Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017) briefly opens with Daniel Ellsberg, then-military analyst but now-famed whistleblower, in Vietnam in 1966, recording the military activities of the U.S. government for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Immediately after this scene, the film shifts to show Ellsberg, a few years later, illegally copying the highly-classified documents that reveal the U.S.’s then-ongoing, decades-long, incriminating role and involvement in the conflict in Vietnam, spanning the course of multiple presidencies. As Ellsberg noted in his memoir, “In the fall of 1961 it didn’t make very long to discover in Vietnam that we weren’t likely to be successful there. It took me less than a week, on my first visit. With the right access, talking to the right people, you could get the picture pretty quickly. You didn’t have to speak Vietnamese, or know Asian history or philosophy or culture, to learn that nothing we were trying to do was working or was likely to get better.”
The Post tracks the publishing of these documents, the Pentagon Papers, in 1971 by journalists at the Washington Post, paying particular attention to its owner and publisher, Katharine Graham, as she struggles to maintain authority over her company while trying to appease her reporters, investors, and close friends—the last of whom also happen to be a part of the political elite. Editors, reporters, and bureaucrats argue over the legality and ethics of publishing the Pentagon Papers, and the film follows the internal dispute within the Washington Post, as well as the paper’s competition with The New York Times. The Post, despite addressing issues concerning the freedom of the press, offers an overall weak critique on the content and actual significance of the Pentagon Papers, as well as on the fraught relationship between the news media and the government, as it focuses more on maintaining their established norms and on the connections and tensions between gender and power during the 1960s and early ‘70s in America.
Background on U.S. Involvement in Vietnam
A slight flick or tap on one domino is all that is needed to send the rest in its path toppling down in succession—one right after the other. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower co-opted this example to apply to international politics, arguing that a communist government exercising control in one nation will swiftly lead to communist takeovers in neighboring states, thereby resulting in a region’s quick ‘fall’ to communist rule. The so-called domino theory manifested itself as a significant part of U.S. foreign policy in successive presidential administrations with respect to Southeast Asia. President Harry S. Truman, though he disliked the way France ruled its colonies, came to France’s aid, in order to help France reassert its colonial rule in Vietnam, a political move the U.S. saw as a way to help prevent the domino effect from taking place in the region, believing South Vietnam to be vulnerable and North Vietnam already fallen.
Ngo Dinh Diem, before he became the first President of the Republic of Vietnam, was educated in the United States, where he had been in exile. The U.S. later helped Diem, an anti-communist nationalist, exercise power in South Vietnam, despite the fact that he was a devout Catholic in a country where the population was primarily rural and Buddhist. Diem’s rule was plagued with nepotism and corruption—he sought out and arrested his political dissenters, most of whom were communists, and later refused to hold elections for reunification. Naturally, Diem was an incredibly disliked ruler, so removed from his rural, Buddhist population, yet his unpopularity and refusal to hold elections did not prevent the U.S. from coming to his aid. When Diem asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower for more aid to fight the communist insurgent movement, Eisenhower agreed, and when John F. Kennedy became president in 1960, he also adhered to a policy of containment favorable to the Diem government.
It was not until 1963 that the U.S. finally changed its official position on Diem’s leadership, despite some concerns among U.S. officials noted as early as 1955, and considered an alternative to his rule. Diem was eventually overthrown from power and assassinated in November of 1963 in a military coup—backed by the U.S., the same country that helped Diem rise to power in the first place and gave him aid during the conflict in Vietnam. In fact, it was Kennedy’s advisors in South Vietnam who actively encouraged military leaders who were plotting against Diem.” In essence, the U.S. contributed to and maintained an oppressive rule in South Vietnam, one which used intimidation and terror against its own population, ostensibly because of its fear of the domino effect.
However, the domino theory is not simply or exclusively associated with the ‘threat’ of communism or viewed as inherently bad, and for some, it is even considered a beneficial effect. Noam Chomsky, a good friend of Daniel Ellsberg’s, argued in his book, How The World Works, that the domino effect, in its actual application by the U.S., selectively attacks smaller countries with few resources, not necessarily small countries likely to fall to communism. Chomsky wrote, “In fact, it’s the weakest, poorest countries that often arouse the greatest hysteria.” Using Grenada as an example, while also referencing similarities of U.S. involvement in other states such as Chile; Indochina; and El Salvador, Chomsky further stressed that “The weaker and poorer a country is, the more dangerous it is as an example. If a tiny, poor country like Grenada can succeed in bringing about a better life for its people, some other place that has more resources will ask, ‘Why not us?’" In other words, it is not the threat of communism, necessarily, that precipitates U.S. agitation in small, foreign countries, but rather the “threat of the good example”—the threat of economic stability, and how that has the potential to diminish the U.S.’ power and influence in a given region.
