I started this current series to discuss what is wrong with our country and what we need to do to fix it. While I have discussed some of the topics that I will be including in this series, they have been included in other articles. In this series I will concentrate on a single topic. This will also mean that some of the articles may be slightly shorter than my readers have grown accustomed to, however they will still be written with the same attention to detail. This series will have no set number of articles and will continue to grow as I come across additional subjects.
The Pentagon Papers, officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, is a United States Department of Defense history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.
It was commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967. In June of 1971, small portions of the report were leaked to the press and widely distributed. However, the publications of the report that resulted from these leaks were incomplete and suffered from many quality issues.
On the 40th anniversary of the leak to the press, the National Archives, along with the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Presidential Libraries, has released the complete report. There are 48 boxes and approximately 7,000 declassified pages. Approximately 34% of the report is available for the first time.
What is unique about this, compared to other versions, is that:
- The complete Report is now available with no redactions compared to previous releases
- The Report is presented as Leslie Gelb presented it to then Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford on January 15, 1969
- All the supplemental back-documentation is included. In the Gravel Edition, 80% of the documents in Part V.B. were not included
- This release includes the complete account of peace negotiations, significant portions of which were not previously available either in the House Armed Services Committee redacted copy of the Report or in the Gravel Edition
The 47-volume history, consisting of approximately 3,000 pages of narrative and 4,000 pages of appended documents, took 18 months to complete. Ellsberg, who worked on the project, had been an ardent early supporter of the U.S. role in Indochina but, by the project’s end, had become seriously opposed to U.S. involvement. He felt compelled to reveal the nature of U.S. participation and leaked major portions of the papers to the press.
On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began publishing a series of articles based on the study, which was classified as “top secret” by the federal government. After the third daily installment appeared in the Times, the U.S. Department of Justice obtained in U.S. District Court a temporary restraining order against further publication of the classified material, contending that further public dissemination of the material would cause “immediate and irreparable harm” to U.S. national defense interests.
The Times—joined by The Washington Post, which also was in possession of the documents—fought the order through the courts for the next 15 days, during which time publication of the series was suspended. On June 30, 1971, in what is regarded as one of the most significant prior-restraint cases in history, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6–3 decision freed the newspapers to resume publishing the material. The court held that the government had failed to justify restraint of publication.
Released by Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the study, they were first brought to the attention of the public on the front page of The New York Times in 1971. A 1996 article in The New York Times said that the Pentagon Papers had demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress.”
The Pentagon Papers revealed that the U.S. had secretly enlarged the scope of its actions in the Vietnam War with coastal raids on North Vietnam and Marine Corps attacks—none of which were reported in the mainstream media. For his disclosure of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg was initially charged with conspiracy, espionage, and theft of government property; charges were later dismissed, after prosecutors investigating the Watergate scandal discovered that the staff members in the Nixon White House had ordered the so-called White House Plumbers to engage in unlawful efforts to discredit Ellsberg.
In June 2011, the documents forming the Pentagon Papers were declassified and publicly released.
Shortly after their release in June 1971, the Pentagon Papers were featured on the cover of Time magazine for revealing “The Secret War” of the United States in Vietnam.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara created the Vietnam Study Task Force on June 17, 1967, for the purpose of writing an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War“. McNamara claimed that he wanted to leave a written record for historians, to prevent policy errors in future administrations, although Les Gelb, then director of Policy Planning at the Pentagon, has said that the notion that they were commissioned as a “cautionary tale” is a motive that McNamara only used in retrospect. McNamara told others, such as Dean Rusk, that he only asked for a collection of documents rather than the studies he received. Motives aside, McNamara neglected to inform either President Lyndon Johnson or Secretary of State Dean Rusk about the study. One report claimed that McNamara had planned to give the work to his friend, Robert F. Kennedy, who was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. which he later denied, though admitting that he should have informed Johnson and Rusk.
Instead of using existing Defense Department historians, McNamara assigned his close aide and Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton to collect the papers. McNaughton died in a plane crash one month after work began in June 1967, but the project continued under the direction of Defense Department official Leslie H. Gelb. Thirty-six analysts—half of them active-duty military officers, the rest academics and civilian federal employees—worked on the study. The analysts largely used existing files in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In order to keep the study secret from others, including National Security Advisor Walt Rostow, they conducted no interviews or consultations with the armed forces, with the White House, or with other federal agencies.
