly clear to the editors as time passed was that this was not going to be some light exercise in caution. The Post’s lawyers, Roger Clark and Tony Essaye, unlike James Goodale, seemed to be looking for reasons not to publish. They appeared to be very rigid. Bagdikian, moving back and forth between rooms, was appalled by how unyielding the lawyers were. They were saying that to publish now with a restraining order already pending against the Times was to flout the court deliberately. Besides, they added, there was no need to test the right to publish, that right was already being tested by the Times; all the Post had to do was wait for the Times.

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  • Katharine Green and Ben Bradlee

    Photo Credit: YouTube

That argument simply enraged Bradlee. “I want a piece of the action too,” he said, arguing that what the court had done to the Times was all the more reason for the Post to publish. For him and for the other editors, the Post had reached a crucial moment. They had come so far toward becoming a great national newspaper, it was as if they were now poised on the brink, but if they were defeated here, defeated by their own lawyers, it would all come apart. That was uppermost in Bradlee’s mind. He was on the threshold of making the Post big-time, the resources and muscle of a great paper were there, but the tradition and instinct were not. He desperately wanted to publish, he had made a commitment to Bagdikian that he would publish, and the alternative to publishing, not publishing, would cost him his best people. He held in his pocket the ultimate deterrent, the threat of his own resignation, but it was something he was loath to use, it would have to be the ultimate gesture. It simply put too much pressure on the publisher, it was like putting a gun to her had and it violated his own sense of loyalty.

Meanwhile, Bagdikian was being very very eloquent and forceful. If this kind of fight for a free press was somewhat new and alien to Bradlee, it was as if Bagdikian, press critic and press scholar, had been waiting all his life for it. He was telling the lawyers that other newspapers did not have to feel bound by the government’s decision, that each paper had to follow its own destiny. The Post had some of the most serious and professional journalists in the country, they had covered this story for more than a decade, they were more than competent to judge what damaged and what did not damage national security. As for the Times, if the Post did not print now it would seem to be failing to support the Times and taking the government’s side against it. The best way to help the Times was to publish the Papers, rather than to let it stand alone. Then he stepped and said, and it affected everyone in the room: “The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish.” Bradlee had never admired Bagdikian more.

"I want a piece of the action too."

But the lawyers went on talking law, talking their arcane specialty. They owned the law and Bradlee did not. He was suspicious of them. He didn’t believe that the case against publishing was as airtight as they made it seem, or the Times, after all, would not have published. He was annoyed that, rather than acting as colleagues explaining the risks, they seemed to be adversaries fighting him. He decided he needed to talk to a lawyer of his own and he quietly slipped out of the room and tried to call his friend Edward Bennett Williams. Williams he trusted; if Williams agreed with Clark and Essaye, then that was it, the risks were too great. Williams was trying a divorce case in Chicago and, according to his office, was unreachable. Bradlee thought for a minute and called his friend Jim Hoge, the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, and asked him to pass an urgent message to Williams to call Bradlee. Williams called back ten minutes later, having got the message while in a phone-equipped limousine on the way to the airport. Bradlee explained his dilemma and what the lawyers were saying and Williams laughed. “That’s bullshit, Bradlee. Pure bullshit.” “Bradlee felt better. “Bradlee,” the owner of the Washington Redskins continued, “I have never seen you so far behind so late in the game. It’s 21-0 against you and there are eight minutes left in the fourth quarter.” Bradlee felt even better. What about the law? “Bradlee, I’ve been in this city for thirty years and for thirty years I’ve watched responsible and respectable journalists tell the Congress and the executive branch to go fuck themselves. What’s Nixon going to do? Put every major editor and publisher in jail? Let me tell you about Nixon, Bradlee. He doesn’t have the balls to go after you, Bradlee. He hates you. He probably thinks about going after you more than any man who ever sat in that office. He’d love to go after you, but he doesn’t have the balls.” Ed Williams, Bradlee thought, was wonderful. This was precisely what Bradlee himself thought. The essence of it was not the law, it was politics. Bradlee went back into the room reassured that his position was not so lonely. He could not mention to the Post’s lawyers that he had consulted with another attorney, but he felt much better.

Still, it was a very tense situation. In addition to the lawyers, Fritz Beebe was there, and Beebe was the single most respected and admired figure in the entire company. It was Fritz who had held the entire organization together during the worst of Phil Graham’s sickness and it was Fritz whom Kay had turned to more than to anyone else both for sustenance and for counsel on the difficult decisions in the ensuing years. Working reporters liked Beebe, they had a sense of a commitment to their profession, rare among businessmen and lawyers. He was intelligent and he was just, and he had always given reporters a sense that he genuinely admired what they did. If Beebe sided against publication, then it was serious, for at the moment Fritz Beebe, even more than Ben Bradlee, could probably carry Kay. Beebe began by saying that he did not want the decision to go public to affect the decision to publish, even though, as he said, if they were judged to be criminals it could cause the company to lose its television licenses. He meant well, but it made them all, if anything, even more conscious of the business jeopardy, more nervous about what was on the line. When Bagdikian made his statement about how to assert the right to publish, Beebe answered that that was all well and good, they were worried about the right to publish, but he was worried about the future of the newspaper. “You have your responsibilities,” he said, “and I have mine, and they are very different responsibilities.” The courts, he said, have found that a criminal indictment is a catastrophic act. Thus the underwriter’s contract to go public could be canceled. Bradlee, watching Beebe, was intrigued. Beebe was a man he loved, Beebe came from the same firm where Bradlee’s grandfather had worked, and they had always been friends and allies. But here was Beebe on the other side, though Bradlee sensed a difference between Beebe and the two younger lawyers. Beebe did not seem so rigid. It was a little as if he were arguing not so much his real view as his responsibilities.

So they continued arguing back and forth, trying to settle in one afternoon issues that the editors of the Times had discussed for weeks. Bradlee, Bagdikian, Geyelin on one side, the lawyers and business people on the other, everyone getting more tired, everyone looking for some means of compromise. At one point there was the beginning of a compromise idea. The Post would not publish that night, would hold the Papers one day, but would notify Attorney General John Mitchell that it had the Papers and intended to publish them the next day. This was never firmed up or settled on as a compromise. Like the Johnny Oakes suggestion at the Times, it was the product of men and women exhausted by their struggle and desperately seeking some middle ground to hold them all together. In this case it was also part of an attempt to bring Beebe over to the side of the journalists. At 7 P.M., with deadlines drawing closer and closer, the compromise was still hanging in the air when the reporters, taking a quick breather from their writing to eat some sandwiches, happened to wander into the other room and heard of the idea. Up until then they had no idea at all that the question of publication was in doubt, that their work was in jeopardy. Angered that anyone would hesitate a moment over publishing, angered even more by the timidity of the compromise, they all exploded. “That’s the shittiest idea I’ve ever heard,” Don Oberdorfer said.

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  • Ben Bradlee in 2010.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Then Chal Roberts spoke. He was the top reporter on the paper, scheduled to retire in two weeks, the epitome of the establishment reporter; he was a journalistic extension of the national security complex, he judged dangers and enemies on the same scale as the people he covered, and he had almost unconsciously over a career accepted the limitations that his sources had wanted him to accept. . .The very fact that he had such seniority and that his colleagues viewed him as so traditionalist a figure gave his words an extra dimension. The compromise idea was like crawling on your belly to the government, he said. “If you don’t want to risk running it, then to hell with it, don’t run it,” Roberts said. But if the paper did not run it, then he would move his own retirement up two weeks and he would issue a public statement disassociating himself from the decision of the paper where he had spent most of his professional life. That from Chalmers Roberts, one of the most traditional reporters on the paper. It was a warning of how the rest of the paper would react. “You’re going to get a full-scale revolt from the staff,” Bagdikian whispered to Bradlee.

