|A guide to|
|Hail to the Chief?|
|Persons of interest|
|— The New York Times, June 23, 1996. This ain't the last time they'll show up in this article.|
The Pentagon Papers, officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, is a formerly classified study commissioned by United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara regarding the history of American involvement in Indochina both before and during the Vietnam War. The report gained notoriety after Daniel Ellsberg leaked much of its content to the press in 1971. Compiled by Ellsberg himself, the Pentagon Papers are what he describes as "evidence of a quarter century of aggression, broken treaties, deceptions, stolen elections, lies and murder."
Specific revelations within the Pentagon Papers include:
- that the Kennedy administration helped assassinate a South Vietnamese President
- that the Eisenhower administration intentionally sank a Vietnamese peaceful reunification and elections deal in 1954
- that the Johnson and Nixon administrations expanded the scope of the Indo-China war to include Cambodia and Laos in a campaign subsequently known in America as the "Secret War"
There probably wasn't any single document that caused the most outrage; it was simply the cumulative knowledge that the United States government spent decades railroading the country into a foreign-policy disaster that infuriated readers most.
Naturally, the disclosure of this information hit the US public sphere like a bombshell. The New York Times and the Washington Post both published stories about the contents of the Pentagon Papers, just as they should have. The Nixon administration filed an injunction blocking further publishing of classified material, but the Supreme Court overturned the movement in the landmark press-freedom case New York Times Co. v. United States.
Authorities charged the whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, and his accomplice, Anthony Russo, with espionage, theft of government property, and conspiracy. However, the charges were dismissed when the court discovered that Nixon had ordered a break-in at the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in an attempt to uncover discrediting personal information.[note 1] This was definitely the only time Nixon was ever involved in a scandal where someone broke into a building for political reasons.
Leak and fallout
“”[B]ombs were falling in Vietnam at that time, and I wanted to shorten that war as much as I could.
|—Daniel Ellsberg, interview on NPR in 2018.|
In 1967, Defense Secretary McNamara commissioned a study of the Vietnam War, motivated by his increasing fear that the war was not winnable. According to Ellsberg, McNamara had already begun to intensely regret his decision to urge President Johnson to keep bombing Vietnam. Aiming to create a comprehensive and truthful history of the war, McNamara placed the project in the hands of his most trusted colleagues and strove to keep the secret from the White House. This aim resulted in tight restrictions for the research team, preventing them from requesting interviews, contacting the military, or consulting with other departments. The completed study was 47 volumes long, totaling 7,000 pages. We know this, of course, because Robert McNamara kind of sucked at keeping secrets.
Daniel Ellsberg at the time was an employee at the Rand Corporation who was involved with compiling the report. Having become disgusted with the war, he discussed with his friend and colleague Tony Russo the possibility of releasing the documents. He viewed Russo as trustworthy because the man had been disgraced and fired from Rand for compiling reports exposing the use of torture by US-backed Vietnamese forces. Despite expecting a lifetime prison sentence, Ellsberg pushed forward with his plan to leak the papers, inspired by jailed anti-draft protesters. Over the next 20 months, Ellsberg and Russo worked through the night to photocopy much of the report and passed the papers to antiwar congressmen, none of whom chose to go public. After months of gaining no traction with the government, Ellsberg contacted the New York Times. The Times set up a secret newsroom in a hotel in order to avoid any potential FBI search and began publishing the papers.
The Nixon injunction
“”Newspapers, as our editorial said this morning, were really [(sic), possibly "revealing"] 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.
|— Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, then-publisher of the New York Times.|
As the papers did much more to embarrass the Democrats (Johnson and Kennedy) than the Republicans, Nixon didn't have much of an initial reaction to the leak. However, America's favorite diplomat, Henry Kissinger, who was "more alarmed over the leaks than the President", convinced him to crack down on "this wholesale theft and unauthorized disclosure." Once motivated, Nixon became a monster, abandoning the FBI in favor of organizing his own team of internal White House investigators to root out the leaker. They were called the "Plumbers", because their task was to stop leaks. Geddit?
After trying and failing to convince the Times to voluntarily drop the matter, the Nixon administration sought and received an injunction from a federal court on June 15th, 1971 to halt publication of the Pentagon Papers. In arguing for the injunction, the Justice Department claimed that further publication would imperil national security but later admitted to not reviewing the leaked material for potential danger. Ellsberg also took care not to release sensitive information, for example when he declined to leak the volumes concerning the ongoing peace talks for fear of negatively influencing the outcome.
