Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg was born in Detroit in 1931. After graduating from Harvard in 1952 he studied at King's College, Cambridge.

Ellsberg joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1954. Over the next three years he served as a rifle platoon leader, operations officer, and rifle company commander.

In 1957 Ellsberg became a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows, Harvard University. He earned his Ph.D. in Economics at Harvard with his thesis, Risk, Ambiguity and Decision. In 1959, he became a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation, and consultant to the Department of Defense and the White House, specializing in problems of the command and control of nuclear weapons, nuclear war plans, and crisis decision-making.

Ellsberg joined the Defense Department in 1964 as Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs) John McNaughton, working on Vietnam. He transferred to the State Department in 1965 to serve two years at the US Embassy in Saigon, evaluating pacification on the front lines. He worked under Edward Lansdale. Ellsberg liked Lansdale because of his commitment to democracy.

Ellsberg also agreed with Lansdale that the pacification program should be run by the Vietnamese. He argued that unless it was a Vietnam project it would never work. Lansdale knew that there was a deep xenophobia among Vietnamese. However, as he pointed out, he believed "Lyndon Johnson would have been just as xenophobic if Canadians or British or the French moved in force into the United States and took charge of his dreams for a great Society, told him what to do, and spread out by thousands throughout the nation to see that it got done."

In 1967 Ellsberg became a member of the McNamara Study Group that in 1968 had produced the classified History of Decision Making in Vietnam, 1945-1968. Ellsberg, disillusioned with the progress of the war, believed this document should be made available to the public. He gave a copy of what later became known as the Pentagon Papers to William Fulbright. However, he refused to do anything with the document, so Ellsberg gave a copy to Phil Geyelin of the Washington Post. Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee decided against publishing the contents on the document.

Ellsberg now went to the New York Times and they began publishing extracts from the document on 13th June, 1971. This included information that Dwight Eisenhower had made a secret commitment to help the French defeat the rebellion in Vietnam. The document also showed that Lyndon B. Johnson had turned this commitment into a war by using a secret "provocation strategy" that led to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents and that Johnson had planned from the beginning of his presidency to expand the war.

Ben Bradlee was criticised by his journalists for failing to break this story. He now made attempts to catch up and on June 18, 1971, the Washington Post began publishing extracts from the History of Decision Making in Vietnam, 1945-1968. However, Bradlee concentrated on the period when Dwight Eisenhower was in power. The first story reported on how the Eisenhower administration had delayed democratic elections in Vietnam.

Richard Nixon now made attempts to prevent anymore extracts from the Pentagon Papers being published. The Supreme Court ruled against Nixon and Hugo Black commented that the two newspapers "should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly".

Ellsberg's trial, on twelve felony counts posing a possible sentence of 115 years, was dismissed in 1973 on grounds of governmental misconduct against him, which led to the convictions of several White House aides and figured in the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon.

Since the end of the Vietnam War he has been a lecturer, writer and activist on the dangers of the nuclear era and unlawful interventions. In 2002 he published Secrets.

In 1969 Daniel Ellsberg was a man tormented. After months of working with Kissinger, having seen his real peace plan, which was to pressure Hanoi through the Soviet Union and Communist China (hence détente and the China initiative), and to destroy Cambodia with bombs, rather than to talk sincerely in Paris; having been invited to San Clemente three times to tell Kissinger about "options" and urging him to read the Pentagon Papers, which, incredibly, he had not looked at, Ellsberg felt he had to repudiate everything he had done for the previous ten years. He became obsessed with breaking the deadly silence (the Cambodia bombing would remain secret until April 1970), with ending the deception and the self-deception of the national security types who were still, in spite of the Pentagon study, keeping that ridiculous war going out of more self-deception, desperation, and pride. In September he and his daughter and son and Anthony Russo (a RAND fellow who had analyzed Viet Cong "motivation and morale" for the government by interviewing prisoners in Saigon jails) made copies of the Pentagon Papers in a small Los Angeles advertising agency. The papers had been in private circulation at RAND, and Ellsberg, one of their authors, had legitimate access to them.

In November he gave several of the documents to Senator J. William Fulbright, a war critic, who could not see their value in ending the war and did nothing with them. He gave a complete set to Marcus Raskin at the Institute for Policy Studies, a prestigious left-wing think tank in Washington, and Raskin, with two colleagues, immediately started work on a book based upon them, Washington Plans an Aggressive War.

And he began testing the waters at the Post, showing up to see editorial page editor Phil Geyelin, talking passionately about how important it was that the paper change its position. On one occasion Ellsberg asked Geyelin if it were true that he could not always write as he wanted because of Mrs. Graham's relationship with Kissinger, who had been cultivating her, taking her to movies, confiding his well-known "anguish of power." In fact Kissinger had warned her about Ellsberg being "unbalanced," which was all he had needed to say. "That's not true," Geyelin blurted; "we ran a critical editorial the other day and now Kissinger stopped seeing her and won't return her phone calls and things are very tense around here." Geyelin walked with Ellsberg into the lobby, where they saw Katharine and Bradlee. There were introductions all around. Katharine shook Ellsberg's hand coldly and walked away. Bradlee wordlessly followed her.

The New York Times broke the Pentagon Papers on Sunday, June 13, 1971, with six pages of news stories and documents that told a different version of the war: that Truman and Eisenhower had committed the United States to Indochina through France, that Kennedy had turned that commitment into a war by using a secret "provocation strategy" that led eventually to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, that Johnson had planned from the beginning of his presidency to expand the war, that the CIA had concluded that the bombing was utterly ineffective in winning it...

Katharine and Ben Bradlee were humiliated that the Times broke the story first and felt that the Post now had to catch up. On Monday morning, when the Times headline read "Vietnam Archive: A Consensus to Bomb Developed Before '64 Election, Study Says," Bradlee met with Marcus Raskin and expressed interest in reading his manuscript. He received a copy of it by noon, but refused to publish excerpts because "they (the authors) were in the war criminal racket," having concentrated on the Kennedy years. That the papers told of war crimes became clear to him by Tuesday, when the Times headline read "Vietnam Archive: Study Tells How Johnson Secretly Opened Way to Ground Combat." Tuesday night the Nixon administration took the Times to court and won a temporary restraining order on the basis of the Espionage Act. By the time Ben Bagdikian had located Ellsberg in Boston on Wednesday and flown up to get a set of the papers, Bradlee was excited about defying Nixon for the cause of freedom of the press.

The disclosure that Hunt and Liddy had supervised the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office had inextricably linked Watergate and the Ellsberg trial in Los Angeles. In the newsroom, the two stories were often referred to as Watergate East and Watergate West. In early May, Bernstein and Woodward decided to go with a story saying that two New York Times reporters' telephones had been wiretapped as part of the investigation of the Pentagon Papers leak. Months before, Deep Throat had told Woodward their names - Neil Sheehan and Hedrick Smith - but, even now, the reporters could not find a second source, so the names weren't used. They did find, however, that there was a possibility that Ellsberg had been overheard on a tap. That figured, since Ellsberg had leaked the papers to Sheehan.

At Ellsberg's trial, the prosecution was insisting there were no taps involving Ellsberg. Now Judge Matthew Byrne asked the government to search its records again for evidence that Ellsberg might have been overheard on any wiretap.

The new acting FBI director, William D. Ruckelshaus, found one. The logs were missing, but Ruckelshaus had been told by his aides that Ellsberg had been overheard at least once - not on Sheehan's phone, as it turned out, but on the home telephone of Morton Halperin, a former member of the National Security Council staff of Dr. Henry Kissinger. Ruckelshaus' announcement that Halperin's phone had been tapped for 21 months was the first confirmation that the administration had used wiretaps to investigate news leaks. Moreover, it established that the government had illegally failed to disclose all its wiretap information to Ellsberg's defense attorneys.

Several days later, on May 11, Judge Byrne dismissed all the charges against Ellsberg. Government misconduct, he stated, had "incurably infected the prosecution".

Dan Ellsberg was a zealous Harvard intellectual, who had served voluntarily for two years in the Marine Corps before becoming a defense research expert for the Rand Corporation. He had volunteered in Vietnam, where he served as an "apprentice" to General Edward Lansdale. He had seen plenty of action in the Mekong Delta in 1965 and 1966, and actively supported the American pursuit of the war, until he returned in early 1969 to Rand, where he had been a colleague of Bagdikian.

Ellsberg was also the source of the New York Times's 7,000-page copy of the Pentagon Papers, because of his friendship with and respect for the Times's legendary Vietnam reporter, Neil Sheehan.

Late Wednesday, the 16th, Bagdikian flew to Boston, and first thing Thursday morning, he flew back with two first-class seats, one for himself and one for a large cardboard carton full of Pentagon Papers. The Post's package consisted of something over 4,000 pages of Pentagon documents, compared to the 7,000 received by the New York Times. At 10:30 a. m., Thursday, June 17, Bagdikian rushed past Marina Bradlee, age ten, tending her lemonade stand outside our house in Georgetown, and we were back in business.

For the next twelve hours, the Bradlee library on N Street served as a remote newsroom, where editors and reporters started sorting, reading, and annotating 4,400 pages, and the Bradlee living room served as a legal office, where lawyers and newspaper executives started the most basic discussions about the duty and right of a newspaper to publish, and the government's right to prevent that publication, on national security grounds, or on any grounds at all. For those twelve hours, I went from one room to the other, getting a sense of the story in one place, and a sense of the mood of the lawyers in the other.

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, the 18th, completing in twelve hours what it had taken the New York Times more than three months to do. For planning purposes, we had to take that decision so that we could re-thread the presses to include four extra, unplanned pages.

The Pentagon Papers leak came at a particularly sensitive time. We were just three and a half weeks away from Kissinger's secret trip to China, and the SALT talks were under way. Sir Robert Thompson had written in April saying that the major factor now influencing the course of the war was psychological: our military policy was working on the battlefield, but division in America was causing the North Vietnamese to stall in Paris. There had been violent demonstrations in Washington in May. On May 31, at the secret Paris talks, Kissinger offered our most far-reaching proposal yet. On June 13 the Pentagon Papers were published, and on June 22 the Senate voted its first resolution establishing a pull-out timetable for Vietnam. Before long, the North Vietnamese would slam the door on our new proposal and begin building up for a new military offense.

We had lost our court battle against the newspaper that published the documents, but I was determined that we would at least win our public case against the man I believed had stolen them, Daniel Ellsberg. A former Pentagon aide, Ellsberg had come under suspicion soon after the first installments from the study appeared. Whatever others may have thought, I considered what Ellsberg had done to be despicable and contemptible-he had revealed government foreign policy secrets during wartime. He was lionized in much of the media. CBS devoted a large segment of the network news to a respectful interview with him even while he was still a fugitive from the FBI.

On June 28, a Los Angeles grand jury indicted him on one count of theft of government property and one count of unauthorized possession of documents and writings related to national defense.

"I think I've done a good job as a citizen," Ellsberg told the throng of admirers outside the courthouse.

Kissinger, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and I had met on the afternoon of June 17 to assess the situation. Kissinger had known Ellsberg at Harvard and said he was bright but emotionally unstable.

In various interviews Ellsberg had said he was convinced that I intended to escalate the war rather than pull troops out of Vietnam. He said that increased public opposition would be necessary to force unilateral withdrawal. I felt that there was serious reason to be concerned about what he might do next. During his years at the Defense Department, he had had access to some of the most sensitive information in the entire government. And the Rand Corporation, where he had worked before he gave the Pentagon Papers to the Times, had 173,000 classified documents in its possession. I wondered how many of these Ellsberg might have and what else he might give to the newspapers.


‘I’ve never regretted doing it’: Daniel Ellsberg on 50 years since leaking the Pentagon Papers

The man who exposed US lies about the Vietnam war says the culture of official secrecy is worse today. But he urges whistleblowers: ‘Don’t wait years till the bombs are falling and people have been dying’

Last modified on Mon 14 Jun 2021 11.38 BST

W hen the police arrived, a 13-year-old boy was photocopying classified documents. His 10-year-old sister was cutting the words “top secret” off each page. It seemed their dad, Daniel Ellsberg, had been caught red-handed.

But the officers were responding to a false alarm and did not check what Ellsberg and his young accomplices were up to. “It was a very nice family scene,” the 90-year-old recalls via Zoom from his home in Kensington, California. “It didn’t worry them.”

So night after night the photocopying went on, the crucial means that allowed strategic analyst Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers, a secret report that exposed government lies about the Vietnam war. The New York Times began publishing excerpts 50 years ago on Sunday.

The papers, a study of US involvement in south-east Asia from 1945 to 1967, revealed that president after president knew the war to be unwinnable yet continued to mislead Congress and the public into an escalating stalemate costing millions of lives.

After their release Ellsberg was put on trial for espionage and faced a potential prison sentence of 115 years, only for the charges to be dropped. Once branded “the most dangerous man in America”, Ellsberg is now revered as the patron saint of whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

So, half a century on, is he glad he did it? “Oh, I’ve never regretted for a moment doing it from then till now,” he says, wearing dark jacket, open-necked shirt and headphones against the backdrop of a vast bookcase. “My one regret, a growing regret really, is that I didn’t release those documents much earlier when I think they would have been much more effective.

“I’ve often said to whistleblowers, don’t do what I did, don’t wait years till the bombs are falling and people have been dying.”

Ellsberg’s own experience in Vietnam was formative. In the mid-1960s he was there on special assignment as a civilian studying counter-insurgency for the state department. He estimates that he and a friend drove about 10,000 miles, visiting 38 of the 43 provinces, sometimes linking up with troops and witnessing the war up close.

“By two years in Vietnam, I was reporting very strongly that there was no prospect of progress of any kind so the war should not be continued. And that came to be the majority view of the American people before the Pentagon Papers came out.

“By ’68 with the Tet offensive, by ’69, most Americans already thought it was immoral to continue but that had no effect on [president Richard] Nixon. He thought he was going to try to win it and they would be happy once he’d won it, however long it took.

Ellsberg, right, in Saigon in 1965 with Maj Gen Edward Lansdale. Most senior officials in Washington ‘had never met a Vietnamese’, he says. Photograph: AP

“But the other side of it was that Vietnam became very real to me and the people dying became real and I had Vietnamese friends. It occurs to me I don’t know of anyone of my level or higher – any deputy assistant secretary, any assistant secretary, any cabinet secretary – who had a Vietnamese friend. In fact, most of them had never met a Vietnamese.”

Only recently, as he prepares for the 50th anniversary, has Ellsberg dwelled on how doubts about the war went higher in the political hierarchy than is widely understood. “The Pentagon Papers are always described as revealing to people how much lying there was but there was a particular kind of lying that’s not revealed in the Pentagon Papers.

“Yes, everybody was lying but for different reasons and for different causes. In particular, a very large range of high-level doves thought we should get out and should not have got involved at all. They were lying to the public to give the impression that they were supporting the president when they did not believe in what the president was doing.

“They did not agree with it but they would have spoken out at the cost of their jobs and their future careers. None of them did that or took any risk of doing it and the price of the silence of the doves was several million Vietnamese, Indochinese, and 58,000 Americans.”

But Ellsberg did break the silence. Why was he, unlike them, willing to risk life imprisonment for a leak that he knew had only a small chance of ending the war? He says he was inspired by meeting people who resisted being drafted into military service and, unlike conscientious objectors, did not take alternative service.

