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John Prados’ discussion of the Pentagon Papers inaugurates a new occasional series. “Fighting Words” will examine the pivotal significance of key documents related to the Vietnam War. –Editor

In 1971 the hottest of hot documents anywhere around was something called the Pentagon Papers. Officially titled Report of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, it was commissioned by Secretary Robert S. McNamara to try and make sense of a conflict that baffled Americans, killing many, alienating more, seeming to accomplish nothing while consuming treasure, blood, and military power. The story of where the Pentagon Papers came from, how it was created, what it said, and its impact on America is important.

In the future a secret record of government action and inaction on pandemic viruses will almost certainly be revealed. The difference between today’s tragedy and that of the Vietnam War may be that in the war the public later learned the extent of the danger.

The story of the Pentagon Papers began in 1966. That November Secretary McNamara made an appearance at Harvard University, encountering strong antiwar protests. A law student at the evening’s seminar prodded McNamara on what secret data justified the war. The Secretary answered by saying he saw the same things as were in The New York Times, except maybe sooner.

At dinner, McNamara mused that historians of the future would surely seek to understand what had happened. Once planted, that seed soon sprouted. In February 1967 McNamara spoke with military aide Robert Pursley about an encyclopedia of the war. He also mentioned it to international security assistant John T. McNaughton, who recruited a Harvard professor to lead the study, but he withdrew. Instead, Pentagon officials brought in Leslie H. Gelb, a civilian Pentagon official. On June 17, 1967, McNamara issued the order for this study.

Gelb added the dimension of probing what the secret records said about the issues. The inquiry sought to confront central questions: Was the government lying about the numbers of killed in action and the pacification status? Was the war winnable? Were the armed services lying to the civilian leadership—or to the American people? Had Ho Chi Minh been an Asian Tito? Had the U.S. violated the Geneva Accords of 1954? The questions turned into volumes, and the Pentagon brought in a team of analysts to craft the papers. Thirty-six participated. The group was a combination of military officers, defense analysts including those from the RAND Corporation, and academics such as historian Ernest R. May. One was analyst Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine working at the Pentagon.

Secret documents became a staple in the Pentagon Papers. Access was crucial. May, who had worked on a study of one of President Johnson’s bombing pauses and the peace feeler that went with it, decided that full understanding was impossible without White House and National Security Council documents. May left after the summer of 1967 to resume teaching at Harvard, but the access problem remained.

Morton H. Halperin, the Pentagon official who monitored the study on behalf of department senior officials, said that the Pentagon Papers were classified top secret primarily to make it harder for NSC adviser Walt W. Rostow to find out about them. Rostow was a war hawk and could be expected to try to block a study that found problems in Vietnam.

The downside was that Pentagon Papers analysts, including May, could not ask the NSC for documents. Indeed, Pentagon officials, more or less surreptitiously, went around to agencies and quietly sought access. Both the State Department and the CIA furnished materials. Gelb’s analysts got some NSC documents other agencies had, but the White House remained a black box to a large degree. There were also no interviews—another precaution to prevent Rostow from finding out.


At a 2001 Vietnam Veterans of America-sponsored symposium on the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg cited a memorandum NSC adviser McGeorge Bundy, Rostow’s predecessor, had sent McNamara on July 1, 1965, commenting on a plan the Secretary had given President Johnson. In it, the Pentagon proposed doubling troop strength (to 200,000 then), tripling the Rolling Thunder air campaign, and strengthening the naval quarantine along the coast. If the U.S. needed 200,000 for “quite limited missions,” Bundy responded, “may we not need 400,000 later?” Indeed, “my first reaction is that this program is rash to the point of folly.”

The document displays an unexpected sense of White House caution at a moment when LBJ had yet to go all in. It does not appear in the Pentagon Papers. “That is not bureaucratic language,” Ellsberg commented in 2001. “Bundy then proceeded to a point-by-point refutation of the policy which we were about to implement.” The team compiling the Papers would have benefited from knowing, in 1967, that the NSC had had its own qualms about escalation.

