The Washington Post, Pentagon Papers and Katharine Graham


“Few individuals have plumbed the depths of their rage, hatred, terror, jealousy, and despair or the scope of their wisdom and power of their compassion, yet these currents run beneath the surface of #awareness in each of us, like great rivers on the floor of an ocean.” – Gary Zukav, Jan.5, 2018

I remember a friend who shared how her husband died, shooting himself in their joint residence. I did not have the words to comfort her, only my living presence. Only to discover that some of my friends are really angels on earth, as one said, “Take her to my concert tonight, it is a benefit for the Suicide Prevention Association.”

I was dumbfounded, as I simply had one question to the heavens: How do I bring comfort to her when I have no idea on how to help her? At the concert, the organizer revealed her angst at having a “permanent shadow” accompany her family at all times.

I remembered Ernest Hemingway and how his surviving family members must have felt, carrying that shadow wherever they went.

Only to learn recently that Phil Graham, also committed suicide in his home in Glen Welby. He was the former publisher and president of the Washington Post, who run the paper for 17 years, and who said: “Journalism is the first draft of history” in 1957. How did his wife, Katharine Graham, pick up the pieces, to leave behind her rage, and to emerge the person of grace and strength, and one who with a strategic vision for her country, America?

Women coming of age

I watched “The Post” (a movie) and I could not quite adjust my feelings towards how indecisive Katharine Graham (owner/publisher of the Washington Post) was yet,  meticulously adept in asking questions of her inner circle, but clueless in realizing that she has the authority to make the final decision. She was depicted as ambivalent and evasive of conflict, which she admitted in her personal memoirs.

Then, portions of the Pentagon Papers were delivered to the Washington Post’s assignment editor and thousands of pages were given by Daniel Ellsberg to  the Post.

She made a crucial strategic decision of publishing the Pentagon Papers, which catapulted the Post into a credible source of news, facts, evidence and true to its mission as a newspaper. The Washington Post became a key resource for national news.

Russ Wiggins wrote a personal note to the staff: “Philip L. Graham has left in our daily care and custody an honest and a conscientious newspaper which I know that all of you are eager to maintain as a daily memorial to his own genius and integrity. And now we must take up the duties he laid upon us, with a heavy heart, but nonetheless with a high hope that we may succeed in doing what he would have us do.”

I am presently reading Katharine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirs and how she evolved from being supportive of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson’s actions in Vietnam and later, developed her personal opposition towards the war, given her eldest son’s personal letters to her, while deployed as a soldier in Vietnam. He wrote about the senseless violence towards an ill-defined cause and really did not quite advance the national security interests of the United States.

The Post continued to report on the Vietnam War, and the 500,000 U.S. soldiers deployed there. It then grew its editorial department in 1966-1969, when the Post added 50 positions and its budget grew from $2.25 million to $7 million in 1969.

Katharine is depicted in the film, “The Post,” as nervously taking a stand to publish the Pentagon Papers and closely monitoring the backlash and at the same time, experienced the solidarity of the newspapers around the U.S., who followed the Post’s lead and published the “verboten” Pentagon Papers. Katharine rationalized her decision in keeping with the newspaper’s mission and putting the nation’s interests before the papers.

It peeked my curiosity to keep reading about Katharine and how she evolved to strengthen her resolve, her convictions, and even her own stance, amidst being surrounded, influenced, criticized meanly, and strongly pressured by strong men around her, including Pres. Johnson.

The impact of a woman’s decision: The Washington Post and New York Times’ U.S. Supreme Court decision

It is a life that she allowed other folks to guide her, but also her own inner convictions to stand by her own decisions.  For example, it took tremendous courage for her to set a precedent of publishing the Pentagon Papers, then, joined in a lawsuit with the New York Times, and wait nervously for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, 6-3, written by Justice Hugo  Black, excerpted here in part:

“In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.

“And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.

“The Government’s case here is based on premises entirely different from those that guided the Framers of the First Amendment. The Solicitor General has carefully and emphatically stated:

“Now, Mr. Justice [BLACK], your construction of . . . [the First Amendment] is well known, and I certainly respect it. You say that no law means no law, and that should be obvious. I can only [p718] say, Mr. Justice, that to me it is equally obvious that “no law” does not mean “no law,” and I would seek to persuade the Court that that is true. . . . [T]here are other parts of the Constitution that grant powers and responsibilities to the Executive, and . . . the First Amendment was not intended to make it impossible for the Executive to function or to protect the security of the United States.[n3]

“And the Government argues in its brief that, in spite of the First Amendment,[t]he authority of the Executive Department to protect the nation against publication of information whose disclosure would endanger the national security stems from two interrelated sources: the constitutional power of the President over the conduct of foreign affairs and his authority as Commander-in-Chief.[n4]

“In other words, we are asked to hold that, despite the First Amendment’s emphatic command, the Executive Branch, the Congress, and the Judiciary can make laws enjoining publication of current news and abridging freedom of the press in the name of “national security.” The Government does not even attempt to rely on any act of Congress. Instead, it makes the bold and dangerously far-reaching contention that the courts should take it upon themselves to “make” a law abridging freedom of the press in the name of equity, presidential power and national security, even when the representatives of the people in Congress have adhered to the command of the First Amendment and refused to make such a law.[n5] See concurring opinion of MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, [p719] post at 721-722. To find that the President has “inherent power” to halt the publication of news by resort to the courts would wipe out the First Amendment and destroy the fundamental liberty and security of the very people the Government hopes to make “secure.” No one can read the history of the adoption of the First Amendment without being convinced beyond any doubt that it was injunctions like those sought here that Madison and his collaborators intended to outlaw in this Nation for all time.

“The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic. The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged. This thought was eloquently expressed in 1937 by Mr. Chief Justice Hughes — great man and great Chief Justice that he was — when the Court held a man could not be punished for attending a meeting run by Communists.”

“The greater the importance of safeguarding the community from incitements to the overthrow of our institutions by force and violence, the more imperative is the need to preserve inviolate the constitutional rights of free speech, free press and free [p720] assembly in order to maintain the opportunity for free political discussion, to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes, if desired, may be obtained by peaceful means. Therein lies the security of the Republic, the very foundation of constitutional government.[n6]“

Would you, as sworn U.S. citizens, register and vote, and guide by your votes, our elected leaders to sustain their adherence to truth, uncensored news publications, and responsible use of power at any levels (executive, legislative, judicial)? Or would you blindly succumb to protecting your perceived economic station in life and by your vote, improperly believe to protect that status? How would you act as guardians of this U.S.-based democracy with integrity and adherence to truth and social justice?

Katharine Graham was not trained to be a CEO nor trained to be a publisher. She watched from the sidelines and did not have an opportunity to hold a full-time job, until her husband died.

Yet, she made the most visible, credibility-sustaining decisions for her newspaper, the Washington Post, displaying her personal courage, “the scope of her wisdom and power of compassion,” and  love for this country’s democratic freedoms.

Through that national exposé, it initiated a national debate to purge our nation from its involvement in an unjust war in Vietnam, which to the end, had 58,220 U.S. military fatal casualties, between 200,000 to 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers dead and 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong casualties. By far, the most casualties were incurred in World War II, battle deaths and civilians of all countries to have been 56.4 million. (Source: Britannica.com)

In examining your own lives, have you faced choices where you placed truth above lies, love of country first over your pocketbook, harmony over personal grudges and deep anger?

What legacy are we building by our personal actions? To this day, Katharine Graham’s personal decisions of courage and commitment to the mission of truthful news information inspire me and I dare say, a multitude of women on how to use feminine power in the workplace — to uplift the truth!

* * *

Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 9 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.

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