Publishes the Pentagon Papers Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The publication of the Pentagon Papers, excerpts from classified documents outlining the history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, scandalized the administration of U.S. president Richard Nixon and led to a series of court battles that challenged the rights of a free press to criticize the government.

Summary of Event

The publication of the Pentagon Papers was the culmination of a long-term effort by Daniel Ellsberg, an analyst at RAND, RAND to expose the U.S. government’s mishandling of the Vietnam War and efforts by a series of government officials to mislead the American public about the conduct of the war. Ellsberg was part of a team working on a top-secret report commissioned by U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara in 1967. The report would provide a historical record of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from the early 1950’s through 1968. As Ellsberg read the various reports that exposed mismanagement, ineptitude, and outright deception on the part of federal officials and presidential administrations, he came to believe the course of the war might be changed if these documents became public. [kw]New York Times Publishes the Pentagon Papers (June 13, 1971) [kw]Pentagon Papers, New York Times Publishes the (June 13, 1971) Ellsberg, Daniel Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Pentagon Papers[Pentagon Papers] Pentagon Papers New York Times;and Pentagon Papers[Pentagon Papers] Vietnam War;and Pentagon Papers[Pentagon Papers] Ellsberg, Daniel Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Pentagon Papers[Pentagon Papers] Pentagon Papers New York Times;and Pentagon Papers[Pentagon Papers] Vietnam War;and Pentagon Papers[Pentagon Papers] [g]United States;June 13, 1971: New York Times Publishes the Pentagon Papers[01370] [c]Publishing and journalism;June 13, 1971: New York Times Publishes the Pentagon Papers[01370] [c]Espionage;June 13, 1971: New York Times Publishes the Pentagon Papers[01370] [c]Government;June 13, 1971: New York Times Publishes the Pentagon Papers[01370] [c]Politics;June 13, 1971: New York Times Publishes the Pentagon Papers[01370] [c]Law and the courts;June 13, 1971: New York Times Publishes the Pentagon Papers[01370] [c]Military;June 13, 1971: New York Times Publishes the Pentagon Papers[01370] [c]Ethics;June 13, 1971: New York Times Publishes the Pentagon Papers[01370] Sheehan, Neil McNamara, Robert Gravel, Mike

Daniel Ellsberg (left), pictured here at a news conference during the U.S. Supreme Court case involving the The New York Times and its publishing of the Pentagon Papers.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

During 1970 and 1971, Ellsberg and a friend, RAND employee Anthony J. Russo, smuggled most of the report’s forty-seven volumes (about seven thousand pages) from top-secret safes at RAND and made photocopies of them. After several unsuccessful attempts to have congressional opponents of the war release the information, he convinced New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, of the paper’s Washington bureau, to take the papers to his editors in New York. Sheehan did this, and the paper decided to run a series of articles based on the report. New York Times editors planned a ten-part series and set up a secret operation to have reporters prepare the series before anyone in the Richard Nixon administration Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;Pentagon Papers learned the documents, which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, were outside government control.

The first article in the Pentagon Papers series, “The Covert War,” ran on Sunday, June 13. The initial response by the national news media and the public was muted, however. President Nixon thought it might be best to ignore the matter but key aides thought otherwise. Both Kissinger, Henry Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, and Haig, Alexander Alexander Haig, Kissinger’s chief assistant, recommended immediate action to stop publication of future installments. Haig, in particular, thought the publication of these documents was a criminal offense, claiming national security had been breached in a time of war. The two lobbied Nixon to have the U.S. Justice Department gain an injunction against the newspaper to stop further publication of the series.

Nixon also was encouraged to launch an investigation to determine who had provided the documents to the newspaper. Convinced that the series posed a threat to national security and to his administration’s ability to continue the conduct of the war in secret, Nixon directed Attorney General John Mitchell to move aggressively against The New York Times and other news outlets that were already beginning their own series based on the same documents. Nixon also directed an immediate investigation to find the person responsible for leaking the information.

Nixon’s reaction may seem to have been disproportionately harsh, but there were reasons he reacted as strongly as he did. Although the information in the Pentagon Papers did not reveal anything that could directly embarrass his administration, through their publication many Americans learned for the first time about the pattern of mismanagement and deception that placed the United States in an unwinnable conflict in Southeast Asia. By 1971, the Vietnam War was already unpopular, and although Nixon had run in 1968 on a platform promising to end the conflict, little had been done to de-escalate hostilities when the Pentagon Papers appeared. Their appearance simply confirmed what many Americans had suspected for some time: They had been systematically lied to by their elected officials, and the federal government that had for years been considered both trustworthy and honorable had squandered lives and resources in an effort to resolve an increasingly untenable political and military conflict. Although nothing in the Pentagon Papers pointed a finger at the present administration, Nixon’s operation was equally discredited by implication. Unable to deal with such a blow to his reputation, the president was easily convinced that immediate and drastic action was necessary.