That was, in fact, Ellsberg’s experience at the time. He had been a special assistant to McNaughton when that exchange occurred, but while working on the study, he chose to research 1961 instead. Within a month, Ellsberg writes in his book Secrets, he discovered from reading the documents that something similar had happened with Kennedy’s early decisions—and many others: “Everyone was secretly associated with internal pessimism, deliberately concealed from the public.” Ellsberg had already become skeptical about the war. What he found in researching the Pentagon Papers pushed him toward opposition.

Interviews and Top Secret documents would have increased the authoritative nature of the Papers, but the study already embodied an unprecedented advance. Here a set of specialists, both military men and civilian analysts, drawing conclusions from actual records, found flaws, shortcuts, oversights, and open mistakes. More than that, the available documents established that officials shared the public’s doubts, complaints, and fears.

Plus, the Pentagon Papers were comprehensive. They contained 47 volumes, ranging from a dozen pages to lengthy treatises. A full volume examined the Geneva Accords. Starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies during World War II, Harry Truman’s commitment to help the French in their war, and Dwight Eisenhower’s backing of the French and installation of Ngo Dinh Diem as Saigon leader, the Papers showed the inside story of America’s slippery slide toward war.

Some 26 volumes focused on the war’s evolution, including the French withdrawal from Vietnam, U.S. training of the South Vietnamese, Kennedy’s promotion of counterinsurgency, strategic hamlets, the postulated “Kennedy withdrawal,” the coup against Diem, the Marines landing, the American buildup, military operations, pacification, American relations with the South Vietnamese, air war strategy, and official justifications. The collection also included four volumes covering Johnson administration peace feelers carried out from 1965-68.

All of it was buttressed with glimpses of the secret information that officials had acted upon. Over the years tens of thousands of documents have emerged on these same subjects, but the Pentagon Papers surveyed for the first time the range of material and collected a subset of the most important documents—the ones presidents acted upon.  

Completed on January 15, 1969, the Pentagon Papers contained more than 3,000 pages of narrative and 4,000 pages of documents. Decades later, the National Archives could not determine exactly how many copies had been generated, but it did establish that five were in safes at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, one had been kept by the Secretary’s military assistant, and one each had gone to McNamara, his successor Clark Clifford, and Paul Warnke, successor to McNaughton. Two copies had gone to the National Archives, two to the State Department, and two more to the RAND Corporation.


Daniel Ellsberg missed much of this. He had moved on after his work on the study, tried to influence the 1968 election, then joined RAND, where he helped with the 1969 transition to Richard Nixon’s presidency. He wrote option papers for Nixon strategy and helped summarize agency responses to National Security Study Memorandum 1, Nixon’s Vietnam War policy review. Watching how Nixon and Henry Kissinger dispensed with withdrawal as an option further pushed Ellsberg toward opposition.

One reason he had gone to RAND had been to be able to read the full Pentagon Papers, and he did that through 1969, becoming steadily more concerned. At a certain point that year, five RAND analysts, including Ellsberg, published a letter to the editor in The New York Times that criticized Nixon policy. The dismissal of these objections, and Ellsberg’s conversations at teach-ins on the war, led to his decision in October 1969 to do something with the Papers.

One evening he left RAND’s offices with a briefcase stuffed with some of the volumes. That night he photocopied the material. He kept that up for months, helped by his children and RAND colleague Anthony Russo. Publication of the RAND letter led to an invitation to testify at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Ellsberg took the opportunity to quietly give legislators including Sens. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) and George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) parts of the government study. But the senators did not act on their initial intent to make the secret government history the centerpiece of Capitol Hill hearings. In 1970 Henry Kissinger snubbed Ellsberg when he advised him to read the Papers. That confirmed Ellsberg in his determination to get the Papers out.

Among those who received portions of the study Ellsberg had copied were Marcus Raskin, Richard Barnet, and Ralph Stavins of the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing Washington think tank. They were working on a book that became Washington Plans an Aggressive War. Early in 1971 the men had dinner with Ellsberg and heard his complaints about Congress’ immobility. They advised him to take the documents to The New York Times. Ellsberg knew Neil Sheehan, a Times reporter and former Vietnam War correspondent. Ellsberg also did an interview with the Boston Globe in which he hinted at the existence of a big study.

