History Thread: The Pentagon Papers

On June 13, 1971 the New York Times began publication of a secret study documenting the history of the Vietnam War. The so-called “Pentagon Papers” revealed that the United States government had systematically deceived the press, the American people and the world in general about their intentions and the course of the war from the very beginning. Leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department official and RAND corporation spokesperson, it triggered a round of shocking press releases and court battles as the public wrestled with the implications and the Nixon Administration tried desperately to shut down their release, engaging in a series of self-destructive actions that led ultimately to Nixon’s downfall.

I did not have time to write a detailed account of this event. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of documentation about it:

Oral history by The New York Times about their decision to publish the articles.

A recent interview with Ellsberg, who is 92 years old:

Nixon finds out about the leak (on the day of his daughter Tricia’s wedding):

Nixon’s initial reaction was that the Papers were a “Democrat problem” since they detailed the misdeeds and dishonesty of his predecessors Kennedy and Johnson. He changed his tune, however, after Henry Kissinger and others argued that there were broader prerogatives about secret government military and diplomatic negotiations involved.

Mike Gravel, the young Alaska Senator who read the Papers into the Congressional Record, insuring that they would be a matter of public record regardless of the Justice Department’s effort to squash their publication:

Short interview with Neil Sheehan, the Times reporter who initially covered the case:

Katherine Graham of The Washington Post, discussing her decision to continue publication after the Times‘ series was delayed by a cease-and-desist order.

The resultant SCOTUS case, New York Times vs. the United States, resulted in a 6-3 ruling that the Times had the right to publish the Papers. As this video explains, however, it was an unusually nuanced decision with every judge offering a concurring opinion, suggesting no consensus on the free speech implications of the case.

Nonetheless, Nixon continued trying to discredit Ellsberg, resulting in the creation of the Plumbers and the break-in at the office of his psychiatrist, while working to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. The case dragged on until May 1973, when revelations about the break-in (and that Nixon had offered the Judge in the case appointment as FBI Director if he found Ellsberg guilty) caused the case to be thrown out.