Rembembering the Washington Post’s Jewish past 50 years after the Pentagon Papers


Front pages from the The Washington Post and the New York Times when they published stories about the Pentagon Papers in June 1971. (The Washington Post)

Fifty years ago this month, the political conflict over the U.S. war in Vietnam blew up into a first-order constitutional crisis involving the definitions of press freedom, national security and the public’s right to know. The cause: the leaked, “top secret” report on U.S. policymaking in Vietnam known as the Pentagon Papers. The case involved the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The 1971 Supreme Court ruling on the issue has shaped the landscape for reporting on government secrets. The anniversary reminded us of the Post’s pioneering Jewish past.

In 1933, the Jewish investor Eugene Meyer rescued the Post from bankruptcy, acquiring it at auction at the height of the Depression. For the next 20 years, he worked to turn the struggling daily into a profitable and reputable cornerstone of the American media.

Meyer had already made headlines for his political prominence. In 1930, JTA reported his appointment to the Federal Reserve Board with the headline: “Unusual Honor for [a] Jew.”

During the same period, Herbert Hoover personally thanked him for the “high qualifications and sense of public service” that marked his tenure as Farm Loan Commissioner.

Meyer served as chairman of the Washington Post Company until his death in 1959, taking only a short break, in 1946, to serve as the first head of the World Bank. The Post was presided over by his family for four generations. Meyer’s daughter, Katharine Graham, a legendary Washington socialite and one of the first women in America to attain prominence at the helm of a media organization, was publisher during during the Watergate era, when the Post helped bring down Nixon. Meyer’s great-granddaughter and the paper’s current publisher, Katharine Weymouth, announced the sale on Monday.

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Talia Lavin Talia Lavin is an intern at JTA. A recent Harvard graduate and aspiring novelist, she recently returned from a Fulbright grant in Ukraine, where she studied early 20th-century Hebrew literature.