LEARNING GUIDE FOR:
SUBJECTS — U.S. 1945 - 1991 & the Press;
Age: 13+; MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and brief war violence; Historical Fiction; 2017; 1 hr 56 minutes; Color.
Description: This film is historical fiction about the publication of the Pentagon Papers told from the perspective of the second newspaper to publish excerpts of the document.
Rationale for Using the Movie: The Post shows an inflection point in U.S. history in which the press explosed decades of government deception about the Vietnam War and the Courts turned back the ever increasing power of the U.S. Presidency by rejecting prior restraint on the publication of government secrets, except in extreme situations in which there would be "direct, immediate, and irreparable damage to the nation or its people." (Concurrence of Justice Steward in the Pentagon Papers case.) The film illustrates many of the forces that came together or competed against each other in the struggle over the publication of the Pentagon Papers. In addition, The Post shows a female executive struggling to gain acceptance in a male dominated world. The movie also touches upon the Vietnam War, a whistle-blower who was willing to go to jail to expose the truth, and the abandonment of the formerly cozy relationship between the press and the government.
Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students can watch, discuss, and write about: (1) the most dramatic example of when the people's right to know what their government is doing prevailed over the interest of government officials in keeping their actions secret; and (2) the interplay of the following forces and institutions in American society: the power of the U.S. Presidency; a free press; the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; legal restrictions on the publication of top secret documents; the power and function of the Judicial Branch of the U.S. government; a determined whistleblower concerned for the good of the county; the difficulties encountered by women seeking to exercise power and gain respect in a male-dominated business world; and some of the economics of publishing a newspaper.
Possible Problems: The film tells a basically true story. The largest problem with using the movie in education is the filmmakers' decision to focus on the role of the Washington Post in publishing the Pentagon Papers. The real heros in the story were Daniel Ellsberg, Aruthur Ochs Sulzberger, Sr. (the publisher of the New York Times), and the reporters from the New York Times. Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, fully expecting to go to jail for many years as a result for his actions. Sulzberger put his family's newspaper at risk to publish the documents. Sulzberger and the reporters could have also gone to jail. The New York Times published first and took the greatest risk of a government prosecution. The Washington Post played only a secondary role, although the risk was still signifigant and it did take courage for Katherine Graham to authorize publication. This problem can be turned into a teachable moment about historical fiction. The reason the film doesn't focus on the New York Times is that there was no Katherine Graham at the Times to provide the human interest component necessary to power a story that would sell tickets at the box office.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Sr.
LEARNING GUIDE MENU
SUGGESTIONS FOR USING THE POST IN THE CLASSROOM
Introduce the film by telling the class that this movie shows an inflection point in U.S. history. The direction of the country and the government changed after the publication of the Pentagon Papers; things were not the same as they were before. Ask students, as they watch the movie, to think about what changed and to pay attention to the forces in American society that came together or competed with one another to lead to the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
Students will appreciate this film if they have a basic understanding of First Amendement protections for the Press and the era of the Vietnam War. Check for prior knowledge and make sure that students know at least the following information before showing the film.
Freedom of the Presss American political theory holds that the people are the sovereign and that the government should serve the people. However, the government cannot serve the people if it misleads them about its actions. Nevertheless, some secrecy is necessary for governments to function, especially in foreign affairs and in times of war. The question is where to draw the line.
As stated by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in his concurring opinion in the Pentagton papers case:
The dominant purpose of the First Amendment was to prohibit the widespread practice of governmental suppression of embarrassing information. It is common knowledge that the First Amendment was adopted against the widespread use of the common law of seditious libel to punish the dissemination of material that is embarrassing to the powers-that-be. [citation omitted] The present cases will, I think, go down in history as the most dramatic illustration of that principle. A debate of large proportions goes on in the Nation over our posture in Vietnam. That debate antedated the disclosure of the contents of the present documents. The latter are highly relevant to the debate in progress. Justice Douglas concurring in New York Times Co. v. U.S. (1971) 403 U.S. 713, 723–724.The Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers — The Vietnam War (1955 to 1974) was the largest defeat of U.S. armed forces in the 20th century. In addition, from 1948 to 1974, the U.S. government deceived the American people about American political and military involvement in Vietnam. During the administration of President Lyndon Johnson (1963 to 1969) and continuing through the administration of Richard Nixon (1969 to 1974) U.S. government officials knew that the war was being lost and that the U.S. was unwilling to commit the money and manpower necessary to prevail. However, in order to save face, U.S. officials did not tell the truth about the war. Tens of thousands of American soldiers and many more Vietnamese died so that various U.S. government officials would not be embarrassed.