McNamara left the Defense Department in February 1968, and his successor Clark Clifford received the finished study on January 15, 1969, five days before Richard Nixon‘s inauguration, although Clifford claimed he never read it. The study consisted of 3,000 pages of historical analysis and 4,000 pages of original government documents in 47 volumes, and was classified as “Top Secret – Sensitive”. (“Sensitive” is not an official security designation; it meant that access to the study should be controlled.) The task force published 15 copies; the think tank RAND Corporation received two of the copies from Gelb, Morton Halperin and Paul Warnke, with access granted if at least two of the three approved.
Organization and content of the documents
The 47 volumes of the papers were organized as follows:
I. Vietnam and the U.S., 1940–1950 (1 Vol.)
A. U.S. Policy, 1940–50
B. The Character and Power of the Viet Minh
C. Ho Chi Minh: Asian Tito?
II. U.S. Involvement in the Franco–Viet Minh War, 1950–1954 (1 Vol.)
A. U.S., France and Vietnamese Nationalism
B. Toward a Negotiated Settlement
III. The Geneva Accords (1 Vol.)
A. U.S. Military Planning and Diplomatic Maneuver
B. Role and Obligations of State of Vietnam
C. Viet Minh Position and Sino–Soviet Strategy
D. The Intent of the Geneva Accords
IV. Evolution of the War (26 Vols.)
A. U.S. MAP for Diem: The Eisenhower Commitments, 1954–1960 (5 Vols.)
1. NATO and SEATO: A Comparison
2. Aid for France in Indochina, 1950–54
3. U.S. and France’s Withdrawal from Vietnam, 1954–56
4. U.S. Training of Vietnamese National Army, 1954–59
5. Origins of the Insurgency
B. Counterinsurgency: The Kennedy Commitments, 1961–1963 (5 Vols.)
1. The Kennedy Commitments and Programs, 1961
2. Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961–63
3. The Advisory Build-up, 1961–674. Phased Withdrawal of U.S. Forces in Vietnam, 1962–64
5. The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May–Nov. 1963
C. Direct Action: The Johnson Commitments, 1964–1968 (16 Vols.)1. U.S. Programs in South Vietnam, November 1963–April 1965: NSAM 273 – NSAM 288 – Honolulu
2. Military Pressures Against NVN (3 Vols.)a. February–June 1964
b. July–October 1964
c. November–December 1964
3. Rolling Thunder Program Begins: January–June 1965
4. Marine Combat Units Go to DaNang, March 1965
5. Phase I in the Build-Up of U.S. Forces: March–July 1965
6. U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments: 1965–1967 (3 Vols.)
a. Volume I: Phase II, Program 3, Program 4
b. Volume II: Program 5
c. Volume III: Program 6
7. Air War in the North: 1965–1968 (2 Vols)
a. Volume I
b. Volume II
8. Re-emphasis on Pacification: 1965–1967
9. U.S.–GVN Relations (2 Vols.)
a. Volume 1: December 1963 – June 1965
b. Volume 2: July 1965 – December 1967
10. Statistical Survey of the War, North and South: 1965–1967
V. Justification of the War (11 Vols.)
A. Public Statements (2 Vols.)
Volume I: A – The Truman Administration
B – The Eisenhower Administration
C – The Kennedy Administration
Volume II: D – The Johnson Administration
B. Internal Documents (9 Vols.)
1. The Roosevelt Administration
2. The Truman Administration: (2 Vols.)
a. Volume I: 1945–1949
b. Volume II: 1950–1952
3. The Eisenhower Administration: (4 Vols.)
a. Volume I: 1953
b. Volume II: 1954–Geneva
c. Volume III: Geneva Accords – 15 March 1956
d. Volume IV: 1956 French Withdrawal – 1960
4. The Kennedy Administration (2 Vols.)
VI. Settlement of the Conflict (6 Vols.)
A. Negotiations, 1965–67: The Public Record
B. Negotiations, 1965–67: Announced Position Statements
C. Histories of Contacts (4 Vols.)
2. Polish Track
3. Moscow–London Track
As laid out by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the Chinese containment policy of the United States was a long-run strategic effort to surround Beijing with the USSR, its satellite states, as well as:
Although President Johnson stated that the aim of the Vietnam War was to secure an “independent, non-Communist South Vietnam“, a January 1965 memorandum by Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton stated that an underlying justification was “not to help friend, but to contain China”.