This injunction is and was legally considered an instance of prior restraint, in which a government acts to limit or halt specific instances of free speech, rather than authorize full-on censorship. In the United States, there are extreme restrictions and a high burden of proof for allowing such an action. This gaping legal question allowed the Times and the Washington Post to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
New York Times Co. v. United States
“”"Any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity." Near v. Minnesota (1931). The Government "thus carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the imposition of such a restraint." The District Court for the Southern District of New York, in the New York Times case, and the District Court for the District of Columbia and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in the Washington Post case, held that the Government had not met that burden. We agree.
|— Supreme Court ruling on New York Times v. United States|
“”I believe that every moment's continuance of the injunctions against these newspapers amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment. […] In my view, it is unfortunate that some of my Brethren are apparently willing to hold that the publication of news may sometimes be enjoined. Such a holding would make a shambles of the First Amendment.
|—Hugo Black, concurring opinion|
It didn't look good for the Times and the Post going into the case, as the Supreme Court had on several previous occasions upheld restrictions on speech which had been imposed to prevent a clear and present danger. For instance, witness the Schenck v. United States case, where the Court upheld the convictions of two socialists who had been arrested for distributing anti-draft materials during WWI. This being noted, however, the special distinction between this case and Schenck is that the government was now attempting to prevent publication of sensitive materials, rather than punish someone for a previous act of publication. This attempted act of prevention is known as "prior restraint," and it's a whole different legal beast that's a lot harder for the government to use.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari based on the Constitutional dilemma: Did the Nixon administration violate the First Amendment by attempting to prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers?
The Court found on a 6-3 ruling that the Nixon administration had indeed violated the First Amendment's guarantee of a free press by filing for the injunction. Harlan, Blackmun, and Chief Justice Burger himself were the dissenters. The majority decision of the Court was that the government had not met the burden of proof necessary to justify enforcement of prior restraint. The Court went on to state that, "Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints." The Court also noted that they were not convinced of a clear and present danger resulting from publication, as nothing in the Pentagon Papers would imperil military personnel by revealing their location or movements. They also cited Near v. Minnesota (1931) as further justification for tossing out the injunction, as that landmark case also demonstrated the Court's skepticism of injunctions against the press. The ruling ordered that the injunction immediately be removed and that the New York Times and Washington Post be permitted to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers.
This case was a major victory for freedom of the press due to its main establishing precedence. The Court declared that it has a heavy presumption against prior restraint, even in cases involving national security. This means that it will be incredibly difficult for the government to bar newspapers from publishing any materials for almost any reason.
Ellsberg's government misadventures
“”[T]he sonofabitching thief is made a national hero and is going to get off on a mistrial, and the New York Times gets a Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents… What in the name of God have we come to?
|—President Nixon, conversation in the Oval Office, May 11, 1973.|
Two days before the Supreme Court decision, Daniel Ellsberg surrendered himself to federal authorities and admitted to leaking the document. He was later indicted, along with Russo, by a grand jury on the charges of stealing and holding secret government documents. Ellberg's legal team appealed to federal courts, and the case landed in front of judge William Byrne.
From there, the case went through series of crazy twists worthy of an episode of Law and Order. And you really should read this part, because the Ellsberg trial is a freaking ride.
The first twist came when the federal prosecutor disclosed that the Nixon White House had ordered operatives to burgle the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in order to uncover discrediting information. An agent of the CIA, E. Howard Hunt, proposed to Nixon that the government could "neutralize" Ellsberg by stealing information about him, and Hunt personally led the break-in. Nixon wanted this information withheld during the trial, but his legal team warned him that this could make him criminally liable.
The next revelation came from Judge Byrne himself. He announced that one of Nixon's lieutenants, John D. Ehrlichman, had secretly offered him the post of FBI director while the trial was ongoing. It shouldn't take a genius to figure out the context of that offer. Luckily, Byrne had some integrity, and he refused to accept or even discuss the possibility of receiving a job from Nixon while he was presiding over the trial of Nixon's archnemesis. The White House press secretary refused to comment on the allegations, and the defense team used this to back up their motion to have the charges dismissed.