“They didn’t go to Sweden. They didn’t get a deferment. They didn’t plead bone spurs like Donald J Trump. They chose a course that put them in prison. They could easily have shown their protests in other ways but this was the strongest way they could say this war is wrong and it’s a matter of conscience and I won’t participate in it.

“That kind of civil courage is contagious and it rubbed off on me. That example opened my eyes to the question, what can I do to help end this war, now that I’m ready to go to prison?”

In 1969 Ellsberg was working as a Pentagon consultant at the Rand Corporation thinktank in Santa Monica, California, and still had access to the secret study of the war, which by this time had killed about 45,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. He decided to take the plunge.

“I said I’ve got in my safe at Rand 7,000 pages of documents of lies, deceptions, breaking treaties, hopeless wars, killing, et cetera and I don’t know whether it’ll have any effect to put it out but I’m not going to be party to concealing that any more.”

Ellsberg had a friend whose girlfriend owned an advertising agency with a photocopier, or Xerox machine. Over eight months he spent many nights making copies of the Pentagon Papers, twice with the help of his 13-year-old son Robert.

Ellsberg today. Photograph: Alberto E Rodríguez/Getty Images

He explains: “He was going to hear that his father had gone crazy or was a spy or was communist and I wanted him to see that I was doing this in a businesslike way because I thought it had to be done. And also to leave him with the precedent in his mind that this is the kind of thing he might have to do some time in his life and that there were times you had even to go to prison, which I thought would happen shortly.”

The owner of the agency often mis-set the office alarm and so often the police would come, including twice when Ellsberg was at work. But he kept his cool. “The first time I was at the Xerox machine. I look up at the glass door, there’s knocking on it and two police outside. ‘Wow, these guys are good, how did they get on to this?’

“But I remember covering the top secret pages with a magazine and I closed the Xerox cover where I was copying these things and opened the doors and, ‘What can I do for you?’ But there were a few seconds there of thinking, ‘Well, this is over.’”

Ellsberg tried and failed to persuade members of Congress to put the papers in the public domain. On 2 March 1971 he made contact in Washington with Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter he first met in Vietnam. After Sheehan’s death aged 84 earlier this year, the Times published a posthumous interview with him suggesting that Ellsberg had felt conflicted over handing over the documents.

Ellsberg responds: “He seemed to believe, according to that story, that I had been reluctant to give it to the Times. It’s hard to imagine that he believed that but maybe so. At any rate, that was not the case. I was very anxious for the Times to print it.”

The New York Times did so on 13 June 1971. The night before, Ellsberg had gone to the cinema with a friend to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. “We stayed up and saw the early morning edition around midnight and so that was marvelous.”

The Nixon administration obtained a court order preventing the Times from printing more of the documents, citing national security concerns. But Ellsberg leaked copies to the Washington Post and 17 other newspapers, prompting a legal battle all the way to the supreme court, which ruled 6-3 to allow publication to resume.

This stirring showdown over press freedom – retold in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film The Post, in which Ellsberg is played by the British actor Matthew Rhys – had a bigger impact that the Times’s first article. “The initial reaction was nil on the Sunday when they came out,” Ellsberg says. “The Times was baffled and dismayed. Nobody reacted at all.

“It was Nixon’s fatal decision to enjoin them and the willingness across the country to commit civil disobedience and publish material that the attorney general and the president were saying every day, ‘This is dangerous to national security, we can’t afford one more day of it.’ Nineteen papers in all defied that. I don’t think there was any other wave of civil disobedience like that in any respect I can think of by major institutions across the country.”

But the government wanted revenge. Ellsberg spent 13 days in hiding from the FBI but eventually went on trial in 1973 accused of espionage, conspiracy and stealing government property. The charges were dismissed due to gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering against him – crimes which ultimately contributed to Nixon’s downfall.

The high-profile trial had ensured huge media coverage of the Pentagon Papers. But Ellsberg says: “The effect on Nixon’s policy was zero. The war went on: a year later, the biggest bombing of the war and then, at the end of that year, 18 months later, the heaviest bombing in human history.

Police arrest during an anti Vietnam War protest near 14th street in Manhattan, New York City, in 1970. ‘By ’68, by ’69, most Americans already thought it was immoral to continue,’ says Ellsberg. Photograph: Stuart Lutz/Gado/Getty Images

“So as far as one could see, as I said at the time, the American people at this moment have as much influence over their country’s foreign policy as the Russian people had over the invasion of Czechoslovakia.”

Nixon resigned over Watergate in 1974 and the Vietnam war ended the following year. In the decades since, Ellsberg has continued to champion Manning, Assange, Snowden and others charged under the Espionage Act. The climate, he warns, has become more restrictive and punitive than the one he faced 50 years ago.

“The whistleblowers have much less protection now. [President Barack] Obama brought eight or nine or even 10 cases, depending on who you count, in two terms, and then Trump brought eight cases in one term. So sources are much more in danger of prosecution than they were before me and even after me for 30 years.”

Last month the nonagenarian Ellsberg returned to the fray by releasing classified documents showing that US military planners pushed for nuclear strikes on mainland China in 1958 to protect Taiwan from an invasion by communist forces, a scenario that has gained fresh relevance amid rising US-China tensions.

It is a dare for prosecutors to come after him again. If they do, he wants to see the Espionage Act tested by the supreme court. He argues that the government is using it much like Britain’s Official Secrets Act even though America, unlike Britain, guarantees freedom of speech through the first amendment to the constitution.

“We don’t have an Official Secrets Act because we have a first amendment but that has not been addressed by the supreme court,” says Ellsberg, still going strong after an hour-long interview. “So I’m willing to see this case go up to the supreme court. Not that I have any desire to go to prison or not. And it would have to move fairly fast to get me in prison in my lifetime.”


‘We’re Going to Publish’: An Oral History of the Pentagon Papers

Interviews for this oral history were conducted in the spring of 2021 by Jennifer Harlan and Brian Gallagher. Neil Sheehan, who died in January 2021, was interviewed in 2015 by Janny Scott. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

This article is part of a special report on the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers.

On Oct. 1, 1969, Daniel Ellsberg walked out of the RAND Corporation offices, where he worked as a Defense Department consultant, into the temperate evening air of Santa Monica, Calif. In his briefcase was part of a classified government study that chronicled 22 years of failed United States involvement in Vietnam. By then, the war had killed about 45,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. He had been posted in Vietnam, and even worked on the study he now carried. Having become convinced that the war was not only unwinnable but also a crime, he was now determined to stop it. Over the course of the next eight months, he spent many nights photocopying the rest of the study in secret.

He quit RAND, moved east for a fellowship at M.I.T. and for the next year tried to persuade members of Congress to help him expose the study — later known as the Pentagon Papers — to the world. It was not working. On the night of March 2, 1971, he was in Washington, D.C., and looked up Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter he had first met in Vietnam. The two started discussing the vast dossier.

The Xerox Operation

Frantic days in March 1971

  • Floyd Abrams
    TK Role
  • Linda Amster
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  • Fox Butterfield
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  • Daniel Ellsberg
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  • Max Frankel
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  • James Goodale
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  • James Greenfield
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  • Allan Siegal
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  • Robert Rosenthal
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  • Neil Sheehan
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  • Hedrick Smith
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  • Sanford Ungar
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Daniel Ellsberg I had actually given a talk at the National War College of all places. I did call Sheehan and asked if he had a bed for the night. He said he did, in the basement. His wife was actually away for the weekend or something. And so I went over there.

Neil Sheehan When he walks in the door, I gave him a cup of coffee, and we started talking.

Ellsberg I always thought what you need are hearings. Get these people under oath. They have to answer in some way or other. A newspaper can’t subpoena people. Neil said, “No, no, the best way is a big spread in The New York Times.” And I thought, well, he could be right.

Sheehan So Ellsberg and I made this agreement: If I could get The Times to agree to publish the whole thing, they’d do their best to protect him. He’d give us the whole thing. He wouldn’t be publicly announced as a source.

Max Frankel I was the Washington bureau chief, and Neil was the Pentagon correspondent. He briefs me on it and I say, “Can you get a sample of the papers?” So he goes off and he brings back an envelope with a sample of the narrative, but attached to it were some obviously top-secret documents of exchanges between the Pentagon and Saigon headquarters — government decision-making types of documents. I had no doubt that they were legitimate I’d seen enough government documents in my life. So I said, “Go to it, and see what you can get.”

Sheehan So I went up to Cambridge, Mass., to get a copy of the papers Xeroxed. And ho-ly Jee-sus Christ, I realized there’s no way you could protect Dan Ellsberg. He was having multiple copies made, and he was paying for them with personal checks, and he had them in his apartment. He had a guy making microfilms.

He said I could read it, but he’d changed his mind: He wasn’t going to let me copy a set for The Times.

Ellsberg I don’t think Neil realized — and I took it for granted — there was no question the F.B.I. already knew who the source of this would be. There was no question of keeping that secret. I already expected to go to prison either way.

Sheehan Normally, when you deal with sources, you protect the source and you allow the source to control the material. Well, he and Patricia [Marx, Ellsberg’s wife] were going on vacation, I think it was in the West Indies. They were going to be away for several days.

Frankel One night, I get this call from the national editor of The Times and he says, “What the hell is going on up in New England?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I’ve got this request that Sheehan wants $600,” which in those days was a lot of money. I said: “Oh, I think I know what it is, but I can’t tell you, certainly not on an open phone. And in any case, don’t worry about it. It’s a foreign desk matter.” This is the Xerox operation. Neil had to seize this opportunity not just to read them — which is what Ellsberg thought he was giving him — but to copy the whole thing.

Sheehan The first place, their machines broke down. So [my wife, Susan, and I] found another guy — an ex-Navy man who was running a Xerox shop. He knew enough these were really high classifications. So he got scared. So I said: “I understand you’re nervous about this. There’s nothing to be nervous about. This is a study that’s being done at Harvard, by a bunch of professors. And they’ve lent us these materials and they’ve put a time limit on how long we can have them out. I’ve got to get them back to them right away. As you can see the dates on this stuff, it’s pretty old. This is 1971 and that’s a ’66 document, or ’67 or ’68. There’s nothing to be afraid of. This stuff has all been declassified in bulk.” So he accepted that. He later on told the F.B.I. about the whole thing.

Frankel Abe Rosenthal, who was the managing editor, and Jim Greenfield, the foreign editor, they said, “Look, let’s move this to New York and we can get more people to work on it and get a better handle on it.”

Sheehan I told Abe: “I will not tell you who the sources are. You will not get the names of the sources from me.” He said, “We don’t want ’em.” The only question Abe asked me was: “How do you know this stuff is authentic? How do you know it wasn’t put together by a bunch of hippie kids in a cellar somewhere, out in California?” I told him, “I know the sources and I know the material and it’s genuine.” He didn’t take my word entirely for it. He told Jimmy Greenfield to go through this stuff and see if it’s authentic.

James L. Greenfield I was the foreign editor at the time, and Abe chose me to lead the project. His instructions were very simple: Get a grip on all this and see how much we can get in the paper. I began by getting the material delivered to my apartment in New York. I had called Mosler [Safe Company] for a big safe, but when it came it occupied the entire entryway, so that wasn’t going to work. The material had come in several mailbags, so my wife and I sat on them to crush them, and then we pushed them underneath our bed. It wasn’t very secure. Then, eventually, when we rented the space in the Hilton Hotel, we got two or three suitcases and had a kind of a shuttle from our apartment, and we got all 7,000 pieces of paper there.


How The Pentagon Papers Changed Public Perception Of The War In Vietnam

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross. Fifty years ago this week, The New York Times published the first in a series of articles based on a classified Defense Department study that was leaked to the paper by Daniel Ellsberg. The study came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. It chronicled decades of failed U.S. policy in Vietnam and ways the American public was misled about how the war was conducted. The first article by Times journalist Neil Sheehan was published on June 13, 1971, when President Nixon was in office. He learned about it in a phone call with Al Haig, who was then an assistant to national security adviser Henry Kissinger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: OK. Nothing else of interest in the world?

AL HAIG: Very significant, this goddamn New York Times expose of the most highly classified documents of the war.

NIXON: Oh, that. I see. I didn't read the story, but do you mean that was leaked out of the Pentagon?

HAIG: Sir, the whole study that was done for McNamara and then carried on after McNamara left by Clifford and the peaceniks over there. This is a devastating security breach of the greatest magnitude of anything I've ever seen.

NIXON: Well, what's being done about it then? I mean, I didn't - did we know this was coming out?

HAIG: There are just a few copies of this.

NIXON: So what about the report? What about the - let me ask you this, though. What about the - what about Laird? What's he going to do about it? Now, I just start right at the top and fire some people. I mean, whoever - whatever department it came out of, fire the top guy.

HAIG: Yes. Well, I'm sure it came from Defense. And I'm sure it was stolen at the time of the turnover of the administration.

NIXON: Oh, it's two years old, then.

HAIG: Sure it is. And they've been holding it for a juicy time. And I think they.

DAVIES: After several articles appeared, the Nixon administration secured a court injunction preventing the Times from publishing further stories. Ellsberg then gave a copy of the classified report to The Washington Post, which started publishing its own series five days after the first article had appeared in the Times. In a landmark First Amendment ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually found the government had not met the burden required to restrain the papers from publishing the stories.

The meetings between Ellsberg and The Washington Post were dramatized in the Steven Spielberg film "The Post." In this scene, Ellsberg is hiding out in a motel room with piles of paper strewn about, meeting with Post editor Ben Bagdikian. Matthew Reese plays Ellsberg. Bob Odenkirk plays Bagdikian

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")

MATTHEW RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) The study had 47 volumes. I slipped out a couple at a time. Took me months to copy it all.

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Ben Bagdikian) What the hell?

RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) Well, we were all former government guys, top clearance, all that, McNamara wanted academics to have the chance to examine what had happened. He would say to us, let the chips fall where they may.

ODENKIRK: (As Ben Bagdikian) Brave men.

RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) I think guilt was a bigger motivator than courage. McNamara didn't lie as well as the rest, but I don't think he saw what was coming, what we'd find. But it didn't take him long to figure out - well, for us all to figure out. If the public ever saw these papers, they would turn against the war - covert ops, guaranteed debt, rigged elections. It's all in there. Ike, Kennedy, Johnson - they violated the Geneva Convention. They lied to Congress. And they lied to the public. They knew we couldn't win and still sent boys to die.

DAVIES: Ellsberg, then a national security analyst with top secret clearances, was arrested and tried under the Espionage Act. A judge dismissed the charges when it emerged that officials in the Nixon administration had directed covert actions to discredit or silence Ellsberg, including tapping his phone and breaking into his psychiatrist's office to obtain compromising information. I interviewed Daniel Ellsberg in 2017 about his book, "The Doomsday Machine." It's about his days before the Vietnam War, when he worked on American nuclear war strategies in the '50s and early '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, Daniel Ellsberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. You became famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and other publications. And you tell us at the beginning of this book that you copied not just the Vietnam study, but a lot of other material from your staff at the RAND Corporation about U.S. nuclear war plans. What were you going to do with that material?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I planned to release that as soon as the Pentagon Papers, as they came to be known, had had whatever effect they could have on the Vietnam War. The nuclear information, I thought then and now, was actually more important. But the bombs were falling in Vietnam at that time, and I wanted to shorten that war as much as I could.