On November 3, 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sent a memorandum to President Johnson, in which he explained the “major policy decisions with respect to our course of action in Vietnam”. The memorandum begins by disclosing the rationale behind the bombing of North Vietnam in February 1965:
The February decision to bomb North Vietnam and the July approval of Phase I deployments make sense only if they are in support of a long-run United States policy to contain China.
McNamara accused China of harboring imperial aspirations like those of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. According to McNamara, the Chinese were conspiring to “organize all of Asia” against the United States:
China—like Germany in 1917, like Germany in the West and Japan in the East in the late 30s, and like the USSR in 1947—looms as a major power threatening to undercut our importance and effectiveness in the world and, more remotely but more menacingly, to organize all of Asia against us.
To encircle the Chinese, the United States aimed to establish “three fronts” as part of a “long-run effort to contain China”:
There are three fronts to a long-run effort to contain China (realizing that the USSR “contains” China on the north and northwest):
(a) the Japan–Korea front;
(b) the India–Pakistan front; and
(c) the Southeast Asia front.
However, McNamara admitted that the containment of China would ultimately sacrifice a significant amount of America’s time, money and lives.
Internal affairs of Vietnam
Years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred on August 2, 1964, the U.S. government was indirectly involved in Vietnam’s affairs by sending advisors or (military personnel) to train the South Vietnamese soldiers:
- Under President Harry S. Truman, the U.S. government aided France in its war against the communist-led Viet Minh during the First Indochina War.
- Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the U.S. government played a “direct role in the ultimate breakdown of the Geneva settlement” in 1954 by supporting the fledgling South Vietnam and covertly undermining the communist country of North Vietnam.
- Under President John F. Kennedy, the U.S. government transformed its policy towards Vietnam from a limited “gamble” to a broad “commitment”.
- Under President Johnson, the U.S. government began waging covert military operations against communist North Vietnam in defense of South Vietnam.
In a section of the Pentagon Papers titled “Kennedy Commitments and Programs”, America’s commitment to South Vietnam was attributed to the creation of the country by the United States. As acknowledged by the papers:
We must note that South Vietnam (unlike any of the other countries in Southeast Asia) was essentially the creation of the United States.
In a sub-section titled “Special American Commitment to Vietnam”, the papers emphasized once again the role played by the United States:
- Without U.S. support [Ngo Dinh] Diem almost certainly could not have consolidated his hold on the South during 1955 and 1956.
- Without the threat of U.S. intervention, South Vietnam could not have refused to even discuss the elections called for in 1956 under the Geneva settlement without being immediately overrun by the Viet Minh armies.
- Without U.S. aid in the years following, the Diem regime certainly, and an independent South Vietnam almost as certainly, could not have survived.
More specifically, the United States sent US$28.4 million worth of equipment and supplies to help the Diem regime strengthen its army. In addition, 32,000 men from South Vietnam’s Civil Guard were trained by the United States at a cost of US$12.7 million. It was hoped that Diem’s regime, after receiving a significant amount of U.S. assistance, would be able to withstand the Viet Cong.
The papers identified General Edward Lansdale, who served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as a “key figure” in the establishment of Diem as the President of South Vietnam, and the backing of Diem’s regime thereafter. As written by Lansdale in a 1961 memorandum: “We (the U.S.) must support Ngo Dinh Diem until another strong executive can replace him legally.”
The body of President Diệm after he was assassinated in the 1963 South Vietnamese coup, which was backed by the United States government
According to the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. government played a key role in the 1963 South Vietnamese coup, in which Diem was assassinated. While maintaining “clandestine contact” with Vietnamese generals planning a coup, the U.S. cut off its aid to President Diem and openly supported a successor government in what the authors called an “essentially leaderless Vietnam”:
For the military coup d’etat against Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S. must accept its full share of responsibility. Beginning in August 1963 we variously authorized, sanctioned and encouraged the coup efforts of the Vietnamese generals and offered full support for a successor government.
In October we cut off aid to Diem in a direct rebuff, giving a green light to the generals. We maintained clandestine contact with them throughout the planning and execution of the coup and sought to review their operational plans and proposed new government.
