On June 13, 1971, readers of the New York Times woke up to an explosive story. A top-secret US government study of the Vietnam War, dubbed the “Pentagon Papers,” decisively showed how the US executive branch lied about the war to both the US people and Congress. The Times, thanks to whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, had the study in its possession and was printing stories based on it. Those stories did not cast the US war machine in a flattering light.
The papers only implicated his predecessors, but President Richard Nixon reacted strongly anyway. In an unprecedented move, the administration actively sought to stop first the New York Times and then the Washington Post from printing the Pentagon Papers. Nixon became obsessed with the whistleblower Ellsberg, leading an illegal campaign against him that would help to ultimately bring down his presidency.
The Pentagon Papers have a double significance today, half a century since their initial publication. The papers were the center of a landmark battle for press freedom. They reveal how far the government is willing to go not just against a whistleblower but against the free press reporting their revelations. But the substance of what the Pentagon Papers actually revealed also can’t be overlooked. Ellsberg risked a life in prison to expose the Vietnam War as a crime of massive proportions, a crime that was possible in part thanks to the bipartisan lying of successive administrations over decades. It was the crime of the war itself that led to the American government’s attacks on press freedoms.
A War Machine Insider
Ellsberg is perhaps today the most iconic whistleblower in US history. But during his early career, he was very much an insider in the US national security establishment. Ellsberg served as a marine commander after college and in 1959 began working for the Rand Corporation, a think tank closely tied to the US military. In 1964, he would be recruited to work in the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Over his years there, he would interact with the likes of McNamara, Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Henry Kissinger.
At the Pentagon, Ellsberg got a front-row view of the deception at the heart of the US war in Vietnam. On his very first day in the Pentagon in 1964, he watched in real time as the Gulf of Tonkin incident unfolded. President Lyndon Johnson told the nation that for the second time in two days, the North Vietnamese had attacked a US ship, the USS Maddox. This was, Johnson claimed, an unprovoked attack in international waters during a routine patrol.
While claiming the US sought no wider war, Johnson asked Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which stated, “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” It was a blank check for war.
Johnson was lying when he said he sought no wider war. Plans for such a war were already underway. And the Congress’s delegation of war-making powers to the president would facilitate it.
But that wasn’t the only lie. While the first attack on the USS Maddox happened, serious questions were raised almost immediately about whether the second attack had even occurred or whether radar images were mistaken for torpedoes. The USS Maddox was on intelligence-gathering missions and frequently came as close as eight miles to the North Vietnamese mainland and four miles to North Vietnamese islands.
The North Vietnamese claimed “puppet forces” (a clear reference to the South Vietnamese) were shelling its coastal island. To the media and the US people, both the State Department and the Pentagon rejected these claims as false. Yet in a classified congressional hearing McNamara told select members of Congress the South Vietnamese had engaged in military actions, but they were out of the United States’ control.
This was also a lie. The attacks in question had been carried out by the CIA and US Navy and signed off on by top officials in Washington. The Commander of USS Maddox knew of these raids and asked for his patrols to be ended, given the likelihood of North Vietnamese retaliation against his ship. Nearly everything the government said about these incidents in Vietnam was a lie. They wouldn’t be the last.
Nineteen sixty-four was an election year. Johnson was painting himself as a peace candidate and his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater as an extremist warmonger. Johnson blasted Goldwater for wanting to bomb North Vietnam — something Johnson would do less than a year after the election.
On the very day Americans went to the polls thinking they were choosing peaceful restraint over reckless warmongering, Ellsberg was in the Pentagon, too busy to vote as he planned a wider war. In his compelling memoir Secrets, Ellsberg describes his views of the US-Vietnam war as progressing through three stages. At first, he viewed the war as a mistake. Then, he considered it a stalemate. Finally, he viewed it as a crime.
Reading the Pentagon Papers in full helped Ellsberg reach this conclusion. He helped work on the parts of the papers concerning the Kennedy administration, but going back and reading of the origins of the war during the Truman administration shocked Ellsberg. Far from there being two wars, as the US claimed officially — one French war to recolonize Indochina and a later US war to contain communism — there was one single war. With the US funding, arming, and encouraging the French, Ellsberg realized from the very beginning it was an American war.