DAVIES: You went to work for the RAND Corporation, where you worked on high-level military strategy. Explain what the RAND Corporation was and what kind of work you did.

ELLSBERG: RAND, which stands for R&D - research and development - was really essence on research for the Air Force, set up as a nonprofit corporation to do long-range research. And, in particular, when I came there in 1958 for the summer and then later permanently in 1959, our obsession really was trying to plan our strategic forces in such a way that they couldn't be destroyed in a first strike by the Soviet Union. Those were the years that we all believed in RAND and in the Air Force that there was a missile gap in favor of the Russians and that a Russian surprise attack was a real possibility. And the idea was to assure retaliation for that. So it was to deter it so that no war would occur.

DAVIES: You know, this wasn't just a job for you, was it? I mean, it was kind of a special place to be. And it wasn't just a nine-to-five paycheck thing for you, was it?

ELLSBERG: Not at all. I was working in the summer, especially when I arrived to get up to speed, probably 70-hour weeks there reading top secret or secret material. Most of it was secret, actually, in RAND. And working on trying to avoid a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, so nothing in the world seemed as important. In effect, we felt we were trying to save the world, although weren't very confident we'd be able to do it.

DAVIES: So you focused in your research and in your work at RAND on decision-making in circumstances where information is incomplete or ambiguous. And you wanted to study how commanders in the military at all levels, right down to pilots, would make decisions on whether to attack Soviet targets in certain circumstances. And the research is fascinating, as you describe it. What kind of access did you, as the civilian, have to military personnel?

ELLSBERG: Well, and a civilian consultant to the commander in chief Pacific - Admiral Harry D. Felt at that time - I was doing a study for the Office of Naval Research and looking at the actual reaction that could be expected at various levels to various execute messages, messages to go or - there weren't messages to not go, actually. There was no stop message. A little footnote here, but once a go message was received at any level, there was no provision whatever for stopping that or rescinding it or bringing it back.

DAVIES: This is one of the jaw-dropping things as we read the book. If there was a launch, there was literally no way to recall a bomber. You can't recall missiles. But, you know, things that had pilots - jet fighters and bombers - there was no way to send them - to bring them back?

ELLSBERG: Once they'd gotten an authenticated message that they would execute the war plans. But the startling thing that I discovered at every level was that the general image that people had then and to this day, that a message with the right code could only come from the president himself, was never true. That was always a myth, at least it was from the late '50s, when President Eisenhower had delegated authority - his authority - to launch nuclear weapons to theater commanders in case there was an outage of communication or Washington had been destroyed or even the president had been incapacitated, as President Eisenhower was a couple of times. That's almost essential, that there be a delegation like that in a nuclear era. Otherwise, a decapitating attack, as they called it, an attack on the command and control system, would paralyze us. A single bomb on Washington would paralyze our retaliation. Well, that could never be allowed, and it never has been allowed.

DAVIES: So not just the president, but theater commanders have the authority under some circumstances to launch a nuclear attack. And these are experienced, high-level commanders. But what you found - I know that when you looked in the Pacific - is that these theater commanders had to be in communication with dozens and dozens of bases throughout the Pacific. And the question arises then, what about a base commander who has a number of fighter pilots or some aircraft? Under what circumstances might they proceed on their own to launch an attack? What did you find?

ELLSBERG: Well, again, if they were out of communication with their superiors, a lot of them had authorization in the Pacific, I found, in the early '60s. As far as I know, that continued. I don't know if it's true today, and we ought to find out. But actually, there were people even at a lower, as at a single base - you probably read an anecdote I had about Kunsan in Korea, in South Korea, the base possibly closer to communist territory of any of our bases in the world. And the commander there clearly believed that he had the authority simply as a base commander to send his planes off if he thought they were endangered. So at that point, had there been what he thought was an attack - for example, an accident on some other base that he heard about or a crisis that was going on - he felt - he told me that he would send his planes off.

DAVIES: There is a remarkable chapter in your book called "Questions For The Joint Chiefs," when you write that President Kennedy coming into the White House - he did not have, nor did anyone on his team, have a copy of, essentially, our plan for nuclear war, the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan and that when they asked for it, they were - you know, that the military was sort of reluctant. And then they gave a briefing, but not the actual plan itself. You had a copy. You examined it. And you wrote some questions. You - what troubled you about the plan that you saw?

ELLSBERG: Well, many things. It was a very strange plan. I'm not the only one who's called it the worst plan in human history. This was the plan for general war. It was an all-out attack on every city in the Soviet Union and China and attacks, in effect, in most of the Eastern Bloc because of air defenses and command and control that kept for no reserves, created fallout that would kill perhaps 100 million people in West Europe for our own weapons if the wind were in the right direction for that and many - and a hundred million in other contiguous areas of the Soviet Union, like neutrals like Austria and Finland and Afghanistan actually, but also several hundred million in the USSR and China, several hundred million killed. That added up to an intention in a U.S. first strike, if we preempted or if we escalated a war in Europe, to 600 million dead that they were calculating.

DAVIES: We're listening to my interview with Daniel Ellsberg. He'll tell us more about how he leaked the Pentagon Papers after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "THE PAPERS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my conversation from 2017 with Daniel Ellsberg. Fifty years ago this week, the first in a set of stories which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers was published in The New York Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: You're best known, of course, for leaking the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of the Vietnam War. And you had spent many years for the government in Vietnam examining the war, concluding that it was futile, that there was no way to win it. And, you know, you had spent many years as a young man as a real patriot. I mean, you truly believed in the country. You believed in the security clearances, right?

ELLSBERG: Pardon me. I think - I'm going to make it clear, but I wouldn't even want the question - to raise that question in a way. I am a patriot.

ELLSBERG: I have never changed in that.

DAVIES: And forgive me for putting it that way. I mean, you.

DAVIES: . You are devoted to doing the right thing for your country. But at that time, you were - you respected all of the high-level security clearances that you had. And it must have been hard for you to take the step of taking this top secret document and making it public. What did it take to get you to make that step?

ELLSBERG: Without young men going to prison for nonviolent protest against the draft, men that I met on their way to prison, no Pentagon Papers. It wouldn't have occurred to me, simply, to do something that would put myself in prison for the rest of my life, as I assumed that would do. So obviously, that was not an obvious decision to make, except once I'd seen the example of people like Randy Kehler (ph), and Bob Eaton and others and David Harris, who did go to prison to say that this war was wrong, the Vietnam War was wrong, and that they refused to participate in it.

DAVIES: How hard was it to actually copy the material?

ELLSBERG: Well, in those days, it was one page at a time. We didn't have these zip zip multipage collators and what not, machines that they have now or the - of course, the digital capability. So it took me a long time, months actually.

DAVIES: So you would stay at night in the office copying and then come back to work during the day?

DAVIES: Did night watchmen ever come upon you or anything?

ELLSBERG: Well, twice in that office, which was a small advertising office owned by a friend of a friend, really. Twice during that period, police came to the door because she had turned the key the wrong way and set off the burglar alarm. And on one of those occasions, my children were there. That was the one time police came in and found my son running the Xerox machine. No, I think I was running the Xerox machine. And he was collating or might have been the other way around. He was then 13. And my daughter, who was 10, was cutting off top secret from the tops and bottoms of the pages with the scissors.

The reason they were there was that I expected to be in prison very shortly. I'd hoped to get the papers out quickly, and that didn't happen in the Senate. But I wanted them to know that their father was doing something in a businesslike way, a calm, sober way that I thought had to be done. And I did let my older son know in particular that it might, in fact, would probably result in my going to prison. And that was an example that I was - actually wanted to pass on to my children, that they might be in such a situation.

DAVIES: So it was very clear that Nixon regarded you as a really dangerous man because, you know, he had information - you leaked these secrets, and there was information about his own internal thinking about Vietnam. And it was the actions of, you know, operatives of the Nixon administration that led to the dismissal of charges at your trial, because we learned that they, in fact, they planned a break-in at your psychoanalyst's office and some other things too. What else did they do?

ELLSBERG: Well, Bernard Barker - Macho Bernard Barker of the Bay of Pigs, a CIA asset - said that his mission was to break both my legs. But I don't think that would have shut me up totally in the hospital bed. I think they probably wanted something to happen to my jaw. But they were going to attack me in the course of a rally that I was speaking to on the steps of the Capitol on May 3, 1972 And they brought 12 of these CIA assets, mostly Bay of Pigs veterans, up and was shown my picture and said I was to be incapacitated totally.

And when their prosecutor told me this later, I said, well, what does that mean? Kill me? He said, the words were to incapacitate you totally. But you have to understand these guys never use the word kill - use neutralize - all right? - terminate with extreme prejudice. They use a lot of euphemisms, CIA people, for assassination.

DAVIES: You know, you - your trial ended when the government actions taken against you were exposed, and there was a - the charges were dropped. You took action to disclose government secrets then that you felt the American public needed to know. And I'm wondering what your attitude is today towards classified information and how you regard the actions of, you know, Chelsea Manning, say, and Edward Snowden.

ELLSBERG: You know, I said earlier, without draft resisters like Randy Kehler or Bob Eaton, no Pentagon Papers. Well, I was very gratified to have Edward Snowden say on a Skype meeting - a couple of times, actually - say that without Daniel Ellsberg, no Ed Snowden. That was very nice to hear because I'd never gotten feedback like that. I'd been urging people to use their judgment and their conscience for decades at that point, and it just hadn't happened - to put out information that the public needed to know, and it just hadn't happened.

For example, in the Iraq War, I think that if there had been an Edward Snowden or - and now that I've met him - at a higher level with greater access than he had - or a Chelsea Manning with greater access than she had in the - 2002, there would have been no Iraq War, no ISIS, no - nothing that we've seen later. That was a mad venture based on terribly unreal - totally unrealistic beliefs.

And I think that if the information had been put out, Congress would not have gone along with that war as they did - just as I'm very sorry to say if I'd put out the information in my safe in the Pentagon about our widening war that was projected in 1964, Senator Wayne Morse, one of the two senators who voted against that widening - the Tonkin Gulf Resolution - told me, if you'd put that out, there would have been no vote in the committee. It would have not passed the committee. And if they bypassed that to go to the floor of Congress, it would not have passed.

So he's telling me that I had had the power to avert the Vietnam War. I think that's true not only of me. That's a heavy burden to bear. I share it with a thousand others who had that kind of access. You know, when I said that Roger Morris had - did have the access to the nuclear target folders in 1969, and Nixon feared that I had those from Morris, I didn't because he didn't put them out. And later, Roger told me that was the failure of which he is most ashamed and that he most regrets in his life. He said, we should've thrown open the safes and screamed bloody murder because that's exactly what it was.

DAVIES: My interview with Daniel Ellsberg was recorded in 2017. Coming up, we'll hear about how the Nixon administration attempted to stop The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers with an interview from our archives with Ben Bradlee. Also, we'll remember actor Ned Beatty, known for his roles in the films "Network," "Deliverance" and "Superman." And our TV critic David Bianculli will review the new show "Physical." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're talking about the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam based on classified documents exposed by Daniel Ellsberg. The documents were first revealed in a series of articles by The New York Times 50 years ago this week. But the Nixon administration tried to prevent further revelations from coming out. To pick up the story, let's listen to an excerpt of an interview Terry did with Ben Bradlee, who, with Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, made the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. Terry spoke with Ben Bradlee in 1995. He died in 2014 at the age of 93. Here's Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Bradlee was the executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991. The biggest story covered under Bradlee's watch was Watergate, which forced the resignation of President Nixon. The first big risk Bradlee took was publishing the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret documents that revealed the history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The New York Times had already published several installments. But the Justice Department got an injunction against the paper, preventing it from publishing further excerpts. Then the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the Post. I asked Bradlee why it was important for the Post to publish the Pentagon Papers.

BEN BRADLEE: Failure to publish after The New York Times had published would have relegated The Post to a status of a kind of a pro-government establishment organization which didn't want to take on the government, didn't want to fight for its constitutional rights. And it seems to me, it would have forever relegated us to a sort of second-class citizenship. It wasn't my decision. But, I mean, I wanted to publish from day one, moment one. It was Katharine Graham's decision. And she was - it was a great decision. And it made all future decisions of an editorial nature at The Washington Post kind of automatic and easy.

GROSS: What were the risks?

BRADLEE: Well, there were some interesting risks because if we had been - this was a civil suit. If we had been enjoined - mind you, no newspaper in the history of the country, which was then 190-some years old, had ever been stopped from publishing something it wanted to publish beforehand, prior restraint. So that was a wonderful principle to fight for.

The other thing is that if we had been convicted of that, if the judge had stopped us from publishing something, the Nixon administration was - it was quite obvious - was going to go after us on criminal violations - violating the code against publishing confidential and national security matters. If had we been convicted of that - you cannot own television stations if you are a convicted felon, and that would have been a felony. And we had about a $100 billion of television stations that we would have lost.

The Post had just gone public in the New York Stock Exchange. Shares in The Post were offered for sale for the first time to the public. And that was seriously threatened. So it was no casual decision that was involved.

GROSS: There's a great story you tell about a phone call that I think really took a lot of chutzpah (laughter) to get.

GROSS: . (Laughter) To get a friend of yours, who is a judge, on the phone so you could get his advice. But, of course, he was arguing a case in court at the time. Tell us what you did.

BRADLEE: Well, he wasn't a judge. He was a lawyer.

GROSS: I mean a lawyer. I meant a lawyer.

BRADLEE: It was Edward Bennett Williams who was the famous defense attorney and a friend of mine for already 20 years. And he was - he would have defended us had he been in Washington, but he was trying a case in Chicago. I called up the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, Jim Hoge, and said, I need to get a message to Edward Williams - Edward Bennett Williams in such and such a courthouse immediately. And the message was, please, call me, urgent. And in a matter of minutes, Williams called me back.

And I talked for about 12 minutes and said, this is what we've got. This is what we want to do. These are the documents. This is what The New York Times has done. This is what the court with First Circuit New York had enjoined them from. And we want to publish. And I want you to tell me whether you think we should and why.

And he sort of was silent for a split second - a split minute and finally said, you got to publish it. You've just got to do it because it wasn't in a sense of Plessy v. Ferguson that we had the right to blah, blah, blah. But he just sensed in his guts that to become an important player in the American scene, we had to do it

GROSS: So how much of the decision to publish was so that The Post could become a more respected player and how much of it was all the lofty principles about freedom of the press?

BRADLEE: That's a good question, too, because, you know, in the last - it was 7,000 pages, although we only had 4,000 of them. We got them at 10:30 in the morning, and we published at 10:30 that night the - our first story. No one ever read the Pentagon Papers. They really didn't, you know? We could only read - each of us read sections of it. Then we - for about eight hours we read and then had a news conference and decided what we could publish.

The - what mystified us all was that the Pentagon Papers ended with matters - with the decision-making process in Vietnam before President Nixon took office, and, therefore, he was talking about the Johnson administration and the Kennedy administration and the Eisenhower administration. That's what the Pentagon makers - Pentagon Papers were about.

So I think, you know, it was - it dealt with the origins of the most important event in the middle of the 20th century, and, therefore, it had an intrinsic importance to it. But we also - it was a principle that is really fundamental to a free press. We've got to be able to publish what we want then get punished if we did wrong then get pursued by - privately by people that we may have libeled or publicly for violating the law.

GROSS: Now give me a sense of what your style was like when you were making your case to Katharine Graham and to the lawyers. Did you make speeches about freedom of the press? Did you insult your opponents in the newsroom? What was your style?