Thus, as the nine-year rule of Diem came to a bloody end, our complicity in his overthrow heightened our responsibilities and our commitment in an essentially leaderless Vietnam.
As early as August 23, 1963, an unnamed U.S. representative had met with Vietnamese generals planning a coup against Diem. According to The New York Times, this U.S. representative was later identified to be CIA officer Lucien Conein.
- Category 1 – Air raids on major Viet Cong supply centers, conducted simultaneously by the Republic of Vietnam Air Force and the United States Air Force (codenamed Farmgate)
- Category 2 – Cross-border raids on major Viet Cong supply centers, conducted by South Vietnamese units and US military advisors.
- Category 3 – Limited air strikes on North Vietnamese targets by unmarked planes flown exclusively by non-US aircrews.
However, McCone did not believe these military actions alone could lead to an escalation of the situation because the “fear of escalation would probably restrain the Communists”. In a memorandum addressed to President Johnson on July 28, 1964, McCone explained:
In response to the first or second categories of action, local Communist military forces in the areas of actual attack would react vigorously, but we believe that none of the Communist powers involved would respond with major military moves designed to change the nature of the conflict … Air strikes on North Vietnam itself (Category 3) would evoke sharper Communist reactions than air strikes confined to targets in Laos, but even in this case fear of escalation would probably restrain the Communists from a major military response …
Barely a month after the Gulf of Tonkin incident on August 2, 1964, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy warned that further provocations should not be undertaken until October, when the government of South Vietnam (GVN) would become fully prepared for a full-scale war against North Vietnam. In a memorandum addressed to President Johnson on September 8, 1964, Bundy wrote:
The main further question is the extent to which we should add elements to the above actions that would tend deliberately to provoke a DRV reaction, and consequent retaliation by us.
We believe such deliberately provocative elements should not be added in the immediate future while the GVN is still struggling to its feet. By early October, however, we may recommend such actions depending on GVN progress and Communist reaction in the meantime, especially to US naval patrols.
While maritime operations played a key role in the provocation of North Vietnam, U.S. military officials had initially proposed to fly a Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over the country, but this was to be replaced by other plans.
Daniel Ellsberg knew the leaders of the task force well. He had worked as an aide to McNaughton from 1964 to 1965, had worked on the study for several months in 1967, and Gelb and Halperin approved his access to the work at RAND in 1969. Now opposing the war, Ellsberg and his friend Anthony Russo photocopied the study in October 1969 intending to disclose it. Ellsberg approached Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Senators William Fulbright and George McGovern, and others, but none were interested.
In February 1971, Ellsberg discussed the study with The New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, and gave 43 of the volumes to him in March. Before publication, The New York Times sought legal advice. The paper’s regular outside counsel, Lord Day & Lord, advised against publication, but in-house counsel James Goodale prevailed with his argument that the press had a First Amendment right to publish information significant to the people’s understanding of their government’s policy.
The New York Times began publishing excerpts on June 13, 1971; the first article in the series was titled “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing US Involvement”. The study was dubbed The Pentagon Papers during the resulting media publicity. Street protests, political controversy, and lawsuits followed.
To ensure the possibility of public debate about the papers’ content, on June 29, US Senator Mike Gravel, an Alaska Democrat, entered 4,100 pages of the papers into the record of his Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds. These portions of the papers, which were edited for Gravel by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, were subsequently published by Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. A federal grand jury was subsequently empaneled to investigate possible violations of federal law in the release of the report. Leonard Rodberg, a Gravel aide, was subpoenaed to testify about his role in obtaining and arranging for publication of the Pentagon Papers. Gravel asked the court (in Gravel v. United States) to quash the subpoena on the basis of the Speech or Debate Clause in Article I, Section 6 of the United States Constitution.
That clause provides that “for any Speech or Debate in either House, [a Senator or Representative] shall not be questioned in any other Place”, meaning that Gravel could not be prosecuted for anything said on the Senate floor, and, by extension, for anything entered to the Congressional Record, allowing the papers to be publicly read without threat of a treason trial and conviction. When Gravel’s request was reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court denied the request to extend this protection to Gravel or Rodberg because the grand jury subpoena served on them related to a third party rather than any act they themselves committed for the preparation of materials later entered into the Congressional Record. Nevertheless, the grand jury investigation was halted, and the publication of the papers was never prosecuted.
