Pentagon Papers

views updated May 29 2018


PENTAGON PAPERS. Popularly known as the Pentagon Papers, the "History of U.S. Decision Making Process on Vietnam Policy" is a forty-seven volume, 7,000-page, 2.5 million-word study that traces the involvement of the United States in Vietnam from World War II to 1968. Four thousand pages of the study consist of republished government documents; the balance comprises historical studies prepared by thirty-six civilian and military analysts and focused on particular events. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara commissioned the study in 1967 during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Vietnam War had sparked serious dissent within the United States, and U.S. foreign policy was dominated by Cold War thinking that emphasized the importance of containing the spread of communism. Directed by Leslie H. Gelb, the study was completed shortly before Richard M. Nixon was sworn in as president in January 1969. The fifteen copies made were classified "top secret sensitive."

The first volumes of the study reviewed U.S. policy toward Indochina during and immediately following World War II, as well as the U.S. involvement in the Franco–Viet Minh War between 1950 and 1954, the Geneva Conference of 1954, and the origins of insurgency from 1954 to 1960. Most of the study, however, was devoted to the years following the election of President John F. Kennedy in 1960. It included detailed reviews of the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem; the Tonkin Gulf episode; the decision to begin and expand the air war against North Vietnam; the decision to deploy U.S. ground forces in Vietnam; the buildup of those forces; the strategy for the use of troops; and the history of the war's diplomacy from 1964 to 1968.

As a history, the Pentagon Papers had shortcomings. The staff did not collect White House documents or conduct interviews, and the Central Intelligence Agency as well as other branches of government with held documents. Because the historical studies were based solely on the collected documents, the subjects analyzed were narrowly conceived and treated.

Believing that the public disclosure of the Pentagon Papers might shorten the war in Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg, a defense department consultant working at the Rand Corporation, made the study available to the New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan in early 1971. On 13 June 1971 the New York Times published the first of a ten-part series on the Pentagon Papers under a headline that read: "VIETNAM ARCHIVE: PENTAGON STUDY TRACES 3 DECADES OF GROWING U.S. INVOLVEMENT." The opening paragraph of that first article sounded a theme that many thought distilled the salient meaning of this government study: the U.S. government had through successive administrations misled

the American public about "a sense of commitment to a non-Communist Vietnam, a readiness to fight the North to protect the South, and an ultimate frustration with this effort."

Initially the Pentagon Papers drew little public attention or comment, but when the United States obtained a temporary restraining order barring the New York Times from publishing its fourth installment, the dry and tedious study captured national attention. The government initiated litigation premised on the claim that further publication would endanger national security at a time when U.S. combat troops were fighting a land war in Vietnam, and proceeded frantically through all three levels of the federal courts. Eventually the Washington Post and other newspapers became involved. On 30 June 1971, in New York Times Co. v. United States,403 U.S. 713, the United States Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, denied the government's request for a prior restraint on the ground that the government's evidence fell short of what the constitution required. The outcome was widely hailed as a landmark in the history of free press.

The United States criminally prosecuted Ellsberg and Anthony J. Russo, who had helped in photocopying the study, mainly on charges of espionage, but in 1973 U.S. District Judge William M. Byrne dismissed the charges because of government misconduct. There is no evidence that the public disclosure of the Pentagon Papers injured national security as the government contended it would. The disclosure had no discernible impact on the course of the war, did not appreciably reignite the antiwar movement with in the United States, and did not result in the commencement of war-crimes prosecution against high-level U.S. officials.

The entire Pentagon Papers episode was, however, a critical turning point for the Nixon administration, which located with in the White House a group that became known as the "Plumbers Unit." Ostensibly charged with investigating the improper disclosure ("leaks") of classified information, in the fall of 1971 this group burglarized the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in search of information about Ellsberg and his accomplices. Nine months later it broke into the headquarters of the Democratic Party at the Watergate building complex in Washington, D.C. Thus, the Pentagon Papers indirectly led to the Watergate scandal, which caused Nixon to resign the presidency on 9 August 1974.


Herring, George C., ed. The Secret Diplomacy of the Vietnam War: The Negotiating Volumes of the Pentagon Papers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decision-Making on Vietnam. 4 vols. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.

Rudenstine, David. The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Sheehan, Neil, et al. The Pentagon Papers: As Published by the New York Times, Based on Investigative Reporting by Neil Sheehan. New York: Bantam, 1971.

Ungar, Sanford J. The Papers and the Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle over the Pentagon Papers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.


See alsoCold War ; New York Times ; Nixon, Resignation of ; Vietnam War ; Watergate ; andvol. 9:Excerpt from the Pentagon Papers .

Pentagon Papers

views updated Jun 11 2018


By 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was becoming very pessimistic about the Vietnam War. He no longer believed it could be won at acceptable cost.

American casualties were growing, and public support for the war was getting shaky. He created a task force in the Defense Department to study how the United States had gotten into this fix. In 1969 the task force completed a top-secret history of U.S. policy from 1945 through early 1968, accompanied by thousands of pages of classified documents. Officially titled United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967, it is usually called the Pentagon Papers.

Daniel Ellsberg had spent more than a year in Vietnam as a roving investigator for the U.S. government. What he saw convinced him that U.S. policy was not working and was harming the Vietnamese people. When he returned to the United States, he joined the task force and wrote one section of the Pentagon Papers. After it was finished, he was one of the few people allowed to read the whole study. It convinced him that the American effort in Vietnam had been wrong from the beginning, and that one president after another had deceived the public about it. He thought the new Republican president, Richard Nixon, was continuing this pattern, giving the public the impression that he was working to end the war, while actually planning to prolong it.

