A review of the film
Produced and Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
Starring: Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee
Yesterday Judi and I viewed the film The Post. This film has a compelling story line as well as fine acting that dramatized the plot. However, while viewing the film I felt there was an elephant in the room that the writers of the script were extremely careful to ignore. So, in this blog I will first outline the narrative of the film and then write about the actual history of those times.
This film centers around thousands of pages of files that Daniel Ellsberg stole from the Rand Corporation that documented the United States policy in Vietnam for three decades. Ellsberg knew of these files because he worked for the former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. These files documented the fact that Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all lied to the world about the war against the people of Vietnam.
The New York Times was the first newspaper to publicize these files. Then, the U.S. government sued the Times and they stopped their publication of this story.
At this time The Washington Post was sold on the stock market and there was a clause in the sale that the investors could withdraw their money one week after the sale. We also learn that the U.S. government initiated legal action that could have sent the owner and the editor of the Washington Post to prison for publishing this story.
So, the owner of the Washington Post, Katherine Graham and her editor, Ben Bradlee had a decision to make. Should they risk the destruction of the Washington Post as well as prison sentences and publish the story? Or, should they take the advice of their legal staff and their board members and stop the publication of the story?
In the drama that unfolds we see Katherine Graham stand up to the advice of powerful men and make the decision to publish the story. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Washington Post.
The story behind the story
We can begin this narrative with the title of Ken Burns ten episode documentary titled, The Vietnam War. If we look up the word war in the dictionary we see that what happened in the horrendous conflict between Vietnam and the United States clearly was a war. However, the last war the United States declared against another nation was in World War II.
From what I can see, the war against the people of Southeast Asia was not a declared war, but an extended military engagement. Clearly, no one ever argued that the armed forces of the Vietnam ever invaded the United States. In fact, the capitol of Vietnam, Hanoi, is 7,649 miles away from Los Angeles, California.
This fact was not lost on the Vietnamese. They didn’t consider U.S. prisoners of this war to be prisoners of a war that had never been declared. They considered these prisoners to be criminals in their country. I don’t agree with this because any soldier who refused to be a part of the holocaust in Vietnam could be sent to prison in this country. The real criminals were the government officials like Robert McNamara who organized this extended military engagement by routinely lying to the people of the world.
So, in my opinion, the question to be asked isn’t just about why politicians lied about Vietnam, but why politicians routinely lie about their motives?
We can begin to see the answer to this question in the film The Post. We see the lifestyles of Katherine Graham and Robert McNamara who had been a business manager before working as Secretary of Defense. We see the opulent homes where they lived, the lavish dinner parties, and the full-time maids who tend to their needs.
No, the war against Vietnam didn’t erupt so Graham and McNamara would be able to live in opulence. However, the capitalist system is organized in such a way so that only a very small minority of the population will profit from the labor of working people who constitute the vast majority.
Understanding this reality, we can begin to see why the United States government made the decision to have an extended military engagement in Vietnam. We can also begin to see why the government felt the need to routinely lie about their motives.
We can see by beginning to understand that the First and Second World Wars had nothing to do with defending liberty, freedom, or democracy. No, those wars were about deciding what nation would become the capitalist super-power of the world. The United States capitalists were the winners of those wars.
After the Second World War liberation movements erupted in Guatemala, the Congo, Iran, Algeria, and Kenya. The United States intervened in an attempt to prevent liberation movements from taking power. Oftentimes the U.S. succeeded in installing puppet regimes that went along with U.S. corporate interests.
However, in Vietnam the United States government encountered a resistance they could not defeat. Many people who have looked at the war against Vietnam are familiar with the Tet Offensive. After the United States carried out an extensive bombing campaign in North Vietnam known as Operation Rolling Thunder, the Vietnamese launched their Tet Offensive where they attacked all the U.S. military installations in their homeland. The Vietnamese suffered horrendous losses in this offensive.
One thing I learned from the Ken Burns documentary was that the Tet Offensive was only one of the offensives launched by the Vietnamese. In all these offensives there was a horrendous loss of life to the Vietnamese.
However, this determination by the Vietnamese was, no doubt, the primary reason why the United States lost this war. Even U.S. military commanders were impressed with the fighting abilities of their Vietnamese opponents. The Vietnamese engaged in this war while experiencing the effects of eight-million tons of bombs and 19 million gallons of defoliants.
The Civil War in the United States
Looking at this reality, I believe we can gain some perspective by looking at the Civil War in the United States. Today most historians argue that the primary issue of the Civil War was the need to overthrow the system of slavery. However, in those years this isn’t what the government argued. The government of President Lincoln argued that the issue dividing North and South was the fact that the South seceded and he viewed this as an act of treason. The southern states formed a new nation because of differences over the issue of slavery. So, even in those days, the government was not honest about their reasons for war.
Towards the end of the war the Confederate forces had fortified lines that the Union Army attacked over and over again. In the summer of 1865 the Union Army lost about 90,000 soldiers. This was a conscious decision by the Union to break the Confederate will to win using a strategy known as total war. This is the strategy that defeated the Confederacy. This same strategy defeated the United States armed forces in Vietnam.
As I’ve attempted to show the United States government always lies when it decides to go to war or an extended military engagement. We can recall the weapons of mass destruction lie used to justify the war against Iraq. In Vietnam the U.S. government lies were exposed because the Vietnamese had the tenacity to defeat the most powerful armed force in the world.
In the first five minutes of the film The Post we see a U.S. army squadron ambushed by the Vietnamese. This is the only glimmer in the film where we see any Vietnamese, who were, in essence, the central characters of this story.
Yes, it did take a bit of courage to publish the Ellsberg Papers in the Washington Post. Yes, the publication of those papers did aid the international movement against the Vietnam War. However, the true heroes of this story were the Vietnamese who paid a horrendous price so that they would not be ruled by a foreign power.