Throwback Thursday: The Pentagon Papers

Stranger than Fiction

Go figure. Some things you just cannot make up. Some things work well in stories, because they have an air of the truth to them. Others are so outlandish they cannot be used. No one would believe you. The truth is always stranger than fiction. The writer must always shape the truth in order to be believed. The Pentagon Papers are, indeed, stranger than fiction. Because they are the truth. Hard to believe. And yet…

The Post

Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Post, tells the story about the uncovering of the Pentagon Papers and the courage of one woman, Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, who chose to run the story with excerpts of the papers in The Washington Post after The New York Times, which originally broke the story, was sued by Nixon to cease and desist, temporarily stopping publication of the papers. The underlying story is true, and it is strange and outlandish. If it had been submitted to a publisher as novel back then, it would probably have been rejected.

The Pentagon Papers

The Past Bleeds into the Future

1971 bleeding into 2017. I knew something was indecently wrong. The war was dragging on and on while those in power were saying they were trying to end it. All the while, behind the scenes, they were fueling it. In short, the whole escapade didn’t add up to a hill of proverbial beans—in fact, nothing about it did. But I couldn’t prove it. No one could, at least reputably. Theories were flung far and wide, theories flying like Frisbees impossible to catch: dominoes, oil, communist conquest, sex-trade madness. But they were just that. Theories. Stupid, yes, but theories nonetheless. Everyone had one stashed in their back pocket. We knew Nixon and the government were lying. Much the same way we find ourselves in today’s political climate. Trump, the liar-in-chief, racist extraordinaire, refusing to tell the truth about his participation with the Russians, throwing the election in favor of the twittering, bloviating fool. So far it is unproven. But Robert Mueller is closing in. 2017 bleeding into another fifty years?

It’s All Related, Related or Not

We strive to understand the present through reflection of the past, walking the thin, invisible line between past and future. Condemned to repeat it. The Moody Blues said it well: The Days of Future Past. Trump and Nixon and Southeast Asia—all of it connected at the hip. Even though Trump wasn’t there, he’s here now. It’s all related, related or not.

Daniel Ellsberg

The Pentagon Papers exposed the lies we’d all been told about the war in Southeast Asia. Beginning with Truman just after WWII and ending at Nixon with Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all sandwiched in like sardines nesting in a rusting tin. They all lied, covered up what had really been happening. Escalating an illegal war, perpetuated over the years by France and then the United States. Lying. The gory details were uncovered by Daniel Ellsberg, who worked for the Department of Defense. He had served as a U.S. Marine and worked for the RAND Corporation as a strategic analyst. In 1967, Ellsberg prepared a highly classified report about the Vietnam War for Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense for Johnson. But by 1969, he came to see it as something the American public should know about. The report classifies the war as unwinnable, yet the U.S. kept sending in more and more troops, only to have many come back in black body bags. Classified as an unwinnable war! 58,000 dead by the end of the fiasco. Ellsberg snuck bits and pieces of the photocopied report he’d written out of the Pentagon, trying to elicit help from a number of congressmen he had showed them to. They declined, however, so he turned them over to Neil Sheehan of The New York Times.

I remember being outraged when I finally got to read the book that was published in the spring of 1971. It confirmed my worst suspicions. I had read excerpts of it in the Times (before they were taken down) and in The Washington Post in the months leading up to the publication of the book. In those days there was no Internet, no email, no Twitter. You either had a subscription or you bought newspapers at newsstands in the larger cities. But I went to the library when I could and read the articles. I missed many of the pieces, though. Couldn’t put it all together until the book came out. The subject matter of the papers fueled my anti-war sentiments and made me more proactive in the anti-war movement. I believe you must always question authority. After all, isn’t that what the press does—or is supposed to do? Question power. Keep those in charge in check. Well, Trump doesn’t like it, wants to shut the press down, wants to limit free speech. Like Joseph Stalin. Like Nixon in the early seventies, suing to get news stories about the regime he didn’t like retracted. How far we’ve come. Not far. We seem to do the same things over and over, condemned to repeat the past. Why do we as a species elect these megalomaniacs to power? Is our DNA so corrupted?

The Pentagon Papers

The Plumbers

The Pentagon Papers turned out to be a journalistic bombshell, intimately detailing our involvement in Southeast Asia over some odd thirty years. When The New York Times was sued, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court found that the government failed to prove the papers jeopardized national security. After that, Ellsberg was indicted by the government—along with Anthony Russo—on charges of conspiracy and espionage. The charges were dismissed after it was learned Nixon had sent in his “plumbers” (G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt) to break into Lewis Fielding’s office (Ellsberg’s physiatrist) to find damning information on Ellsberg. Go figure. You can’t make that stuff up. A sitting president ordering a break-in. But get this. Later that year, Nixon’s gang of plumbers burglarized The Watergate Hotel, trying to find damaging evidence against the Democratic Party. This, of course, led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Some things never change. The Russians meddled in our presidential election, hacking into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Just another form of Nixon’s Watergate. This time, in all likelihood, perpetrated by the Not My president, Liar-In-Chief, Racist Nonpareil. Nope, you can’t make this stuff up. Go figure.

The Pentagon Papers


Next up: Revisiting Watergate


 

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