Fifty years ago, the New York Times began publishing excerpts and analyses of the “History of the United States Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy,” better known as the Pentagon Papers. To mark the anniversary of the ensuing clash between President Richard Nixon’s administration and free press, the Center for Women’s History dives into the story behind the award-winning film, The Post, of how Washington Post publisher, Katharine Graham, decided to risk everything and expose government policy in Vietnam.
In 1966-67, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara commissioned the Pentagon Papers, a highly-classified, 7,000-page dissection of America’s decades-long involvement in Vietnam. Despite the tens of thousands of troops deployed, hundreds of thousands of bombs dropped, and billions of dollars spent, it was increasingly clear to McNamara that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. The Pentagon Papers laid out in devastating detail how the U.S. government had escalated its commitment to the increasingly unpopular war, while concealing from the public growing pessimism about its odds of success.
By 1969, Daniel Ellsberg, one of the analysts working on the project, had concluded that U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was not only a terrible mistake, but unjust. He began the arduous task of secretly copying the papers. In March 1971, Ellsberg showed them to Times reporter Neil Sheehan, who had covered the war from 1962 to 1966—an experience that left him “disillusioned and anguished.” In turn, Sheehan made his own clandestine copy of the report, and several Times staffers began preparing the publication of “Project X,” including Linda Amster, head of news research, and Betsy Wade, the paper’s first woman news editor. They worked in secret at a Midtown hotel so anonymous that one assistant editor later recalled, “You could lead a camel through the lobby of that hotel on a tether, and nobody would take note.”
The first article on the Pentagon Papers ran on the front page of the Times on June 13, 1971. Two days later, the Nixon administration sued, asking for an injunction to halt any further publication of the papers. U.S. District Court Judge Murray Gurfein issued a temporary restraining order—the first in U.S. history that restrained the press prior to publication. Judge Gurfein later ruled that publication should continue, noting:
“A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press, must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know… The First Amendment concept of a ‘free press’ must be read in the light of the struggle of free men against prior restraint of publication.”
However, the court order was still in place on June 16, when the Washington Post’s national editor, Ben Bagdikian, returned from Ellsberg’s home in Boston carrying a partial copy of the Pentagon Papers. The Post’s president and publisher Katharine Graham was faced with the decision: to publish or not? Defying the court order carried significant risk: the Washington Post Company had just gone public, and reporting on the Pentagon Papers meant risking a criminal charge that would imperil its $35 million stock offering and put the paper’s financial future in jeopardy. A criminal conviction would also give the FCC an excuse to strip the Washington Post Company of the licenses to its lucrative television stations, WTOP in Washington, D.C., and Florida’s WJXT. Doing so would stand up for freedom of the press.
On June 17, reporters, editors, and lawyers gathered at executive editor Ben Bradlee’s house to wrangle over the question of whether or not to publish. Meanwhile, Katharine Graham was hosting a farewell party for the paper’s departing business manager in her stately Georgetown home. Interrupted in the middle of her laudatory speech, she was summoned to the phone and asked to make a decision that could, one way or the other, destroy her paper. Though her lawyers opposed publication, her reporters and editors argued that failing to publish would be “gutless” and erode the Post’s credibility. Frightened and tense, as she later wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Graham “took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish.”
The Post’s first article on the Pentagon Papers appeared the following day, and the government filed suit immediately. Federal District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell refused to restrain the paper from publishing, later telling Graham, “I was the only judge out of twenty-nine judges who heard the Pentagon Papers case who never stopped the presses for a minute. The only one. I’ve always taken a little pride in that.” The government appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which heard the case on June 26. By June 30, the Supreme Court ruled, six to three, that the government could not restrain publication of the Pentagon Papers, vindicating Graham’s decision and catapulting the Post into the highest echelons of American journalism. “That was a key moment in the life of this paper,” Ben Bradlee would later recall.
The Nixon administration’s response to the Pentagon Papers was multi-faceted. It took an openly antagonistic stance towards the press in general and the Washington Post and Katharine Graham in particular. The administration also engaged in a covert smear campaign against Daniel Ellsberg, conducted by the same Special Investigations Unit that would break into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate buildings almost one year later. The Post ran its first story about the “third-rate burglary,” on June 18, 1972, and for the next two years, the Watergate investigation consumed the paper. President Nixon’s retaliation was swift and brutal—as former Attorney General John Mitchell infamously ranted, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer.” Embattled, Graham wrote to a friend, “The idea of living with that gang in the White House whacking at you… is depressing beyond words.” Yet, she continued to fight for press freedom.
The “measure of self-assurance” that Graham had begun to develop in the wake of the Pentagon Papers sustained and strengthened her; by the time Nixon resigned in August 1974, she remembered, “I had warmed up to a degree of toughness of which I probably wouldn’t have been capable the year before…I was much more willing to go on the offensive rather than be defensively polite.” As Graham would later summarize, “Publishing the Pentagon Papers made future decisions easier, even possible. Most of all, it prepared us—and, I suspect, unfortunately, Nixon as well—for Watergate.”
Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO is on display in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery through October 3, 2021. Thie exhibition examines a transformative period in Graham’s life, as her devotion to the Post helped her grow from a self-effacing widow into an authoritative, decisive media executive.
Written by Jeanne Gutierrez, Curatorial Scholar, Center for Women’s History