BRADLEE: No, I had no opponents in the newsroom. I had the lawyers to worry about.

GROSS: The lawyers - yeah, OK.

BRADLEE: We were - we had - it was - all of this was taking place in my house in Georgetown. We had two fairly large rooms. And one of them was sort of a temporary city room where a bunch of reporters and a couple of news aides and a copy editor or two were actually reading the documents, making up their mind what story to run, what story could they get into shape to run that night. And in the other room, we had the lawyers and the representatives of the owners and a couple of editors from the editorial page. And I shuttled between the two trying to make up my mind and learn the content and then trying to steer the conversation to the verdict I wanted.

There was no point in trying to say we've got to do it and threaten to quit because then if you - even if you won that, you'd win it leaving a - great scars and wounds in personal relationships. So we had to do it sort of gently and listen to everybody and listen to their arguments, try to understand them and then try to counter them.

GROSS: Do you thrive on making these complicated decisions or were these, like, Maalox moments for you?

GROSS: You'd be reaching for the medicine?

BRADLEE: Well, there's a wonderful quality of journalism. If you make a mistake, it's out there for everybody to see.

BRADLEE: And it stays there and, you know, it goes right - bang - into the history books. And it's - there are no known device that you can erase a daily newspaper (ph). I love it.

BRADLEE: Yeah. I do love the - that sense that you're dealing with important issues and that you're going to be fair and you're going honest (ph), but you're not going to back down.

DAVIES: Ben Bradlee was the executive editor of The Washington Post at the time The Post published the Pentagon Papers. Terry Gross interviewed him in 1995. He died at age 93 in 2014.

Coming up, we remember the great character actor Ned Beatty. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE'S "WEARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


“Going Underground,” From “Secrets”

Chapter 29: Going Underground

On Monday evening, June 14, 1971, we went to a dinner party at the house of Peter Edelman and Marian Wright Edelman. It was jammed with people sitting on the floor and sofas with plates in their laps, and there were two topics of conversation: What the Pentagon Papers were revealing, and who had given them to the New York Times. Patricia and I listened without contributing much. Jim Vorenberg was eating, on the floor, in one corner of the room. Our eyes didn’t meet.

Tuesday morning the third installment appeared. Attorney General John Mitchell sent a letter to the New York Times asking it to suspend publication and to hand over its copy of the study. The Times declined, and that afternoon the Justice Department filed a demand, the first in our country’s history, for an injunction in federal district court in New York. The judge granted a temporary restraining order while he considered the injunction. For the first time since the Revolution, the presses of an American newspaper were Stopped from printing a scheduled story by federal court order. The First Amendment, saying “Congress shall pass no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” had always been held above all to forbid “prior restraint” of newspaper or book publication by federal or state government, including courts and the executive branch. The Nixon Justice Department was making a pioneering experiment, asking federal courts to violate or ignore the Constitution or in effect to abrogate the First Amendment. It was the boldest assertion during the cold war that “national security” overrode the constitutional guarantees of the Bill of Rights.


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"[T]he sonofabitching thief is made a national hero and is going to get off on a mistrial, and the New York Times gets a Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents. What is the name of God have we come to ?" --President Richard Nixon (Oval Office discussion, May 11, 1973)

Background: The Pentagon Papers Study

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who commissioned the Pentagon Papers study

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, growing concerned that the long war in Vietnam was unwinnable, first considered in late 1966 commissioning a study of the history of U. S. decision-making in Indochina. By June of the next year, the Secretary decided to proceed with the study, which McNamara said should be an "encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War." He believed, he later said, that a written record of the key decisions that led to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam would be of great value to scholars. Morton Halperin, one of McNamara's top aides, was chosen to direct the study. Much of the day-to-day responsibility for supervising the study was delegated to Leslie Gelb.

The McNamara study staff was given access to McNamara's personal files, memoranda from the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, State Department records, and to specially requested information from the CIA. The frequently rotating professional staff for the study came from the Pentagon, the State Department, universities, and "think tanks" such as Rand. One of the first person recruited to help with the study was Daniel Ellsberg, a former Rand and Pentagon employee with six years of Vietnam-related experience. Ellsberg's work for the study focused on the Kennedy Administration's Vietnam policy in 1961.

In early 1969, the "Pentagon Papers" (formally, History of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-1968 ) study was complete. The massive work, examining Indochina policy from 1940 to 1968, consisted of 7,000 pages bound into forty-seven volumes. Pentagon officials classified the study "Top Secret" and published only fifteen copies. Although a historical study, officials worried that information contained in the Pentagon Papers, if it became public, would make foreign governments hesitant to engage in secret negotiations or provide secret assistance to the United States government. Officials also expressed concern that some of the information contained in the report came from wiretaps and bugging devices, and should the information be released it would likely jeopardize electronic surveillance and sensitive sources of information.

Daniel Ellsberg grew increasingly pessimistic about the chances of anything resembling a U.S. victory in Vietnam. The options, as he saw them, presented a choice between bad and worse. Shortly after the election of Richard Nixon as president in November 1968, Ellsberg was tapped to prepare a study of Vietnam "options" for Henry Kissinger, Nixon's newly-appointed national security adviser. In presenting his evaluation of options, Ellsberg found that Kissinger shared his negative assessment of the odds of a military victory. Ellsberg felt cautiously optimistic that Kissinger would help push Nixon to a policy of an early exit from the morass of Vietnam.

After meeting with Kissinger, Ellsberg returned to his work at the Santa Monica office of Rand, where he began reading the Pentagon Papers. As he read through the secret history of U.S. support for French efforts to crush independence movements in Indochina in the 1950s, Ellsberg came to see the continuation of the war in Vietnam as not just bad policy, but as immoral.

By mid-summer 1969, it became clear to Ellsberg that Nixon had no intention of simply declaring victory and pulling out of Vietnam. The president did not want to see the flag of the Vietcong fly over the city of Saigon. Faced with the prospect of a war without end, costing thousands of American and Vietnamese lives, Ellsberg pondered what he might do to bring about a change in U.S. policy. After attending an emotional conference of War Resisters at Haverford College in August, Ellsberg suddenly felt "liberated"--and ready to take action to end the war, even if it put himself at risk.

Convinced that release of the Pentagon Papers would make an already skeptical public more likely to apply the pressure that might finally bring an end to our involvement in Vietnam, Ellsberg decided to try to make that happen. When the public understood how it had been misled by past presidents, Ellsberg thought, they would no longer buy what the current president was telling them now. On September 30, 1969, Ellsberg visited the apartment of an anti-war friend of his, Anthony Russo. Ellsberg told Russo, "You know the study I told you about a couple of weeks ago? I've got it at Rand, in my safe, and I'm going to put it out." Russo replied, "Great! Let's do it."


The next evening, leaving his Santa Monica office, Ellsberg slipped a couple of thick volumes of the top secret Pentagon Papers into his briefcase and headed out through Rand's lobby, past two security cards who simply waved him by. Ellsberg took the volumes over to Russo's apartment. From there, the two men and Russo's girlfriend, Linda Sinay, traveled to the offices of an advertising agency that Sinay ran. Using a Xerox machine in the agency's reception area, Ellsberg and Russo began the time-consuming process of photocopying the Pentagon Papers. They didn't leave the office until 5:30 the next morning.

The next night, and for many nights thereafter, the copying continued. Ellsberg knew that what he was doing was a crime--and he fully expected the day would come when he would pay a heavy price for his actions. He imagined when his children would come to a prison somewhere and "see me brought into the visitors' booth in handcuffs, wearing prisoner's clothes."

In early November, Ellsberg carried the Pentagon Papers to Capitol Hill, where he met with anti-war congressman to discuss strategies to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Ellsberg told Senator William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a Vietnam policy critic, that he had a copy of a secret study that might change public opinion about the war. At Fulbright's suggestion, Ellsberg left a copy of the Pentagon Papers with Fulbright's legislative aide, Norvil Jones.

The next year Ellsberg stepped up his anti-war activities. He resigned from Rand, testified about Vietnam policy before Fulbright's Senate committee, spoke at an anti-war "teach in" at Washington University in St. Louis, and argued for an immediate withdrawal on the national television program The Advocates . In late August 1970, Ellsberg traveled to Kissinger's San Clemente office, where he urged Kissinger to read the Pentagon Papers and to reconsider the Administration's Indochina policy. Ellsberg left his meeting with Kissinger depressed, believing that the lessons of history would not be learned and there was little prospect for a substantial withdrawal of U. S. troops.

By the end of 1970, Ellsberg was giving serious thought to turning a copy of the Pentagon Papers over to the New York Times . First, however, he attempted to find an anti-war senator who might release the study. Ellsberg met with George McGovern, an announced candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. McGovern responded enthusiastically to Ellsberg's suggestion, but later--when the political implications for his candidacy of releasing a classified study became clearer--he decided he just couldn't do it. If the public where ever to find out the secret history of U. S. involvement in Indochina, Ellsberg would have to go to the press.

On March 2, 1971, Ellsberg traveled to the Washington, D. C. home of New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan and discussed with him the possibility of turning over to the paper a copy of the Pentagon Papers. Ten days later, the two men met again in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ellsberg sought to get Sheehan to commit to publishing large sections of the study, and Sheehan said he would push his editors to do just that. After Sheehan returned to New York, copy of the Pentagon Papers in hand, he and other reporters at the Times spent the next several weeks sifting through the thousands of pages of the report, looking for reports and anecdotes that would tell a compelling story of how we got into the mess that had become the Vietnam War.

The Nixon Administration Goes to Court to Stop Publication


New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, Managing Editor A. Rosenthal, and Foreign Editor James Greenfield

On Sunday June 13, 1971, the New York Times ran a three-column, front-page story containing excerpts from the Pentagon Papers. At the White House, Richard Nixon read the story with a mixture of disgust and relief. although he told aide H. R. Haldeman that it was "criminally traitorous" for someone to have turned over the Papers and for the Times to then publish them, he was relieved to find that the Papers focused on the earlier missteps of earlier administrations, not his. His first reaction was to "keep out of it" and let the story run its course, but later in the day a riled Henry Kissinger urged Nixon to take steps to stop publication of further stories based on the Pentagon Papers. In Kissinger's view, the release of information threatened ongoing secret negotiations.

As soon as he learned of the Times impending publication of the Pentagon Papers stories, Ellsberg bundled a few things from his apartment and went underground. Over the next couple of weeks, as the FBI searched for him, Ellsberg would move from one Massachusetts hotel to another, using pay phones for all his communications.

On June 15, as the Times published its third installment in the series, the Department of Justice filed a demand for an injunction against further publication in federal district court in New York City. After listening to arguments from lawyers for both the Times and the government, Judge Murray Gurfein granted a temporary restraining order against the Times and then scheduled another hearing for June 17.

With further publication at least temporarily blocked in New York, Ellsberg contacted Ben Bagdikian of the Washington Post and offered him an additional copy of the Pentagon Papers. After a heated discussion between reporters, editors, and lawyers at the Post , the question of whether to publish in the face of the New York court's injunction was presented to publisher Katherine Graham. Fully aware of the potentially serious legal and financial implications of publishing, Graham nonetheless tells editors, "Okay, go ahead."

Over the next several days, in courthouses in both New York and Washington, lawyers debated whether the First Amendment permitted the government to enjoin publication of stories based on the Pentagon Papers. Lawyers for the papers stressed that "prior restraints," such as injunctions of this sort, were "presumptively unconstitutional" and that the government "had a heavy burden of justification" which in these cases had not been met. Justice Department lawyers, on the other hand, argued that information contained in the classified documents might jeopardize sensitive relationships with foreign governments and put the lives of military personnel and other government agents at risk. By June 23, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals had voted 7 to 2 to deny an injunction against publication in the Washington Post , while the Second Circuit Court of Appeals had remanded the question of injunctive relief against the New York Times to the district judge for further in camera proceedings. It was obvious to all observers that the issue was headed for a showdown in the United States Supreme Court. On June 26, one day after granting review in the Pentagon Papers cases, the nine justices of the Supreme Court heard oral arguments.

Daniel Ellsberg surrendered to arrest at the federal courthouse in Boston on June 28, even as a federal grand jury in Los Angeles was indicting him on charges of theft and espionage relating to his role in the Pentagon Papers controversy. In Washington, meanwhile,
E. Howard Hunt prepared a memorandum (with the heading "The Neutralization of Ellsberg") for Nixon aide Chuck Colson in which he proposed building a file of damning information about Ellsberg that might destroy his credibility. Among Hunt's several suggestions was, "Obtain Ellsberg's files from his psychiatric analysis."

On June 30, the Supreme Court announced a per curium decision in New York Times v United States holding that the government had not met its heavy burden of showing a need for an injunction against publication of stories based on the Pentagon Papers. Separate opinions filed by various justices revealed a deep split. Justices Black and Douglas attacked the government's arguments with vengeance, writing that an injunction "would wipe out the First Amendment and destroy the fundamental liberty and security of the very people the Government hopes to make secure." Justices White and Stewart, concurring, staked out a more moderate ground, suggesting that publication was not in the national interest, but then concluded that they "cannot say that disclosure. will surely result in direct, immediate, and irreparable damage to our Nation or its people." In dissent, Chief Justice Burger and Justices Blackmun and Harlan complained about the haste with which the case was decided. The three dissenters also argued that sensitive and complex foreign policy decisions of the sort raised in the Pentagon Papers case "should be undertaken only by those directly responsible to the people whose welfare they advance or imperil," not judges.


Ellsberg talks to the media

In a recorded June 29 conversation with Attorney General John Mitchell, Richard Nixon expressed his determination to see Ellsberg brought to justice. Nixon told Mitchell, " The main ball is Ellsberg. We've gotta get this son of a bitch. One of our . . . PR types [was] saying, 'Well, maybe we ought to drop the case if the Supreme Court doesn't, uh, sustain and so forth.' And I said, 'Hell, no!' I mean you can't do that. We can't be in a position of. allowing the fellow to get away with this kind of wholesale thievery, or otherwise it's going to happen all over the government.'"

Despite strong evidence that Ellsberg copied classified government documents and gave them to the press, the government's case against him was not without problems. Federal espionage laws targeted most clearly those who provided foreign governments with classified information, not those who gave documents to members of Congress or the American press. Even the theft charge raised issues, as the defense would argue that Ellsberg--unlike the vast majority of "thieves"--sought no personal advantage, or advantage for any third party, from copying documents. The defense could also raise issues about whether an historical record, such as the Pentagon Papers, could properly be classified "top secret." Still, as defense attorney Leonard Boudin told Ellsberg, "Let's face it, Dan. Copying seven thousand pages of top secret documents and giving them to the New York Times has a bad ring to it."

In August 1971, when Anthony Russo was called to testify before the grand jury in Los Angeles about his knowledge of the copying of the Pentagon Papers, he refused to testify, citing his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Even after Justice Department officials promised Russo immunity from prosecution (thus, under precedent, eliminating his Fifth Amendment privilege claim), he still refused to talk. On August 16, Russo was sentenced to jail for contempt of court. He remained there for six weeks. After Russo's refusal to testify, a new indictment was drafted against both Ellsberg and Russo. On December 29, the indictment was returned against both men, including fifteen counts relating to theft of government documents and espionage. If convicted on all counts, Ellsberg faced the prospect of a 105-year prison sentence.

