In a democratic society, there is an inevitable tension between the need of the government to protect secrets in the name of national security, and the right of the press to print all but the most dangerous of those secrets, particularly when the claim of “secrecy” is used to cover up politically damaging government decisions. Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers is an inside look at the Washington Post’s decision to publish the top-secret study documenting the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. The subsequent trial tested the parameters of the First Amendment, pitting the public’s right to know against the government’s claim of secrecy. The epic legal battle between the government and the press went to the nation’s highest court and is arguably the most important Supreme Court case ever on freedom of the press.
In 1966, United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a study on the history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Completed on January 15, 1969, the study — which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers — contained more than two million words, including some that would prove politically embarrassing, about administration efforts to manipulate military information and the media. Only 15 copies of the document were circulated. In 1971, one was leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department employee, who had read them as a part of his top secret work for the RAND Corporation.
In Washington, on June 13, 1971, President Nixon picked up his Sunday New York Times to see a wedding picture of his daughter Tricia and himself in the White House Rose Garden. Next to that picture was a headline that read “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement.” The headline was above the New York Times’ first story on the Pentagon Papers. While President Nixon knew that the papers did not concern his administration, which took office shortly after the study was completed, he had a deep concern about national secrecy and an equally deep distrust of the press.
On the evening of June 14, 1971, Attorney General John Mitchell warned the Times via phone and telegram against further publication of the Papers and on Tuesday, June 15, the government sought and won a restraining order against the Times. Eager to get a piece of this remarkable story, the Washington Post, not covered by the initial injunction against the Times, was given a copy of the Papers. The paper’s editors felt that they had only one day to read the documents and make a decision about publishing the classified material.
In this riveting historical docudrama by Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons, Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, L.A. Theatre Works brings these important days and the subsequent trial to life as the Washington Post struggles with the decision to publish these “classified” documents. The play, based on a wide range of sources, including interviews and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, follows the debate played out at the home of Ben Bradlee, (the paper’s famous editor) as his staff sorts through the documents and tries to decide if publishing the Papers violates national security. The play includes their momentous decision and the legal wrangling that followed — leading up to the historic decision that reaffirmed the First Amendment. Our government’s relationship to the media, the citizenry’s right to information, and the First Amendment are all critically explored against the canvas of the Vietnam War and the secretive Nixon White House.
Many leading figures of Nixon’s White House — John Ehrlichman, Attorney General John Mitchell, Henry Kissinger, H. R. Haldeman, and others — were involved in the decision to attempt to squash the Pentagon Papers, an eerie foreshadowing of the Watergate scandal just ahead of them. In fact, during this period, Nixon authorized the creation of the “plumbers,” a team designed to stop the “leaks” coming from the White House. This is the same group that burglarized the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, setting off the biggest scandal in American political history. The original L.A. Theatre Works recording of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers was made in 1991 and starred Edward Asner, Marsha Mason, Hector Elizondo, Howard Hessman, and James Whitmore. It was directed by Tom Moore and won the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s 1992 Gold Award for outstanding radio production of the year.