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A service for political professionals · Sunday, January 20, 2019 · 474,140,379 Articles · 3+ Million Readers

"The Post" Is A Film That Inspires Us To Demand Truth from Those Who Lead

By Joe Rothstein — January 8, 2018

When the movie “The Post” comes to a theater near you, see it.

As a drama that will engage your mind, heart and senses for nearly two hours, it’s all you can ask for as entertainment. As a critical timely message for everyone devoted to democratic government, it’s a powerful reminder that we have a never-ending need to defend it.

“The Post” is based on the 1971 unauthorized release of the the Pentagon Papers, a review of the U.S. role in one of the most tragic and deadly episodes in the nation’s history, the war in Vietnam.

The papers were commissioned by Robert S. McNamara who at the time was U.S. Secretary of Defense. As Secretary, McNamara was the principal White House architect of the military mission and unrelenting public optimist touting sham stories about its eventual success. But privately, McNamara understood the futility and disastrous consequences of U.S. involvement in what essentially was a Vietnam civil war.

Secretly, McNamara commissioned a small group of experts to trace the history that led to this diplomatic and military disaster as a lesson for future policy makers. The result was documentation of how the public had been lied to about U.S. involvement in Vietnam for nearly 30 years, during the terms of four separate U.S. presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. Its conclusions were recorded in a 3,000 page report, backed up by more than 4,000 official documents.

As a direct result of those deceptions, 58,200 U.S. service personnel were killed in action, hundreds of thousands more were wounded, two million Vietnamese died, hundreds of billions of dollars were spent on the conflict, and the social fabric of the U.S. was torn apart by protests, often violent, in cities and on campuses throughout the nation.

The Pentagon Papers were marked “Top Secret,” but one of its authors, Daniel Ellsberg, motivated by the belief that the public had a right to know, leaked them to the New York Times, which began publishing articles about them in June, 1971.

Almost immediately, then President Nixon asked a federal court to stop future publication on the grounds of national security. The court granted the injunction and the Times stopped publication and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Never before in U.S. history had a court allowed the government to decide what a newspaper could or could not publish. The Nixon White House had launched a direct attack on freedom of the press.

While the Supreme Court was considering the case, the Washington Post also received a copy of the Pentagon Papers. Despite the injunction, the Post began publishing, risking financial ruin and criminal charges for the newspaper, its publisher, editors and reporters.

Seldom has a story based on public policy, a newspaper’s financial future, and anticipation of a legal decision been told with such high drama and unrelenting tension. What makes “The Post” even more remarkable is that it is about as close to recreating the actual event as produced historical fiction can come.

I know about the accuracy because I was personally involved. At the time I was chief of staff for Alaska Senator Mike Gravel. Gravel was deeply concerned that the Supreme Court would rule for the government, creating the precedent that government officials could step in whenever their lies or crimes were about to be exposed and stop publication. He felt that if he could get a copy of the Pentagon Papers and read them on the floor of the Senate no one could stop him, and that since the Papers then would be public, the Supreme Court would have no choice but to drop the case as no longer relevant.

By prearrangement with Ben Bagdikian, the Post editor who obtained a copy of the Papers, Senator Gravel and I picked them up at night on a street next to Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. We drove to Senator Gravel’s home where a number of us on the senator’s staff read through the Papers looking for any information that appeared to be militarily sensitive, knowing all the while that we might be violating the nation’s secrecy laws and be subject to criminal action.

After review, we all returned to the Senate, where Senator Gravel was planning to take the floor and place the Papers into the Congressional Record. Through a parliamentary maneuver, the Republican Senate leader at the time, Robert Griffin of Michigan, stopped him. We ultimately called an impromptu meeting of the Senate Committee of Buildings and Grounds, which Senator Gravel chaired, and conducted a midnight session where the Papers were submitted.

The next morning, The Supreme Court issued its 6-3 decision allowing publication to continue, essentially relegating Senator Gravel’s courageous act to an historical footnote.

Freedom of the press was preserved, but the lies of U.S. leaders have continued, with tragic consequences, worst of all, the destruction of people’s trust in their own government.

Before the U.S. became fully engaged in Vietnam, the Pew Research poll of trust in government stood at 74%. The Vietnam war took a huge toll in U.S. confidence and trust, but even at the time of the Pentagon Papers, 54% of the American public still said they trusted their government. Now, according to the latest Pew poll, that trust number is 18%.

No one in authority was ever made to pay a price for the Vietnam calamity. Yes, Nixon was forced out of the White House, but that was because of the cover up, not the crime itself. McNamara went on to head the World Bank. Henry Kissinger is still welcomed into the halls of power.

How different subsequent years might have been if Congress had used the Pentagon Papers as an indictment and punished those guilty of misleading the public and engineering the Vietnam disaster. A high standard for official truth and candor would have been upheld, perhaps dissuading those in power in 2001 from misleading the country into the Iraq invasion, with all the dire consequences that have followed. Perhaps resulting in less tolerance for Donald Trump’s lies during the 2016 election and their threat to responsible governance today.

In a nation where government relies on the consent of the governed, honesty and trust are essential. “The Post” reminds us that when those bonds break, the damage can be catastrophic.

(Joe Rothstein is a regular columnist for and author of the acclaimed political thriller “The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her.” Mr. Rothstein can be contacted at

Joe Rothstein is editor of U.S. Politics Today. His career in politics spans 35 years, as a strategist and media producer in more than 200 campaigns for political office and for many political causes. He was a pioneer in professional political consulting and one of the founding members of the American Association of Political Consultants. During his career Mr. Rothstein has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA.