Newsweek

Did 'The Post' Get It Wrong?

In 'The Post', Daniel Ellsberg’s frustration with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s lies leads him to leak the Pentagon Papers. But the real story also involves the cover-up of a Green Beret murder that changed the course of the Vietnam War.
Richard Nixon in the Oval Office of the White House in the 1970s.
FE_Pentagon_01_120446370 Source: Don Carl STEFFEN/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

What motivated military analyst Daniel Ellsberg to risk a lifetime in prison by leaking the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Defense Department history of U.S. deception in Vietnam? In the movie The Post, a contender for best picture at the Academy Awards, it was Ellsberg’s disenchantment with the war, which flared after a 1966 flight back from Vietnam with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. In quiet conversation with Ellsberg aboard the plane, McNamara had privately agreed that the war was a bloody stalemate, but he later told the press that the U.S. was making progress. However, another three years passed before Ellsberg made the momentous decision—and it was not McNamara’s lie that festered until it became intolerable. It was something else entirely. In 1969, a Green Beret unit came to suspect that one of its top Vietnamese agents, a man named Thai Khac Chuyen, was secretly working for the Communists as a double agent. After failed efforts to extract a confession from him, despite days of interrogation with “truth serum” drugs, three of the soldiers took him out on a boat, weighed him down with chains and a tire rim, shot him in the head and dumped him overboard. The “termination with extreme prejudice” eventually leaked after Chuyen’s wife began making inquiries at the U.S. Embassy about his whereabouts. Seven of the Green Berets, including their dashing commander, Colonel Robert Rheault, were arrested and charged with murder and a cover-up. It soon emerged that the defendants were going to present evidence that the CIA had approved the killing, and as the case headed to trial, the affair exploded into a national controversy. Then, suddenly, the Army dropped all charges.

The resolution of the case deeply disturbed Ellsberg, who saw it as a metaphor for all the lies and cover-ups of the Vietnam War.

The incident goes unmentioned in The Post, but in my 1992 book, A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War, I described what finally triggered Ellsberg’s decision on September 30, 1969.

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