The Pentagon Papers Explained

The Pentagon Papers Explained

Larry Holzwarth - September 28, 2019

In June 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara created a working group he designated as the Vietnam Study Task Force. McNamara was a hawk regarding the United States’ involvement in the War in Vietnam and the study was commissioned as what he called an “encyclopedic history” of the Vietnam War. Over the years McNamara’s claims about his motives for requesting the work changed. He later revealed that he knew the American effort in Vietnam was doomed to fail and he wanted a documented record of what caused that failure to leave to future generations.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense to Kennedy and Johnson, commissioned the Pentagon Papers as a comprehensive history of American involvement in Southeast Asia. Wikimedia

The study, which was conducted within the Pentagon and civilian contractor organizations, was classified as Top Secret. In 1971 it was copied and leaked to The New York Times, revealing to the American public for the first time the level at which the US government had lied regarding the conduct of the war, the reasons for American involvement, and the fact that the United States had systematically enlarged the scope of the conflict. The released study, dubbed the Pentagon Papers by the press, was a bombshell, further widening the rift in American society over involvement in Vietnam, and over the conduct of the US government in general. Here are some facts about the Pentagon Papers and the furor they caused.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Dean Rusk, President Johnson, and McNamara in 1968. McNamara gave several reasons for why he initiated the Pentagon Papers without telling Johnson or Rusk. Wikimedia

1. Why the study was completed remains a subject of debate

The Vietnam War was America’s first televised war. There were three major television networks at the time, all of which broadcast a nightly news program every evening, and all of which gave liberal amounts of time to the fighting in Vietnam. Americans received a dose of news about Vietnam with their dinners each weeknight. It was seldom good news. The images they saw, of American boys, dying, American aircraft being destroyed, Vietnamese children fleeing for their lives, Buddhist monks immolating themselves, were in stark contrast to the reassurances from the Johnson Administration that the United States was winning the war in Southeast Asia. The number of American dead increased daily, and equal time was given to the protests against the war, across America and around the world.

The Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, formerly an executive with the Ford Motor Company, commissioned a study of America’s history of involvement in Southeast Asia for reasons which remain unclear five decades later. What is known however is that he never informed his boss, President Lyndon Johnson (at least there is no record of his having done so), nor did he tell Secretary of State Dean Rusk that the study was being done. McNamara resigned before the study was completed, and it was delivered to Clark Clifford, his successor, in 1969. By that time, Lyndon Johnson had declined to run for re-election, Richard Nixon had won the presidency, and another 27,000 Americans had become casualties in Vietnam.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
DoD employees and consultants such as RAND Corporation comprised the team which wrote the Pentagon Papers. Wikimedia

2. Who was assigned to make the study which became known as the Pentagon Papers?

Though the Department of Defense employs historians, both civilian and military, who created the official records of the United States military (available online for all branches) McNamara went outside of official channels to create his study. He approached his long-time aide and friend John McNaughton to it. McNaughton was at the time the Assistant Secretary of Defense, and one of the authors of the strategy of bombing in Vietnam known as Operation Rolling Thunder. McNaughton’s untimely death in a plane crash led to the work being led by Leslie Gelb, a former assistant to Senator Jacob Javits, and a senior official in international affairs at the Pentagon.

Three dozen analysts worked directly on the project, supported by their individual staff. About half the analysts were active duty military, the rest were civilian employees, university consultants, and employees of the civil service. They worked under tight security, driven by a mandate that no other organization within or outside of the federal government be aware of the project prior to its completion. Meanwhile, Johnson lost confidence in McNamara and he resigned in February, 1968. He was replaced by Clark Clifford, a long-time friend of the president. The war continued, and the divisive year of 1968 wound down with Richard Nixon winning the presidency in a close vote.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Clark Clifford (right) of the outgoing Johnson Administration received the report in early 1969. He later claimed to have never read it. Wikimedia

3. The delivery of the study group’s report and its use

In early January, 1969, just before the inauguration of Richard Nixon as President of the United States, Clifford received the completed report from the study group, along with supporting documents from the Department of Defense. Together they ran to over 7,000 pages and were organized into more than 40 volumes. The report was classified Top Secret and carried with it a caveat which designated it as sensitive information. The caveat meant that its dissemination should have been strictly controlled, with access limited only to persons with a “need to know”. President Johnson left office less than a week later, whether he ever was aware of the document before doing so remains debated. Likely he did not.