One of the chief practitioners of the policy of deception, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, ordered a top secret study of the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The results, some 7,000 pages, called "the Pentagon Papers," revealed the deception. Daniel Ellsberg, an employee of the Defense Department decided that this story must be told to the American people. Over a period of several months he smuggled sections of the document out of the guarded facility in which he worked, copying the pages at night and returning them the next morning. In 1970, with the war still raging, Ellsburg brought the document to Congressional leaders. When they did nothing to publicize the government's wrongdoing or take steps to correct the situation, Ellsberg went to the Press, first to the New York Times.
It was extremely unusual for women to lead major corporations in the 20th century. It was said that, "A woman's place was in the home," While more and more women were joining the work force, they were not paid equally with men for the same work and they were not permitted to rise to the full level of their potential. The men in power did not think that women had the capability to lead major organizations.
After showing the movie, ask the class to identify the important forces in American society that competed or cooperated to attain the result that the Washington Post became the second newspaper to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers. A partial list is set out below:
The various concurring and dissenting opinions in the case in which the Supreme Court rejected the government's request for injunctions prohibiting further publication of the Pentagon Papers is an opportunity to teach students about the U.S. government, the role of the three branches of government, the importance of the First Amendment, and the judicial process. TWM has taken the opinion, redacted portions not relevant to those lessons, and removed most citations that would be meaningless to students. Students who read and understand this document will be given a view of the judicial process in action. High school students with strong reading skills and college students can be assigned all of the various concurring and dissenting opinions. Students without strong reading skills can be assigned just one or two of the concurrences or teachers can read several or all of the opinions to them. Click here for a version in Microsoft Word that can be further edited by teachers desiring to use this resource. Click here for a version in pdf.
Before reading the opinion test for prior knowledge or inform the class as to the following:
"Per Curiam" is from Latin meaning "by the court." A Per Curiam decision is handed down by an appellate court without identifying the individual judge who wrote the opinion. Per curiam decisions are unusual and have less precedential value than decisions in which a judge writes an opinion that is endorsed by at least four other justices (there are nine justices on the Supreme Court; it takes five justices to make a majority). In this case, the opinion was per curiam because of the need for a speey decison and the fact that there were separate concurring or dissenting opinions from each Justice.
There are three levels of federal trial courts. The general trial court is the District Court. There are 94 federal judicial districts: with at least one in each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. There are more than 2700 district court judges. The district courts are organized into 12 regions, called "circuits," each of which has a court of appeal. There is an additional court of appeal for Washington, D.C. The vast majority of appellate cases are decided by the Courts of Appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court hears relatively few cases each year. It selects the cases that it thinks are most important.
"Certiorari" is a Latin word that means, "to be informed of." A writ of certiorari is an order by the appellate court to the lower court to bring the case before the appellate court. It is used when the appellate court has discretion about whether or not to hear the appeal. The vast majority of cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court are taken up on the discretionary writ of certiorari.
A "concurring opinion" is written when one or more justices agree with the result of the case, either to affirm the lower court or to reverse the lower court decision, but their reasons are different from those given by the majority. In the Pentagon Papers case, the per curiam decision does not set out a detailed analysis of the reasons for the decision. The justices used their concurring opinions to explain their reasons for voting the per curiam decision. .
A dissenting opinion is given when a justice disagrees with the decision of the court. It explains his or her reasons for the disagreement.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. served on the Supreme Court from 1902 until 1932. He is one of the most respected justices to serve on the Court. He is often quoted as an authority, even when he wrote in dissent. Charles Evans Hughes served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1910 to 1916, then U.S. secretary of state from 1921–25 and then as the 11th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1930 to 1941. He, too, is a respected jurist and his opinions are frequently cited by courts as authority for their decisions.
Examples of How Social Customs Change in Little Ways that Can Make a Big Difference
From an Interview of Katherine Graham by Terri Gross
GROSS: You write that early on after taking over The Post, you were encumbered by a deep feeling of uncertainty and inferiority and the need to be - to please and to be liked. You say, I was unable to make a decision that might displease those around me. How did that affect your decision making early on and your interactions with the staff?
After watching the film, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
Note to Teachers: The sophistication of class discussion will increase dramatically if the class has read any of the concurring or dissenting opinions in the Supreme Court's Pentagon Papers decision. In addition, an excellent way to conduct class discussion is for teachers to at least suggest and require students to rebut arguments contrary to those taken by the students. For example, students who believe that the decision was correctly decided can be asked about the points made in Justice Harlan's dissent. Thus, TWM suggests that before the class teachers read and familiarize themselves with the reasons given by the various justices for and against the per curiam decision. See Read Excerpts of the Supreme Court Opinions in the Pentagon Papers Case, above.1. What is the legacy of the government deception surrounding the Vietnam war? Suggested Response: Perhaps it was best expressed by Don Rumsfeld an aid to Richard Nixon who later served Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush as Secretary of Defense: There is a tape of H.R. Haldeman, Chief of Staff to Richard Nixon, telling the President:
Rumsfeld was making this point this morning... To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing.... You can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say; and you can't rely on their judgment; and the – the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because It shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it's wrong, and the president can be wrong.Note that Haldeman was a major participant in the Watergate Scandal. He was convicted of perjury, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice and given an 18 month prison sentence.
