The Publication of the Pentagon Papers

Newspapers Published the Pentagon's Secret History of the Vietnam War

Photograph of Daniel Ellsberg at 1971 press conference.
Daniel Ellsberg at a press conference following his leaking of the Pentagon Papers. Bettmann/Getty Images

The publication by the New York Times of a secret government history of the Vietnam War in 1971 was a significant milestone in the history of American journalism. The Pentagon Papers, as they became known, also set into motion of chain of events that would lead to the Watergate scandals which began the following year.

The appearance of the Pentagon Papers on the front page of the newspaper on Sunday, June 13, 1971, infuriated President Richard Nixon. The newspaper possessed so much material leaked to it by a former government official, Daniel Ellsberg, that it intended to publish a continuing series drawing upon the classified documents.

Key Takeaways: The Pentagon Papers

  • These leaked documents detailed many years of American involvement in Vietnam.
  • Publication by the New York Times brought sharp reaction from the Nixon administration, which ultimately led to unlawful actions of the Watergate scandal.
  • The New York Times won a landmark Supreme Court decision hailed as a victory for the First Amendment.
  • Daniel Ellsberg, who provided the secret documents to the press, was targeted by the government but the prosecution fell apart due to government misconduct.

At Nixon's direction, the federal government, for the first time in history, went to court to prevent a newspaper from publishing material. 

The court battle between one of the country's great newspapers and the Nixon administration gripped the nation. And when the New York Times obeyed a temporary court order to cease publication of the Pentagon Papers, other newspapers, including the Washington Post, began publishing their own installments of the once-secret documents.

Within weeks, the New York Times prevailed in a Supreme Court decision. The press victory was deeply resented by Nixon and his top staff, and they responded by beginning their own secret war against leakers in the government. Actions by a group of White House staffers calling themselves “The Plumbers” would lead to a series of covert actions that escalated into the Watergate scandals.

What Was Leaked

The Pentagon Papers represented an official and classified history of United States involvement in Southeast Asia. The project was initiated by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, in 1968. McNamara, who had masterminded America's escalation of the Vietnam War, had become deeply disillusioned.

Out of an apparent sense of remorse, he commissioned a team of military officials and scholars to compile documents and analytical papers which would comprise the Pentagon Papers.

And while the leaking and publication of the Pentagon Papers was viewed as a sensational event, the material itself was generally quite dry. Much of the material consisted of strategy memos circulated among government officials in the early years of American involvement in Southeast Asia.

The publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, later quipped, "Until I read the Pentagon Papers I did not know that it was possible to read and sleep at the same time."

Daniel Ellsberg 

The man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, had gone through his own lengthy transformation over the Vietnam War. Born on April 7, 1931, he had been a brilliant student who attended Harvard on a scholarship. He later studied at Oxford, and interrupted his graduate studies to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1954.

After serving three years as a Marine officer, Ellsberg returned to Harvard, where he received a doctorate in economics. In 1959 Ellsberg accepted a position at the Rand Corporation, a prestigious think tank which studied defense and national security issues. 

For several years Ellsberg studied the Cold War, and in the early 1960s he began to focus on the emerging conflict in Vietnam. He visited Vietnam to help assess potential American military involvement, and in 1964 he accepted a post in the Johnson administration State Department.

Ellsberg’s career became deeply intertwined with the American escalation in Vietnam. In the mid-1960s he visited the country frequently and even considered enlisting in the Marine Corps again so he could participate in combat operations. (By some accounts, he was dissuaded from seeking a combat role as his knowledge of classified material and high-level military strategy would have made him a security risk should he be captured by the enemy.)

In 1966 Ellsberg returned to the Rand Corporation. While in that position, he was contacted by Pentagon officials to participate in the writing of the Vietnam War’s secret history.

Ellsberg’s Decision to Leak

Daniel Ellsberg was one of about three-dozen scholars and military officers who participated in creating the massive study of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia from 1945 to the mid-1960s. The entire project stretched into 43 volumes, containing 7,000 pages. And it was all considered highly classified.

As Ellsberg held a high security clearance, he was able to read vast amounts of the study. He came to the conclusion that the American public had been seriously misled by the presidential administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. 

Ellsberg also came to believe that President Nixon, who had entered the White House in January 1969, was needlessly prolonging a pointless war.

As Ellsberg became increasingly unsettled by the idea that many American lives were being lost because of what he considered deception, he became determined to leak parts of the secret Pentagon study. He began by taking pages out of his office at the Rand Corporation and copying them, using a Xerox machine at a friend's business. Seeking a way to publicize what he had discovered, Ellsberg first began to approach staff members on Capitol Hill, hoping to interest members working for members of Congress in copies of the classified documents. 

The efforts to leak to Congress led nowhere. Congressional staffers were either skeptical of what Ellsberg claimed to have, or were afraid of receiving classified material without authorization. Ellsberg, in February 1971, decided to go outside the government. He gave portions of the study to Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter who had been a war correspondent in Vietnam. Sheehan recognized the importance of the documents, and approached his editors at the newspaper.

Publishing the Pentagon Papers

The New York Times, sensing the significance of the material Ellsberg had passed to Sheehan, took extraordinary action. The material would need to be read and assessed for news value, so the newspaper assigned a team of editors to review the documents. 

To prevent word of the project from getting out, the newspaper created what was essentially a secret newsroom in a Manhattan hotel suite several blocks from the newspaper’s headquarters building. Every day for ten weeks a team of editors hid away in the New York Hilton, reading the Pentagon’s secret history of the Vietnam War.

