“The Post” Is About the Decision to Publish the Pentagon Papers. I Met the Man Who Leaked Them.
There are plenty of good reasons to see Steven Spielberg’s latest film The Post, which follows Washington Post owner Katherine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971 despite threats from the Nixon White House. The Post has an impressive pedigree, with a Best Picture nomination, two of the world’s greatest actors (Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks), and one of Hollywood’s true living legends (Spielberg) at the helm. And with an imperial, serial liar in the White House claiming that the non-right wing media is “the enemy of the people”, The Post’s convictions about journalism’s responsibility to expose government dishonesty and abuses of power feels especially timely and relevant.
But what got me to the theater is a personal connection I have with The Post, despite the fact that the events it portrays happened years before I was born.
On September 24, 2009, I had the incredible privilege of interviewing Daniel Ellsberg, the man responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers, while he was promoting the excellent documentary The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (watch the trailer here). I hadn’t thought about that unseasonably hot day in a while when I met Ellsberg at the Barnsdall Art Park in Los Angeles, but watching The Post helped remind me of the conversation I got to have with a true American hero. It made me glad that I had written an account of that day for the Huffington Post and had video of the interview to relive it. You can read my posts about the experience and see clips of my interview with Ellsberg here and here.
If it weren’t for Ellsberg, there would be no Pentagon Papers for the Washington Post to publish in 1971. And without the Pentagon Papers — which revealed America’s secret wars in Southeast Asia and the conclusion that the Vietnam war was unwinnable — and Nixon’s overreaction to their release, the Vietnam War would’ve certainly dragged on for at least several more years, costing billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. Graham and Bradlee displayed amazing courage and principal in taking on the White House, but it was Ellsberg’s bravery and willingness to risk life in prison to do what was right that made their stand possible. The Post devotes significant time to Ellsberg (played by Matthew Rhys), reenacting his fact-finding trip to Vietnam for the State Department, his realization that the US government would continue to lie about America’s prospects for winning the war, the months-long process of photocopying the Pentagon Paper’s 7,000 pages, and Ellsberg’s handoff of the report to Washington Post assistant editor Ben Bagdikian.
Rewatching my videos from my interview with Ellsberg, I’m struck by the intelligence, warmth, and integrity Ellsberg effortlessly exudes, as well as how applicable his statements remain today even though they were said at a time when it was impossible to imagine that America would one day have a president as ignorant, racist, and unmoored as Donald Trump. But Ellsberg’s words still resonate — in fact, it was hearing Ellsberg’s explanation of why he leaked the Pentagon Papers in The Most Dangerous Man In America that inspired Edward Snowden to become a whistleblower, willing to face jail time and a life in exile in order to do what he knew in his heart was right.
In this video, Ellsberg gives advice to people working in government or the military who are considering becoming whistleblowers in order to reveal important truths to the American public or to save innocent lives. Ellsberg is mostly talking to those who could reveal information that could help end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — which he considered to be unmitigated, unwinnable disasters on par with Vietnam — but one could argue that Trump in control of America’s nuclear arsenal poses a much greater threat. In light of that, leaking information that could possibly lead to Trump’s early exit from the White House would be worth sacrificing one’s career for, and even their freedom. Thousands of American soldiers have given much more for much less. Ellsberg is proof that one man with a conscience (and access) can change history.
In this clip, Ellsberg addresses the fallacy of leaders wanting to be “tough” when dealing with a country’s enemies in order to ensure America’s safety, which is one of Trump’s pet postures. But as we learned with George W. Bush’s decision to allow torture and indefinite detention, this approach usually backfires, emboldening enemies, inspiring new ones, and putting Americans in more danger as a result.
To see more of my interview with Ellsberg and hear his thoughts on Vietnam, Afghanistan, why counterinsurgencies fail, and the danger of being advised by “smart dumb people”, check out part 1 and part 2 of my interview with him. And go check out The Post!