Ellsberg decided to make a large portion of the study public. He hoped Nixon would be less able to lie successfully if the public knew about the pattern of lies under previous administrations. Also, he hoped that, by making public the lies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he could offer Nixon the option of turning against the war and blaming it on the Democrats. After failing to persuade several senators to release the Pentagon Papers to the public, Ellsberg took them to the New York Times, which compiled, in great secrecy, ten long articles, each accompanied by the texts of original documents. The first article was published on June 13, 1971.

President Nixon liked seeing material published that made John Kennedy look bad. But he detested the New York Times; he thought the Times, and the press in general, were against him. Furthermore, the leaking of secret documents worried him. On June 15, the Justice Department persuaded a federal judge to issue an injunction ordering the New York Times to halt publication of the series. This was unprecedented. Newspapers had in the past been punished for publishing things, but not forbidden in advance to publish. Ellsberg then gave portions of the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post. Another injunction halted publication in the Post. But the injunctions were quickly appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled on June 30 that the Justice Department had failed to prove that publication of the Pentagon Papers would seriously harm the national security. In the absence of such proof, the courts could not violate the principle of freedom of the press, laid out in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Having failed to halt publication, the Justice Department tried to have Ellsberg imprisoned. But the case was thrown out of court in 1973 because of violations of Ellsberg's rights, including illegal wiretaps and, with White House authorization, the burglarizing of the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in a search for information that could be used to discredit Ellsburg.

Publication of top-secret documents had previously seemed almost unthinkable to most people. The New York Times's law firm was outraged by the editors' decision to publish and refused to defend it, so the paper had to hire new attorneys to appeal the Justice Department's injunction. But once the Times and the Post had opened the door, and the Supreme Court had decided that publication of the Pentagon Papers did not seriously harm the national security, the aura that had previously surrounded the "top secret" classification weakened. Ellsberg had been unable to go through Congress in releasing the Pentagon Papers, but in 1972, when he decided to make public another large batch of top-secret documents, he was able to get them printed in the Congressional Record.

The effect of the Pentagon Papers on public attitudes toward the Vietnam War is harder to evaluate. Ellsberg did not win a lot of new converts to the antiwar movement. The people who saw the Pentagon Papers as evidence that the war was wrong were mostly people already in opposition to it. But because of the Pentagon Papers, people of all viewpoints could base their arguments about the war on a much stronger foundation of historical facts than had previously been possible.

Perhaps the biggest effect of Ellsberg's actions was an indirect one. His leaking the Pentagon Papers to the newspapers led the White House to create the Special Investigative Unit—sometimes called "the Plumbers" because it was supposed to stop leaks—that burglarized the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in September 1971. Some of the same men were caught burglarizing the Democratic Party's headquarters in the Watergate Hotel nine months later. The ensuing Watergate scandal seriously weakened President Nixon in 1973 and forced him from office in 1974.


Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. New York: Viking, 2002.

Sheehan, Neil. The Pentagon Papers, as published by the New York Times, edited by Gerald Gold, Allan M. Siegal, and Samuel Abt. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.

Rudenstine, David. The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

U. S. Department of Defense. United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, 12 vols. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971.

Edwin E. Moise

See also:Civil Liberties, 1946–Present; Johnson, Lyndon Baines; Newspapers and Magazines.

Pentagon Papers

views updated May 29 2018

Pentagon Papers (1971).On 13 June 1971, the New York Times began publication of a secret Department of Defense history of Vietnam War decision making commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara toward the end of the Johnson administration. Leaked by former Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who believed the revelation might alter the course of the war, the story outraged President Richard M. Nixon, already suspicious of the press, particularly by threatening the president's hoped‐for opening to China. As Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, observed in his memoir, The White House Years, “Our nightmare was that … the massive hemorrhage of state secrets was bound to raise doubts [in Peking] about our reliability.” When the Times declined to suspend further publication on its own, Nixon's lawyers won a temporary restraining order from the 2nd Circuit Court in New York. At that point, Ellsberg approached the Washington Post, which picked up and ran the story. Nixon's lawyers sued again in the District of Columbia Circuit Court but failed to demonstrate any substantial damage to national security and lost. On 23 June, they appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case in an unprecedented Saturday morning sitting. In the end, the Court likewise found in favor of the newspapers, but despite widespread public belief it set no solid precedents in support of freedom of the press by doing so. Ruling that prior restraint of the press imposed a heavy burden of proof, which the Nixon administration had failed to carry out, it left the possibility open that the government or the military might pursue similar litigation in the future with greater success.
[See also Supreme Court, War, and the Military; Vietnam War: Changing Interpretations.]


Sanford Ungar , The Papers and the Papers, 1972.
Lucas A. Powe, Jr. , The Fourth Estate and the Constitution, Freedom of the Press in America, 1991.

William M. Hammond

Pentagon Papers

views updated May 14 2018

Pentagon Papers

The Pentagon Papers was a government study of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75). Commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1916–), the top-secret study resulted in a seven- thousand-page, forty-seven-volume report spanning the years 1945 to 1968. Analysts who had access to classified documents conducted the study, which was completed in 1969.

The study revealed miscalculations and deception on the part of the U.S. government. Officials had misled the American public repeatedly and continually about the level and intensity of U.S. military involvement throughout Southeast Asia. For example, President Lyndon B. Johnson )1908–1973; served 1963–69) had been secretly sending military troops to Vietnam while publicly declaring that he had no long-range plans for war.

In 1971, one of the investigation's analysts, Daniel Ellsberg (1931–), leaked the content of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which began publishing a series of articles about the study. Although the Justice Department tried to get a court order prohibiting the publication of the Pentagon Papers on the grounds that doing so threatened national security, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspaper. In its decision, the Court said that freedom of the press overrode any other considerations.

The leaking of the Pentagon Papers caused a serious breach of trust between the American public and its government, and fueled an already growing antiwar movement .