Most jarring to Ellsberg was his realization that the problem in Vietnam was not that the United States was intervening in someone else’s civil war. Vietnam was not a civil war but a war of foreign aggression. The Pentagon wunderkinds had heard such claims from the antiwar movement but rejected them as extremist falsities. Yet looking at the government’s own history, Ellsberg could no longer reject the truth.
“Wouldn’t You Go to Jail If It Would Help End the War?”
Ellsberg developed a growing interest in nonviolent resistance. As a result, he found himself in August 1969 at a conference of the War Resisters International — certainly an unusual move for a Pentagon bureaucrat. During the conference, for the first time he encountered draft resistors, young men who went to prison in order to refuse participation in an unjust slaughter. Hearing their stories and their willingness to sacrifice their own liberty to end the war profoundly changed Ellsberg.
Ellsberg thought the best way he could contribute to the movement to end the war was to get the Pentagon Papers to the American people. As Ellsberg explained to me during an interview for the Primary Sources podcast, he wasn’t naïve enough to think that his actions were guaranteed to change things. But he believed then and believes now that some crimes are so horrible you have to do what you can on the chance it would improve things, even if those actions come at great personal cost.
In 1969, he began sneaking volumes of the Pentagon Papers out of the Rand Corporation and stayed up all night copying them. He was assisted by Anthony Russo, a former Rand employee, and Ellsberg’s 13-year-old son and ten-year-old daughter. At forty-seven volumes and seven thousand pages, it took months to copy and then collate copies of the top-secret history of the war.
After completing this task, Ellsberg clandestinely delivered copies of the Pentagon Papers to leading congressional critics of the war. In spite of their opposition and firm proof that multiple administrations had lied to the people and to Congress, those critics were still deferential to the cult of secrecy around Vietnam.
Ellsberg decided to go to the press, taking the papers to the New York Times. Given the nature of what they were doing, the reporters handling the documents were made to work on the story outside the newspaper’s office. The law firm that represented the New York Times told the paper’s leadership they would not represent the Times in court if they published the story. The in-house general counsel, James Goodale, already a veteran of two landmark Supreme Court First Amendment fights, had a different perspective. He believed the decision to publish or not to publish was one about the future of press freedom in the United States.
The New York Times published the first story about the papers on June 13 on its front page, next to an article about Patricia Nixon’s wedding. The Times gave a broad overview of how the papers covered how “four succeeding administrations built up the American political, military, and psychological stakes in Indochina,” and that the “predominant American interest was at first containment of Communism and later the defense of the power, influence and prestige of the United States, in both stages irrespective of conditions in Vietnam.” The Times announced it would be publishing a series based on those documents
The first installment appeared that same day on page 38. It covered the run-up to the Gulf of Tonkin, during which “the United States had been mounting clandestine military attacks against North Vietnam and planning to obtain a Congressional resolution that the Administration regarded as the equivalent of a declaration of war.” When the Gulf of Tonkin incident did occur, the Johnson administration pushed through a previously prepared resolution while hiding the existence of the clandestine attacks.
As the Times reported, “The papers make it clear that these far-reaching measures were not improvised in the heat of the Tonkin crisis.” “Retaliatory” measures could be carried out so quickly because they had already been planned. The Johnson administration was itching to escalate its war in Vietnam.
While the secret history did not cover the Nixon administration, Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and others viewed the printing of government secrets to be an attack on the institution of government itself. In an unprecedented move, they persuaded a federal court to censor the Times, barring it from publishing future extracts from and stories on the Pentagon Papers.
Ellsberg, labeled by Henry Kissinger as “the most dangerous man in America who must be stopped at all costs,” was now the subject of a massive manhunt. Yet while underground, hiding out in a hotel room in Boston, he reached out to the Washington Post. He had more copies of the Pentagon Papers — would they be willing to print them? With the New York Times barred from publishing stories based on the Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post stepped into the fold. They, too, were soon the subject of a federal injunction.
A game of whack-a-mole began. One paper would be barred from publishing, and Ellsberg would simply give part of the Pentagon Paper to another paper. The new paper would publish groundbreaking stories before being shut down by the government. In the end, seventeen newspapers — including the Boston Globe and St. Louis Post-Dispatch — would publish the Pentagon Papers.
Ellsberg would also find a congressional champion. At Ellsberg’s arrangement, a Washington Post editor gave the Pentagon Papers to Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK). Gravel had an untested theory that the Constitution’s speech or debate clause gave him an undeniable right to put the top-secret documents into the Senate record.