One of the limited number approved to view the document was the RAND Corporation. RAND was (and remains) a non-profit government-funded consultant organization. It also receives funding from private sources, including universities and defense contractors. It was founded by a defense contractor, the Douglas Aircraft Company, in 1948. Its role was to conduct analyses and research for the Department of Defense. It was given two copies of the report in 1969, with the proviso that access to it be limited and under the approval of at least two specified Department of Defense employees. One of RAND’s employees had worked on the project. His name was Daniel Ellsberg.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
The Johnson Administration was out of office by the time the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the press. Wikimedia

4. The study was leaked to The New York Times

As 1969 went on and the casualties in Vietnam continued to mount Ellsberg, who had spent two years in Southeast Asia as an assistant to a State Department official, became convinced that American involvement there was wrong, or at least what the American people were being told about it was wrong. Ellsberg began surreptitiously copying the study in late 1969, taking the copied documents with him when he left his office at RAND. Both actions were against the law as violations of security. He did not act alone, at least one assistant aided him in copying the materials. He also made multiple copies which once they were made available to the public became known as the Pentagon Papers.

Though Ellsberg had become convinced that overt action against American involvement in Vietnam was a moral obligation, he was uncertain at first what to do with the documents in his possession. He attempted to convince several Senators to review the documents and introduce them on the floor of the Senate, since to do so was not illegal for a Senator, regardless of how the documents had been obtained. One such Senator was the influential William Fulbright, who demurred. He also approached several foreign policy experts, distributing the documents – still highly classified – without authorization. Then he gave a copy to The New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, who had already heard of their contents from contacts Ellsberg had previously approached.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
The brunt of the Pentagon Papers fell on the Nixon Administration, rather than his predecessors whose actions they described. Wikimedia

5. The New York Times published a story on the Pentagon Papers

On June 13, 1971 – a Sunday – The New York Times published the first of what would eventually become nine stories on the Pentagon Papers. The stories, which ran on the front page, contained excerpts directly from the purloined documents as well as editorial comments. The Times internally discussed the legality of publishing what was at the time Top Secret documents and in the face of conflicting legal advice decided to go ahead and print the story. The following day the Nixon Administration went to court to block further publication. Nixon personally was at first inclined to ignore the papers, since they were most detrimental to the preceding administrations of Johnson and Kennedy, but close aides argued it established a dangerous precedent.

With the publication by the Times temporarily blocked, the Washington Post began publishing the papers on June 18, using copies Ellsberg had given to one of their own reporters. When the Nixon Administration attempted to obtain an injunction against the Post, as it had with the Times, it lost. The decision was appealed, and on June 26 the US Supreme Court announced that it would hear both cases jointly. Meanwhile, more than a dozen other newspapers began printing the Pentagon Papers and offering commentary on their contents. On June 30 the Supreme Court allowed the newspapers to publish the documents by a 6-3 vote, and in an unusual step, all nine justices wrote opinions on the case.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Robert McNamara believed China harbored Imperial ambitions similar to those of Japan in World War II. Wikimedia

6. The Pentagon Papers revealed a pattern of government deceit of the American people

American involvement in Vietnam was justified during the Eisenhower administration under what was called the domino theory. It proposed that failing to stop communism’s spread in one country in the region would lead others to fall, one by one, like toppling dominoes. The Pentagon Papers revealed that America’s true role in Vietnam, and other countries in Southeast Asia, was aimed at restricting the influence of China. Vietnam was one country in a ring which the United States wanted to use to encircle China with democratic allies, which also included Korea, Japan, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, and others.

Though in public McNamara endorsed the domino theory of preceding administrations (and Johnson), in private he informed Johnson, and presumably Kennedy, that China harbored imperial ambitions in Asia. In writing to the president, McNamara directly compared China to Germany in 1917 and 1939, and Imperial Japan in World War II, “as a major power threatening to undercut our importance and effectiveness in the world and, more remotely and more menacingly, to organize all of Asia against us. McNamara used the argument to support the strategic bombing operations in Vietnam, which began in 1965.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
America’s presence in Vietnam had begun during the Truman Administration and the return of the French after World War II. Wikimedia

7. The Pentagon Papers revealed American activities in Vietnam which had long been secret

In the autumn of 1940 Imperial Japan invaded French Indochina, and fighting in Vietnam stemmed from that event. The Vietnamese people did not want to be ruled by Japan, and insurrections against Japanese occupation forces continued throughout the war. When the French returned in 1945, the Vietnamese weren’t eager to be ruled by them either, and the fighting continued, with well-organized forces supported by newly communist China battling the French colonial troops. They also received support from the Soviet Union. The Truman Administration, unable to support the French with troops due to Korea, provided covert military aid in equipment and money.

