As I came out of the theater this week after watching Steven Spielberg’s The Post, I overheard a 60-something man — like me — say to his companions: “Young people today know nothing of this history.” My first reaction was that this was another kid-bashing comment that we hear so often. But then I realized: He’s right.
And why should they? Their textbooks hide pretty much everything that is important in the world — from the roots of American racism, to the war against Mexico; and from the causes and consequences of climate change, to, yes, the nature of the Vietnam War.
Of course, in this respect, the film is not a whole lot better than high school textbooks, ignoring the Vietnamese, glossing over the war itself, and reducing the antiwar movement to a couple of cameo appearances of sign-waving protesters. But that’s not the story Spielberg sets out to tell. Instead, The Post centers on the drama of whether or not the Washington Post will publish the Pentagon Papers, focusing on Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). And, no doubt, it’s a compelling story, one that offers a damning critique of the cozy relationship between the government and the press, and that explores how the commercial imperatives of the for-profit news industry can hold back the pursuit of truth.
It’s impossible to walk away from the film without understanding that at the heart of the struggle over the Pentagon Papers was the exposure of government lying about the war in Vietnam — officials said “we” were winning when “we” were not; soldiers were sent to die to prevent U.S. humiliation; the Kennedy administration knew in advance about the planned overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, but claimed innocence in public.
The film offers papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post a warm pat on the back for publishing the Pentagon Papers and exposing these lies. But Spielberg’s film ignores the fact that there was abundant evidence of deceit long before these newspapers decided to publish the Pentagon Papers in June of 1971. On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his prophetic “Time to Break the Silence” speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, which offered a devastating critique of the war, rich with history. Howard Zinn’s book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal appeared that same spring, and Julian Bond and T.G. Lewis’s Vietnam: An Antiwar Comic Book also came out in 1967. U.S. soldiers returning from Vietnam began opening antiwar coffeehouses near military bases in 1968. So by the time the Washington Post was faced with the choice of whether to publish the Pentagon Papers, there had been years of activism and scholarship — including the dissemination of teaching materials like the Boston Area Teaching Project’s imaginative Vietnam Curriculum, published in 1968.
The Pentagon Papers simply confirmed what the antiwar movement had been saying for years — which is not to minimize the excruciating details of secrets and lies that Daniel Ellsberg exposed, at great personal peril. Ellsberg believed that if widely known, the Pentagon’s own history-telling would undermine the U.S. pretexts for war and hasten the war’s end. Like this one that President Kennedy offered in 1961: “For the last decade we have been helping the South Vietnamese to maintain their independence.” This was a lie. The Pentagon Papers history of the war revealed how the United States had sided with the French in retaking its colony after World War II, ultimately paying for some 80 percent of the French reconquest. By the U.S. government’s own account, from Truman on, Vietnamese self-determination was never an aim of U.S. foreign policy.
Ellsberg knew the consequences for his act of defiance. Ultimately, he was indicted on 11 counts of theft and violation of the Espionage Act. If convicted on all counts, the penalty added up to 130 years in prison. This is not the story that interests Spielberg in The Post. However, it is chronicled dramatically in the film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, and in Ellsberg’s own gripping autobiography, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.
And what of this history makes it into schools today? Corporate textbook writers seem to work from the same list of must-include events and individuals. Thus, all the U.S. history textbooks on my shelf mention the Pentagon Papers. But none grapple with the actual import of the Pentagon Papers. None quote Ellsberg or the historical documents themselves, and none capture Ellsberg’s central conclusion about the United States in Vietnam: “It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side; we were the wrong side.” (The Post mangles this insight, instead concentrating on the fact that war planners like Robert McNamara continued to send U.S. soldiers to Vietnam even while knowing that “we” could not win.)
Teaching students a deeper, more complete history of the American War — as it is known in Vietnam — is not just a matter of accuracy, it’s about life and death. On the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, spoke bluntly about what it means when we fail to confront the facts of our past wars: “If we don’t know history, then we are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the carving knives.”
The “we” in Zinn’s quote refers especially to the young people who will be convinced or tricked or manipulated — or lied — into fighting those wars.
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For almost 30 years, I taught high school U.S. history. I began my Vietnam unit with a little-remembered event that happened on Sept. 2, 1945. I showed students a video clip from the first episode of PBS’s Vietnam: A Television History, in which Dr. Tran Duy Hung, a medical doctor and a leader of the resistance to French colonialism, recounts the massive end-of-war celebration with more than 400,000 people jammed into Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. Japan had surrendered. The seemingly endless foreign occupation of Vietnam — Chinese, then French, then Japanese — was over.
Dr. Hung remembers a moment during the celebration when a small plane began circling and then swooped down over the crowd. When people recognized the U.S. stars and stripes on the plane, they cheered, imagining that its presence signaled an endorsement for Vietnamese independence. “It added to the atmosphere of jubilation at the meeting,” said Dr. Hung.
I want my students to recognize the hugeness of this historical could-have-been. One of the “secrets” Ellsberg risked his freedom to expose was that the United States had a stark choice in the fall of 1945: support the independence of a unified Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, which had spearheaded the antifascist resistance during World War II; or support the French as they sought to reimpose colonial rule.
Think about all the suffering that might have been avoided had the U.S. government taken advantage of this opportunity.
In class, I brought this historical choice point to life with my students through a role play, in which some students portrayed members of the Viet Minh and others represented French business/government leaders arguing before “President Truman” about the future of Vietnam. (A fuller description and materials for the activity can be found at the Zinn Education Project website.) The role play depicted a make-believe gathering, of course, because the United States never included any Vietnamese in its deliberations on the future of Vietnam. Nonetheless, the lesson offers students a vivid picture of what was at stake at this key juncture.
In this and other activities, I want my students to see that history is not just a jumble of dead facts lying on a page. History is the product of human choice — albeit in conditions that we may not choose. Tragically, the United States consistently chose to side with elites in Vietnam, first French, then Vietnamese, as our government sought to suppress self-determination — perhaps most egregiously in 1954, when the United States conspired to stonewall promised elections and to prop up the dictator Ngo Dinh Diem.
In June of 1971, Ellsberg allowed himself to be taken into custody, with no clear outcome in sight. A reporter asked him whether he was concerned about the possibility of going to prison. Ellsberg replied: “Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?” Spielberg’s The Post includes this quote in a brief conversation between Ellsberg and Post reporter Ben Bagdikian. But because the film offers such a thin critique of the war, the searing integrity contained in Ellsberg’s words disappear into the drama of the internal struggle around whether or not the Washington Post will publish the Pentagon Papers.
I get it. Steven Spielberg made a film about press freedom, not the Vietnam War. And, especially with Trump in the White House, the defense of a courageous, critical press is more necessary than ever. And in this #MeToo moment, Katharine Graham’s struggle to be taken seriously in a workplace drenched in male chauvinism is timely. But The Post could have taught much more about the lies that made the Pentagon Papers so meaningful. And the film could have acknowledged that the Washington Post might have featured a more honest portrayal of the war, simply by paying attention to the voices of war veterans, antiwar critics, and the Vietnamese themselves, rather than waiting for leaked government documents.
Right now, every high school student is learning either to accept or to question the premises that lead our country to wage war around the world. As Howard Zinn suggested, if students don’t know their history, then they are “ready meat” for those who will supply the carving knives of war. Fortunately, more and more teachers around the country recognize the importance of teaching outside the textbook, of joining truthtellers like Dan Ellsberg to ask questions, to challenge official stories.
Parts of this article first appeared in the Zinn Education Project’s “Camouflaging the Vietnam War: How Textbooks Continue to Keep the Pentagon Papers a Secret.”