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’…
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