The Department of Defense commissioned a secret study, the Pentagon Papers, which documented the true, detailed, imperial history of U.S. involvement in Indochina, revealing the bloodshed and aggression at the hands of the American empire. However, this significance is hardly ever articulated in The Post. The message throughout the film is that the report showed how presidential administrations realized the war was unwinnable, yet that they continued to send forces. There is no comment on the extent to which the U.S. even played a role in Diem’s rise and fall to power, and hardly any mention is made of the 2 million Vietnamese civilians and 58,000 Americans that died during the conflict in Vietnam. The slight frustration expressed in the film, especially by Katharine Graham’s character, seems more to do with the fact that her good friend, the Secretary of Defense, lied to her.
Gender Equality and Plutocracy
About halfway into film, one of the board members in the Washington Post newsroom remarks to another while looking at a framed photograph of Katharine’s late husband, Phil, of how John F. Kennedy found Phil to be the smartest man he ever met. The other board member agreed—“For Kay’s father to hand her husband the company…says something about the guy.” Tom Hanks’ character, Ben Bradlee, without missing a beat, responds, “I thought it said something about the time.” This comment from Bradlee is just one of the many examples in this film that positions gender inequality—in an uncomfortable, almost forced, and performative way—as a major part of the story on the publishing of the Pentagon Papers.
Although gender equality was a significant movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, The Post overplays its importance in the telling of this historical event. Second-wave feminism dominated the 1960s and ‘70s, the time period in which this film is set, focusing on issues such as workplace employment, sexuality, family, and reproductive rights. Nancy A. Hewitt, professor of history and gender studies at Rutgers University, wrote in her book, No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism, about “how normative accounts of the second wave feminist movement often reach back to…the emergence of women’s consciousness-raising (CR) groups in the late 1960s.” The film is ostensibly about freedom of the press and the importance of having a check on government power, yet it seems as if the focus is actually on women in the workplace, as it repeatedly attempts to posit Graham as a feminist protagonist, almost likening her plight to that of Hillary Clinton’s.
The Post, without question, is a timely film—and therefore already assumed to be an important work of art despite its quality—for it confirms the necessity of freedom of the press in the age of Donald Trump. However, this principle is totally independent of Graham’s management of the Washington Post. Not only are the stakes low in the film regarding the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, but they lack meaning and relatability to the general populace: The stakes are reductively centered around the need to beat The New York Times in publishing this story, the potential negative effects on the offering price for Washington Post on the stock market, and the possibility of Graham losing her authority and inheritance—all of which downplay the actual relevance of the Pentagon Papers and what they mean to citizens, who care more about knowing the facts on the ground to help inform their beliefs about the Vietnam War than they do about a newspaper heiress and the state of her company.
And despite the Nixon government’s injunction against The New York Times after it publishes the first story on the Pentagon Papers, the antagonists actually seem to be the men in suits, the investors, the alpha all-male members of the board at the Washington Post. Graham, although a ‘news queen’ and a rich lady cozy with the political elite, is frequently portrayed as a victim in the workplace. Her lack of agency is overplayed, from a moment early on in the film when she tries speaking in a board meeting about the Washington IPO and the future of the company—she stutters, and the man to her left speaks over her, relaying her exact idea and words to the rest of the board members, with the camera then showing a dejected, defeated Graham.
There are numerous other scenes and dialogue along this line in the rest of the film. At one point, a colleague of Graham’s notes that buyers are skittish with women in charge, and at another, it is revealed that many people think Graham occupies a position she shouldn’t have. Another blatant and over-emphasized example of this takes place at a dinner scene, when the men start talking about politics, and the women get up and leave, go to the other room, and then proceed to talk about stereotypical feminine topics such as style and President Richard M. Nixon’s daughter’s wedding.
