The Pentagon Papers in the Movies

The Pentagon Papers is the informal name given to a 47 volume, 7,000 page secret history of the US government’s actions in its pursuit of war in Vietnam, from 1954 to 1967, to prevent the adoption of communism in a unified Vietnam, and ultimately to contain the spread of the political and ideological influence of the People’s Republic of China. This report was commissioned by Robert S. McNamara (US Secretary of Defense, from January 1961 to February 1968) in 1967, and produced by RAND Corporation personnel including Daniel Ellsberg, to assemble an accurate history of the actual US policies (and their consequences) regarding Vietnam, which were enacted in secret by the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.

As early as 1965, McNamara saw the war as an ‘unwinable’ failure. He wanted to understand how this Cold War initiative in Southeast Asia had metastasized into a disaster and quagmire, and the Pentagon Papers were supposed to be the explanatory dissection, essentially a pre-mortem of this still-in-progress and irrationally unacknowledged catastrophe bullheadedly pursued by America’s leadership class.

The report was conducted as an internal study within the Pentagon (based entirely on document searches, no interviews were conducted), and marked “Top Secret – Sensitive” so as to keep it secret from the political and military leadership (the Johnson Administration) that did not want to hear fact-based conclusions that would destroy their illusions about their Vietnam War. The Pentagon Papers factually contradicted all the public pronouncements about the war that had been issued by Presidents from Truman through Johnson (1954 to 1967), and then from 1969 on by Nixon, about the purpose of the war (‘defending democracy against communist dictatorship’), the progress being made militarily to reach the publicly stated US goals (‘always improving’), and the extent of military operations (‘limited and measured strikes within Vietnam,’ “no wider war”).

The reality was that the purpose of the war, which maintained its inertia and caused its expansion, was the vanity of an American political and military leadership that feared losing face — what Henry Kissinger calls “credibility” — by being the “first president” (national administration) to “lose a war.” The “enemy” would win at tremendous cost of human life because the Vietnamese people were adamant to gain the right of self-determination as regarded their own lives and the format of their own political institutions within their own country.

The second type of lie by the US government that the Pentagon Papers devastatingly exposed was that the reports of military progress in the field were complete fabrications, and in fact the situation for the US troops was always deteriorating despite the monumental destruction and genocidal level of killing that the American technological war machine produced.

The third type of lie that the Pentagon Papers contradicted, with mountains of classified documentation from the State Department and the Pentagon, was that throughout the course of the war the US Presidents had always sought to expand the infusion of troops and military equipment, the magnitude of operations, and the ranging of operations into neighboring countries. Nixon continued this pattern of deceiving the public — whose sons and even daughters (nurses) — were bleeding and dying to provide the expendable labor needed to feed this behemoth of war-making hubris. Nixon (and Henry Kissinger) even expanded the war in 1970 with a secret invasion of Cambodia.

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony J. Russo leaked the Pentagon Papers to the public. How the leakers came to their commitment to act, how they accomplished this very risky caper, and what the profound consequences were, make for a compelling story — really a complex of entwined stories — that has been approached from several angles by movie-makers.

The Post is Steven Spielberg’s new movie (with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep) about the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. As true with all Spielberg movies, it has a quick pace, builds excitement, and ends happily. This movie makes the central hero Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post (newspaper) at that time. So, the movie is a ‘woman overcoming patronization (domination by men)’ feel-good story (because she gave the go-ahead to publish extracts of the Pentagon Papers despite oppositional threats by the Nixon Administration) as well as one about the importance of safeguarding the 1st Amendment rights of media to publish the truth about the malfeasance of government; to help the US people safeguard their democracy. So, a reasonably good movie (2017).

However, the real heroes of the entire series of events are the people who put their lives on the line to get the Pentagon Papers out of government safes and into the hands of the people (Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony J. Russo, both of whom the government prosecuted for leaking classified info, and more or less for “treason” = life in jail). The first of those US people to get the papers from Ellsberg and Russo were the reporters and editors at the New York Times and then the Washington Post (editor Ben Bradlee, publisher Katharine Graham), so they would have a chance (if they had the guts) of widely disseminating them through newspaper publication.

A superior movie (far superior in my opinion) about this great and patriotic leak is the 2003 film The Pentagon Papers starring James Spader (playing Daniel Ellsberg), with Paul Giamatti (playing Anthony J. Russo, who pushed Ellsberg into leaking the papers, and helped him copy and distribute them); with Alan Arkin playing an important supporting role (head of the RAND Corporation).

So, by all means go and enjoy the Spielberg movie with popular stars, but make sure not to miss the 2003 movie The Pentagon Papers for the real story (or just see it instead). It is a finely made and excellently played/acted movie, which clearly lays out the incidents of the real story (Ellsberg’s story from 1964 through 1973, in which Russo’s personal story is entwined), and the historical results and significance of that story: a major blow to the government’s effort to continue the Vietnam War, and for the Nixon Administration to continue.

Understanding the story of the Pentagon Papers is important to appreciate the true merits of the actions of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden in recent years – and to properly identify the real crimes and the real culprits then and now.

Excerpt from “The Pentagon Papers” movie (2003)
4 September 2015, [3:42]
https://youtu.be/Nti8r-5prGg

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The Other Conspirator, the story of Anthony Russo
3 June 2015, [7:06]
https://youtu.be/TUv26sh_moU

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How draft resisters inspired Daniel Ellsberg to release the Pentagon Papers
17 January 2018, [3:55]
https://youtu.be/qQ6NKTruNHE

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The Most Dangerous Man in America (Daniel Ellsberg) – Trailer
25 November 2010, [2:27]
https://youtu.be/XwXylIaJ_Lg

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The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (Full Documentary)
3 February 2018, [1:30:30]
https://youtu.be/xWJhWaBytqs

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2 thoughts on “The Pentagon Papers in the Movies

  1. Manuel: The movie annoyed and pushed me to pen the following: ‘The Post’ begins with a brief moment of our war in Vietnam. ‘Our boys’ are attacked in the jungle and cower in fear and anxiety. It’s a foolish scene as hackneyed and routine as an ad. We almost expect a product to be announced. The intention is to get the war out of the way, although in fact it raged during the whole time of ‘The Post’s’ action.

    Steven Spielberg will continue in his superannuated way and center on Meryl Streep’s impersonation act of Kay Graham, a painfully mechanical exercise worthy of a top-drawer amateur hour. She and Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) will do a cute duet that’s no less well-oiled machinery. A tidy suspense tale will result of the sort we’ve been watching forever. Will the so decent and fair-minded Kay, sole owner of the ‘Washington Post’, decide yes or no to publish the Pentagon Papers? Her money’s at risk. Taxis rush, the momentous manuscript is shifted about, brows are furrowed, big presses roar and, just as they did for James Cagney in the 1930s, drop a fresh edition–it’s dynamite–into the newsboy’s arms.

    The hollow middlebrow, Spielberg, has done it again, reduced pregnant events to harmless cliches. A congratulatory fug permeates ‘The Post’. How courageous we were fifty years ago! A director with guts wouldn’t have ended with a hint of Watergate. He would have reminded us of the two-decade war we have been losing in Afghanistan and are now reinvesting in. He would have given us a glimpse of the new militarization of the nation. As for “cozy relationships”, let’s not forget Spielberg’s with our national self-adulation.

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