‘Pentagon Papers’: Even at its best the press didn’t stop war

‘Pentagon Papers’: Even at its best the press didn’t stop war
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“The Post” is a memorable movie. It tells an important story which needs to be told.

We have a president today who calls the press “the enemy of the people.” And if that is not enough, he frequently labels news that is not favorable to him as “fake news.”

“The Post” chronicles the role of The Washington Post in publishing the “Pentagon Papers,” the report commissioned in 1968 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara while he was in office.


McNamara, as portrayed in the movie, explains the purpose of the papers. They were, in his words, for future historians and public officials to have needed “perspective” to view our involvement in Southeast Asia.

The picture painted is not a pretty one.

Going back to the administration of President Harry Truman, it details how four U.S. presidents made enormously unwise and wrong decisions that resulted in thousands of deaths.

Underlying the entire saga is the view that, in the end, the U.S. would not and could not “win.”

There is a terrific scene where then-Post publisher Katharine Graham confronts her close friend and adviser, Bob McNamara, in 1971 and demands to know why we are still fighting this war which officials knew all along could not be won.

McNamara gives the standard line about the domino theory: All of Southeast Asia will fall to the communists.


Graham, played brilliantly by Meryl Streep, is outraged and incensed that so many young lives are being lost just to buy time for a cause that is indefensible and doomed to defeat. She challenges McNamara with passion and defiance.

But one crucial point must be made that the movie fails to make. Publishing the “Pentagon Papers” in June 1971 did not end the Vietnam War. The war raged on. Hundreds of American soldiers died every week.

Richard Nixon, who was president at the time, was in no way influenced by this First Amendment victory. He did everything in his power to stop the publishing of the papers. And Nixon did absolutely nothing to stop the war.

There is some mythology that Nixon, under the guise of “Vietnamization” (turning more of the fighting over to South Vietnamese troops), was “winding down the war.”

I recently read this canard offered by Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. This is pure fiction.

Nixon tried to expand the war to Cambodia and Laos in May of 1970. He would have succeeded, if Congress had not stopped him with the Cooper-Church Amendment. Nixon wanted to proceed with the war — without any restrictions or limitations.

Just as with John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE and Lyndon Johnson before him, it was a matter of national pride to Nixon not to lose a war.

The Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975 — not when we wanted it to end, but when the Viet Cong and North Vietnam forces entered Saigon and American embassy personnel fled on the skids of helicopters from the embassy grounds.

The Post champions and hails freedom of the press and the sacred role of the First Amendment in a thriving democracy.

The tragedy is that the publishing of the “Pentagon Papers” did not change a president’s thinking or policy.

Richard Nixon did not reverse course. No immediate withdrawal was undertaken.

No, the fighting continued. Thousands of Americans were killed from June 15, 1971, to April 30, 1975.

Let’s admire the movie “The Post” for showing how crucial it is to have a free press. But do not make up history. Do not give the impression that something happened when it did not.

I lived through that time. I so fervently wished then that the publication of the “Pentagon Papers” would change the course of the war. That was not the case.

Mark Plotkin is a contributor to the BBC on American politics. He previously was the political analyst for WAMU-FM, Washington’s NPR affiliate, and for WTOP-FM, Washington’s all-news radio station. He is a winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in writing.