It was June 13, 1971, when The New York Times began publishing long articles on, and excerpts from, what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers: a secret history of the Vietnam War, prepared in the Pentagon. The uproar occasioned by the publication is dim and distant now; even among those who remember it, many probably think the whole episode did not matter much in the end. But it mattered a lot.
Presidential power was one thing affected by the publication and the controversy that followed. President Nixon saw what the Times and then other newspapers did as a challenge to his authority. In an affidavit in 1975 he said the Pentagon Papers were “no skin off my back”—because they stopped their history in 1968, before he took office. But, he said, “the way I saw it was that far more important than who the Pentagon Papers reflected on, as to how we got into Vietnam, was the office of the Presidency of the United States….”
Nixon ordered his lawyers to go to court to stop the Times from continuing to publish its Pentagon Papers series. Then, angry because J. Edgar Hoover was less than enthusiastic about acting against possible sources of the leaked documents, especially Daniel Ellsberg, Nixon created the White House unit known as the Plumbers. They arranged a break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to get his records. (They also discussed, but did not carry out, the idea of fire-bombing the Brookings Institution in Washington and sending in agents dressed as firemen to look for connections to the leak.) The lawlessness of the Plumbers, and the presidential state of mind they reflected, led to Watergate and Nixon’s resignation in 1974. One lesson of those years was seen to be that presidents are not above the law.
Public disclosure of the Pentagon Papers challenged the core of a president’s power: his role in foreign and national security affairs. Throughout the cold war, until well into the Vietnam era, virtually all of the public had been content to let presidents—of both parties—make that policy. As the Vietnam War ground on, cruelly and fruitlessly, dissent became significant. The Pentagon Papers showed us that there had all along been dissent inside the government. Thomas Powers, in an essay in Inside the Pentagon Papers, says that their disclosure “broke a kind of spell in this country, a notion that the people and the government had to always be in consensus on all the major [foreign policy] issues.”
The courts were another institution changed by the Pentagon Papers. Judges tend to defer to executive officials on issues of national security, explaining that they themselves lack necessary expertise. But here, in a case involving thousands of pages of top secret documents, they said no to hyperbolic government claims of damage that would be done if the newspapers were allowed to go on publishing—soldiers’ lives lost, alliances damaged. The government’s request for an injunction against publication was turned down by a federal trial judge in New York, by a trial judge and the Court of Appeals in Washington in the Washington Post case, and finally by the Supreme Court. Floyd Abrams, one of the assisting lawyers who went on from the Times case to become a leading First Amendment lawyer, has said that “the enduring lesson of the Pentagon Papers case…is the need for the greatest caution and dubiety by the judiciary in accepting representations by the government as to the likelihood of harm.”
The press was also profoundly affected by the Pentagon Papers. In the Washington of the 1950s and 1960s, correspondents and columnists shared the government’s premises on the great issues of foreign policy, notably the cold war. The press believed in the good faith of officials and their superior knowledge. The Vietnam War undermined both those beliefs. The young correspondents in the field, David Halberstam and the rest, knew more about what was happening and reported it more honestly than generals and presidents. But would an establishment newspaper like the Times go so far as to publish thousands of pages from top secret documents about the war?
Professors Harold Edgar and Benno Schmidt Jr. of the Columbia Law School wrote that publication of the papers symbolized
the passing of an era in which newsmen could be counted upon to work within reasonably well understood boundaries in disclosing information that politicians deemed sensitive.
There had been, they said, a “symbiotic relationship between politicians and the press.” But
The New York Times, by publishing the papers…demonstrated that much of the press was no longer willing to be merely an occasionally critical associate devoted to common aims, but intended to become an adversary threatening to discredit not only political dogma but also the motives of the nation’s leaders.
Thirty years on, do we need another book about the Pentagon Papers? We do. The issues raised by the 1971 publication and its aftermath—presidential power, the role of the courts and the press, government secrecy—are all still with us. And this book throws fresh and important light on the issues. John Prados and Margaret Porter call themselves its editors, because they include comments from participants in the events. But they really are authors also, providing a running account and analysis that goes beyond what has been written before.