The first trial of Ellsberg and Russo came to a sudden halt in July 1972 when it was disclosed that the government wiretapped a conversation between one of the defendants and his lawyer or consultants. Although Judge Byrne refused to stop the trial because of the wiretap, Justice William O. Douglas stayed the proceedings until the Supreme Court had a chance to consider the appeal. In November, the U. S. Supreme Court, voting 7 to 2, refused to hear defense arguments arising from the government's wiretap. Nonetheless, in view of the lengthy break in the trial, Judge Byrne declared a mistrial and ordered a new jury empaneled.

Opening arguments in the second trial of Ellsberg and Russo took place on January 17, 1973 in the federal courthouse in Los Angeles. After prosecutor David Nissen summarized what the government's evidence against the two men would show, defense attorney Leonard Boudin delivered his opening statement. Boudin suggested that the Pentagon Papers "belong to the people of the United States." Because of this public ownership, Boudin told jurors, copying them and giving them to the press, so that the American people could be told their contents, should not be considered theft. "You will come to the conclusion. that the revelation of this information to your senators and congressmen was helpful to the interests of the United States," Boudin said.

The government's witnesses testified that the Pentagon Papers were indeed classified "Top Secret," that Daniel Ellsberg had signed a security statement with Rand promising not to transmit "classified information to an unauthorized person or agency," and that neither Anthony Russo or Linda Sinay had any security clearances. Linda Sinay Resnick, an unindicted co-conspirator, told jurors that she observed Ellsberg and Russo copying the secret papers on the Xerox machine in her ad agency office. The final witness for the prosecution, FBI agent Deemer Hippensteel, testified that he found the fingerprints of Ellsberg, Russo, and Sinay on volumes of the Pentagon Papers submitted into evidence. None of the government's evidence surprised anyone who had been closely following the case.

Morton Halperin, the supervisor of the Pentagon Papers task force, testified for the defense. Halperin testified about the decision to store a copy of the Pentagon Papers "outside the normal Rand top secret control system," by simply placing them in a separate top secret safe. Halperin told jurors that he approved a request from Ellsberg that he be given access to the volumes for continuing work at Rand's Santa Monica office on Vietnam policy.

Anthony Russo, on the stand, admitted the obvious: in the fall of 1969, he had helped photocopy the Pentagon Papers at the Hollywood office of his then girlfriend, Linda Sinay. He testified that he did not handle or even see those documents again until arriving in the Los Angeles courtroom. Questioned about his years in Vietnam, Russo told of interviewing Vietnamese in connection with a Rand assignment to prepare a report on the effectiveness of anti-personnel weapons. Russo said he learned of many cases in which "young children would pick up" the shiny, unexploded weapons and take them home, "and then it would go off and kill the whole family." He testified that his interviews with Vietnamese prompted a realization that the Viet Cong were not "indoctrinated fanatics," but rather people with "a real commitment" to their cause. Russo said he decided to leave the study when he found that his reports from Viet Nam "were being altered. to promote the role of the Air Force," Rand's client. Russo testified about a beach front conversation with Ellsberg in September 1969. Both men agreed that they had witnessed "a very definite pattern of lying and deception" from U. S. officials concerning Viet Nam policy. On October 1, 1969, Russo testified, Ellsberg visited his home and asked whether he would be willing to help copy the Pentagon Papers study. During cross-examination, in an answer that was objected to and stricken, Russo claimed "any American who cared about his country. would consider it his official duty to get these documents. to the American people." He admitted, however, that he knew he lacked security clearance to see the documents.

When Daniel Ellsberg took the stand, Boudin questioned him about his experiences in Viet Nam. Ellsberg testified he saw "a very great divergence" between what he learned "along the roads and hamlets of Viet Nam" and what military advisers were telling their bosses. He explained his role on the Pentagon Papers task force and his later interest in securing access to the finished study. He testified, "I knew that not a page of [the Pentagon Papers] could injure the national defense if disclosed to anyone, and had I believed otherwise I would not have copied it." Ellsberg said he passed on the Papers in the hope that the revelations contained in them "might give Congress the self-confidence to act to end the war." On cross-examination, Ellsberg conceded that he "had no permission from anyone to remove the documents from the Rand premises."


Eugenio Martinez, one of the men who broke into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist

On April 27, 1973, Judge Byrne turned over to the defense a shocking memo from Watergate prosecutor Earl Silbert to Assistant Attorney General Henry Peterson. The memo said that Silbert had just learned that "Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt burglarized the offices of a psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg to obtain the psychiatrist's files relating to Ellsberg." After news of the memo reached the press, new facts began emerging, including the names of three Cuban-American Bay of Pigs veterans who committed the actual break-in at Dr. Lewis Fielding's office. (Two of them, Bernhard Barker and Eugenio Martinez, had been arrested inside the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee in June, 1972.) Judge Byrne demanded that the government reveal whether "Hunt and Liddy were acting as agents of the government at the time of burglary, and at whose direction." When it became clear that the break-in was committed by employees of the White House pursuing a project launched by the President, the basis for a mistrial grew compelling. And in Washington, heads began to roll. On April 30, Nixon announced the departures of John Erlichman, H. R. Haldeman, Richard Kleindeist, and John Dean.

On May 11, Judge Bryne ruled on the defense motion for a dismissal of all charges against the defendants based on the government's gross misconduct. Byrne granted the motion, writing that "the bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case." When the judge finished his statement, the courtroom erupted in roars and laughter. Meanwhile, in Washington, Richard Nixon complained to his former chief of staff H. R. Haldeman: "The sonofbitching thief is made a national hero. The New York Times gets a Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents. They're trying to get us with thieves. What in the name of God have we come t o?"


Daniel Ellsberg Is 90 Years Old and Still Causing Trouble

The man behind the Pentagon Papers is back with some horrifying revelations about the American Cold War government.

God bless Daniel Ellsberg. He&rsquos 90 years old and still causing trouble. From the New York Times:

OK, we already knew that, back in the 1950s and 1960s, there were some genuinely scary people in the United States government. (Operation Northwoods, anyone?) But it&rsquos still startling to see how much of their insane scheming they immortalized on paper.

Yes, because nukes are famously restrained in their effects by cyclone fences and guard shacks.

But it&rsquos not just the window into what we used to call &ldquobrinksmanship&rdquo that is so compelling about what Ellsberg is doing this time. Yes, he&rsquos once again sharing classified material with us, but he&rsquos doing it for a damn good reason.

The Espionage Act has deserved a good disemboweling for decades now. It&rsquos an authoritarian legacy of the awful President Woodrow Wilson and his completely awful Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. It&rsquos a meat ax of a statute that&rsquos still stained with the blood of Emma Goldman, for god&rsquos sake. It needs to be torn out of the law, root and branch, and something less authoritarian put in its place. In that process, by the way, the presumption should be that a great deal of material that is classified probably shouldn&rsquot be. General Kuter, the guy who wanted to nuke the Chinese air bases&mdashbut only the Chinese air bases, mind you&mdashhas been dead since 1979. I don&rsquot think he&rsquos liable to object.


Risk of Nuclear War Over Taiwan in 1958 Said to Be Greater Than Publicly Known

The famed source of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, has made another unauthorized disclosure — and wants to be prosecuted for it.

WASHINGTON — When Communist Chinese forces began shelling islands controlled by Taiwan in 1958, the United States rushed to back up its ally with military force — including drawing up plans to carry out nuclear strikes on mainland China, according to an apparently still-classified document that sheds new light on how dangerous that crisis was.

American military leaders pushed for a first-use nuclear strike on China, accepting the risk that the Soviet Union would retaliate in kind on behalf of its ally and millions of people would die, dozens of pages from a classified 1966 study of the confrontation show. The government censored those pages when it declassified the study for public release.

The document was disclosed by Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked a classified history of the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, 50 years ago. Mr. Ellsberg said he had copied the top secret study about the Taiwan Strait crisis at the same time but did not disclose it then. He is now highlighting it amid new tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan.

While it has been known in broader strokes that United States officials considered using atomic weapons against mainland China if the crisis escalated, the pages reveal in new detail how aggressive military leaders were in pushing for authority to do so if Communist forces, which had started shelling the so-called offshore islands, intensified their attacks.

The crisis in 1958 instead ebbed when Mao Zedong’s Communist forces broke off the attacks on the islands, leaving them in the control of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Republic of China forces based on Taiwan. More than six decades later, strategic ambiguity about Taiwan’s status — and about American willingness to use nuclear weapons to defend it — persists.

The previously censored information is significant both historically and now, said Odd Arne Westad, a Yale University historian who specializes in the Cold War and China and who reviewed the pages for The New York Times.

“This confirms, to me at least, that we came closer to the United States using nuclear weapons” during the 1958 crisis “than what I thought before,” he said. “In terms of how the decision-making actually took place, this is a much more illustrative level than what we have seen.”

Drawing parallels to today’s tensions — when China’s own conventional military might has grown far beyond its 1958 ability, and when it has its own nuclear weapons — Mr. Westad said the documents provided fodder to warn of the dangers of an escalating confrontation over Taiwan.

Even in 1958, officials doubted the United States could successfully defend Taiwan using only conventional weapons, the documents show. If China invaded today, Mr. Westad said, “it would put tremendous pressure on U.S. policymakers, in the case of such a confrontation, to think about how they might deploy nuclear weapons.”

“That should be sobering for everyone involved,” he added.

In exposing a historical antecedent for the present tensions, Mr. Ellsberg said that was exactly the takeaway he wanted the public to debate. He argued that inside the Pentagon, contingency planning was likely underway for the possibility of an armed conflict over Taiwan — including what to do if any defense using conventional weapons appeared to be falling short.

“As the possibility of another nuclear crisis over Taiwan is being bandied about this very year, it seems very timely to me to encourage the public, Congress and the executive branch to pay attention to what I make available to them,” he said about what he characterized as “shallow” and “reckless” high-level discussions during the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis.

He added, “I do not believe the participants were more stupid or thoughtless than those in between or in the current cabinet.”

Among other details, the pages that the government censored in the official release of the study describe the attitude of Gen. Laurence S. Kuter, the top Air Force commander for the Pacific. He wanted authorization for a first-use nuclear attack on mainland China at the start of any armed conflict. To that end, he praised a plan that would start by dropping atomic bombs on Chinese airfields but not other targets, arguing that its relative restraint would make it harder for skeptics of nuclear warfare in the American government to block the plan.

“There would be merit in a proposal from the military to limit the war geographically” to the air bases, “if that proposal would forestall some misguided humanitarian’s intention to limit a war to obsolete iron bombs and hot lead,” General Kuter said at one meeting.

At the same time, officials considered it very likely that the Soviet Union would respond to an atomic attack on China with retaliatory nuclear strikes. (In retrospect, it is not clear whether this premise was accurate. Historians say American leaders, who saw Communism as a monolithic global conspiracy, did not appreciate or understand an emerging Sino-Soviet split.)

But American military officials preferred that risk to the possibility of losing the islands. The study paraphrased Gen. Nathan F. Twining, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying that if atomic bombings of air bases did not force China to break off the conflict, there would be “no alternative but to conduct nuclear strikes deep into China as far north as Shanghai.”

He suggested that such strikes would “almost certainly involve nuclear retaliation against Taiwan and possibly against Okinawa,” the Japanese island where American military forces were based, “but he stressed that if national policy is to defend the offshore islands then the consequences had to be accepted.”

The study also paraphrased the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, as observing to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that “nobody would mind very much the loss of the offshore islands but that loss would mean further Communist aggression. Nothing seems worth a world war until you looked at the effect of not standing up to each challenge posed.”

Ultimately, President Dwight D. Eisenhower pushed back against the generals and decided to rely on conventional weapons at first. But nobody wanted to enter another protracted conventional conflict like the Korean War, so there was “unanimous belief that this would have to be quickly followed by nuclear strikes unless the Chinese Communists called off this operation.”

Mr. Ellsberg said he copied the full version of the study when he copied the Pentagon Papers. But he did not share the Taiwan study with reporters who wrote about the Vietnam War study in 1971, like Neil Sheehan of The Times.

Mr. Ellsberg quietly posted the full study online in 2017, when he published a book, “Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.” One of its footnotes mentions in passing that passages and pages omitted from the study are available on his website.

But he did not quote the study’s material in his book, he said, because lawyers for his publisher worried about potential legal liability. He also did little else to draw attention to the fact that its redacted pages are visible in the version he posted. As a result, few noticed it.

One of the few who did was William Burr, a senior analyst at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, who mentioned it in a footnote in a March blog post about threats to use nuclear weapons in the Cold War.

Mr. Burr said he had tried about two decades ago to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a new declassification review of the study — which was written by Morton H. Halperin for the RAND Corporation — but the Pentagon was unable to locate an unabridged copy in its files. (RAND, a nongovernmental think tank, is not itself subject to information act requests.)

Mr. Ellsberg said tensions over Taiwan did not seem as urgent in 2017. But the uptick in saber-rattling — he pointed to a recent cover of The Economist magazine that labeled Taiwan “the most dangerous place on Earth” and a recent opinion column by The Times’s Thomas L. Friedman titled, “Is There a War Coming Between China and the U.S.?” — prompted him to conclude it was important to get the information into greater public view.

Michael Szonyi, a Harvard University historian and author of a book about one of the offshore islands at the heart of the crisis, “Cold War Island: Quemoy on the Front Line,” called the material’s availability “hugely interesting.”

Any new confrontation over Taiwan could escalate and officials today would be “asking themselves the same questions that these folks were asking in 1958,” he said, linking the risks created by “dramatic” miscalculations and misunderstandings during serious planning for the use of nuclear weapons in 1958 and today’s tensions.

Mr. Ellsberg said he also had another reason for highlighting his exposure of that material. Now 90, he said he wanted to take on the risk of becoming a defendant in a test case challenging the Justice Department’s growing practice of using the Espionage Act to prosecute officials who leak information.

Enacted during World War I, the Espionage Act makes it a crime to retain or disclose, without authorization, defense-related information that could harm the United States or aid a foreign adversary. Its wording covers everyone — not only spies — and it does not allow defendants to urge juries to acquit on the basis that disclosures were in the public interest.

Using the Espionage Act to prosecute leakers was once rare. Mr. Ellsberg himself was charged under it, before a judge threw out the charges in 1973 because of government misconduct. The first successful such conviction was in 1985. But it has now become routine for the Justice Department to bring such charges.

Most of the time, defendants strike plea deals to avoid long sentences, so there is no appeal. The Supreme Court has not confronted questions about whether the law’s wording or application trammels First Amendment rights.

Saying the Justice Department should charge him for his open admission that he disclosed the classified study about the Taiwan crisis without authorization, Mr. Ellsberg said he would handle his defense in a way that would tee the First Amendment issues up for the Supreme Court.

“I will, if indicted, be asserting my belief that what I am doing — like what I’ve done in the past — is not criminal,” he said, arguing that using the Espionage Act “to criminalize classified truth-telling in the public interest” is unconstitutional.


Government Service and Pentagon Papers

In 1964, Ellsberg went to work for the Department of Defense as a Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John T. McNaughton. In a fateful coincidence, his first day of work at the Pentagon, August 4, 1964, was the day of the alleged second attack (which in fact did not occur) on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tokin off the coast of Vietnam𠅊n incident that provided much of the public justification for full-scale American intervention in the Vietnam War.