The editors at the New York Times decided a substantial amount of material should be published, and they planned to run the material as a continuing series. The first installment appeared on the top center of the front page of the large Sunday paper on June 13, 1971. The headline was understated: "Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement."

Six pages of documents appeared inside the Sunday paper, headlined, “Key Texts From Pentagon’s Vietnam Study.” Among the documents reprinted in the newspaper were diplomatic cables, memos sent to Washington by American generals in Vietnam, and a report detailing covert actions which had preceded open U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

Before publication, some editors at the newspaper advised caution. The most recent documents being published would be several years old and posed no threat to American troops in Vietnam. Yet the material was classified and it was likely the government would take legal action. 

Nixon’s Reaction

On the day the first installment appeared, President Nixon was told about it by a national security aide, General Alexander Haig (who would later become Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of state). Nixon, with Haig’s encouragement, became increasingly agitated. 

The revelations appearing in the pages of the New York Times did not directly implicate Nixon or his administration. In fact, the documents tended to portray politicians Nixon detested, specifically his predecessors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, in a bad light. 

Yet Nixon had reason to be very concerned. The publication of so much secret government material offended many in the government, especially those working in national security or serving in the highest ranks of the military. 

And the audacity of the leaking was very disturbing to Nixon and his closest staff members, as they were worried that some of their own secret activities might someday come to light. If the country’s most prominent newspaper could print page after page of classified government documents, where might that lead? 

Nixon advised his attorney general, John Mitchell, to take action to stop the New York Times from publishing more material. On Monday morning, June 14, 1971, the second installment of the series appeared on the front page of the New York Times. That night, as the newspaper was preparing to publish the third installment for the Tuesday paper, a telegram from the U.S. Department of Justice arrived at the New York Times headquarters. It demanded that the newspaper stop publishing the material it had obtained. 

The publisher of the newspaper responded by saying the newspaper would obey a court order if one was issued. But short of that, it would continue publishing. The front page of Tuesday's newspaper carried a prominent headline, “Mitchell Seeks to Halt Series on Vietnam But Times Refuses.” 

The next day, Tuesday, June 15, 1971, the federal government went to court and secured an injunction which stopped the New York Times from proceeding with the publication of any more of the documents Ellsberg had leaked.

With the series of articles in the Times halted, another major newspaper, the Washington Post, began publishing material from the secret study which had been leaked to it.

And by the middle of the first week of the drama, Daniel Ellsberg was identified as the leaker. He found himself the subject of an F.B.I. manhunt.

The Court Battle

The New York Times went to federal court to fight against the injunction. The government's case contended that material in the Pentagon Papers endangered national security and the federal government had a right to prevent its publication. The team of lawyers representing the New York Times argued that the public's right to know was paramount, and that the material was of great historic value and did not pose any current threat to national security.

The court case moved though the federal courts at surprising speed, and arguments were held at the Supreme Court on Saturday, June 26, 1971, only 13 days after the first installment of the Pentagon Papers appeared. The arguments at the Supreme Court lasted for two hours. A newspaper account published the following day on the front page of the New York Times noted a fascinating detail:

"Visible in public — at least in cardboard-clad bulk — for the first time were the 47 volumes of 7,000 pages of 2.5-million words of the Pentagon's private history of the Vietnam War. It was a government set."

The Supreme Court issued a decision affirming the right of newspapers to publish the Pentagon Papers on June 30, 1971. The following day, the New York Times featured a headline across the entire top of the front page: "Supreme Court, 6-3, Upholds Newspapers On Publication of the Pentagon Report; Times Resumes Its Series, Halted 15 Days."

The New York Times continued publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers. The newspaper featured front-age articles based on the secret documents through July 5, 1971, when it published its ninth and final installment. Documents from the Pentagon Papers were also quickly published in a paperback book, and its publisher, Bantam, claimed to have one million copies in print by mid-July 1971.

Impact of the Pentagon Papers

For newspapers, the Supreme Court decision was inspiring and emboldening. It affirmed that the government could not enforce "prior restraint" to block publication of material it wanted kept from public view. However, inside the Nixon administration the resentment felt toward the press only deepened.

Nixon and his top aides became fixated on Daniel Ellsberg. After he was identified as the leaker, he was charged with a number of crimes ranging from illegal possession of government documents to violating the Espionage Act. If convicted, Ellsberg could have faced more than 100 years in prison.

In an effort to discredit Ellsberg (and other leakers) in the eyes of the public, White House aides formed a group they called The Plumbers. On September 3, 1971, less than three months after the Pentagon Papers began appearing in the press, burglars directed by White House aide E. Howard Hunt broke into the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, a California psychiatrist. Daniel Ellsberg had been a patient of Dr. Fielding, and the Plumbers were hoping to find damaging material about Ellsberg in the doctor's files.

The break-in, which was disguised to look like a random burglary, produced no useful material for the Nixon administration to use against Ellsberg. But it indicated the lengths to which government officials would go to attack perceived enemies.

And the White House Plumbers would later play major roles the following year in what became the Watergate scandals. Burglars connected to the White House Plumbers were arrested at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate office complex in June 1972.

Daniel Ellsberg, incidentally, faced a federal trial. But when details of the illegal campaign against him, including the burglary at Dr. Fielding's office, became known, a federal judge dismissed all charges against him.

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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "The Publication of the Pentagon Papers." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). The Publication of the Pentagon Papers. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Publication of the Pentagon Papers." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).