In her book, Professor Hewitt further wrote that the emergence of the women’s movement and related organizations “All signaled a rising number of white, middle-class women unwilling to be treated like second-class citizens in the boardroom, in education, or in bed.” This seems fitting in the case of Graham and Hillary Clinton, both of whom are representative of a particular brand of neoliberal-feminism that prioritizes the advancement of rich, white women belonging to the elite, but the sympathetic portrayal of Graham (and McNamara) in this film regarding the publishing of the Pentagon Papers in The Post is fraught, for its rendering of history establishes plutocracy as acceptable in society as long as it can be equally practiced by both genders.
It is telling how the movie is wrapped up on the ‘brave’ decision of one: Katharine Graham, the publisher and owner of the Washington Post, who is often shown looking distressed when not attending fancy brunches or throwing even fancier parties for her rich friends—not so much on their source, Daniel Ellsberg, and the consequences he possibly could have faced as the whistleblower behind the leaks. Ellsberg was way more likely to be charged under the Espionage Act, and even Graham’s own reporters found themselves in more unsettling situations than her—Chief Justice Warren Burger greeted two Post reporters one night at his front door holding a pistol and wearing a bathrobe. However, as Bradlee noted in his memoir, he refused to publish this encounter in the newspaper out of fear of Chief Justice Burger.
Strange Bedfellows: The Political Elite and the News Media
The following exchange in The Post takes place between Tom Hanks’ character, editor Ben Bradlee, and Meryl Streep’s character, Katharine Graham.
BRADLEE: I know that the bankers can change their mind. That’s—and I know what is at stake. You know, the only couple I knew that both Kennedy and LBJ wanted to socialize with was you and your husband, and you own the damn paper. It was just the way things worked. Politicians and the press, they trusted each other so they could go to the same dinner party and drink cocktails and tell jokes while there was a war raging in Vietnam.
GRAHAM: I don’t know what we’re talking about. I’m not protecting Lyndon.
BRADLEE: No. You got his former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara—the one who commissioned this study. He’s one of about a dozen—
GRAHAM: I’m not protecting him…
BRADLEE: —out on your patio.
GRAHAM: I’m not protecting any of them. I’m protecting the paper.
Aside from this one scene of dialogue, and even then, there is no valid, legitimate critique of Graham and her very close relationship with the Washington elite, specifically Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The same can be said of Bradlee’s own very close relationship with President John F. Kennedy, who, as mentioned earlier, also perpetuated U.S. involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. It is almost as if The Post glamorizes the relationship between newspaper owners, publishers (and the press in general), and the political elite through all the scenes of fancy parties, expensive dinners, and conversations between Graham and Bradlee, using first names as they casually speak and reminisce about past presidents with whom they had close friendships.
When Graham is alone with McNamara at her home in the film and confronts him about the Pentagon Papers, he attempts to defend himself by basically pointing to Nixon as the real villain. However, it becomes quite clear that people such as McNamara see Nixon as a threat, similar to the way in which many people today see current President Donald Trump as a threat—Nixon and Trump are viewed as threats to established norms and to the press’ previous close, friendly relationship with the White House. Nixon, in this example, is not necessarily painted as a threat, as a villain, to the live of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese civilians. The body count does not seem to be too much of a concern as is the their desire to maintain their previous way of reporting, in the case of the press, and legislating, in the case of the politicians.
There is an obvious parallel here to Trump and President Barack Obama—what matters, in terms of the mainstream media’s criticism of a president, is how kind and respectful each president is to each news group. Nixon and Trump were obvious threats to the press and politicians’ decorum and norms, not to any concerns necessarily over body count. However, this goes both ways, as Nixon also felt ‘betrayed’ by the press. Graham wrote in her memoir, Personal History, that “In mid-November, Nixon made a tough speech on Vietnam, implying that most of the American people supported him in what he was doing and that only the press was critical.” Nixon was wrong about this, as it is widely known that many American people were against the war and that it was incredibly unpopular, and this was the case even while the American people were unaware of the incriminating, damning content of the Pentagon Papers, of the actual truth of the U.S’ involvement in the conflict in Vietnam.