From Nixon’s point of view, the situation began spiraling out of control almost immediately. Several days after the first article appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post;Pentagon Papers The Washington Post and other newspapers across the country began to report on the Pentagon Papers as well. Although the Justice Department was able to gain temporary injunctions to halt publication in several cities, it soon became clear that the damage to the administration’s effort to manage the war in secret was already done. Federal judges in several jurisdictions delivered different rulings on the government’s petitions for suppression. In these cases, the government insisted that national security was threatened by publication of the Pentagon Papers. Attorneys for the newspapers argued that their clients were protected from prior restraint of publication by the First Amendment. The matter quickly reached the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S.;and Pentagon Papers[Pentagon Papers] Supreme Court, which agreed to expedite its deliberations by holding an emergency session beginning June 26.

U.S. senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, an outspoken critic of the war, obtained a copy of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg and read some of the papers at a congressional subcommittee meeting, thus entering forty-one hundred pages of the papers into the Congressional Record on June 29 because they were now public record. It was now almost impossible to claim the documents should—or could—remain secret. The Nixon administration lost its battle to have publication suppressed on June 30, when the Supreme Court, in New York Times Co. v. United States, New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) ruled that prior restraint from publication was not appropriate in this case. By this time public opinion, already concerned about the Nixon administration’s policies on Vietnam, began to solidly turn against the president.

Although he could no longer keep information in the Pentagon Papers a secret, Nixon decided he could still pursue the individual responsible for their release. Sources inside the government had quickly narrowed the list of individuals who might have carried out such an initiative, and Ellsberg was considered the most likely suspect. Ellsberg had gone into hiding when the first New York Times article appeared. When he finally surfaced at the end of June, 1971, he was arrested and charged with theft, conspiracy, and espionage. Russo, too, was arrested.

The Nixon administration moved aggressively to build a case against Ellsberg. After officials learned Ellsberg had been under the care of a psychiatrist, they organized a break-in at the doctor’s office to steal documents they thought might be used to incriminate Ellsberg. For Nixon, these criminal activities came to light sometime later, when the U.S. Congress began investigating the administration’s role in the break-in at the Watergate Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Watergate[Watergate] Watergate scandal Hotel complex in 1972. As a result, the Pentagon Papers case was once again in the news, and the exposure of governmental misconduct led to the dropping of charges against Ellsberg.

Impact

The immediate impact of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which would earn the paper a Pulitzer Prize in 1972, was to fuel the already growing sentiment of distrust felt by many Americans toward the federal government, especially with respect to its handling of the war in Vietnam. Much more insidious and ultimately more devastating was the impact of the case on the Nixon administration and for the president personally.

Another significant impact of the case was a legal one. The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of The New York Times permitted American newspapers to continue publishing information from the Pentagon Papers. Legally, the justices actually upheld the principle that prior restraint of publication is sometimes permissible, but by refusing to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers they set a high standard for the government to meet for requests of prior restraint.

One further impact was the effect of Nixon’s attempt to gain information that could be used to discredit Ellsberg. The president authorized the creation of a special team of operatives who would work clandestinely to obtain damaging materials. The larger mission of this group was to find ways to stop leaks of information from the government. Within White House circles, the group became known as the Plumbers, and it staged a raid on the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in 1971. A year later, working with the Committee to Re-Elect the President, the Plumbers conducted an infamous attempt to obtain materials from the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate Watergate scandal complex in Washington, D.C. The arrest of some of these intruders eventually exposed the dark underside of the Nixon administration’s attempts to manipulate public opinion, discredit those who opposed the administration, and conduct illegal operations under the cloak of national security. The ultimate result of relentless congressional pressure on the White House led to Nixon’s resignation from the presidency on August 8, 1974. Ellsberg, Daniel Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Pentagon Papers[Pentagon Papers] Pentagon Papers New York Times;and Pentagon Papers[Pentagon Papers] Vietnam War;and Pentagon Papers[Pentagon Papers]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. New York: Viking Press, 2002. Explains why Ellsberg assembled the Pentagon Papers for release to the press. Discusses the impact his actions had on his personal life and on the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prados, John, and Margaret Pratt Porter. Inside the Pentagon Papers. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004. Interviews with key figures involved in leaking the papers, pursuing their publication, or obstructing their publication. Also assesses the impact the release had on public opinion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rudenstine, David. The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Explains how and why the Pentagon Papers were released. Focuses on the legal issues surrounding the U.S. government’s efforts to prevent public disclosure. Discusses the impact of this incident on American legal and political history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ungar, Stanley. The Papers and the Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle over the Pentagon Papers. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972. Describes efforts by the government to restrict publication of the Pentagon Papers and the strong, negative public reaction that followed their release.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wells, Tom. Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Includes a detailed assessment of the impact that publication of the Pentagon Papers had on American public opinion. Also includes an account of the Nixon administration’s efforts to discredit and destroy Ellsberg.

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