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I would not have dared to be late for this interview. I had been surprised she agreed to it; I was even more shocked that she did so quickly. Her counterpart at The New York Times took weeks before responding to my request and then had me screened first. But Katharine Graham, without fuss and delay, agreed, 10 years ago now, to talk with me about the Pentagon Papers case. Mrs. Graham joined me almost immediately after my arrival at her home, which is grand from the outside and downright dazzling from the inside. She was certainly dignified and stately. But she was far more than that. Almost immediately, I was struck by her authenticity, forthrightness, and determination. She was a serious person, but she did not take herself overly seriously. She was thoughtful, reflective, incisive, intuitive, and insightful. She did not try to be someone she wasn’t, and somehow she managed to be formal and friendly at the same moment. We sat at a beautiful table along with her two assistants in a stunning room. She poked fun at her efforts to write her memoirs, wondering if and when she would ever finish. (As it was, her captivating and moving “Personal History” won the Pulitzer Prize.) TOP SECRET I was writing a history of the Pentagon Papers case and had come to ask Mrs. Graham about her role in The Washington Post‘s decision to publish excerpts from the secret history. The Pentagon Papers, prepared from 1967 to 1969, traced America’s involvement in Vietnam from World War II to 1968. The completed study consisted of 7,000 pages and 2.5 million words; it was classified “top-secret-sensitive.” When the study was finally made public, many understood it as unequivocally establishing that American political leaders, through successive presidential administrations, had misled the American public about U.S. goals and strategy in Vietnam as well as the progress of the war. By 1969, Daniel Ellsberg — the former Defense Department and Rand Corp. employee who had become disillusioned with the Vietnam War — became convinced that if he could get the Pentagon Papers into the public domain, members of Congress, the media and others might be persuaded that American war policies were bankrupt and that the United States had to withdraw its forces from Vietnam. Ellsberg made the Pentagon Papers available to The New York Times in March 1971, and on Sunday, June 13, The Times published the first of a planned 10-part series. Two days later, after The Times had published three installments, the government obtained a temporary restraining order barring the paper from publishing additional reports pending an evidentiary hearing that Friday. Within two days, Ellsberg had put several thousand pages of the Pentagon Papers into the hands of The Washington Post. On Thursday, reporters and editors converged at the home of Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Post. As the reporters feverishly worked against a tight deadline for the next day’s edition, an argument pitting editors and reporters against business and legal advisers of the newspaper erupted over whether The Post should rush to publish. The reporters and the editors were strident about going to press once their report was completed. They were horrified by the injunction that stopped The Times‘ presses. They could not believe their good fortune in having the totally unexpected opportunity to publish their own report based on the top-secret history. They viewed going to press as tantamount to standing shoulder to shoulder with their brethren at The Times in a historic fight to protect a free press. In their view, rushing to publish would strike a salient blow for a free press in the face of aggressive governmental censorship of information integral to the national debate over the ongoing war in which the United States still had the better part of 200,000 combat troops. In contrast, the business and legal advisers counseled caution and delay. They feared that the restraining order against The Times might apply to The Post, thus subjecting the newspaper to contempt charges if it published. There was deep concern that publication would spur the Nixon administration to sue it and that such a legal morass would undermine a Post public securities offering then in process. They worried whether the rush to publish might result in errors in judgment that might in fact injure the national security. The result was a scalding fight. Tempers flared; harsh words were spoken. A stalemate arose. No one at the house had the authority to make a definitive decision. It was at that moment that the disputants were forced to turn to Katharine Graham, the publisher, to resolve the deadlock. Earlier in the day, Bradlee had told Mrs. Graham that The Post had thousands of pages from the Pentagon study and that they were working quickly to ready a report for the Friday morning edition. In character with her hands-off stance toward the daily workings of the paper, Mrs. Graham did not visit Bradlee’s home that afternoon, nor did she receive intermittent updates on the reporters’ progress. She assumed that the “process was working” and that “we were just going to publish.” ‘GO AHEAD’ When the telephone call came in from Bradlee’s home early Thursday evening, Mrs. Graham was in the garden giving a toast celebrating a retiring employee. She was quietly interrupted with the statement: “They want you on the phone.” She instantly knew there must be a serious dispute over the Pentagon Papers, and she was surprised. She knew all the people at Bradlee’s, she trusted them, she knew that