It should come as no surprise to anyone that politicians sometimes lie. Catching them out in their lies isn’t always easy, however. Often we have to rely on brave souls (or the actions of a brave few who face being branded as traitors) to leak the information that our governments don’t want us to know.
There have been quite a few famous leaks throughout modern times but perhaps the biggest was the case of the Pentagon Papers. The revelations that lay within them shook 20th-century America to its core. So what were they and how did they make it into the public domain?
What did the Pentagon Papers Reveal?
The story of Pentagon papers begins in 1967. At this point, America had been politically involved in Vietnam since 1945, and militarily involved since 1959 when the first US troops had been killed by guerilla fighters near Saigon.
It is safe to say nothing had gone very well for the United States in Vietnam. Despite having sent hundreds of thousands of brave young men to fight, the US appeared to be losing. This was particularly embarrassing when one considers the technological gulf between the well-equipped and funded US army compared to the Viet Cong.
In 1967 Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense, had a team of his analysts compile a classified study of US political and military involvement in Vietnam dating back to the end of World War 2. The goal was to try and work out where precisely the US had gone wrong and what mistakes had been made.
The study was given a catchy name, “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force” but would later become better known as the Pentagon Papers. In creating the report the analysts took classified material from the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the State Department.
The report took roughly two years to complete and was made up of over 3,000 pages of narrative alongside 4,000 pages of corroborating documents. The document included heavily classified material that if ever released could cause major problems for the US government.
For example, the US government’s official stance on the Vietnam War was that its purpose was to secure an “independent, non-Communist South Vietnam”. A 1965 memorandum by Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton however made it clear that the true purpose of the war was to contain China’s growing influence over Asia.
- Operation Northwoods: A US Terror Campaign Against Itself?
- The Bat Bombs of WWII: Presidentially Approved, Totally Crazy?
The Pentagon papers also contained information that showed John. F. Kennedy had helped overthrow and even assassinate South Vietnamese President Ngo Dİnh Diem in 1963. These documents were wide ranging in their exposure of the realpolitik at the heart of US politics.
The papers also had a wealth of operational information, some of which contradicted what the US government had publicly stated. For example, the government had long declared that their intensive (and hugely costly) bombing of north Vietnam had been vital in damaging enemy morale. The Pentagon Papers contradicted this.
How were they Leaked?
In the end all it took was one man. The Pentagon Papers were leaked thanks to one disillusioned former Marine Corps Officer, Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg had served from 1954 until 1957, and after leaving the corps he had gone on to work as a strategic analyst for both the RAND Corporation and the Department of Defense.
Ellsberg was initially a vocal supporter of the war in Vietnam and was invited to work on the original 1967 study. This turned out to be a momentous mistake. By 1969 Ellsberg had become seriously disillusioned. He now believed the Vietnam war to be unwinnable.
He had also been shocked by what he had discovered whilst helping to compile the Pentagon papers. Disappointed with his own government’s shady dealings he believed the contents of the Pentagon Papers should be made public.
Ellsberg took it upon himself to photocopy the most damning sections of the Papers and hand them over to several members of Congress and the Senate as well as Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger. None of them were interested in what Ellsberg had to say.
Ellsberg chose to bide his time and waited for two years. Then, in 1971, Ellsberg handed over some of the reports to a reporter by the name of Neil Sheehan who wrote for the New York Times. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times was very interested.
From June 13th, 1971 the Times released a series of front-page articles using information from the Pentagon Papers. The government wasted little time in placing a restraining order against the newspaper but it was too late, the genie was out of the bottle.
What was the Result?
The general result was a lot of embarrassment and headaches for the US government. The government argued the leak was detrimental to national security and the issue was soon brought up in front of the Supreme Court.
- Operation Wandering Soul: Ghosts in the Vietnam War?
- Whoops! How did the US Misplace Six Nuclear Bombs?
The case of the New York Times Co. v. The United States was a disaster for the American government. The NY Post, joined by the Washington Post, won the case with a 6-3 verdict. The Supreme Court declared the government had supplied insufficient evidence to prove that the leak constituted a major threat to national security and that any attempt to impede the paper’s publication was a threat to the First Amendment (specifically freedom of the Press).
Further embarrassment ensued as other papers picked up the Pentagon Papers and ran their own stories. Adding insult to injury parts of the papers became public record when Senator Mike Gavel of Alaska stood up in a Senate subcommittee hearing and began reading them out.
The various publications aired a whole host of the government’s dirty laundry when it came to Vietnam. They showed that at least four presidential administrations had misled the public and even lied outright about America’s involvement in Vietnam. The people had long suspected such and now it had been confirmed. Public trust in the office of the President was severely eroded.
The government’s loss against the New York Times helped to consolidate the power of the First Amendment. Supreme Court Justice Putter Stewart essentially declared that a free press was the only thing powerful enough to hold the government accountable and must be protected at all costs.
As for Ellsberg, he got away scot-free. He was initially indicted for conspiracy, espionage, and theft of government property. His trial began in 1973 but was dismissed after it was discovered that a secret White House Team had broken into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, looking for dirt on him.
The Need for Transparency
Few countries have seen a leak as damaging as the Pentagon Papers. The documents were vital in reminding the public that the government had to be held accountable, especially after years of government scaremongering regarding the “red menace” or “commie next door”.
The leak and its subsequent publication were also important in reinforcing the strength of the First Amendment, especially against government interference. A right more important today than perhaps ever before.
The Pentagon Papers continued to be a thorn in the side of the US government for many years. Their contents were so incredibly inflammatory that their contents were not officially declassified and released to the public until 2011, over forty years after the original leak.
Top Image: Daniel Ellsberg speaking to the press about the Pentagon Papes leak in 1972. Source: Bernard Gotfryd / Public Domain.
By Robbie Mitchell
History.com, 2021. Pentagon Papers. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/pentagon-papers
History.com, 2020. Vietnam War Timeline. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-timeline
Sheehan. N. 1971. Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement. The New York Times. Available at: https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.nytimes.com/1971/06/13/archives/vietnam-archive-pentagon-study-traces-3-decades-of-growing-u-s.html&sa=D&source=docs&ust=1666798561703704&usg=AOvVaw2wIZhLAz2PYt2T1ENDqoDE
Goodman. A. 2007. How the Pentagon Papers Came to Be Published by the Beacon Press. Democracy Now.com. Available at: https://www.democracynow.org/2007/7/2/how_the_pentagon_papers_came_to