Moreover, Graham revealed that “In March, President Nixon called me to suggest that I invite Henry Kissinger to an editorial lunch to brief us on administration thinking on Vietnam. The very next week, Kissinger came to lunch, a meeting that was the start of a long relationship with the paper and with me.” Graham further shared that “As time went on, I saw much more of Henry Kissinger. He was still single and occasionally asked me out to do something casual at night…People have often asked how I handled friends like Henry insofar as the paper was concerned. It varied with different people, but certainly no one at the Post or Newsweek went any easier on Henry because we were friends.” As much as Graham insisted that her close friendships with all the elite Washington insiders did not influence her coverage, it is hard to believe that, especially when she repeatedly also talked about inviting “several administration people in to editorial lunches,” such as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Attorney General John Mitchell.
Graham also recalled in her memoir that “There was still a good deal of traffic between the administration and people throughout the Post company. I was trying to keep open the channels of communication, and for the most part during the first year of the Nixon administration everything remained polite and professional.” While it seems as if Graham’s intentions are sound, the press is not supposed to serve the government—it is supposed to hold those in power accountable for their actions, not exactly to be friendly with them or to operate as their public mouthpieces. This is mentioned and stressed briefly once in the film, and while the sentiment makes sense and is true, its place in this film and its particular telling of this historical event is curious—precisely because the film constantly depicts Graham pandering to her rich, political elite friends, and because there is no harsh critique regarding this fraught relationship between the press and the government that existed as that time and still persists today for many mainstream outlets.
One of the Washington Post’s lawyers in the film advises that they hold off on publishing for a little bit and wait to contact the government first to let them know they have this story and to give them some advance warning. This gives the government time to respond and let the press know if there is any information in the documents that could potentially harm an American citizen or the country’s national security. Interestingly, there is not much said in the film on the very real conversations at the time that still persist today regarding national security and freedom of the press. There is one scene where the government says that this could damage national security, but the film does not dive much deeper into this loaded conversation. Journalists at adversarial outlets today, such as The Intercept, followed this very procedure suggested by the lawyer in the film when publishing the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the Drone Papers, and other highly-classified documents leaked to the press by whistleblowers. This is one way the press can maintain a relationship with the government that is not compromising in the way that it was and still is with top editors and publishers at mainstream news outlets, such was the Washington Post.
And so, while the First Amendment and freedom of the press is often brought up during the film, the characters in The Post do not exactly stress that the public has the right to know this information. It is almost as if that is an afterthought, as the focus is mostly on being able to be the outlet that publishes this huge story first, which is also interesting given that the Washington Post was not even the first outlet to publish the Pentagon Papers—that credit belongs to the New York Times. In short, The Post tells a story about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers that is alienating, primarily because the viewer is set out to root for a rich newspaper heiress, not the source Daniel Ellsberg, or really even the other Post reporters and editors involved in the story. The stakes are to maintain a cordial relationship between the newspaper and the White House administration, to protect the Washington Post’s IPO, and to maintain Katharine Graham’s inheritance. This film highlights the very real discrimination of women in the workplace all throughout, not just in dialogue but also through body language. But The Post ends up stressing gender more so than protection of whistleblowers, even though both are important, yet arguably the latter is more so in this particular event. The film, however, also highlights the importance of protecting Washington elite insiders and how that is considered necessary and common among relationships between the press and the government. The film’s decision to focus on the power dynamics, especially in relation to gender—although these are both very real and important problems still existing in today’s society and media landscape—diminishes the actual significance and content of the Pentagon Papers, which is arguably one of the most important stories every published.
Bradlee, Benjamin C., Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and Sally Quinn. A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017.
Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Graham, Katharine. Personal History. 1., Visage books ed. New York, NY: Vintage books, 1998.
Hammer, Ellen J. Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963. Oxford University Press, 1995.
Kimball, Jeffrey P. To Reason Why: The Debate about the Causes of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War. Eugene, Or.: Resource Publications, 2005.
Lesley Anne Warner. Money in the Bank--Lessons Learned from Past Counterinsurgency (COIN) Operations. RAND Corporation, 2007.
Nancy A. Hewitt. No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2010.
Noam Chomsky. How the World Works. Soft Skull Press, 2011.
Sandra C. Taylor. “Tracing the Origins of U.S. Involvement in Vietnam.” OAH Magazine of History 1, no. 1 (April 1985).
Steven Spielberg. The Post. Film. 20th Century Fox, 2017.
Victor Bator. Vietnam, a Diplomatic Tragedy: The Origins of the United States Involvement. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana Publications, 1965.