Then, the judge uncovered even more government misconduct when he learned that the FBI had secretly taped telephone conversations between Ellsberg and his supervisor on the Pentagon Papers study. This created something of a legal problem, as the law required that the government inform defendants if they've been overheard on any kind of wiretap. However, the FBI didn't have records of this wiretap, as the order had come straight from the White House itself. Of course, if the White House admitted to the wire tap, Ellsberg would go free, so Nixon ordered that the records be destroyed. Once again, Ellsberg's luck held out, because unverified news reports began circulating that he had been wiretapped, and Judge Byrne arm-twisted several FBI officials into fessing up to what they had done. However, the government had still "lost" the actual records of the tap itself.
In light of all of this government bullshit, Judge Byrne did the only sane thing: declaring a mistrial and dismissing all charges against Ellsberg and Russo. The funny thing is that Nixon actually had a decent chance at taking down Ellsberg through the courts had he not acted like a moron, since Ellsberg was absolutely 100% guilty of stealing classified documents. But, of course, it's Nixon. You almost have to admire the man's dedication to criminality.
In 2017, it also came to light that the Watergate investigators obtained evidence that the Nixon White House had plotted to have Ellsberg physically assaulted in 1972, although this never came to pass. Because no story like this one can be complete without just a touch of political violence.
Notable contents of the Pentagon Papers
Early US involvement in Indochina
The Pentagon study demonstrated that a total of four US presidential administrations spent decades before the US entry into the Vietnam War continually getting more involved in Indochinese affairs. Many of these actions were less than moral. These policies include the following:
- The Truman administration gave military aid to France during that nation's colonial wars in Indochina, thus setting US policy towards the region.
- The Eisenhower administration refused to sign and deliberately sabotaged the implementation of the Geneva Accords, an agreement intended to set up peaceful elections in the country and a two-year reunification process.
- The Kennedy administration escalated US involvement in South Vietnam far beyond the scope of his predecessor, turning a "limited risk gamble" into a "broad commitment" that forced LBJ to choose between open war and a humiliating withdrawal. Kennedy was only spared more responsibility for this escalation because he was killed before the consequences could be felt.
- The Johnson administration intensified US covert warfare in Vietnam and began planning for war in 1964, a full year before official US involvement.
US role in President Ngô's assassination
“”For the military coup d'etat against Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S. must accept its full share of responsibility. Beginning in August of 1963 we variously authorized, sanctioned and encouraged the coup efforts of the Vietnamese generals and offered full support for a successor government.
|—Pentagon Papers, Vol.2 Ch. 4|
Ngô Đình Diệm became South Vietnam's first president in 1955. The United States initially supported his rise to power and donated more than $40 million to support the modernization of his military. However, Ngô quickly became deeply unpopular in South Vietnam, mostly because, as a devout Catholic, Ngô repressed his country's Buddhists. These discriminatory laws are what prompted Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức to die by self-immolation in Saigon as an act of protest. Some specific policies include a ban on celebrating Buddha's birthday, publicly dedicating South Vietnam to the Virgin Mary, and launching brutal massacres against peaceful Buddhist protestors.
Ngô also failed to deliver on several of his economic promises, and the anger resulting from this increased communist influence in South Vietnam. Eventually, the Buddhist crisis, the political instability, and the losing war against the Viet Cong prompted some South Vietnamese officers to contact the US and inquire as to how President Kennedy would respond to a coup against Ngô. The United States, for its part, had little desire to upset the apple cart and tried to convince the Vietnamese president to reform his government and make nice with the Buddhists. As you can guess based on the section title, that didn't work out.
The (correct) idea that deposing Diệm would cause political chaos in Vietnam led to a larger bit of soul-searching inside the State Department. The Kennedy administration began to realize that if the war was unwinnable with Diệm, and the war would be unwinnable without Diệm, then perhaps the war itself was just completely unwinnable. At this point, the United States could have disengaged from Vietnam without too much of a loss. The Kennedy administration, however, chose to stay the course, unwilling to accept the bleak prospects for victory. Whoops.
The United States suspended aid to the Diệm government and finally greenlit the coup. South Vietnamese soldiers overthrew Diệm's regime and killed him along with his family, an event which caused celebrations to break out across South Vietnam. However, the fearful predictions of chaos in South Vietnam came true, and the US was forced to involve itself even more deeply in Vietnamese affairs in order to stabilize the country and keep it in the fight against communism.