The beaten French and their enemy, the Viet Minh, reached an agreement in Geneva in 1954, in which Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam, separated by a Demilitarized Zone which became well-known in the United States in the 1960s as the DMZ. The official government of Vietnam rejected the agreement, as did the United States under President Eisenhower, but the military defeat of the French made it a reality. Officially South Vietnam remained the Republic of Vietnam, did not recognize the legitimacy of the North, and received the support of the United States. The level of support and covert operations by the United States were revealed in the Pentagon Papers.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
During the Eisenhower Administration US operatives and advisors worked to destabilize the situation in Vietnam. Wikimedia

8. The United States worked to start the war between North and South Vietnam

Under the Eisenhower Administration, several governments were toppled around the world with the support of the Central Intelligence Agency, including in Iraq, Iran, South America and the Caribbean. In Vietnam, beginning in 1954, according to the Pentagon Papers, the CIA and other agencies worked on both sides of the DMZ to foment an insurrection against the Geneva Agreement. In one of the most startling revelations of the documents, it was revealed that the United States played a “direct role in the breakdown of the Geneva settlement”.

At the same time, the United States offered covert support to the government in South Vietnam for the creation of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, in the form of financial aid and military advisors. Driven by the belief that it was necessary to contain the imperial ambitions of China under Mao, the United States took a chance on creating a well-armed and trained ally in the ARVN and the government which controlled it. The Pentagon Papers contained a statement which read, by the time President Kennedy entered office, the nation of South Vietnam existed and, “We must note that South Vietnam (unlike any of the other countries in Southeast Asia) was essentially the creation of the United States”.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles rejected the Geneva Settlement which divided Vietnam. Wikimedia

9. The United States helped South Vietnam ignore the provisions of the Geneva Settlement

The Geneva Settlement which divided Vietnam in two included the provision that an election be held in the country in 1956. In the south, at the time of the Geneva Settlement, the government was centered in Saigon. Elections were held in the North and the Viet Minh prevailed. In the south, Ngo Dinh Diem overthrew the prevailing government and established himself in control, with CIA support. The United States and Diem’s government did not recognize the elections held in the North. Diem did not hold elections in the South. The Pentagon Papers revealed, “Without the threat of US intervention, South Vietnam could not have refused to even discuss the elections called for…without being immediately overrun by the Viet Minh armies.

In the south Viet Minh insurgents became known as the Viet Cong. Under the Diem regime, over $40 million dollars ($330 million in 2018) were spent by the United States to train the ARVN and Civil Guard to fight the Viet Cong. The Pentagon Papers also presented US Army General Edward Lansdale, a veteran of the OSS working for the CIA. It was he who led the establishment of Diem as President of South Vietnam, reporting to his superiors in 1961, “We (the US) must support Ngo Dinh Diem until another strong executive can replace him legally”.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Though Diem was the United States’ choice to run the government of South Vietnam, it later turned against him. Wikimedia

10. The Pentagon Papers revealed US involvement in deposing Diem

Diem’s commitment to fighting the Viet Cong was frail, and the ARVN was officered at its highest levels through the practices of nepotism and cronyism. The offices of the government reflected a similar attitude. US advisors in Vietnam reported numerous failings in the attempts to bolster South Vietnam against the communist insurgency. This was at a time when the American public was being told that the United States was supporting Vietnam in its fight against communism. The Pentagon Papers reported that the reverse was true, in that the United States attempted to recruit and train an ally in its own fight against communist China.

