Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks’ movie, The Post, raises important questions about the value of freedom of the press. What, we might ask, would Joseph Pulitzer have done? But unless a time machine is invented in the near future, of course, we are unable to answer this question definitively. There is an incident, however, in Pulitzer’s lengthy career as a newspaperman, with remarkable similarity to the Pentagon Papers, where he made a quite similar decision. This decision was a revelation Pulitzer’s New York Paper, The World, made about President Theodore Roosevelt’s actions in regard to the Panama Canal. In that case, like the choice of the Washington Post regarding the Pentagon Papers, it involved an opposition paper versus aggressive American foreign policy.
Many books have been written about the building of the Panama Canal, which was such a convoluted affair that it does not merit an easy description. Pulitzer’s revelation had to do with the creation of the country of Panama, which was only a province of Columbia before the digging of the Canal. Theodore Roosevelt was a very aggressive President in regard to foreign policy, and did not exhibit a shy demeanor in regard to the Canal. He had previously forged an agreement with Columbia to dig the Canal, a project that the United States had taken over from France. Columbia, however, when the time came, reneged on their part of the agreement, demanding ten million more dollars than they had previously agreed to be paid. This raised the hackles of President Roosevelt so severely that he pretty much created a country, Panama, and engineered a revolution there to relieve the United States of paying any money to Columbia at all for the digging of the Canal. Pulitzer’s revelation was about the timing of the revolution, when warships carrying American troops were sent down to Panama to ensure the success of the coup- (remember that old term gunboat diplomacy?) and Pulitzer’s paper revealed the date of the revolution before it had even happened.
Roosevelt was just as furious at Pulitzer as he had been at Columbia, and tried to prosecute him for treason. The case went to the Supreme Court, and Pulitzer considered it a key case in regard to freedom of the press. Like the case of the Pentagon Papers and the Washington Post, Pulitzer felt that it would be unfair to the public for newspapers not have the right to criticize American foreign policy, just as Katharine Graham came to feel about the rights of the Washington Post.
(The cartoon shows Roosevelt contemptuously throwing shovelfuls of dirt onto Columbia while digging the canal.)