Ellsberg&aposs primary responsibility for the Defense Department was to craft secret plans to escalate the war in Vietnam—plans he says he personally regarded as "wrongheaded and dangerous" and hoped would never be carried out. Nevertheless, when President Lyndon Johnson chose to ramp up American involvement in the conflict in 1965, Ellsberg moved to Vietnam to work out of the American Embassy in Saigon evaluating pacification efforts along the front lines. He eventually left Vietnam in June 1967 after contracting hepatitis.

Returning to the RAND Corporation later that year, Ellsberg worked on a top-secret report ordered by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara entitled U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-1968. Better known as "The Pentagon Papers," the final product was a 7,000-page, 47-volume study that Ellsberg called "evidence of a quarter-century of aggression, broken treaties, deceptions, stolen elections, lies and murder." Although he worked as a consultant on Vietnam policy to new President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger throughout 1969, Ellsberg grew increasingly frustrated with their insistence on expanding upon previous administrations&apos policies of escalation and deception in Vietnam.

Inspired by a young Harvard graduate named Randy Kehler who worked with the War Resisters League and was imprisoned for refusing to cooperate with the military draft𠅊s well as by reading Thoreau, Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King𠅎llsberg decided to end what he saw as his complicity with the Vietnam War and start working to bring about its end. He recalled, "Their example put the question in my head: What could I do to help shorten this war, now that I&aposm prepared to go to prison for it?"

In late 1969, with the help of former RAND colleague Anthony Russo, Ellsberg began secretly photocopying the entire Pentagon Papers. He privately offered the Papers to several congressmen including the influential J. William Fulbright, but none was willing to make them public or hold hearings about them. So in March 1971, Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which began publishing them three months later.

When the Times was slapped with an injunction ordering a stop to publication, Ellsberg provided the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post and then to 15 other newspapers. The case, entitled New York Times Co. v. The United States, ultimately went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which on June 30, 1971, issued a landmark 6-3 decision authorizing the newspapers to print the Pentagon Papers without risk of government censure.


“The Pentagon Papers” 1967-2018


After the first newspaper stories broke on the Pentagon Papers, Newsweek and Time magazines each followed with June 28,1971 cover stories – Newsweek’s shown here with a “map”of Vietnam peopled by those making secret decisions.

Lyndon B. Johnson was then President of the United States, in his first full term following his assumption of the Presidency after JFK’s November 1963 assassination. Johnson had won the 1964 election in a landslide victory over Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater.

Then U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, a JFK appointee continuing to serve in Johnson’s cabinet, and known for his statistical acumen and penchant for data-driven objectives, commissioned a top-secret study that year on the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, going back to World War II.

McNamara – one of JFK’s brightest cabinet members and a chief architect of American strategy in Vietnam since 1961 – was having private doubts about American involvement there and wanted an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War” that would comprise a written record for historians and military planners in the future.

That study — though top-secret and never intended to see the light of day as a contemporary document — would prove to be explosive if revealed. It included some 46 volumes and thousands of pages of secret history – sensitive diplomatic cables, presidential decision documents, military analyses, political manipulations, and more that told the true story of what had really gone on in American-Vietnam relations over some 22 years. When it was later leaked to the press in 1971, this study would reveal that the American public was misled, deceived, and lied to about the real nature of U.S. involvement in Vietnam for more than two decades. The top-secret study would come to be known as the “Pentagon Papers,” named for the sprawling, five-sided U.S. Defense Department headquarters just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. in Arlington, Virginia.

McNamara commissioned the study in mid-June 1967, but neither then President Lyndon Johnson nor Secretary of State Dean Rusk, knew about it.

During 1967-68 a team of some 36 researchers worked on the study coordinated at a Pentagon office adjacent to McNamara’s. Of those who worked on the study, half were high-level Pentagon staff, half security-cleared contract analysts. One of the analysts was Daniel Ellsberg, a Harvard-educated economist and one-time hawk on the war, who would later leak the study to the New York Times, Washington Post, and other newspapers. That top secret Pentagon document, and Ellsberg’s action, touched off one of the country’s fiercest battles over freedom of the press vs. government secrecy a battle recently given dramatic form in the 2017 Steven Spielberg Hollywood film, “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and others. Here’s one of the trailers for that film:

Stephen Speilberg’s 2017 film, of course, focuses on the inside story at the Washington Post as it struggled with the publication decision, court battles and the Nixon Administration. Yet, the story – both before and after it got to the Washington Post and the U.S. Supreme Court – has a number of heroes and heroines, not least of whom is Daniel Ellsberg, the guy who followed his conscience and got the ball rolling. What follows below is a recounting of some of the Pentagon Papers history and why it remains important today – including a narrative chronology of events, sample newspaper headlines, photos of some of the principles, as well as various books, television productions, and Hollywood films that came in the wake of that controversy through the present day.


Daniel Ellsberg, circa 1970s.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, would call him “the most dangerous man in America.” Yet, many today regard Daniel Ellsberg as a true patriot for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the press.

Ellsberg, a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard in economics in 1952, was also Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Cambridge for a year following graduation. He returned to Harvard for graduate study for a time, then joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1954 where he served as a platoon leader and company commander, completing his service in 1957 as a first lieutenant. He later resumed graduate work at Harvard, then worked as a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation, focusing on nuclear weapons strategy. He completed a PhD in Economics at Harvard in 1962, with an emphasis on decision theory, later becoming known for something in that field called “the Ellsberg paradox.”

By August 1964, Ellsberg was working in the Pentagon under Defense Secretary McNamara as special assistant. When Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John McNaughton, an expert on nuclear test bans, needed an assistant, Ellsberg got the job. He then volunteered for duty in South Vietnam for two years, working for General Edward Lansdale as a member of the State Department. By 1967, he was back in the States, later that year working on the secret Pentagon study that would become the Pentagon Papers.


Vietnam, 1967: Daniel Ellsberg, right, shown with Associated Press photographer Horst Faas.

The McNamara-ordered history was completed on January 15, 1969 – just five days before the inauguration of the Nixon Administration. Officially titled: United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, it was a massive and sweeping document: 47-volumes in all, consisting of 4,000 pages of documents, 3,000 pages of analysis, and 2.5 million words — all classified as secret, top secret, or top secret-sensitive.

Among those called in to help with the project for a time was then Harvard University professor Henry Kissinger. The report offered a detailed self-examination of U.S.-Vietnamese relations and the Vietnam War. Only 15 copies were initially authorized and held in secret, made available to selected officials — two at the State Department two for the National Archives two copies held by the RAND Corporation (one at its D.C. office, and another at a California office) one for incoming Defense Secretary, Clark Clifford and seven to remain at the Department of Defense.


Robert McNamara, appointed Secretary of Defense by JFK, and served LBJ until differences over the war emerged, had initiated the secret US-Vietnam history in mid-June 1967.

In November 1967, McNamara had written a memorandum to President Johnson in which he recommended that the President freeze troop levels, stop bombing North Vietnam, and turn over ground fighting to South Vietnam. McNamara by then believed the U.S. could not win the war in Vietnam. His advice to Johnson at that time was not well received and ignored.

Within a few months of his memo to LBJ — by the end of February 1968 — Robert McNamara was persona non grata in the Johnson Administration. He would resign as Secretary of Defense and move on to head up the World Bank.

Tumultuous Times

First came the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in late January 1968 (“Tet” marking the lunar new year holiday), when North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated attack in South Vietnam that undermined what President Johnson and the U.S. military were saying about the war. At home, Johnson’s well-intentioned Great Society domestic agenda for helping the poor was being circumscribed by the war. Then on February 27th, respected CBS-TV newsman, Walter Cronkite, who had gone to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive, offered an on-air commentary during the regular CBS Evening News program watched by millions, concluding that the Vietnam War was “mired in stalemate.” That broadcast is regarded as seminal in raising doubts among mainstream Americans about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Johnson, meanwhile, was being challenged for his party’s presidential nomination. On March 12, 1968, anti-war candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy staged a surprised challenge to Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Four days later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy announced he would also seek the Democratic Presidential nomination.


Walter Cronkite's February 1968 "stalemate-in-Vietnam" TV commentary was devastating to LBJ.
Nixon-Agnew button.


Early 1970s: Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, who made late night copies of the Pentagon Papers while at RAND.

Ellsberg’s Move

Meanwhile, by January 1968, Daniel Ellsberg had spent about 8 months working on the McNamara-ordered Vietnam history, and he regarded the Tet Offensive a troubling development, among others. Still, he continued to work as a government contractor, Vietnam trouble-shooter, and policy advisor, meeting with government officials, presidential candidates – and even in early 1969 — meeting with Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor. Kissinger asked Ellsberg to prepare a list of policy options for the new Nixon administration, which Kissinger did not include in those submitted to Nixon.

Some months later, however, by October 1, 1969, Ellsberg began to cross the line from government contractor and Vietnam analyst to anti-war activist and government whistleblower. As a RAND analyst, he had access to an authorized copy of the 47 volume Pentagon Papers – and he had also read the entire study. Over a three-month period beginning that October, Ellsberg and a RAND colleague named Anthony Russo, began photo-copying the study bit by bit late at night, returning it to the RAND safe each morning. But once copied, Ellsberg would not immediately distribute the sensitive materials to the press.

Ellsberg also tried other avenues to advance his concerns about the Vietnam War. On October 12, 1969, he and several RAND colleagues wrote a letter to the Washington Post opposing the Nixon Administration’s Vietnam policies and statements. As for the secret document he was copying, his first thought was to distribute a few copies to selected U.S. Senators. Members of the U.S. Senate (or the U.S. House of Representatives) could release sensitive papers on the Senate or House floor and face no repercussions, as they could not be prosecuted for anything they said in official proceedings.


Among those receiving early copies of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg was Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR) a critic of the Vietnam War and a careful foreign policy thinker.

In 1966, he held some of the first public hearings on the Vietnam War and would publish The Arrogance of Power that year as well, a book sharply critical of the war, in which he attacked its justification and Congress’s failure to set limits on it. As for the Pentagon, in 1970 he would publish The Pentagon Propaganda Machine, a short book focusing on the military’s public relations campaigns.

Fulbright, however, would not release the secret Pentagon study Daniel Ellsberg brought to him. Instead, he decided to request a copy of the full secret Vietnam history from Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird. On December 20, 1969, Laird replied but refused to release the Pentagon study to Fulbright.

War Protests

Protest over the Vietnam War, meanwhile, had grown. Two large marches on Washington – with hundreds of thousands of protesters — occurred in October and November of 1969. In early November 1969, Nixon made his “silent majority” speech, claiming that most Americans supported his policies to end the war.

Ellsberg, meanwhile, has left RAND and becomes a senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies, where he meets others, including William Bundy, a former Vietnam war architect, and two professors, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, with whom he shares the Pentagon Papers. Back in Washington, Ellsberg continued to distribute portions of the Papers to selected Senators and Congressmen, including Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), a leading opponent of the war, and Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA). But both choose not to act on the secret document.

On May 13, 1970, Ellsberg testifies before Senator Fullbright’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but does not disclose the secret Pentagon study he holds. Several months later, in September that year, Ellsberg publishes an essay, “Escalating in a Quagmire,” presented at a conference of the Political Science Association. He also meets with Secretary Kissinger around this time to discuss his concerns. Kissinger offers him a position as an advisor, which Ellsberg declines. Ellsberg would later confront Kissinger again, publicly, over Vietnam casualty reports, at a January 1971 MIT conference.

Going To The Press

In early March 1971, Ellsberg meets with New York Times reporter, Neil Sheehan. Sheehan had covered the Pentagon and White House for the Times since the mid- and late- 1960s, writing on political, diplomatic and military issues. He was also a former UPI correspondent whom Ellsberg had met in Vietnam. By 1971 Sheehan worked in the Washington bureau of the Times. At his first meeting with Sheehan, Ellsberg only describes the document he has, and wants to be sure that the Times will publish it. He and Sheehan would meet again later.


Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe


The Boston Globe story is the first public reporting that a secret U.S./Vietnam history even exists (except for a brief mention in the Oct 25, 1970, issue of Parade magazine). Although Oliphant and the Globe are the first to write publicly about the Papers, no other media picked up on it. Oliphant had interviewed Ellsberg earlier, when Ellsberg acknowledged the study existed. Still, the Globe at this point did not have access to the secret study’s content. Ellsberg and his wife, meanwhile, feared the government might come knocking on their door, so they begin salting away additional copies of the study with friends.


Neil Sheehan of the New York Times had covered the Pentagon and the White House in his reporting.

By April 5, 1971 Sheehan and New York Times editor Gerald Gold have set up shop in DC’s Jefferson Hilton hotel to begin reviewing the documents. The Times’ winnowing operation on the papers – called Project X – is later moved to a hotel near Times Square. (The Times’ editors and writers had holed up in hotels away from their D.C. and New York offices for fear of FBI raids).

By this time, Sheehan is joined by a broader team of reporters and editors from the Times – Hedrick Smith, Ned Kenworthy, Fox Butterfield and others. During a three-month period, up through early June 1971, while the Times prepared and selected stories to publish from the secret Pentagon study, there was much internal debate over whether and how to publish, with outside counsel recommending not publishing. Among those arguing strongly to run the secret material was senior Times editor, James Reston, who would write an early column titled, “The McNamara Papers.” Finally, on June 11th, 1971, after having the documents for nearly three months, New York Times publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger gave to final approval to publish the secret material.


June 13, 1971: The New York Times publishes its first Pentagon Papers stories (shared with coverage of Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding) – “Vietnam Archive. ” by Neil Sheehan , and “Vast Review of War Took A Year,” by Hedrick Smith. A box in the first story directed readers to further pages of “documentary material from the Pentagon study.”

In its Sunday edition of June 13th, 1971 (above), the New York Times published its first Pentagon Papers story on the front page in a story by Neil Sheehan headlined as the “Vietnam Archive.” That headline introduced the secret Pentagon study to Times readers, noting it covered “3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement” in Vietnam. There was also coverage of the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which proved to be a fictitious provocation (of a U.S. vessel fired upon at sea) that the U.S. would use to justify greater U.S. participation in the war via the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed by the House and Senate, and used by LBJ as a broad executive power to prosecute a major war. The first New York Times stories, their headlines, and others later, were purposely drawn to be as bland as possible, and not sensationalized, so as to show intent of publisher responsibility, as the Times was then anticipating legal challenges ahead. Still, there was much more in the Times that first day than just these two stories. In fact, that Sunday edition came in at a whopping 486 pages – much of it in supporting verbatim materials from the secret Pentagon study.

On June 14th, 1971, the Times published its second story (below) on the Pentagon Papers – it focused on the February 1965 decision to bomb North Vietnam. This story revealed that President Johnson was planning the bombing on the day he was elected to his second term, despite campaign promises he would not escalate military action. The article also described the decision process that led to the bombing campaign.


June 14, 1971. Cropped front page of the New York times featuring the second in a series of stories on the Pentagon’s secret Vietnam history. This story revealed that planning was underway to bomb North Vietnam before the U.S. 1964 Presidential election, when as a candidate, President Johnson had said he would not escalate the war.

With the Times’ second story on the sensitive Vietnam history, the Nixon Administration becomes involved in an effort to stop further publication. However, President Nixon had not known of the secret Pentagon study before the Times had run its first stories. Kissinger knew of it, but hadn’t read it. And the secret Vietnam history only covered events up to 1967, and nothing during the Nixon years — with the previous Democratic Administrations of Johnson and Kennedy being skewered initially.