Later, Ellsberg said the documents “demonstrated unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents, the violation of their oath and the violation of the oath of every one of their subordinates.” He added that he leaked the Papers to end what he perceived to be “a wrongful war”.
The Nixon administration’s restraint of the media
President Nixon at first planned to do nothing about publication of the study since it embarrassed the Johnson and Kennedy administrations rather than his. But Henry Kissinger convinced the president that not opposing the publication set a negative precedent for future secrets. The administration argued Ellsberg and Russo were guilty of a felony under the Espionage Act of 1917, because they had no authority to publish classified documents. After failing to persuade The New York Times to voluntarily cease publication on June 14, Attorney General John N. Mitchell and Nixon obtained a federal court injunction forcing The New York Times to cease publication after three articles. The New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger said:
These papers, as our editorial said this morning, were really a part of history that should have been made available considerably longer ago. I just didn’t feel there was any breach of national security, in the sense that we were giving secrets to the enemy.
On June 18, 1971, The Washington Post began publishing its own series of articles based upon the Pentagon Papers; Ellsberg had given portions to The Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian. Bagdikian brought the information to editor Ben Bradlee. That day, Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Rehnquist asked The Washington Post to cease publication. After the paper refused, Rehnquist sought an injunction in U.S. district court. Judge Murray Gurfein declined to issue such an injunction, writing that “[t]he security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.” The government appealed that decision, and on June 26 the Supreme Court agreed to hear it jointly with The New York Times case. Fifteen other newspapers received copies of the study and began publishing it.
The Supreme Court allows further publication
Main article: New York Times Co. v. United States
On June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court decided, 6–3, that the government failed to meet the heavy burden of proof required for prior restraint injunction. The nine justices wrote nine opinions disagreeing on significant, substantive matters.
Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.
— Justice Black
Thomas Tedford and Dale Herbeck summarized the reaction of editors and journalists at the time:
As the press rooms of the Times and the Post began to hum to the lifting of the censorship order, the journalists of America pondered with grave concern the fact that for fifteen days the ‘free press’ of the nation had been prevented from publishing an important document and for their troubles had been given an inconclusive and uninspiring ‘burden-of-proof’ decision by a sharply divided Supreme Court. There was relief, but no great rejoicing, in the editorial offices of America’s publishers and broadcasters.
— Tedford and Herbeck, pp. 225–226.
Who Was Daniel Ellsberg?
In 1967, at the request of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a team of analysts working for the Department of Defense prepared a highly classified study of the U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from the end of World War II until the present day.
The official title of the study was the “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” though it would later become famous as the Pentagon Papers. In preparing the study—which was labeled “Top Secret”—the analysts drew on classified material from the archives of the Department of Defense, State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Completed in 1969 and bound into 47 volumes, it contained 3,000 pages of narrative along with 4,000 pages of supporting documents.
Daniel Ellsberg, who had served as a U.S. Marine Corps officer from 1954 to 1957 and worked as a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation and the Department of Defense, had been an early supporter of U.S. involvement in Indochina and had worked on the preparation of the 1967 study.
By 1969, however, Ellsberg had come to believe that the war in Vietnam was un-winnable. He also believed that the information contained in the Pentagon Papers about U.S. decision-making regarding Vietnam should be more widely available to the American public. After secretly photocopying large sections of the report, Ellsberg approached several members of Congress, none of whom took action.
Some of the most damning information in the Pentagon Papers indicate that the administration of John F. Kennedy had actively helped overthrow and assassinate South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. The report also contradicted official U.S. government pronouncements about the intensive bombing of North Vietnam, which the report stated as having no real impact on the enemy’s will to fight.
In 1971, while working as a senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies, Ellsberg gave portions of the report to Neil Sheehan, a reporter at The New York Times.
