1971 June 13

Vietnam War Secrets Revealed: New York Times Publishes the Pentagon Papers


The New York Times on this day provoked a major controversy over the Vietnam War and over freedom of the press when it published stories based on the secret Pentagon Papers, which Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the paper. The Pentagon Papers detailed the history of American involvement in the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1967, which Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered on June 17, 1967. The project was completed in January 1969 and consisted of 47 volumes, 3,000 pages of analysis, and 4,000 pages of documents.

The report remained secret until Daniel Ellsberg made an authorized copy from an original copy held by the Rand Corporation (October 1, 1969), and eventually leaked it to the Times. The Times’ stories on this day created a sensation, as they revealed deep early American involvement in Vietnam and official lying to the American public.

The Nixon administration obtained an injunction on June 15, 1971, blocking further publication of stories based on the Papers. The injunction provoked what is arguably the most important freedom of the press case in American history. In Times v. United States, the Supreme Court invalidated the injunction in a historic decision on June 30, 1971.

Ellsberg and his colleague Anthony Russo were prosecuted for stealing the Pentagon Papers, but the charges were dismissed in the middle of the trial on May 11, 1973, when it was revealed that the government had committed misconduct against both defendants. The most serious form of that misconduct was a burglary of the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in Los Angeles on September 9, 1971. The burglary was done by members of the White House “Plumbers” unit, whose activities were part of the Watergate scandal.

There are three different versions of the Pentagon Papers. Go to the National Security Archive to see all three: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB359/index.htm

Learn more about the Papers, John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter, Inside the Pentagon Papers (2004)

Read Ellsberg’s first-person account: Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002)

Read: Tom Wells, Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg (2001)

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