Sheehan wanted to publish the Papers in The New York Times, and Times Corporation lawyer James C. Goodale rejected legal arguments against it. In late April, with the U.S.-South Vietnamese invasion of Laos lurching to a close, The Times set up a team to go through the papers and prepare a series of feature articles that would summarize their contents and append many of the attached documents. Publication began on June 13, 1971, a Sunday. The newspaper added to its standard print run for a total of 1,500,000 copies. Far from merely being history, the Pentagon Papers revelation was explosive.


Richard Nixon’s first reaction was to play it for political gain because the contents were critical of Democrats Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. But his staff convinced the President otherwise. Deputy National Security Adviser Alexander M. Haig, Jr., phoned Nixon about noontime to denounce the devastating security breach. By the afternoon, on the phone with Kissinger, the President had begun decrying the leak, too.

The next day, with Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, the two pondered what Donald Rumsfeld, then a White House staffer, had said: “Out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: You can’t trust the government, you can’t believe what they say, and you can’t rely on their judgment.” By the third day the President wanted to block publication; the Justice Department sought to do so; and officials had tabbed Daniel Ellsberg as the leaker. He would be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

Dozens of newspapers emulated The Times. Coverage in The Washington Post was as extensive. For the first time in U.S. history the Justice Department demanded prior restraint on national security grounds, but then courts began ruling against the Nixon administration, upholding freedom of speech and of the press. The most prominent suits, against the Post and Times, were combined into a single one that went to the Supreme Court. On June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court rendered its judgment: By a 6-to-3 vote it rejected the government’s attempt to block the newspapers from printing articles drawing from the Pentagon Papers.

The criminal prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg began in late 1972 with a mistrial and resumed in January 1973. The parade of witnesses for both sides was overshadowed by evidence of government misdeeds. First, that a White House “Plumbers” unit, with CIA assistance, had burgled the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Worse, Nixon aide John Ehrlichman had met with trial judge Matthew Byrne and offered him the directorship of the FBI. Then it emerged that the FBI had wiretapped Ellsberg and “lost” the records. Byrne dismissed the case with prejudice on May 11, 1973.

Meanwhile the Supreme Court decision led to reporting that revealed more and more. Neil Sheehan, on July 2, 1971, finished his introduction to an edited volume of The New York Times series on the Pentagon Papers. Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) filibustered his Senate subcommittee to insert the study into the Congressional Record. The Nixon administration arranged for the House Armed Services Committee to publish a censored version that appeared in twelve books later in 1971. Antiwar activists sent a copy of the material Gravel had used to Boston publisher Beacon Press, which issued a four-volume edition in 1972. Beacon also commissioned a fifth volume, in which historians and experts reflected on the Papers.

The four diplomatic volumes of the Pentagon Papers, which never leaked, were declassified as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests and court proceedings between 1975 and 1977. Historian George C. Herring merged two redactions of the documents into an edited volume published in 1983. Despite its wide availability and the fact that government historians often cited it in official publications, the Pentagon Papers remained officially classified. On June 30, 2011, forty years after the Supreme Court ruled this material could not be suppressed, the government officially declassified the study (eleven words were withheld even then).

The leak of the Pentagon Papers was a moral decision in the face of a government policy that was rash to the point of folly. The Papers revealed in an incontrovertible way that many criticisms made by the antiwar movement were not wrong, and were not much different from what officials argued inside government, based on secret information.

The same sorts of questions that were asked about the Vietnam War are going to be posed about such current events as the coronavirus and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “What was true for Vietnam,” Daniel Ellsberg says today, “was true in every detail for Iraq when Donald Rumsfeld was secretary of defense, and would be true in an attack on Iran, unless someone steps out of line to expose the plans and preparations in time to avert it, as I wish I had done in 1964.”





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