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by William H. Benson

June 6, 2002

     What exactly were the Pentagon Papers?

     In 1967 when Lyndon Johnson was President and the fighting in Vietnam raged on fierce and endless, then Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara ordered the Pentagon to compile an objective study of the causes of the Vietnam conflict.  Classified as “Top Secret”, it required one and a half years to complete and included 3000 pages, plus 4000 pages of documentation, and a total of 2.5 million words.

     In January of 1969 the Pentagon submitted the finished document to Clark Clifford, the new Secretary of Defense under Nixon, and Clifford, for his own reasons, chose to ignore it.  So it languished in a file at the Pentagon for the next two years.

     If Clifford had thoroughly read it, he would have read a disturbing tale of U. S. involvement in Vietnam, one of duplicity and of nothing short of criminal folly.  Studded with evidence of evasion, pretense, and deceit on the part of the Federal government, the Papers told the truth.

     A couple of months ago LBJ’s tapes of his phone calls while in the Oval Office were published, and they corroborated this assessment.  At the same time that Johnson told the American public that the war was going well, he privately admitted to certain Congressmen that the war was not winnable and that he was caught in a trap–either escalate the conflict or shamefully retreat.

     Daniel Ellsberg, one of the Pentagon Papers’ writers and someone utterly opposed to the war, had access to one of the fifteen copies, and he handed his copy over to two newspapers: the New York Times and the Washington Post.

     Sunday, June 13, 1971 the headlines appeared in the New York Times–“Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement”.  Another story appeared on Monday, the next day.

     Nixon wanted to ignore this leak out of his administration, but Henry Kissinger suggested otherwise.  “It shows you’re a weakling, Mr. President. . . . It is damaging to your image, and it could destroy our ability to conduct foreign policy.  If the other powers feel that we can’t control internal leaks, they will never agree to secret negotiations.”   

     On Monday evening the Attorney General John Mitchell sent a telex to the Times demanding that they discontinue the publication of the Papers.  The Times challenged Mitchell’s request, and the case was thrown into the courts, eventually appearing on the Supreme Court’s docket on Friday, June 25.  On Wednesday, June 30, the Court’s justices voted six to three for the Times‘s right to publish the Papers.

     The next day the next installment arrived at newsstands, but still the war trudged on for another three years before U.S. forces finally extricated themselves.

     Nixon and his cohorts were so outraged by Ellsberg’s “win” and their “loss” that John Erlichman ordered his Plumbers, an anti-leak unit, to break into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, searching for dirt with which to smear Ellsberg.  Although Nixon was unaware of this covert operation, this break-in was the point at which the Nixon administration overstepped the bounds of legality.  The next step, even bigger and more damaging, was Watergate.

     When the dust settled two years later, instead of an Imperial President, the nation had a triumphant press and an Imperial Congress that together had reversed the people’s democratic vote in 1972 that had re-elected Nixon President by a landslide– almost a surreal outcome.


     June 7 is Freedom of the Press Day, a day to honor those words from the first Amendment:   “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”  The Pentagon Papers were published because journalists have that constitutional freedom and they operate under a principle that “The people have a right to know.”