On June 13th, 1971, when the first of the New York Times stories appeared, Nixon did not, at first, want to go after the Times for publishing the material. In fact, he hadn’t read the stories that morning – the day after his daughter had been married at the White House. When he did read them, and after he heard early reaction from his staff and some Cabinet members, Nixon became more concerned with going after who ever leaked the material than he was with the Times’ publication.


President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, early 1970s.

But Henry Kissinger and others soon convinced Nixon there was plenty to worry about. For if documents as sensitive as these could be photocopied and handed out to the press at will, how could their own Administration carry on the business of national security? They had already had some leaks of their own sensitive material, and the move to publish these Pentagon documents could only embolden others. Indeed, Nixon’s team had their own secrets about how they were conducting the war in Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere. There was also the anti-war movement at home that was growing beyond the campuses. In Congress, there were a dozen or so bills calling for an end to the war. Nor did Nixon care much for the press, referring to the Times and other press as “enemies.” So the Nixon Administration — driven by Nixon’s own paranoia about conspiracy efforts out to get him — soon became preoccupied with stopping publication and prosecuting those who leaked sensitive material.

Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, sent a telegram to New York Times publisher Sulzberger threatening Espionage Act prosecution if the Times does not stop publication. Mitchell cited “irreparable injury to the United States.” Violating the Espionage Act meant prison time for those convicted. The Times girded for a legal fight. They added Yale Law Professor Alex Bickel and First Amendment litigator Floyd Abrams to their legal team. Still, they continued publication.


June 15, 1971: New York Times third installment of its series on the secret Vietnam study runs with a front page story on how the Johnson Administration began U.S. ground combat operations in Vietnam. There is also the featured top headline story on the Nixon Administration’s efforts to shut down the Times’ publication of the study.

On June 15th, 1971, the third installment of the series on the secret Pentagon study is published by the New York Times – this time with a double headline. The first told of the current fight with the Nixon Administration over publication: “Mitchell Seeks to Halt Series on Vietnam But Times Refuses.” On the Vietnam history story, the headline read: “Vietnam Archive: Study Tells How Johnson Secretly Opened Way To Ground Combat.” That story described the decision to commit U.S. ground troops to Vietnam, which was first made on April 1, 1965, beginning with 3,500 Marines, then 18,000-20,000 ground troops, and escalating to 200,000 more requested by General Westmoreland in June of that year (over Ambassador Maxwell Taylor’s objections) which LBJ approved on July 17, 1965.

In this same June 15th edition, the Times wrote that court action over the Vietnam series was likely. In fact, an injunction came later that day, with Nixon’s team filing its action in federal district court in Manhattan. The presiding judge was Nixon appointee, Murray Gurfein, then hearing his first case. Judge Gurfein issued a temporary restraining order barring the Times’ further publication. Back in Washington, the Department of Justice announced that it was considering criminal penalties for the leak and publication. Also at that time, Secretary of State William Rogers, in a press conference, singled out the disclosure of the secret study for harming U.S. relations with its allies.


June 16, 1971. The New York Times reports on the Nixon Administration’s action to halt the Times’ publication on the secret Pentagon study, while also reporting another story from that study and another on related issues.

On the following day, June 16, 1971, the Times runs the dominant front-page headline announcing the government’s action against the paper: “Judge, at Request of U.S., Halts Times Vietnam Series Four Days Pending Injunction.” But the paper also runs another piece from the secret Vietnam archive, as well as a related story on Secretary of State Rogers’ concerns, and another on Senator Mike Mansfield’s (D-MT) call for Senate hearings into the history of the Vietnam War. With the Times being shut down on the story, Daniel Ellsberg then offers the Pentagon Papers to the three television networks (in those days there were only three). But each of the TV networks declines, citing FCC license vulnerability. By this time, Ellsberg and his wife Patricia go underground after Ellsberg is identified as the probable source for leaking the secret Pentagon study.

Post Joins Fray

With the New York Times now legally sidelined, the Washington Post, which had only published wire stories and summations of what the Times had been reporting about the secret study, then began its own effort to pursue the story. Ben Bagdikian, an assistant managing editor at the Post, knew Ellsberg from a time when both had been together at RAND. He had also pieced together that Ellsberg was the likely leaker, and contacted him on behalf of the Post to arrange for a copy of the study. Bagdikian flew to Boston on June 17th, 1971, met with Ellsberg to get the Papers, then flew home to D.C. in an airplane scene now made famous by the 2017 film, “The Post,” with Bagdikian and his big box of papers “belted in” on an adjacent airplane seat (photo below). He was actually carrying two copies, one for a member of Congress (Senator Mike Gravel), later to be incorporated into a formal committee record (see sidebar later below).


Scene from 2017-18 film, “The Post,” showing Ben Bagdikian of The Washington Post (played by Bob Odenkirk ), flying back to Washington after obtaining copies of the 7,000-page “Pentagon Papers” from Daniel Ellsberg in Boston. “Must be precious cargo,” observes flight attendant of his seat companion “only government secrets” he assures her. Click for 'The Post' DVD.

When Bagdikian arrived in Washington that evening, on June 17th, 1971, he went straight to the home of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, where a gathered team of reporters and editors were awaiting the secret study to write stories for the following day’s edition. They soon dug into the work as the Post’s lawyers and editors debated the risks of publishing. The Post’s owner and publisher, Katharine Graham, would later approve the publication of the secret material over the telephone during a party being held at her home. Graham’s approval came despite strong objections by the Post’s legal counsel and her own worry about risking the family business. Back in New York, the Times, complying with a court order, released a list of the secret documents it held to the government, but not the documents themselves. The court rejected the government’s request for the copies. Meanwhile, the next day, the Washington Post published its first stories on the secret Pentagon study.


June 18, 1971. The Washington Post runs its first front-page stories on the secret Pentagon study: one from the study during the Eisenhower era in 1954 when the U.S. figured into a delay in South Vietnamese elections another on how members of Congress were then mostly supporting the earlier New York Times’ publication of the secret study a third on the Times’ actions regarding the government’s legal requests for documents and a fourth, in the lower right hand corner, about the government’s pursuit of then suspected leaker, Daniel Ellsberg.

In its debut on the secret Pentagon study (above), the Post featured four related stories on its front page: one from the study during the Eisenhower era in 1954 when the U.S. figured into a delay of South Vietnamese elections another on how members of Congress were then mostly supporting the New York Times’ publication of the secret study a third on the Times’ actions regarding the government’s legal requests for the Pentagon documents and a fourth about the government’s pursuit of then suspected leaker, Daniel Ellsberg. Upon publication, the Nixon Administration immediately goes after the Washington Post.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General, William Rehnquist, calls Post editor Ben Bradlee to inform him that further publication will be a violation of espionage laws. He also requests the Post turn over its documents. Bradlee refuses on both counts.

Some hours later – now June 19th, 1971 at 1:20 a.m – the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily enjoins the Post from further publication. Two days later, on June 21, 1971, in Federal District court in Washington, Judge Gesell denies the government’s request for a preliminary injunction against the Post, but the government immediately appeals to the D.C. Circuit.


June 21, 1971. Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post,, emerging from Federal District Court in Washington, DC after court temporarily ruled in their favor.

By this time, more than 10 other newspapers across the country had received the sensitive Pentagon study and begin publishing their own articles.

At stake in the case as it came before the Supreme Court – New York Times v. United States – is the question of whether the First Amendment allows “prior restraint” (in the form of a legal injunction/prohibition) on the publication of the Pentagon Papers (and by extension, all other information of this kind going forward) by the Times and Post, and generally, the press. It is a fundamental First Amendment challenge.

Meanwhile, as the legal questions were being sorted out in this epic case, Ellsberg was moving from motel to motel to avoid capture by the FBI, still distributing the secret Pentagon study selectively to other newspapers. On June 22nd, 1971, for example, after being contacted earlier by Boston Globe reporter Thomas Oliphant, and with the Globe agreeing to publish the secret material, Ellsberg supplies portions of the study and the Globe runs three related front-page stories two reporting, respectively, on the JFK and LBJ roles in the secret Vietnam history, and a third reporting that Ellsberg would soon be making a statement on his role. The Justice Department then stopped the Globe from further publication with an injunction and also ordered the Globe’s documents to be impounded. Instead, the Globe’s editor, Thomas Winship, moved the documents off premises to a locker at Boston’s Logan Airport.


June 22, 1971: Boston Globe reports on JFK and LBJ roles in secret Vietnam history – and also Ellsberg.


June 24,1971: San Francisco Chronicle reports on secret Pentagon Vietnam history, Ellsberg, & newspaper bans.

Ellsberg would continue distributing portions of the secret Pentagon study to other newspapers, a few of which the government also tried to enjoin. The St Louis Post-Dispatch, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune were among newspapers that published material from the secret Pentagon report. By June 23rd, 1971, Ellsberg himself was interviewed on Walter Cronkite’s CBS-TV news show, when he told the anchorman that Americans were to blame for the war and “now bear the major responsibility, as I read this history, for every death in combat in Indochina in the last 25 years.”


June 25, 1971: St. Louis Post-Dispatch publishes revealing front-page story from the secret Pentagon Vietnam history, running the headlines: ‘M’Namara: Pacification A Failure Despaired In ‘66 Of Quick Victory, Papers Show,” with front-page photos of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson.

On June 25th, 1971, the St. Louis Post Dispatch published a front-page story (above) on the secret Pentagon study that headlined the fact that U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had declared the “pacification” effort in Vietnam a failure, and in 1966 he warned President Johnson there would be no quick victory. This story was a clear indication that more than just the New York Times and Washington Post were involved, as nearly an additional dozen or so newspapers – some in the heartland of the country such as the St Louis Post-Dispatch – were also publishing revealing accounts from the secret Pentagon Vietnam history.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, a federal grand jury was convened to hear charges on the criminal aspect of the Pentagon study leak. On June 26th, 1971, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Daniel Ellsberg his attorneys announced he would surrender the following Monday. Also on June 26th, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch came under a restraining order for its publication.


June 28, 1971: Time cover, “Pentagon Papers: The Secret War.”

…Each step seems to have been taken almost in desperation because the preceding step had failed to check the crumbling of the South Vietnamese government and its troops—and despite frequently expressed doubts that the next move would be much more effective. Yet the bureaucracy, the Pentagon papers indicate, always demanded new options each option was to apply more force. Each tightening of the screw created a position that must be defended once committed, the military pressure must be maintained. A pause, it was argued, would reveal lack of resolve, embolden the Communists and further demoralize the South Vietnamese. Almost no one said: “Wait—where are we going? Should we turn back?”

Also on June 28th, 1971, Daniel Ellsberg surrendered to the U.S. Attorney in Boston. There he was charged under the Espionage Act with theft and unauthorized possession of classified documents and released on $500,000 bail. Ellsberg faced a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Meanwhile, the New York Times/Washington Post case over the right to publish was still pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.


Late June 1971: Daniel Ellsberg appears before microphones, surrounded by reporters at the Federal Building in Boston, where he would surrender to Federal authorities after admitting he supplied the New York Times with the secret Pentagon papers.

On the following day, June 29, 1971, U.S. Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK) then attempted to read the Pentagon Papers into the Senate record as part of his filibuster on the military draft, but he was stopped by a parliamentary maneuver. He then convened a hearing of his Senate Public Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee in the middle of the night and began reading the Pentagon Papers into the hearing record, continuing to do so for three hours, and later submitting the unread remainder into the formal hearing record. (more on Gravel and these papers in later sidebar).

Then on June 30, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in New York Times v. United States, with the nine justices voting 6-3, upholding the Times’ and Post’s right to publish, and declaring that all news organizations could publish any excerpt of the report they deemed newsworthy. The landmark decision made front-page news all across the country, and no more happily than at the New York Times and Washington Post – with each of those newspapers, and others, resuming their reporting on the once secret U.S.-Vietnam history.


July 1, 1971: In addition to its front page coverage of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Times continued its series on the Pentagon Papers with two of the stories appearing on the front page – one on JFK decisions – “. Made ‘Gamble’ Into a ‘Broad Commitment’,” – and another on the overthrow of South Vietnam’s President Diem.


July 1, 1971. Washington Post front page following U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right of the press to publish secret Pentagon Papers. Photo shows Post owner Katharine Graham, editor, Ben Bradlee, and Post reporters in Post’s newsroom receiving and celebrating the court’s decision.

The case marked the first time in modern American history that the U.S. government had actually restrained the press from publication in the name of national security, as the New York Times had been restrained for 14 days from publishing. But the Supreme Court’s decision re-affirmed the right and duty of the press to keep a watchful eye on government. Justice Hugo Black wrote, for example: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” Justice Black and Justice William O. Douglas added that no restraints of any sort are permissible under the First Amendment. (For a legal analysis of the importance of New York Times v. the United States, see C-SPAN’s “Landmark Cases” series on this case).

However, the controversy over the publication of the Pentagon Papers did not end with the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the right to publish. The story continued with the arrests and trial of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo. In fact, on the day of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Pentagon Papers case, June 30, 1971 the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles indicted Ellsberg on two counts of theft and espionage. And in some ways, this is where “the plot thickens,” as they say, for the Nixon Administration, as would be later revealed, was hot on the trail of Daniel Ellsberg.


July 5, 1971: Time puts Daniel Ellsberg on it cover with story on the “Battle Over the Right to Know.”


July 12, 1971: “Victory for The Press,” Newsweek cover story on Supreme Court ruling.

The Ellsberg/Russo prosecution and trial would run nearly two years, from June 1971 through May 1973, and would take several twists and turns. In August 1971, Anthony Russo was called to testify before the grand jury in Los Angeles, but refused, citing his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. And after he was offered immunity from prosecution, he still refused to testify and was cited for contempt and put in jail. In late December 1971, a second indictment was brought against Ellsberg and Russo that superseded the original, this one containing fifteen counts. By July 29, 1972, with the trial underway, it was learned the government had wiretapped a conversation between one of the defendants and his lawyer or consultants. However, the judge in the trial, Judge Matthew Byrne, refused to stop the trial because of the wiretap. But Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas ordered a stay since an appeal has been filed at the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court, on November 13, 1972, refuses to hear defense arguments arising from the government’s wiretap. Then on December 12, 1972, Judge Byrne, declares a mistrial in the Ellsberg-Russo case and calls for a new jury to be empaneled. On January 17, 1973, opening statements are delivered in the new Ellsberg/Russo trial. But not long thereafter, some other revelations come to light.


Charles Colson, Nixon aide.
John Erlichman, Nixon aide.
Howard Hunt, "plumber".
Gordon Liddy, "plumber".

Nixon’s Plumbers

Two years earlier in the White House, during the New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers, concern about leaks and conspiracies had escalated, as Nixon and his aides fumed over the Pentagon Papers disclosures and Daniel Ellsberg.

During June and July 1971 several of Nixon’s top aides and chief advisors — through a series of memos, telephone calls, and meetings — were involved in a continuing harangue about the leaks, Ellsberg, and what they were going to do about it. All of this led to an internal, self-reinforcing revving up of the group, including Nixon, to stop leaks and take revenge, initially on Ellsberg, the first among a variety of “enemies.”

Henry Kissinger, for example, Nixon’s National Security Advisor – who had once praised Ellsberg and sought his expertise – painted a very dark and damaging portrait of Ellsberg on the evening of June 17, 1971 in the Oval Office with Nixon, John Ehrlichman, and Bob Haldeman present.