2. Do you agree with the Supreme Court decision in the Pentagon Papers case that the government must show clear injury to national defense before the Courts will enter prior restraint orders that prohibit the publication of top secret government information? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response to this question. Note, however, that the general concensus of constitutional scholars is that the case was rightly decided.
An alternative formulation of the question, is "Which of the concurring or dissenting opinions do you agree with? State your reasons."3. What are the responsibilities of newspaper publishers when they are provided with secret or top-secret government information? How do you suggest that they fullfil these responsibilities? Put yourself in the position of an editor of a paper who is given an importat top secret document that will influence the public debate on an issue? What would you do? Suggested Response: [Note to teachers: See the dissenting opinions in the Pentagon Papers case.] There are options other than to publish or not to publish. One is to go the government, inform them that you have the document and then ask them whether there is any part of the document the disclosure of which would endanger the national security or the life of any individual and to explain their reasoning. You could then redact (cross-out so that it cannot be read) certain parts of the document or try to come to some agreement with the government about which parts can be published. If not, you can always decide to publsh and the fact that you tried to work something out with the government will be an important factor in your favor.
4. Public disclosure of the Pentagon Papers challenged the idea that the President could do whatever he wanted in foreign affairs without public scrutiny. How was that concept fared in recent years? Suggested Response: The response will vary according to current events. Up to the date of the publication of this Guide, August 2018, the Congress has shown no no ability to challenge the President's assumption of coomplete and uncontrolled power in foreign affairs.
5. Generally, do you believe courts should be required to give any deference to the opinions of members of the Executive Branch? If so, how much deference should a court give? Does the subject area under consideration, whether it is national security or sewer maintenance, make a difference? Suggested Response: Courts should give some deference to the opinions of the Executive Branch, especially in areas of national security and foreign affairs. This is the general doctrine of American courts, with some exceptions. However, "deference" doesn't mean abject surrender.
6. Does the First Amendment permit the courts to enjoin publication of stories that would present a serious threat to national security? Suggested Response: There is no one currect response. During the discussion ask the class to read again the text of the First Amendment. Could it really mean exactly what it says? Justice Brennan's position was that:
The error which has pervaded these cases from the outset was the granting of any injunctive relief whatsoever, interim or otherwise. The entire thrust of the Government's claim throughout these cases has been that publication of the material sought to be enjoined 'could,' or 'might," or 'may' prejudice the national interest in various ways. But the First Amendment tolerates absolutely no prior judicial restraints of the press predicated upon surmise or conjecture that untoward consequences may result.7. Justice Douglas wrote, "Secrecy in government is fundamentally anti-democratic . . . " Do you agree or disagree? What is the basis for this statement? Suggested Response: The government is the servant of the people and it is the people who must make the fundamental decisions and through their votes guide the government. However, if the people don't know what the government is doing, they cannot make an informed decision. [This question can be asked using any of the quotes in the Assignment Section below.
8. Is Katherine Graham a good role model for American Women? Suggested Response: No and yes. She inherited the newspaper. Most women will not be so lucky. However, she used her opportunity well and became one of the greatest newspaper publishers in U.S. History. A similar response would relate to this question asked about Hillary Clinton.
See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. Select an important phrase from one of the opinions that you either agree with or disagree with and describe your reasons. Here are some examples:
Parenting Points: Watch the movie with your child and discuss the question of when the government has the right to restrain the publication of state secrets.
Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.
Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.
Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:
1. How did Katherine Graham show leadership? Suggested Response: She listened to various opinions and then she made her decision. Once she made the decision she supported her team in carrying it out.
Links to the Internet:
The best articles on this film:
Selected Awards, Cast and Director:
Selected Awards: American Film Institute, AFI Awards: Movie of the Year; 2016 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Picture and Best Actress (Meryl Streep) and a host of other awards nominations.
Featured Actors: Meryl Streep as Kay Graham; Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee; Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian; and Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara.
Director: Steven Spielberg.
See the web pages described in the Links to the Internet Section.
Full Scale Lesson Plans: The Press, The Pentagon Papers and The Post by the Washington Post newspaper. This has a number of visual aides and exercises to assist teachers in presenting lessons using the film.
Give us your feedback! Was the Guide helpful? If so, which sections were most helpful? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Email us!
This Learning Guide written by James Frieden and was published on August 20, 2018.
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