‘The Post’ was a good movie, but Daniel Ellsberg was no hero: Ted Diadiun

January 17, 2018 GMT

‘The Post’ was a good movie, but Daniel Ellsberg was no hero: Ted Diadiun

Awhile back, somebody sent me a mock-up of what the April 17, 1775 front page of The New York Times might have looked like if the Grey Lady had been around when Paul Revere made his famous ride.

Perhaps you’ve seen it, too: “One If By Land; Two If By Sea ... Secret Lantern Signals of the American Colonists Revealed,” said the headline, and in a drophead: “Conspirators include Paul Revere, other ‘Patriots’ and a group of Christian Ministers.”

The story underneath began as follows: “Unnamed American colonist sources who spoke on condition of anonymity have revealed a secret plan for tomorrow to warn patriot colonist militia forces of the route that English regular soldiers plan to take as they move their forces to Lexington and Concord ...”

I thought about that Friday night after I went to see “The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s celebration of the events leading up to The Washington Post’s decision to publish excerpts from a stolen, top-secret government document titled “History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy.”


Or, as the report became known more concisely: the Pentagon Papers.

2011: ‘Pentagon Papers’ officially revealed in full

I enjoyed the movie. Meryl Streep as Post Publisher Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as Executive Editor Ben Bradlee were fun to watch as they breathed life into the age-old news side/business side conflict and resolution. The story was a believable and instructive look at how a newsroom operates with a big story on deadline, and the take-a-deep-breath-and-hit-the-button decisions editors must make on controversial stories. And I loved the scenes that faithfully reproduced the ink-on-raised letters printing process I grew up on (“hot metal porn,” the New Yorker reviewer called it).

I recommend it.

But as we honor the guardians of the First Amendment, the central premise of the movie is worth some reflection.

The thing that bothered me about the story Friday was the thing that bothered me about it back in June 1971, when The New York Times, and then The Post, began publishing their revelatory excerpts.

This was a secret government document, remember. Only 15 copies existed, locked away in the offices of the president, other top government officials, and at the RAND Corporation, a government-funded think tank that helped put it together. The exhaustive, 7,000-page study had been commissioned in 1967 by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara as a no-holds-barred, instructive review of decisions and mistakes made and what could be learned from them. It was blunt and forthright – and for internal use only, which was necessary to ensure candor.


And then it it was stolen by a RAND employee named Daniel Ellsberg, who used his security clearance to sneak into the office at night, painstakingly (and illegally) copy it, then give it to the Times, the Post and other news organizations.

A former Marine who had become disillusioned with the conduct of the war and the failure of administrations from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson to give the country an accurate assessment of its chances for success, Ellsberg decided on his own that the report should be shared with the country.

You will hear and read that the Pentagon Papers proved that our leaders knew from the start the war was unwinnable, and kept on sending soldiers to fight and die anyway. That is not quite true. Nobody “knew” anything of the sort. But it is clear that despite the well-meaning and laudable goal of trying to contain the spread of Communism, there were grave doubts that it could be done militarily, and our leaders stubbornly and habitually misled the public on the progress and prospects of the war.

In journalism circles, it is accepted wisdom that revealing the secrets in the Pentagon Papers was an exercise in courage and patriotism. Certainly it took courage. But was it patriotic? Richard Nixon, who is painted as the villain in the film despite the fact that the report was finished before he was even in office, tried to stop publication because he believed it was bad for the office of the presidency, and it would make the process of ending the war more difficult.

Whom do we want making such decisions regarding the security of our country? Our elected president and his staff? Or a newspaper editor trying to beat the competition and a minor operative who has seen a thin slice of the big picture and decides to make secret, stolen documents public?

Not surprisingly, Ellsberg, who is still with us at age 86, has strongly defended and encouraged Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, all of whom recently revealed government secrets that have done untold damage to our covert agencies and those of our allies.

I don’t think they are heroes, and I don’t think Ellsberg is a hero.

The anecdote that began this essay was done for laughs. But it’s not a stretch to imagine a Daniel Ellsberg back in 1775 deciding that a break with England would be dangerous folly, and a newspaper editor deciding that it was the people’s right to know what was afoot.

People who steal the nation’s secrets and reveal them to the public are not patriots.

They are the opposite.

Ted Diadiun is a member of the editorial board of and The Plain Dealer.


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