|Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee after winning a legal running in the Pentagon Papers battles|
During June of 1971, in an unprecedented push for prior restraint censorship, the U.S. government had sued to block the New York Times from any further publication of the Pentagon Papers — documents which contained the real history of the Vietnam war that the American government intended to keep secret from the American people.
“The Justice Department went to court and got an injunction against the Times, restraining a newspaper in advance from publishing specific articles, for the first time in the history f the republic,” Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee recalled. The New York Times had been silenced.
Following a furtive conversation with his old friend Daniel Ellsberg at an untraceable pay phone, Washington Post National Editor Ben Bagdikian flew to Boston to meet with the Pentagon insider. On the flight back the next morning, Bagdikian had two first-class seats — one for himself, and one for the large cardboard box containing more than 4,000 pages of Pentagon documents Ellsberg had given him.
The Post’s journalists went into a frenzy of research, working out of Bradlee’s house, not the office, as they prepared to pick up one of the most important news stories of the 20th century where the New York Times had been forced to leave off. Equally frenzied and confusing were the discussions with the Post’s lawyers.
“For the next 12 hours, the Bradlee library on N Street served as a remote newsroom, where editors and reporters started sorting, reading and annotating 4,400 pages, and the Bradlee living room served as a legal office, where lawyers and newspaper executives started the most basic discussions about the duty and right of a newspaper to publish, and the government’s right to prevent that publication, on national security grounds, or on any grounds at all, for those next 12 hours,” Bradlee wrote. “I went from one room to other, getting a sense of the story in one place, and a sense of the mood of the lawyers in the other.”
Finally a decision had to be made, and Publisher Katherine Graham had to make it. They got her on the phone and laid out the situation. She paused, and then said quickly, “Okay, I say let’s go. Let’s publish.”
“I dropped the phone like a hot potato and shouted the verdict, and the room erupted in cheers,” Bradlee wrote. “The cheers were instinctive. In those first moments, it was enough for all of us — including, let it be said quickly, the lawyers who had been arguing against publication — that Katherine had shown guts and commitment to the First Amendment, and support for her editors.
“But I think none of us truly understood the importance of her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in the creation of a new Washington Post. I know I didn’t. I wanted to publish because we had vital documents explaining the biggest story of the last 10 years. That’s what newspapers do: they learn, they report, they verify, they write and they publish.
“What I didn’t understand, as Katherine’s ‘Okay … Let’s go. Let’s publish’ rang in my ears, was how permanently the ethos of the paper changed, and how it crystallized for editors and reporters everywhere how independent and determined and confident of its purpose the new Washington Post had become. In the days that followed, these feelings only increased. A paper that stands up to charges of treason, a paper that holds firm in the face of charges from the president, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General… A paper that holds its head high, committed unshakably to principle.”
Source: “A Good Life” by Ben Bradlee