Legal charges against Ellsberg
Ellsberg surrendered to authorities in Boston, and admitted that he had given the papers to the press: “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision”. He was indicted by a grand jury in Los Angeles on charges of stealing and holding secret documents. Federal District Judge William Matthew Byrne, Jr. declared a mistrial and dismissed all charges against Ellsberg and Russo on May 11, 1973, after it was revealed that agents acting on the orders of the Nixon administration illegally broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist and attempted to steal files; representatives of the Nixon administration approached the Ellsberg trial judge with an offer of the job of FBI directorship; several irregularities appeared in the government’s case including its claim that it had lost records of illegal wiretapping against Ellsberg conducted by the White House Plumbers in the contemporaneous Watergate scandal. Byrne ruled: “The totality of the circumstances of this case which I have only briefly sketched offend a sense of justice. The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case.” Ellsberg and Russo were freed due to the mistrial; they were not acquitted of violating the Espionage Act.
In March 1972, political scientist Samuel L. Popkin, then assistant professor of Government at Harvard University, was jailed for a week for his refusal to answer questions before a grand jury investigating the Pentagon Papers case, during a hearing before the Boston Federal District Court. The Faculty Council later passed a resolution condemning the government’s interrogation of scholars on the grounds that “an unlimited right of grand juries to ask any question and to expose a witness to citations for contempt could easily threaten scholarly research”.
Gelb estimated that The New York Times only published about five percent of the study’s 7,000 pages. The Beacon Press edition was also incomplete. Halperin, who had originally classified the study as secret, obtained most of the unpublished portions under the Freedom of Information Act and the University of Texas published them in 1983. The National Security Archive published the remaining portions in 2002. The study itself remained formally classified until 2011.
The Pentagon Papers revealed that the United States had expanded its war with the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which had been reported by the American media. The most damaging revelations in the papers revealed that four administrations (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson) had misled the public regarding their intentions. For example, the Eisenhower administration actively worked against the Geneva Accords. The John F. Kennedy administration knew of plans to overthrow South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem before his death in a November 1963 coup. President Johnson had decided to expand the war while promising “we seek no wider war” during his 1964 presidential campaign, including plans to bomb North Vietnam well before the 1964 Election. President Johnson had been outspoken against doing so during the election and claimed that his opponent Barry Goldwater was the one that wanted to bomb North Vietnam.
In another example, a memo from the Defense Department under the Johnson Administration listed the reasons for American persistence:
- 70% – To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).
- 20% – To keep [South Vietnam] (and the adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.
- 10% – To permit the people [of South Vietnam] to enjoy a better, freer way of life.
- ALSO – To emerge from the crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used.
- NOT – To help a friend, although it would be hard to stay in if asked out.
Another controversy was that President Johnson sent combat troops to Vietnam by July 17, 1965, before pretending to consult his advisors on July 21–27, per the cable stating that “Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance informs McNamara that President had approved 34 Battalion Plan and will try to push through reserve call-up.”
In 1988, when that cable was declassified, it revealed “there was a continuing uncertainty as to [Johnson’s] final decision, which would have to await Secretary McNamara’s recommendation and the views of Congressional leaders, particularly the views of Senator [Richard] Russell.”
Nixon’s Solicitor General Erwin N. Griswold later called the Pentagon Papers an example of “massive overclassification” with “no trace of a threat to the national security”. The Pentagon Papers’ publication had little or no effect on the ongoing war because they dealt with documents written years before publication.
After the release of the Pentagon Papers, Goldwater said:
During the campaign, President Johnson kept reiterating that he would never send American boys to fight in Vietnam. As I say, he knew at the time that American boys were going to be sent. In fact, I knew about ten days before the Republican Convention. You see I was being called a trigger-happy, warmonger, bomb happy, and all the time Johnson was saying, he would never send American boys, I knew damn well he would.
Senator Birch Bayh, who thought the publishing of the Pentagon Papers was justified, said:
The existence of these documents, and the fact that they said one thing and the people were led to believe something else, is a reason we have a credibility gap today, the reason people don’t believe the government. This is the same thing that’s been going on over the last two-and-a-half years of this administration. There is a difference between what the President says and what the government actually does, and I have confidence that they are going to make the right decision, if they have all the facts.
Les Gelb reflected in 2018 that many people have misunderstood the most important lessons of the Pentagon Papers:
… my first instinct was that if they just hit the papers, people would think this was the definitive history of the war, which they were not, and that people would, would think it was all about lying, rather than beliefs. And look, because we’d never learned that darn lesson about believing our way into these wars, we went into Afghanistan and we went into Iraq… You know, we get involved in these wars and we don’t know a damn thing about those countries, the culture, the history, the politics, people on top and even down below. And, my heavens, these are not wars like World War II and World War I, where you have battalions fighting battalions. These are wars that depend on knowledge of who the people are, with the culture is like. And we jumped into them without knowing. That’s the damned essential message of the Pentagon Papers.