they had worked things out in the past. She answered that she would “come when I’m through.” That was not good enough: “They want you now,” she was told. Mrs. Graham shortened her toast and hurried to the library to take the call. The telephone conversation was chaotic, with different people on various extensions at Bradlee’s. But Mrs. Graham heard the contending claims and was told, because of press deadlines, she had to make an immediate decision. There was a brief silence, and Mrs. Graham said: “OK, go ahead.” During my interview, I asked Mrs. Graham to reflect on her critical decision, which she recorded in her memoirs as, “Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish.” How did she make that decision? What was the source of her values that caused her to favor immediate publication as opposed to delaying a mere day so that she could listen to the contentious claims in a calmer context? She spoke modestly and forthrightly: It was not “the most cerebral decision in the world.” She did not belabor her opinion of her own judgment. She did not seek to turn an intuitive and instinctive decision into a philosophical and analytical one. From her perspective, publishing was the right way to go, and though there were good and powerful arguments not to publish, that would have been an indefensible decision. The fact that Mrs. Graham made a decision that allowed The Post to join The Times in a publishing act that bordered on civil disobedience certainly helped strengthen the newspapers’ position not only in the courts but in the court of public opinion. Being in agreement that they had a free-press right and duty to publish the top-secret history created a united front against the Nixon administration’s censorship effort. If Mrs. Graham had delayed in publishing the Pentagon Papers report, and if word about the delay had leaked out, as it most assuredly would have, not only would The Post‘s reputation have been stained, but the decision to delay might well have been interpreted to mean that the classified Pentagon history contained information so seriously threatening to the national security that The Post refused to disclose it. Such a decision might well have had no impact on the final decision of the Supreme Court to deny the government its requested injunction. But that is hardly a foregone conclusion, since two of the justices at the time — Potter Stewart and Byron White — found the case difficult. Of course, there is no way of knowing whether their assessment of the facts might have been influenced by a Post decision to delay publishing its own Pentagon Papers report. FREE PRESS VICTORY In the end, the government sought an injunction against The Post, as it had The Times, and both cases went within days to the Supreme Court. The result was a 6-3 opinion concluding that the government had failed to meet its evidentiary burden that further publication so threatened national security as to warrant a prior restraint. It is difficult to exaggerate the incredible importance of this legal victory for a free press. It was the first time in the nation’s history that the national government had sued the press seeking an injunction because of national security claims. Moreover, not only did the government suit claim that the press was compromising vital national security interests, but also the suit arose while American soldiers were still fighting and dying in a war. Generally the Supreme Court defers to the national government, and does so especially when the government claims that national security is threatened. Furthermore, judicial deference becomes even stronger when the nation is at war. Add to these judicial touchstones the fact that the Pentagon Papers study was so large that no justice on the high court could be certain that it contained no information gravely threatening the national security as the newspapers claimed, and the significance of the newspapers’ legal victory can hardly be overstated. Mrs. Graham’s intuitive decision to go ahead with publishing the Pentagon Papers gave The Post — especially Mrs. Graham and Bradlee — new strength and conviction. Besides helping them, as well as others, to think of The Post as a great newspaper of truly national prominence, it put steel in their spines, as they both have repeatedly stated, for steel was what it took to face off against the Nixon administration over the Pentagon Papers. Mrs. Graham’s and Bradlee’s new strength had other, unforeseen consequences. A year after the Pentagon Papers case, the Washington, D.C., police made arrests at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate. The burglary was minimized except by The Washington Post, which investigated. As it did so, the Nixon administration mounted an intimidating offensive against the newspaper. But The Post persisted. Eventually, The Post published devastating revelations about the administration that caused President Richard Nixon to resign rather than face a House impeachment vote. Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee stayed the Watergate course in the face of crushing pressure. By their own accounts, it is unlikely that they would have done so but for their experience during the Pentagon Papers litigation, and that experience happened as it did only because Katharine Graham said so instinctively, “OK, go ahead.” David Rudenstine is the author of “The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers” and is the Dr. Herman George and Kate Kaiser Professor of Constitutional Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.

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