The actual history is that Richard Nixon’s initial reaction to The New York Times publishing the classified Pentagon Papers (or as Nixon called them, “the Kennedy-Johnson papers”) was that it was no skin off his nose: He was skillfully extricating America from the Democrats’ disastrous blunders in Vietnam. His Vietnamization policy reduced U.S. combat deaths from 16,899 in LBJ’s last year, 1968, to 2,414 in 1971.
Moreover, Nixon was working on a secret strategy to isolate North Vietnam by turning China, which had been off-limits to American diplomacy since the Democrats’ previous disaster in Korea, into an ally. This paid off the following year. After Nixon’s China visit in February 1972, the U.S. could mine Haiphong harbor against Soviet freighters for the first time without fear that the Red Chinese would take over the role of resupplying Hanoi’s army. The North Vietnamese tank invasion of South Vietnam was then defeated by South Vietnamese infantry and U.S. air power, while the Soviets were reduced to impotence. By early 1973, U.S. POWs were home.
Unfortunately, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (who occasionally dated Mrs. Graham) talked Nixon into taking a stand against publication of secrets, even when the revelations humiliated the Democrats. Kissinger argued in his memoirs:
Our foreign policy could never achieve the continuity on which other nations must depend, and our system of government would surely lose all trust if each President used his control of the process of declassification to smear his predecessors…. Our nightmare at that moment was that Peking might conclude that our government was too unsteady, too harassed, and too insecure to be a useful partner.
Less high-mindedly, Kissinger had shown the bad judgment of employing the leaker, Ellsberg, as a consultant during the first months of the Nixon administration, and thus needed to sound like a tough guy to clear his name.
The Nixon administration obtained a restraining order against The New York Times publishing more of the bulky Pentagon Papers, which opened the door to The Washington Post to briefly elbow in on the Times’ glory by publishing more revelations. The case immediately went to the Supreme Court, which voted 6–3 in favor of the Times.
You may wonder why this movie isn’t called The Times, since the Pentagon Papers were as much a triumph of The New York Times’ Neil Sheehan as the Watergate scoops of Woodward and Bernstein belonged to The Washington Post. Spielberg’s interest, though, is not in embarrassing Democrats, but in toppling Republicans.
The relevance of the Pentagon Papers is that, apparently in response, Nixon authorized the creation of the black-ops gang “The Plumbers” to plug leaks. This led to the still hazily explained Watergate break-in and Nixon’s eventual resignation.
While Bradlee and Graham might have been willing to oust the scheming climber Richard Nixon, they felt differently about the members of their own elite class such as the well-connected men of the post-World War II CIA….
Graham and Bradlee represented the kind of polished, old money establishmentarians who drove Nixon, a poor boy from Yorba Linda, to distraction with their contempt for his arriviste bumptiousness.
Whether the similarly striving Trump can avoid Nixon’s mistake of giving his enemies an excuse to overturn his election will be of great interest.
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