They begin with a description, much of it new, at least to me, and fascinating, of how the papers were prepared in the Pentagon. In 1967 Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, by then beginning to have doubts about the war, told one of his military assistants, Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Gard, that he wanted “a thorough study done of the background of the Vietnam War.” Gard brought in a former Senate staff member with a Harvard Ph.D., Leslie H. Gelb, as director of the project. The idea at first was to put together a collection of documents on the war. Gelb added a series of studies on what the documents meant. McNamara wanted answers to hard questions: Are we lying about the number of the enemy killed? Can we win the war? To do the studies, Gelb hired experts: some from within the Pentagon, including military officers, and some from the RAND Corporation and other outside institutions. Each wrote about a period in the war’s history.
Prados and Porter include contributions from a number of the study’s authors in their book. An especially interesting one is by Melvin Gurtov, who came from RAND and did the study on the years from the end of World War II and the French return to Indochina to the Geneva Conference of 1954, at which Vietnam was partitioned. He offers some general conclusions he draws from the Pentagon Papers.
“The crux of these documents,” Gurtov writes,
was what they revealed about the duplicity of US leaders, who consistently lied to the American people, the Congress, and the press about many aspects of the war in the Kennedy and Johnson years. Presidents and their national security advisers knew the war was being lost, knew their Vietnamese opponents had popular support while their allies in Saigon did not, and knew that military firepower was no substitute for political legitimacy. But they told the American people the opposite.
Gurtov also praises Daniel Ellsberg for getting the papers to the public. It was “an act of great courage,” Gurtov says, to which I would add, one for which Ellsberg paid a heavy price in right-wing attacks unaffected by the realities of the losing war in Vietnam.
A second section of Inside the Pentagon Papers considers what happened inside The New York Times. Neil Sheehan of its Washington bureau, who had been one of the remarkable young correspondents in Vietnam, got the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg. Altogether there were forty-seven volumes: four thousand pages of documents and three thousand of the accompanying studies. But Ellsberg withheld four volumes on peace negotiations; neither the Times nor any other newspaper ever had those. In the forty-three volumes there was a thread: the United States had consistently professed support for a unified, independent Vietnam but just as consistently aided France in opposing Vietnamese independence, sabotaged the Geneva agreement for national elections, and so on.
Sheehan spent two weeks in a Washington hotel reading the papers before, on April 20, describing them to the managing editor of the Times, A.M. Rosenthal. Sheehan and other reporters were then secretly installed in a suite in the New York Hilton, with a guard at the door, to prepare for possible publication. But whether the Times would publish was still an open question. The reporters and editors who were in on the secret all pressed for publication. That included Rosenthal, even though Hedrick Smith, another Times reporter involved in the project, says in this book that Rosenthal personally favored the Vietnam War; journalism was what mattered. But some executives of the paper were opposed; and so was the law firm that had long represented the Times, Lord, Day & Lord. (Details of the debate inside the Times were first published in Sanford Ungar’s 1972 book, The Papers and the Papers.)
The Times Washington bureau chief, Max Frankel, frustrated by the lawyers’ respect for secrecy stamps, wrote a memorandum arguing persuasively that military, diplomatic, and political reporting always used “secret” material. The memorandum was later filed as an affidavit in the court case. On the other hand, it was not customary for the Times to use material from such an enormous breach of classification rules, related to a war that was still going on. That was what gave the Times‘s publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, a former US Marine, pause. But in the end he decided in favor of publication.
On the evening of the second day of publication, June 14, Attorney General John N. Mitchell sent a telegram to the Times saying that the Pentagon Papers series violated a criminal statute, the Espionage Act. He asked the Times to stop—and to “return…these documents to the Department of Defense.” Again there was conflict inside the Times about whether to comply. Sulzberger was in London on a long-planned trip; reached there, he ordered publication to continue. A five-column headline in the Times on Tuesday morning said, “Mitchell seeks to Halt Series on Vietnam But Times Refuses.” According to Ungar, Rosenthal said later, “If the headline had been ‘Justice Department Asks End to Vietnam Series and Times Concedes,’ I think it would have changed the history of the newspaper business.”
James Reston, the Washington columnist and former executive editor, was the most respected figure on the paper. His position on the Pentagon Papers shows how things had changed. Reston had had many scoops as a reporter, but he had customarily worked with officials. He knew about U-2 flights over the Soviet Union for years but wrote nothing about them until one of the planes was downed in 1960. Now he pressed for publication of the Vietnam series. If the Times did not publish, he said at one meeting, he would publish the Pentagon Papers in the Vineyard Gazette, the Martha’s Vineyard weekly that he owned.