COMMENTARY: Pentagon Papers

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Is the newly-released movie "The Post" a documentary? A Hollywood version of reality? A docu-drama based on reality? Or some combination thereof? More from MTSU Professor of Journalism Dr. Larry Burris:


At issue were the so-called Pentagon Papers thousands of stolen documents explaining how we became mired in the Vietnam conflict. Daniel Ellsburg had given the material to "The New York Times", and they showed how presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson misled both the Congress and the people with a steady stream of misinformation, distortion and outright lies.

A number of legal actions followed, and on the last day of June 1971, the US Supreme Court, acting with uncharacteristic haste rendered a 6-3 decision that said "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" could indeed continue to print the documents.

But a closer examination shows the victory was much narrower, and in some ways much more dangerous, than it first appears. Although the actual vote was 6-3 in favor of publication, the justices actually came out, philosophically, 7-2 against the papers: four of the 6 said they felt the government attorneys had not presented their case well, or they said they would not do what Congress had failed to do, namely prohibit the publication of secret information. In fact, one of the justices as much as invited Congress to pass such a law, and then said he would have no trouble upholding it.

So, what was the end result of the Pentagon Papers? Well, the results were more far reaching than anyone would have imagined at the time, but in a totally different area: Watergate.

Like so many great events in American history, the Pentagon Papers have produced their own mythology. But even if their outcome was not a resounding victory for the press, the aftermath certainly illustrates the point made by Thomas Jefferson, that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Read more from:
"The Post", Dr. Larry Burris, Murfreesboro news, Pentagon Papers
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