It was not that the battle had been lost yet. Bradlee, after all, had not played his full hand. But the reporters stiffened the editors and in some way affected Beebe. It had brought home to him very dramatically the editorial consequences of failing to publish. That Chal Roberts especially felt so strongly made him less sure of his overall judgment He knew what was wise from a business standpoint, but what was wise from a business standpoint was not necessarily what was wise from a general standpoint. Journalism was different from all other businesses, it was based on creative talent, and it was important to coddle talent, not to limit it. So, with deadlines approaching and the room still divided, they decided to call Kay Graham. She had stayed out of the decision until now, but there was no time left. If they missed the deadline and waited a day, then that in itself was a decision, because everyone in town would know they had the Papers, and had waited, and perhaps by then the government would hit them with an injunction. They reached Mrs. Graham at her house, where she was giving a large farewell party for Harry Gladstein, who was retiring as the paper’s circulation manager. She had some forewarning: Gene Patterson, who was managing editor of the paper, knew what was brewing, had gone to the Gladstein party and taken Mrs. Graham aside. He had told her that she was going to have to make the ultimate decision. Patterson’s warning stunned her. She had expected a minor squabble after which the Papers would be printed. It had never occurred to her that she might be called in to make the final decision. “I don’t envy you,” he had said, “you’re really going to have to make the decision, and if we don’t publish, then we’ll be the ones pulling the rug out from under the Times.” “Jesus, Gene,” she asked, “is it that bad? Is it really going to come to that?” “I think so,” Patterson, a Southerner with a love of biblical cadence, said, “I think the immortal soul of the Washington Post is at stake. If we don’t print it, it’s really going to be terrible because the government knows we have the Papers, and we’ll be used as evidence against the Times. They’ll be the bad paper which defies the government and we’ll be the good paper which believes in the government.” Now the call from Bradlee’s house caught her in the middle of a farewell toast. “Let me finish my toast to Harry and I’ll come right over,” she said. No, Beebe answered, there wasn’t time for that, they were right on deadline. “You’re asking me to do something over the phone that The New York Times took three months to do,” she said. At which point Beebe quickly summarized the lawyers’ position. Then he gave the editorial position. Then both Bradlee and Geyelin came on and outlined how much was at stake, how much momentum the paper had built up, how if the paper failed to publish now, all that would be lost as well as some of the best reporters on the staff. Then Mrs. Graham asked Beebe what he thought, and he said, “On balance, I think no.”

"All right," she said, "let's go, let's publish."

Hearing him, Bradlee thought oh no. But then he realized that it was not so much what Beebe had said as what he hadn’t said. It was not a hard no, he did not make a passionate, intense, personal plea against publishing, he was not laying his body down on the railroad tracks. It was as if he were saying: I’m a lawyer and I can’t go against what the lawyers are saying, but it’s close and my instincts are divided. At which point Bradlee came back on the phone saying, “We’ve got to go, we’ve got to go.” And at that moment, with Paul Ignatius, the president of the paper (and until very recently the Secretary of the Navy and a McNamara protégé; he had gotten his job at the Post through Bob McNamara), telling her to wait one day, shouting into one ear, and Ben Bradlee shouting into the other, Katharine Graham had to make the decision. Fritz Beebe’s answer had surprised her at first, she and Fritz had always been together on everything, but then she had heard what Bradlee had also heard, that Fritz was not closing the door, Fritz was permitting her to go against him. “All right,” she said, “let’s go, let’s publish.” Hearing her say it, Beebe knew immediately that she had made the right decision.

It was, they all thought later—Bradlee and Geyelin and Mrs. Graham—the first moment of the Post as a big-time newspaper, a paper able to stand on its own and make its own decisions. Without it, they were sure, there never would have been Watergate. Because of the decisions that were taken that night, there were never any decisions needed on Watergate; never during Watergate did Ben Bradlee have to call Katharine Graham about whether or not they should print a particular story. If you had it, you went with it. It was the key moment for the paper, the coming of age.

Want to keep reading? Download David Halberstam's The Powers That Be today.

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Featured still from "The Post" via DreamWorks