Our hometown ‘Post’ was among few papers to publish Pentagon Papers

David Lipman, retired Post-Dispatch managing editor. Photo courtesy St. Louis Post-Dispatch

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

“The Post,” a gripping film about the behind-the-scenes scramble at The Washington Post leading up to the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, underscores the importance of journalistic integrity and the public’s right to know even in the face of dire circumstances. 

Publication of these top-secret Department of Defense documents, which proved that successive U.S. administrations were systematically lying to the American people about our involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967, meant the possibility of jail time for the paper’s publisher, top editors and reporters. 

The Post decided to continue publishing the documents after The New York Times, which first broke the story, was ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice to stop publishing the material, arguing that it was detrimental to U.S. national security.

In addition to the heroic people at the Post and Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was among a handful of other major daily newspapers that had the courage to risk imprisonment by publishing the Pentagon Papers.

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In 1971, David Lipman, then a relatively new assistant managing editor at the Post-Dispatch, had to make a  command decision on publishing the papers because managing editor Evarts Graham andeditor/publisher Joseph Pulitzer were out of town and could not be reached by phone before deadline. Lipman told the New York Times that the Post-Dispatch had “no reservations” about its belief “that publication of the material was called for in the public interest.”

Lipman said the Pentagon Papers were studied carefully before the decision was made to publish them.

“We did not think, and do not think now, that their publication represented any breach of national security, to the best of our knowledge,” Lipman said at the time. “It is our belief that the American public has a right to read and interpret for themselves the content of these historic papers.”  

Lipman’s son, Benjamin Lipman, 52, a lawyer and member of the Jewish Light board of trustees, recently recalled the home scene in the midst of the Pentagon Papers turmoil.

“In our home, the Pentagon Papers were a very real topic,”  said Lipman, who thinks he gravitated toward pursuing constitutional law because of his dad’s role as a journalist. 

“Since I was only 5 years old at the time, I don’t know how early in the process I learned of all the background and issues, but I certainly knew about it after the Justice Department sued the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (and other papers) to prevent their publication or stop those who had already started publishing them.”

As was the case with the Washington Post and the New York Times, the Justice Department pressured the Post-Dispatch not to publish the Pentagon Papers. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that thepapers could be published.

“Here’s where my most vivid memory of this whole episode came,” Ben Lipman said. “My mom and dad sat my sister Gay and I down at the kitchen table. I was 5 and she was 7. They said, ‘Your dad may go to jail, but he thinks he’s doing the right thing.’ And I remember — you know how a 5-year-old’s brain reacts — I was worried that (then President Richard M.) Nixon was ‘out there’ ready to arrest my dad if he turned the corner.”

David Lipman also was active in the Jewish community of St. Louis. He and his wife, Marilyn, were longtime members of United Hebrew Congregation, which presented Lipman with its Jeremiah Award in recognition of his illustrious journalism career. He also served as a member of the Jewish Light board of trustees, sharing his long experience and perspectives with the professional and volunteer leadership of the Light.

Lipman died in July 2008 at the age of 77. He had been associated with the Post-Dispatch for 36 years, 14 of which as managing editor.

“I was only 5, but my dad was 40 years old and was a brand new assistant editor,” said Ben Lipman, referring to when his dad decided to publish the Pentagon Papers. “He often told me that was the week he grew up — and that was when he began to lose his hair.”