For the thrilling conclusion to that story, see our article on the Vietnam War. (Spoiler alert: it doesn't go well.[citation NOT needed])
The Tonkin ghost attack
“”Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by MADDOX. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.
|—Captain Herrick of the Maddox, priority message to Honolulu, about three days before LBJ used this "attack" as justification to begin ground ops in Vietnam|
Official US involvement in the war was only legally authorized when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in response to two unprovoked attacks on US naval vessels. Allegedly, in 1964, torpedo boats belonging to North Vietnam launched two unprovoked attacks against two US Navy destroyers: the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy. This event, much like Pearl Harbor before it, created a furious wave of US patriotism that led America into war in Vietnam.
However, the Pentagon Papers revealed that the first attack was not unprovoked. They also reveal that the second attack never even happened.
Defense Secretary McNamara claimed before Congress (a lie) that the two ships were in Tonkin on a routine patrol. In reality, the Maddox had been instructed to enter North Vietnam's territorial waters in order to covertly intercept communications for the South. The North's violent response also came shortly after the South launched an attack on multiple radar and military installations. These attacks, and the US involvement in them, was known to the Pentagon as the "34-A Operations," a series of clandestine acts against North Vietnam that included U‐2 spy planes, kidnapping of North Vietnamese for interrogation, commando raids from the sea, and bombardment of coastal installations. 34-A was designed to pressure the North into abandoning its hostility towards the South, and of course that worked just about as well as you think it did.
After the attack on the Maddox, which caused no damage to the US ship but heavily damaged a Vietnamese vessel, the US Navy dispatched the Turner Joy to send a "we won't back down" message. However, the next patrol was much different from the first. Storms had created adverse weather conditions, US intelligence believed that North Vietnamese vessels were seeking to finish the job they'd started, and the crews of both vessels were very tense over the events of the last patrol. The Maddox reported that she was tracking multiple unidentified vessels, and both US Navy ships began frantically maneuvering to avoid perceived enemy attacks, and their "counterattack" had spent more than 300 shells. Both captains began to have doubts over what was going on, beginning to suspect that faulty equipment and jumpy sonarmen might actually be creating the illusion of an enemy force. It was later determined that the Turner Joy had not detected any enemy attacks, the Maddox crew was hearing her props bumping into her rudder during the sharp maneuvers, and that the guns had been experiencing difficulty locking onto targets because they had actually been shooting at waves on the ocean. Captain Herrick reviewed his crew and sent a message to the US Navy hoping to prevent a misunderstanding. Commander Stockdale of the Turner Joy also later reported that, "[He] had the best seat in the house to watch that event and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there … there was nothing there but black water and American firepower."
However, as the "attack" was ongoing, LBJ had given a dramatic midnight television address to announce the attack and also reveal that he had ordered a bombing raid in retaliation. Within three days, and with minimal debate in Congress, LBJ got his blank check to fight in Vietnam.
Secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos
“”We seek no wider war.
|—President Johnson, shortly before expanding operations into Laos and Cambodia.|
One of the problems with fighting a guerrilla force like the Viet Cong was that they could operate across multiple countries. This was especially evident with the creation and operation of the Ho Chi Minh trail, which ran through Cambodia and Laos and was used as a supply route for Viet Cong fighters. This had been known for a while among much of the US public, so it came as more of a confirmation than a surprise when the Pentagon Papers revealed that the United States had secretly expanded operations into Laos during the Johnson administration. The first sustained bombardments against the trail in Laos began in late 1964. Later investigations of the secret war reveal that Laos had more bombs dropped on it than on all of the Axis Powers combined in WWII, making it the most heavily bombed country in history.
This policy of expansion continued through the Nixon administration. In fact, much of Nixon's desperation to suppress the publication of the Pentagon Papers stemmed from his fear that the document would expose his own undisclosed operations against Cambodia. Nixon's bombing of Cambodia began in 1969, and he established a complex reporting system inside the Pentagon to keep it under wraps. The campaign was quietly exposed in the same year, but the public reaction at the time was muted. Although bombing in Cambodia did not begin until 1969, the Pentagon Papers revealed that the country was a persistent problem for the US for years, with various intelligence officials over the decades pushing for escalated actions against the country.
- The entirety of the Pentagon Papers report is available through the National Archives.
- Text of the New York Times Co. v. United States decision through Open Jurist.
- 25 Years Later; Lessons From the Pentagon Papers R.W. Apple Jr. New York Times, June 23, 1996
- Pentagon Papers: The Secret War TIME JUN.28.71
- Daniel Ellsberg Biography Biography
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- America's secret war in Laos The Economist. JAN.21.17
- New York Times Co. v. United States Cornell Law School: Legal Information Institute.
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