When the release of the Pentagon Papers made the headlines in 1971, people like me were still 'the kids,' and the people who ran the ran the important news media such as the New York Times were the wholly unreliable 'grownups.'
The grownups, who also ran the government, the TV networks, the corporations, and the domestic households, and the opinion polls, were shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that the American government had been lying to them about the Vietnam War. Lying about the reason we got into it, the phony Tonkin Gulf provocation, the justifications offered by successive administrations -- Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon -- not only to continue an evilly stupid war but double down on the failed policy by sending more and more troops, bombing more and more roads and cities in both Vietnams and neighboring countries. And to offer dangerously paranoid and self-defeating myths like "the domino theory" to justify a vast expansion of death and destruction.
JFK knew that an American military intervention in Vietnam was a poor military gamble, but decided it was politically impossible to admit the truth publicly in an election year. His party could not afford to appear 'weak' in the face of Communism.
That is, in order to maintain an appearance -- the illusion that 'anti-Communism' justified any sacrifice -- more American soldiers -- not to mention Vietnamese -- would have to die.
This was the same choice, made on purely partisan political grounds by LBJ and Nixon: to preserve a politically convenient illusion -- and evade an inconvenient truth -- human beings must die in great numbers and countries far from America must be destroyed.
I can see why anyone, for whom this revelation was news, would be disturbed to learn it.
But for people like me, the 'kids' of the anti-Vietnam War protests -- however strange it is to recall that angry youthful perspective -- what the "grown-ups" were doing or thinking had long ceased to matter.
Of course -- we knew -- the war was unwinnable, undertaken on a fraudulent basis, and wholly immoral. Of course the idea of trying to impose our ideas on a country and people we knew nothing about "in the name of anti-Communism" was both wrong and stupid.
Of course the North Vietnamese 'enemy' we slandered as 'Communist' was seen primarily as a 'nationalist' and anti-imperialist force for freedom and self-determination by the majority of the Vietnamese people.
And of course the Vietnamese people would go on resisting our attacks, no matter how costly we made the war for them, just as patriotic Americans had resisted the overpowering might of the British Empire in the determination to be free of foreign domination. In all likelihood North Vietnam was likely to outlast us, just as our determined Patriots of the 18th century had outlasted the domineering British Empire.
And -- most certain of all -- of course the political leaders of the corrupt older generation -- our presidents, our generals; our perfidious FBI director -- have all along been lying to the American public about the nature and conduct of the war, and why more and more Americans had been sent there to kill and die.
I never glanced at the Pentagon Papers when revealing portions of them were published by newspapers in 1971. Never read the New York Times' initial story on their existence after someone handed this heavily "classified document" over to that paper.
Didn't follow the story when the government got a court injunction to prevent the Times from publishing any further parts or information from the infamously long-concealed analysis of a failed American policy. Or pay attention when the Washington Post, having been given another copy of the hijacked Pentagon Papers, began publishing them --
... and when Nixon's government took the Post to court for publishing "important government secrets" as well -- succeeded in winning a Supreme Court judgment in favor of the right of a free press to publish the truth despite the government's desire to suppress its dirty secrets.
Unimportant to me then. Because, as I said, these facts were what we protestors believed (knew) all along.
But both astonishing -- and wholly moving -- to me now.
Being now, of course, and for a very long time, one of the 'grown-ups.' And grown-ups need their illusions; or, you might call them, their 'stories.'
Which made Spielberg's recent movie about the release of the Pentagon Papers, "The Post," which Anne and I finally got around to seeing, so much fun.
The high points: Meryl Streep's portrayal of Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, as she hesitantly seats herself in a conference room with 25 men in identical black suits as they discuss taking her company public. This is the 'grown-up' world of 1971: We had such a long way to go. How far have we come?
Reporters working from pay phones trying to write down a crucial phone number while stuffing more quarters into the phone. (It's still hard to write down all the info while talking on the phone.)
Tom Hank's Ben Bradlee, the Post's editor, lounging in his glass office while he worries aloud to reporters that New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan has "got something."
What Sheehan 'got' was a copy of a multi-volume study commissioned by the Defense Department back in 1968 to analyze the decision-making process that led to massive US troop commitments to a disastrous military adventure in Vietnam.
The expression on Matthew Rhys's face (the lead in "The Americans"), playing Daniel Ellsburg when he realizes that Defense secretary Robert McNamara, who knows the war is a disaster, is saying exactly the opposite to a group of American reporters. Ellsburg then decides to steal bound copies of the highly-secret study and copy them, eventually leaking them to the Times.
The Post reporter played by Bob Odenkirk ("Better Call Saul") being chased down by a Post company lawyer and forced to admit that his copy of the Pentagon Papers may have come from the same source that leaked them to the Times. If so, that would make the Post vulnerable to a charge of "violating the government secrets act."
And of course, Graham's courageous decision to allow Bradlee to begin releasing the papers in her newspaper at great legal and financial risk to the future of a newspaper founded by her father -- because the American people needed to know the truth about what their government's leaders (including her close personal friend McNamara) had done and the self-serving, spectacularly immoral reasons for doing it.
And -- what I can only appreciate now and was unable to appreciate back then -- the Suprem Court's decision to reject the government's pleas to keep the Pentagon Papers secret because the U.S. Constitution guarantees to the American people the right of the free press.
That decision came too late to save all the lives wasted by the political crimes committed by America's leaders.
But it cemented the press's right to try to prevent similar ones.
Which is where we are now, when a current pretender to the office of POTUS threatens to start a nuclear war to distract people from paying attention to his other corrupt acts.
Leading to a few questions:
Why are there still so many government secrets? (What I really feel is 'why are there any?')
Why, after the "lessons of Vietnam" did America's government get away with starting another absurdly unnecessary war in Iraq, displacing a million Iraqis, killing, arresting and injuring them by the hundreds of thousands, and killing and maiming thousands of American troops?
Where are the Pentagon Papers for that atrociously costly disaster?
Why do America's laws still protect the policy-makers of torture and death in the Middle East -- some of whom were recently appointed to high positions by the current maggot in the White House?
Why do our laws still prosecute those who bring the truth to light by making public certain perfidious "classified secrets"?
Why does the American public not have a right to know everything done by government officials in our name?
And when the current scumbag-in-chief continues to go after newspapers, or TV stations, or websites that expose his lies and crimes, in an attempt to silence them...
will American courts still be willing to protect a free press in the service of the public good?