NPR logo
'Top Secret': The Power And Struggle Of The Press
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/124701345/124705211" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Top Secret': The Power And Struggle Of The Press

Theater

'Top Secret': The Power And Struggle Of The Press

'Top Secret': The Power And Struggle Of The Press
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/124701345/124705211" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Cast of 'Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers'

The cast of the New York Theatre Workshop's production of Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons' Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers. Joan Marcus hide caption

toggle caption Joan Marcus

Almost 40 years ago, the battle over the Pentagon Papers pitted national security against the freedom of the press. A top secret document many thousands of pages long, the Pentagon Papers was a study commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on the United States' involvement in Vietnam. It diverged significantly from the government's public statements about the rationale and conduct of the Vietnam War. After the document was leaked, first to The New York Times and then to The Washington Post, the government attempted to stop its publication and brought the case to court. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers. Now a play, Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, has opened off Broadway in New York.

Top Secret originated as a radio play produced in 1991 by L.A. Theatre Works (recorded at NPR member station KCRW, it was distributed nationally by NPR). The minimalist production by the New York Theatre Workshop keeps the focus on the words: The stage is bare, people stand at microphones with scripts in hand, and a Foley artist performs sound effects.

The name most associated with the Pentagon Papers is that of Daniel Ellsberg, a government military analyst who leaked the document. But Ellsberg is only a whisper in this play. In one scene, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger tells President Nixon that Ellsberg is "a nut, the most dangerous man in America. He was once a student of mine, a genius but mad. Mr. President, he must be stopped; he has access to very critical defense secrets of current validity."

Kathryn Meisle and Peter Strauss in 'Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers' i

Kathryn Meisle (foreground at left) as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and Peter Strauss as Executive Editor Ben Bradlee in the New York Theatre Workshop's production of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers. Joan Marcus hide caption

toggle caption Joan Marcus
Kathryn Meisle and Peter Strauss in 'Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers'

Kathryn Meisle (foreground at left) as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and Peter Strauss as Executive Editor Ben Bradlee in the New York Theatre Workshop's production of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers.

Joan Marcus

The play focuses on one narrow moment. After the Times was stopped from publishing by a court injunction, the battle shifted to the Post. In the play's first act, publisher Katharine Graham sits in one room with advisers and her lawyer, deciding whether to publish, while in another, reporters Chalmers Roberts, George Wilson and Murray Marder sift through thousands of pages trying to create a story in hours. The lawyer urges that publishing be postponed for one day to show the government the paper is responsible. Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian responds, "I always thought the way to assert the right to publish is to publish." And the Post does go ahead.

The second act takes the audience into the courtroom, where the government tussles with the judge, who refuses the government's request to examine the secret documents without counsel present for the other side.

David Rudenstine, author of The Day the Presses Stopped, a legal history of the Pentagon Papers, notes that "today in most cases involving national security that grow out of 9/11, the other side isn't even in the courtroom; the only people in the courtroom are going to be the lawyers for the government and the judge." The year 1971, Rudenstine says, was a high-water mark of judicial independence, with Republican judges often taking independent stands and disagreeing with a Republican administration.

Many of the performances have panel discussions afterward. At one such discussion, a journalist noted that the play suffered from a lack of historical context.

"How did The New York Times and The Washington Post find its vertebrae?" asked Steve Wasserman, formerly with the Los Angeles Times. Wasserman argued that one can't understand the Pentagon Papers without understanding the widening of the war, the killings of students at Kent State and Jackson State, the fact that 1,000 veterans threw their medals on the steps of the Capitol several weeks before the Pentagon Papers was published, and that half a million people marched on Washington and 13,000 were arrested in anti-war protests in May of that year.

"The rising tide of the anti-war movement lifted all boats and helped stiffen their spines," said Wasserman.

Geoffrey Cowan, a former dean at USC, wrote the play along with the late Leroy Aarons, who was with the Post for many years. Cowan says Top Secret asks many questions. What does it mean to be a courageous leader? What does it mean to put a company in jeopardy, because it's the right thing to do?

"What does it mean to print a story when the government is telling you that it is dangerous to do it, when everything you possibly know about it is telling you, it is not dangerous?" Cowan says. "Sometimes there are real secrets and sometimes the most important decision for an editor and publisher is to say, 'We shouldn't print,' " Cowan says.

Many panelists argued that there is less independence — in journalism, in government, in the courts, in fact everywhere — today.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.