Another top Nixon aide, Charles Colson, in a July 1st, 1971 telephone call with retired CIA agent named E. Howard Hunt, helped inspire and recruit Hunt to see what he could come up with on Ellsberg and other projects, suggesting, among other things, that Ellsberg might be “tried in the newspapers.” By July 6, 1971 Hunt was hired as White House consultant.

Meanwhile, the FBI and CIA by this time had been looking into Ellsberg’s past at the request of the White House with some urgency. But this was apparently not sufficient, as a special and covert White House Special Investigations Unit – later to be known as the “plumbers” – had been created on July 24, 1971 to help stop the leaking of classified information. Two junior aides were appointed to administer the unit – Egil “Bud” Krogh, Jr., and Kissinger aide David Young, Jr. This unit would come under the supervision of Nixon’s Domestic Advisor, John Ehrlichman.

On July 28, 1971, Howard Hunt sent a memo to Colson entitled “Neutralization of Ellsberg” with an outline of several proposed actions. “Building up a file on Ellsberg,” Hunt wrote, was “essential in determining how to destroy his public image and credibility.” One of the proposals from Hunt was to burglarize the offices of Ellsberg’s one-time psychiatrist in Los Angeles, …Hunt’s plan to burglarize the office of psychiatrist Dr. Lewis Fielding sought a “mother lode” of infor-mation about Ellsberg’s mental state in order to discredit him. Dr. Lewis Fielding, to obtain a “mother lode” of information about Ellsberg’s mental state in order to discredit him. In August 1971, that plan is fleshed out in more detail at the Old Executive Office Building near the White House and is later approved by Ehrlichman under the condition that it “is not traceable.” On September 3, 1971, the burglary of Fielding’s Beverly Hills Los Angeles office was carried out by “plumbers” Hunt, Liddy, Eugenio Martínez, Felipe de Diego, and Bernard Barker (the latter three, former CIA). In Fielding’s burgled office and crow-barred filing cabinet, Nixon’s plumbers found Ellsberg’s file, but it apparently did not contain the embarrassing information they had hoped for and left it discarded on the floor. Hunt and Liddy then planned to break into Fielding’s home, but Ehrlichman did not approve the second burglary. (This plumbers unit, meanwhile, would be the one and the same group made famous in the 1972 burglary of Democratic Campaign headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington DC — the break in and subsequent cover-up that would lead to the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon).

Back at The Trial…

Back at the Ellsberg/Russo trial on April 26, 1973, a memo to Judge Bryne revealed the White House “plumbers” break-in of Dr. Fielding’s office seeking Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatric records. And there was more. On May 9th, further evidence of illegal wiretapping of Ellsberg was revealed, as the FBI had recorded numerous conversations between he and Morton Halperin without a court order. In addition, it was also revealed that during the trial, Judge Byrne – the residing judge in the trial – had personally met with Richard Nixon’s domestic advisor, John Ehrlichman, who had offered Byrne a position at the FBI. Given the gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering, Judge Byrne dismissed all charges against Ellsberg and Russo on May 11, 1973. The dismissal was front-page news.


May 12, 1973. New York Times headlines proclaiming government charges against Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo in their Pentagon Papers trial are dismissed and the are free, with the judge noting “improper government conduct” in that trial.

At the White House, however, President Nixon was not happy with the outcome of the Ellsberg trial, nor with the fact that earlier, on May 2, 1972, the New York Times had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for “meritorious public service in journalism” for its reporting on the Pentagon Papers. While speaking to Alexander Haig and Bob Haldeman at the White House on the day the mistrial is declared, Nixon says: “…Son-of-a-bitchin’ thief is made a national hero and is gonna get off on a mistrial. The New York Times gets a Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents. They’re trying to get at us with thieves. What in the name of God have we come to?”

Fifteen months later, on August 8th, 1974, Richard M. Nixon announced in a televised address that he would resign as President of the United States the following day to escape what would have been most certain impeachment by the House and removal by the Senate for the crimes of the Watergate Scandal, which began, in part, with the White House paranoia over the publication of the secret Pentagon Papers (see also at this website “The Frost-Nixon Biz,” which covers the 1977 David Frost TV interviews with Richard Nixon about the “plumbers” and Watergate, and the books, stage play, and film that followed).

Popular History

In the years following the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the Daniel Ellsberg disclosures, there came a number of books and films on the controversy, its various characters, and related Vietnam War histories and politics. Among the first of these was a July 1971 Bantam Books paperback of some 677 pages that compiled what the New York Times had published in its newspaper series. The cover of that book appears below left, which also provided attribution on the cover for the various Times reporters involved, adding — “with key documents and 64 pages of photographs.”


1971: Bantam Books paperback edition of the New York Times published “Pentagon Papers,” 677pp. Click for copy.

Also in 1971, the New York Times-owned company, Quadrangle Books, published a hardback volume of some 810 pages (above right) billed at the “definitive edition” of the Pentagon Papers as published by the Times, plus supplementary materials. It was offered as a comprehensive volume for libraries, universities, and private citizens. It included the ten chapters covered by the Times in its June and July 1971 stories, plus the full texts of the government documents that appeared in those stories the court proceedings in the case of The New York Times Company vs. The United States pictorial documentation of the Pentagon study in 60 pages of photographs a glossary of names, code words, abbreviations and technical terms used in the Pentagon study expanded and illustrated biographies of American and Vietnamese officials prominent in the study and a 32-page index. Then there was also “the Gravel edition” of the Pentagon Papers, with a little history of its own.

“The Gravel Edition”
Mike Gravel & Beacon Press


Senator Mike Gravel, early 1970s.

On the evening of June 29, 1971, after being thwarted in his attempt to read the secret study on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Gravel resorted to using his Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee as a way to enter the Pentagon Papers into the formal Congressional record. As he began reading from the papers with the press in attendance, Gravel noted: “It is my constitutional obligation to protect the security of the people by fostering the free flow of information absolutely essential to their democratic decision-making.” He read until 1 a.m., though finally inserting some 4,100 pages of the Papers into the record of his subcommittee. The following day, the Supreme Court, in New York Times Co. v. United States, ruled in favor of the newspapers’ right to publish the Pentagon Papers, which then continued at the Times, Post, and other newspapers. In addition, by July 1971, Bantam Books published an inexpensive paperback edition of the papers containing the material the New York Times had published.


"The Senator Gravel Edition" of the Pentagon Papers, published by Beacon Press, October 1971. Not shown, Chomsky/Zinn Vol. 5.


UUA President Bob West and Senator Mike Gravel respond to the FBI’s attempt to seize UUA bank records in 1971.

Senator Gravel’s involvement with the Pentagon Papers, meanwhile, had made him into something of a national political figure at that time. He became a sought-after speaker on the college lecture circuit and was also sought out for political fundraisers. The Democratic candidates for the 1972 presidential election sought his endorsement, and he later backed Maine Senator Ed Muskie.


Sanford J. Ungar first published this book with E.P, Dutton shown here in Columbia Univ. Press edition. Click for copy.

Ungar had also written on the Pentagon Papers and Ellsberg in 1971-72 for the Washington Post, publishing one story there titled, “Daniel Ellsberg: The Difficulties of Disclosure,” in a Sunday edition, April 30,1972, tracking the difficulties Ellsberg encountered trying to put the secret Pentagon materials on the public record.

Ellsberg himself published his own quick book on the Pentagon Papers in July 1972 titled simply, Papers On The War (Simon & Schuster, 309pp). In 2002, Ellsberg would publish a second account on the Pentagon Papers case, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, which reached bestseller lists across the nation and won several awards, including the American Book Award.

One book profiling Ellsberg’s history with the Pentagon Papers is Steve Sheinkin’s Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War, published by Roaring Brook Press in 2015 and was a National Book Award finalist.

Other popular and academic volumes on the Pentagon Papers, some from the perspective of journalism, and others probing the trail of litigation or parsing the Supreme Court’s decision, would also come into print over the next 40 years – not to mention numerous periodical and law review articles (click on any book cover below to go to Amazon page for that book).

Among books exploring the publishing and/or legal aspects of the Pentagon Papers, for example, is David Rudenstine’s 1996 work, The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case (University of California Press).

In 2013, James Goodale, the former general counsel and vice chairman of the New York Times, published Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles, which includes his account representing the Times before the Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case.

There are also two books from the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham, which include sections on the Pentagon Papers: Graham’s Personal History of 1997, published by Alfred A. Knopf, and Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, published by Simon & Schuster in 1995. Presidential biographies – especially those on Johnson and Nixon – also have history related to the Pentagon Papers and Vietnam era decision making.

Complimenting the early books on the Pentagon Papers is David Halberstam’s well-received 1972 best seller on Vietnam, The Best and The Brightest. Halberstam’s book offers details on how the decisions were made in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations that led to the war, focusing on a period from 1960 to 1965, but also covers earlier and later years up to the book’s publication.

One of the “best and brightest” featured in Halberstam’s book, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, penned his own book on Vietnam in 1995, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Crown Books). McNamara’s best-selling book generated considerable controversy with lots of media time for the former Defense Secretary.

Beyond the literature that covers the Pentagon Papers per se or the decision making at that time, there is of course, a vast array of works on the history of the Vietnam War from multiple perspectives. Among these, for example, are: Frances FitzGerald’s 1975 book, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, and Stanley Karnow’s 1984 book, Vietnam: A History (Viking), billed at the time as “the first complete account of Vietnam at war” (This book was also used as a basis for the long form PBS TV series of the same title).

Among books taking a critical look at Vietnam policy making and military strategy is H.R. McMaster’s 1998 book, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam – one of many probing the whys and wherefores of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Neil Sheehan, the former New York Times reporter that broke the early Pentagon Papers stories, also wrote an award-winning 1988 book on the war, A Bright Shining Lie:John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (Random House), which probes the Vietnam War through the experiences of John Paul Vann, a U.S. military advisor there in the early 1960s who became increasingly critical of U.S. military command and tactics used in the war.

Another Vietnam book by Mark Bowden published in 2017 focuses on one of war’s seminal military engagements during the Tet Offensive: Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam (Atlantic Monthly Press). The titles presented here and above are only samples not by any means an exhaustive listing of the much larger universe of U.S./Vietnam analysis and the politics of that period.

TV & Hollywood. In September 2003, a television film, The Pentagon Papers, was the first in that arena to explore the Pentagon Papers episode. It aired on the FX cable TV channel. The film is about Daniel Ellsberg and the events leading up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers. It documents Ellsberg’s life starting with his work at the RAND Corporation, and ends with the mistrial in the Ellsberg-Russo espionage case. The film stars James Spader as Ellsberg and cast that also includes Claire Forlani, Alan Arkin, and Paul Giamatti (Rod Holcomb director,Joshua D. Maurer executive producer).


Sept 2003 cable TV movie, “The Pentagon Papers,” with James Spader as Daniel Ellsberg, FX channel. Click for DVD.

In 2009, a documentary film directed and produced by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, titled, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The film had a four-month theatrical run and in 2010 it was shown on the PBS series POV, for which it won a Peabody Award. It was also nominated for an Oscar in the documentary film category and won more than a dozen other film festival and other awards. It features Ellsberg and explores the events leading up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers. One Washington Post reviewer of the film called it: “Compelling… (a) gripping mix of politics, history and the derring-do of one of the era’s most audacious capers…deservedly Oscar nominated.” Here’s the trailer for that documentary:

An earlier documentary on the Vietnam war – Hearts and Minds of 1974 (which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature that year) – is also relevant to this period and its history, and includes interviews with Ellsberg and other major figures involved in U.S./Vietnam policy making and military operations. And most recently, of course, the 2017, Oscar-nominated Steven Spielberg Hollywood film, The Post, covers the Washington Post portion of the Pentagon Papers episode (trailer available at the top of this story).

The 2017 Spielberg film – with Meryl Streep portraying the country’s first female newspaper publisher, Katharine “Kay” Graham of The Washington Post, and Tom Hanks playing hard-driving newsroom editor, Ben Bradlee – was released in America at a propitious time a time when the sitting president, Donald Trump, much like the historic figure, Richard Nixon during the Pentagon Papers controversy, was at war with many news organizations. In addition, by depicting the struggles of a female executive in a powerful business, the Spielberg film also struck a positive chord with women in a time of renewed calls for female equity and empowerment. But perhaps most of all, the film helped drive home the importance of a vibrant and unfettered press, rising to its “fourth estate” responsibilities.


Scene from Steven Spielberg's 2017-18 film, ‘The Post’, showing, at left, Ben Bradlee (Hanks, w/cup), Kay Graham (Streep) next to him, and Meg Greenfield, seated (Carrie Coon), watching news on table-top TV set in the Washington Post newsroom during the tense days of June 1971 as Pentagon Papers publication was being challenged by the Nixon Administration. Click for film DVD.

Spielberg read the screenplay in early 2017 and decided to direct the film as soon as possible. “When I read the first draft of the script,” he told USA Today in November 2017, “this wasn’t something that could wait three years or two years — this was a story I felt we needed to tell today.” Spielberg also explained that it was “a patriotic film” and that he decided to take it on basically because he believes in journalism. Spielberg’s film helped trumpet the importance of a free and feisty press. “It is an antidote to ‘fake news,’ he said of the film. “Those journalists in the movie are true heroes.”

The film began airing in the U.S. in late December 2017, with full release in January 2018. It was chosen by the National Board of Review as the best film of 2017 and was named as one of the top 10 films of the year by Time magazine and the American Film Institute. It also received six Golden Globe nominations (Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Actress – Drama [Streep], Best Actor – Drama [Hanks], Best Screenplay and Best Original Score), and two Academy Award nominations (Best Picture and Best Actress). And while there were some gripes about not giving the New York Times its due in the film, and that “nice guy” Tom Hanks lacked a certain edge to fully portray the Ben Bradlee character, the film nonetheless achieved an important public education role by underscoring the importance of a free and feisty press.

As for the real Pentagon Papers crisis and confrontations of June 1971, it is at least somewhat heartening to know that good people came forward to expose and publish the truth, and that key institutions generally worked as the Founders intended: to help free up vital information for all citizens to access so that democracy can work to keep power in check.


April 1, 1972. Daniel Ellsberg, addressing a crowd at the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania following an anti-war march that ended at the Capitol. (AP photo/Rusty Kennedy)

Still, in the world of government secrecy since 1971, the news is not so good, as Dana Priest, Pulitzer Prize-winning intelligence and Pentagon reporter for the Washington Post has written in a 2016 Columbia Journalism Review article titled, “Did The Pentagon Papers Matter?” Citing a number of cases of “government at work” since the days of the Pentagon Papers, she concludes that “secrecy in government…has continued unabated….” All the more reason for the first-amendment protected press to keep digging and afflicting, and for the rest of us to ensure that they do.


New York Times team that won 1972 Pulitzer Prize for public service for publication of the Pentagon Papers from left, reporter Neil Sheehan, managing editor A.M. Rosenthal, foreign news editor James L. Greenfield & others. AP photo

Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 5 February 2018
Last Update: 30 January 2021
Comments to: [email protected]

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “The Pentagon Papers: 1967-2018,”
PopHistoryDig.com, February 5, 2018.

Sources, Links & Additional Information


Cover used on one version of Quadrangle Books edition of “Pentagon Papers as published by the NY Times,” showing LBJ with Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy.


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