We finally made the time to see the Meryl Streep/Tom Hanks film “The Post,” about the Washington Post’s coverage of the Pentagon Papers, exposing secrets regarding the conduct of the Vietnam War. The film is well worth seeing, and I followed it up with listening to an interview with the lead Pentagon author on the papers, Leslie Gelb, on the excellent WNYC radio program “On the Media.”
Since this program tends to play at odd times on local NPR stations, I find it easiest just to add it to my podcast list for later listening, but you can also listen to it here. “On the Media” hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield weekly take a deeper dive into how critical news stories are covered by the media, for good and for bad.
In this episode, Gladstone allows Leslie Gelb to tell the story from his perspective, corroborating some of “The Post’s” narrative and taking issue with some points. While Gelb sometimes seems to be dissembling and minimizing the importance of the papers, he does make some interesting observations.
- Gelb claims that the Pentagon Papers were not an exhaustive study of the lead-up and progress of the Vietnam War, as suggested in the film. He was tasked to assemble a team to create confidential background material for one hundred questions Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had posed as the most common press pool questions. While they had a pool of CIA documents to work from, they conducted no interviews or sought out additional information beyond what they had available.
- Although McNamara is portrayed in the film as wanting these papers written to preserve history for later study, Gelb does not remember this greater motive being discussed.
- While Gelb now sees the folly of that war, he insists that, at that time, most in government were working off an unshakable belief in the “Domino Theory,” combined with widespread ignorance abut Vietnam and its people. Rather than conspiracy to prolong the war, he sees in hindsight a misguided political theory (that one by one almost all players eventually rejected) on top of a bad understanding of the region as sufficient to explain the war. It is a lesson we did not learn, he says, when it came to Afghanistan and Iraq.
- By the end of the Johnson administration, and throughout the Nixon administration, Gelb sees the fear of loss of face as having become the driving factor, with everybody trying to extract the United States from the mess and yet somehow keep its international stature intact.
I remember well the February, 1968, Smothers Brothers television program when long-blacklisted singer-songwriter Pete Seeger was allowed to sing his anti-Vietnam War song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in his second appearance on the show. The song had been cut by CBS from his first appearance because of Pete’s thinly-veiled reference to Lyndon Johnson:
“We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy
and the big fool says to push on!.”