New York Times v. United States
Beginning on June 13, 1971, the Times published a series of front-page articles based on the information contained in the Pentagon Papers. After the third article, the U.S. Department of Justice got a temporary restraining order against further publication of the material, arguing that it was detrimental to U.S. national security.
In the now-famous case of New York Times Co. v. United States, the Times and the Washington Post joined forces to fight for the right to publish, and on June 30 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the government had failed to prove harm to national security, and that publication of the papers was justified under the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of the press.
In addition to publication in the Times, Post, Boston Globe and other newspapers, portions of the Pentagon Papers entered the public record when Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, read them aloud in a Senate subcommittee hearing.
These published portions revealed that the presidential administrations of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had all misled the public about the degree of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, from Truman’s decision to give military aid to France during its struggle against the communist-led Viet Minh to Johnson’s development of plans to escalate the war in Vietnam as early as 1964, even as he claimed the opposite during that year’s presidential election.
Full release in 2011
On May 4, 2011, the National Archives and Records Administration announced that the papers would be declassified and released to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, on June 13, 2011. The release date included the Nixon, Kennedy, and Johnson Libraries and the Archives office in College Park, Maryland.
The full release was coordinated by the Archives’s National Declassification Center (NDC) as a special project to mark the anniversary of the report. There were still eleven words that the agencies having classification control over the material wanted to redact, and the NDC worked with them, successfully, to prevent that redaction. It is unknown which 11 words were at issue and the government has declined requests to identify them, but the issue was made moot when it was pointed out that those words had already been made public, in a version of the documents released by the House Armed Services Committee in 1972.
The Archives released each volume of the Pentagon Papers as a separate PDF file, available on their website.
The Pentagon Papers revealed that the Harry S. Truman administration gave military aid to France in its colonial war against the communist-led Viet Minh, thus directly involving the United States in Vietnam; that in 1954 Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam and to undermine the new communist regime of North Vietnam; that Pres. John F. Kennedy transformed the policy of “limited-risk gamble” that he had inherited into a policy of “broad commitment”; that Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson intensified covert warfare against North Vietnam and began planning to wage overt war in 1964, a full year before the depth of U.S. involvement was publicly revealed; and that Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam in 1965 despite the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community that it would not cause the North Vietnamese to cease their support of the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam.
The release of the Pentagon Papers stirred nationwide and, indeed, international controversy because it occurred after several years of growing dissent over the legal and moral justification of intensifying U.S. actions in Vietnam. The disclosures and their continued publication despite top-secret classification were embarrassing to the administration of Pres. Richard M. Nixon, who was preparing to seek reelection in 1972. So distressing were these revelations that Nixon authorized unlawful efforts to discredit Ellsberg, including burglarizing the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an attempt to unearth embarrassing information. Those efforts came to light during the investigation of the Watergate scandal.
Impact of the Pentagon Papers
Published at a time when support for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was rapidly eroding, the Pentagon Papers confirmed many people’s suspicions about the active role the U.S. government had taken in building up the conflict. Though the study did not cover the policies of President Richard M. Nixon, the revelations included within it were embarrassing, particularly as Nixon was up for reelection in 1972.
In supporting the freedom of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote: “In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry—in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.”
After the Supreme Court’s verdict on June 30, the Nixon administration had Ellsberg and an alleged accomplice, Anthony Russo, indicted on criminal charges including conspiracy, espionage and stealing government property. The trial began in 1973, but ended in a dismissal of the charges after prosecutors discovered that a secret White House team (dubbed “the plumbers”) had burglarized Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in September 1971 in order to find information that would discredit him.
The papers were subsequently published in book form as The Pentagon Papers (1971). However, the leaked documents were incomplete, and certain portions remained classified until 2011, when the full study was released to the public.
en.wikipedia.org, “Pentsgon Papers.” by Wikipedia Editors; britanica.com, ” The Pentagon Papers.” by Britanica editors; history.com, “penagon papers.” by history.com editors;
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