Meeting under the marquee of the Mayflower Hotel, Gravel loaded the documents into the trunk. Given their heavy weight, someone suggested his aides help them. Gravel rejected this, fearing they would face criminal prosecution not having his immunity as a senator.
On June 29, 1971, Gravel convened a one-person meeting of the Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee. For three hours, he read the Pentagon Papers aloud before breaking down in tears at 1:00 AM. Banging his gavel, he entered over four thousand pages of the Pentagon Papers into the Senate record.
Cases usually take years to get to the Supreme Court, but just fifteen days after litigation started, the Supreme Court released a landmark ruling. The government, according to the court, faced a high burden to bar something from publication. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, the government had not met it. The Supreme Court would similarly vindicate Senator Gravel.
Ellsberg was the subject of one of the largest FBI searches in history. Yet he evaded capture — and distributed more and more copies of the Pentagon Papers to the media. He even appeared on the nightly news, interviewed in a secret location. Eventually, though, Ellsberg turned himself in. When asked if he feared prison, Ellsberg responded, “Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end the war?”
The Roots of Watergate
The Espionage Act is a World War I–era law. While the US was supposedly making the world safe for democracy abroad, the government used the Espionage Act to jail critics of the war and leftist radicals at home. Ellsberg became the first whistleblower indicted under the law. After Anthony Russo, the former Rand employee who aided him in stealing the documents, refused to testify before a grand jury against Ellsberg, Russo was also indicted under the Espionage Act. Ellsberg faced 115 years in prison, Russo 35.
While mounting a defense under the Espionage Act is an arduous task at best, Nixon was not satisfied with letting things take their course in the courts — Nixon decided the best way to try Ellsberg was in the press. To do that, he needed dirt on Ellsberg.
Nixon convened a secret team that included former CIA and FBI agents to carry out covert operations against Ellsberg. Because they were tasked with stopping leaks, they were dubbed the “White House plumbers.” Looking for information to smear Ellsberg in the press, the plumbers burglarized the office of Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst. These same burglars would strike again at the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate hotel. The roots of Watergate, the scandal that brought down an imperial president, lay in Nixon’s obsession with Ellsberg.
The revelation that the Watergate plumbers were involved in the Ellsberg case was shocking enough. Yet the government’s case suffered further blows. It was revealed that the Nixon administration had offered the sitting judge a job as FBI director after the recent death of J. Edgar Hoover. With the judge already considering whether to dismiss the case on the basis of the plumbers, the FBI revealed it had picked up Ellsberg’s conversations when Henry Kissinger ordered warrantless wiretaps of National Security Council staffer Morton Halperin.
Citing the totality of this misconduct, the judge dismissed the charges against Ellsberg and Russo. Ellsberg had been willing to risk a life behind bars on the off chance it would end the criminal Vietnam War. The government, zealous in its right to prosecute a war based on lies in secret, had done everything it could to destroy Ellsberg. Yet now Ellsberg and Russo walked free as a result of the government’s very zeal to destroy them.
Nixon had campaigned calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam. Yet, as president, he escalated the brutality of the already murderous war while illegally bombing Cambodia. In a chilling tape recorded in the White House in 1972, Nixon can be heard discussing his desire to bomb the dikes of North Vietnam, even though doing so would kill tens of thousands, before berating Henry Kissinger for his unease about dropping a nuclear bomb on the nation. Nixon can be heard saying:
A nuclear bomb, does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ’s sake! The only place where you and I disagree is with regard to the bombing. You’re so goddamned concerned about civilians, and I don’t give a damn. I don’t care.
Nixon is today the United States’ most disgraced president. He only escaped impeachment by resigning. Ellsberg, meanwhile, has continuously campaigned for peace. While Ellsberg was once reviled, today he is held up as a hero. Perversely, opponents of today’s whistleblowers juxtapose their supposed bad deeds against the deeds of Ellsberg, the good whistleblower. Ellsberg has rejected those distinctions and campaigned on behalf of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange.
Ellsberg may have helped bring down Nixon, but the Pentagon Papers were principally concerned with the lies of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. Far from being the story of how one maniac accidentally found his way into the Oval Office, it is a warning about how a government willing to lie to its people to foment a war of brutal aggression abroad will not hesitate to eviscerate democracy at home.