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The domino theory.
Mutually assured destruction.
These catchwords from the post-World War II era still defined the foreign policy of the United States in 1971. The world was divided into the First World (the United States and other Western-style democracies), the Communist World (the Soviet Union, China, and their satellite nations), and the Third World (every other nation on Earth, seen by the first two as territory to be dominated.) The long-running war in Vietnam was part of this struggle for dominance.
That war in Southeast Asia had actually begun immediately after the surrender of Japan, when France tried to reassume its control over its prewar colonies. With the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the split of Vietnam into a Communist North and non-Communist South, it appeared to the Eisenhower administration that another domino was about to fall. U.S. advisors in increasing numbers moved in to support the government of South Vietnam. The number of troops increased very dramatically under Lyndon Johnson. The Tet Offensive of 1968 and the ongoing military draft combined to create resistance, especially among young Americans; by 1971 protest marches were a common phenomenon.
In this explosive situation, the New York Times lit the fuse. Daniel Ellsberg, a researcher with the RAND Corporation, secretly photocopied a top-secret military report, amounting eventually to 47 volumes of historical analysis and government documents, that came to be called simply “the Pentagon Papers.” Failing to get members of Congress to release it, he turned to the media, hoping to show how the government had deceived Americans in its desire to win the war. The Times published stories based on excerpts, and the government moved in, securing an injunction to prevent the newspaper from further publication of anything based on the stolen report. Ellsberg, who had acted out of a sense of conscience and was willing to accept the consequences, was charged with conspiracy, espionage, and theft of government property.
This is where things stand at the beginning of the film The Post. Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), editor of the Washington Post, is ready, even eager, to pick up the story from the newspaper’s silenced competitor. Publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is sympathetic, but also reluctant to incur the hostility of the White House. She has inherited her role after the deaths of her father and her husband; she is new to her position as publisher; she is trying to strengthen the paper’s financial viability by taking it public; most of all, she is a woman in a world dominated by strong men. In the Georgetown social set which has been her life to this point, she is even a friend of Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam policy.
This story, set almost fifty years ago, is still terribly relevant today. The traditional media of television, radio, newspapers, and newsmagazines now compete with cable channel pundits and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more. Americans tend to listen to media that reflect their own political stance, so that we move further into our “silos” and consequently farther apart. Our social media can be manipulated by those who publish false news stories and doctored images, which then spread exponentially. Mainstream media outlets have been attacked for doing their job, and reporters from those outlets have been labelled “enemies of the people.” The Post stands as a bulwark against these trends, showcasing the hard work, intelligence, conscientiousness, and honor of those committed to bringing the truth to the American people.
There are eight lessons in this guide. Although it is possible to use all of these lessons, most teachers will select just one or several to use with their classes. You might wish to consider a team approach built around The Post for a memorable experience for your students.
Lesson 1 establishes “the facts of the case” by having students work as journalists, digging through excerpts from real government documents to find the 5 Ws—who, what, when, where, and why—and using a jigsaw activity to share their information.
Lesson 2 explores the First Amendment, the case of Marbury v. Madison, and the Espionage Act under which Ellsberg was charged to understand the Supreme Court’s decision to allow publication. A document-based question gives students practice in synthesizing primary sources to write historical analysis.
Lesson 3 answers the question of what happened to Daniel Ellsberg, acquainting students with the differences between civil and criminal courts and further exploring the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
Lesson 4 is a study of journalistic ethics. What principles should professional journalists work by? How closely do our contemporary news outlets adhere to these principles?
Lesson 5 uses readings and videos to establish why a free press is so important to a democratic society. Students also survey the varying degrees of freedom under which the press must operate in other countries and the consequences for citizens of having a free or not-so-free press.
Lesson 6 brings these ideas home to students by exploring the rights of student journalists under the Supreme Court case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier and asking them to investigate policies in their own school or school district.
Lesson 7 is a drama lesson in which students first work in pairs to research important figures in the Pentagon Papers case and then script and perform mock interviews with these figures to learn more about their personalities and motives.
Lesson 8 gives students the opportunity to explore some of the directorial choices made by Steven Spielberg in turning the history of the Washington Post’s decision into a dramatic and compelling film.
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AUTHORS OF THIS GUIDE
Mary Anne Kovacs