OTD in History… June 13, 1971, the New York Times publishes the Pentagon Papers about Vietnam
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history… June 13, 1971, The New York Times published the stolen 47-volume government documents known as the Pentagon Papers, which outlined the United States government ’s growing involvement in the Vietnam War, covering the Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations. Disgruntled Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who opposed the Vietnam War, stole the “top-secret” documents. Ellsberg distributed the papers to the New York Times, the Washington Post and then 12 other newspapers. The papers published in the New York Times sparked a debate over freedom of the press, and whether the public has a right to know went to the Supreme Court, which ruled a decisive decision in the presses’ favor. With another president in power, Donald Trump who like Richard Nixon then, who often criticizes and the “undermines” the press, this ruling remains relevant.
The 7000 page, Pentagon Papers were officially entitled, The History of the U.S. Decision Making Process on Vietnam, and included “communiques, recommendations, and decisions” regarding Vietnam, from the three administrations. Johnson’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara commissioned the papers in 1967 an official history of the policy, and they were written by multiple authors, including Ellsberg.
After hearing a speech against the war by Randy Kehler in 1969, Ellsberg decided to sneak out volumes from his office at the RAND Corporation. Each night he stole out “portions” and copied them. In 1970, Ellsberg tried to get Nixon Administration officials and lawmakers to acknowledge them but failed. He then turned to the press, specifically the New York Times. In his 2002 memoir “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers,” Ellsberg explained the reasoning, “Only The Times might publish the entire study, and it had the prestige to carry it through.” Ellsberg had a contact there as well, Neil Sheehan.
The New York Times foreign editors’ team and Vietnam reporters set up shop in the New York Hilton, storing the documents and taking turns checking the text to the references. The paper’s law firm, Lord Day & Lord discovered what they were doing, they threatened to out them to the Justice Department and refused to represent them. On Sunday, June 13, Sheehan’s introduction was published in the middle of the front page of the paper entitled, “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing US Involvement.”
Sheehan described the Pentagon Papers as “A massive study of how the United States went to war in Indochina, conducted by the Pentagon three years ago, demonstrates that four administrations progressively developed a sense of commitment to a non‐Communist Vietnam, a readiness to fight the North to protect the South, and an ultimate frustration with this effort — to a much greater extent than their public statements acknowledged at the time.”
On June 14, the paper published an article on the documents. All branches of government opposed their publication because they were considered “classified” and if the public had a right to know about them and read them. President Nixon particularly opposed their publication and sent Attorney General John N. Mitchell to ask the Times to cease publishing, threatening that
“Further publication of information of this character will cause irreparable injury to the defense interests of the United States.” The Times continued and the administration “sued” them. The government won at first, with a federal judge ordering a temporary restraining order.
The Washington Post jumped in but had to use the Times as a source. The restraining order prompted Ellsberg to “reach out” to The Post. Ellsberg used one of his many intermediaries to contact former colleague and Post National editor, Ben H. Bagdikian, who picked up a copy of the papers in Boston and brought them back by plane. Ben Bradlee, the editor of The Post recounted; “With The Times silenced by the federal court in New York, we decided almost immediately that we would publish a story the next morning, Friday, June 18.” After The Post published their first articles, Bradlee was contacted by then Assistant Attorney General William H. Rehnquist, who asked them like the Times to cease publication, but Bradlee refused. Meanwhile, Ellsberg continued leaking the Pentagon Papers to other newspapers.
The New York Times and the Washington Post took the issue up to the Supreme Court and on June 30, the Supreme Court ruled 6–3 in favor of the press. Justice Hugo L. Black wrote in the Opinion, “In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers nobly did that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.” The Times and Post could continue publishing the Pentagon Papers.
Nixon decided to resort to his own subversive method to stop leaks in his administration, the “Plumbers.” These same men were involved in the Watergate burglary in June 1972 at George McGovern’s Democratic National Committee headquarters, that plunged the nation into a crisis and led to Nixon’s resignation. Trump too, is facing an unprecedented number of leaks to the press in his administration as of yet he has not resorted to Nixon’s unsuccessful solution, but still his administration is mired in scandal over Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. New York: Viking, 2002.
Rudenstine, David. Day the Presses Stopped — a History of the Pentagon Papers Case. 1998.
Sheehan, Neil/ K. E. W. B. F. S. H. G. J. L. F. R. W. The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War. Two Rivers Distribution, 2017.
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.