In 1963 Diem was overthrown and assassinated in a coup. According to the Pentagon Papers the United States, “authorized, sanctioned, and encouraged the coup efforts of the Vietnamese generals and offered full support for a successor government”. The document continued, “our complicity in his overthrow heightened our responsibilities and our commitment in an essentially leaderless Vietnam”. The Kennedy Administration denied American involvement in the coup publicly, but privately Kennedy was furious with the CIA.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
The Gulf of Tonkin incident gave rise to the President receiving authorization from Congress to escalate and prosecute the war in Vietnam. Wikimedia

11. The Pentagon Papers revealed plans for American escalation of the war before the Gulf of Tonkin incident

Prior to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to President Johnson obtaining authorization to prosecute the war in Southeast Asia, plans were presented to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on how to escalate American involvement. They included bombing raids targeting Viet Cong supply centers and depots, ground assaults by ARVN units on targets in North Vietnam, supported by American advisors, and air strikes on North Vietnam using unmarked aircraft, flown by “non-US aircrews”. At the same time, the President was being urged to escalate activity by the CIA, other advisors were warning that the ARVN was not ready for major operations, and the new government did not have the support of the South Vietnamese people.

The Pentagon Papers revealed that the naval patrols which were allegedly attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was actually two separate incidents, were deliberate provocations by the United States in the hope of inciting a major response from the North Vietnamese. In September 1964, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (who had served under Kennedy) warned President Johnson that such provocations should be curtailed until such time that the South Vietnamese government was prepared to withstand a major assault from the North.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
The official title of what became known as the Pentagon Papers was United States – Vietnam Relations 1945 – 1967. Wikimedia

12. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the United States provoked the war

It must be remembered that the documents commissioned by the Secretary of Defense were originally prepared by the Pentagon, or contractors working for the Defense Department. They were not prepared by organizations opposed to the American intervention in Vietnam. In fact, according to McNamara, who ordered the study, they intended to produce a document which accurately recorded the history of American involvement across several presidential administrations, of both political parties. When the documents appeared publicly the outrage was palpable. It was clear that the United States government, through the White House and the Secretary of Defense, had been lying to the American people for over two decades.

The papers made it clear that the war in Vietnam, that is, the war between the North and South, had been an American invention, hidden behind the veneer of American support for an embattled people. The United States already divided by the war was shocked. Supporters of the American war effort called for Ellsberg’s head on the proverbial platter. Opposition leaders called for Johnson’s and Nixon’s, who bore the brunt of the outrage over the deceit, though it was clear the deceit preceded his administration by more than a decade. Lost in the argument over patriotism and treason was the clear fact that America had started a war which it was losing, and American soldiers were dying as a result.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Richard Nixon, campaigning in 1968, bore the brunt of the Pentagon Papers’ negative reports. though he was not responsible for the activities reported. Wikimedia

13. Ellsberg became a pariah and a hero at the same time

For opponents of the war in Vietnam, the revelations of the Pentagon Papers were a godsend. Therein was documented proof, prepared by the same military that was prosecuting the war, the American political and military leadership was lying about the war. Daniel Ellsberg became overnight a hero of the anti-war movement in the United States and around the world. Most of the focus of public attention was on the current state of the war, and the Nixon Administration, which had not been included in the report of the war as the events covered occurred before Nixon took office, nonetheless felt the heat over previous government deceptions.

To the pro-war hawks and conservative supporters of continued American expansion of the war, Ellsberg and his supporters were guilty of treasonous betrayal of the United States during a time of war (though officially it was not a time of war). To them, the problem revealed by the Pentagon Papers was the infiltration of less than committed or patriotic people in the Department of Defense and its major contractors, including RAND. Security was inadequate. When the Pentagon Papers were introduced on the floor of the Senate (entering them into the public record) they became a source of further divisiveness between the Democratic and Republican Parties.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Chuck Colson (seated on sofa) was one of the White House Plumbers who suggested “neutralizing” Ellsberg, Wikimedia

14. Ellsberg was arrested and charged with treason in 1971

Shortly after he delivered copies of the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post, Daniel Ellsberg began living in motels, moving about frequently to avoid the FBI, which wanted him for questioning. On June 23 Ellsberg agreed to an interview with CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite; on June 28 he surrendered to the FBI in Boston, near his home. On the same day, E. Howard Hunt, who would later gain fame for his role in Watergate, suggested to the President’s top aide, Charles “Chuck” Colson, that Ellsberg be “neutralized”. In order to gather derogatory information on Ellsberg, Hunt suggested raiding the office of the former’s psychiatrist.

By the end of December Ellsberg (and his assistant Anthony Russo) were under indictments containing multiple counts. In July 1972 the trial was halted by Supreme Court stay when it was learned that the government had used illegal wiretaps to record conversations between the defendants and their legal teams. In December, 1972, a mistrial was declared in the case against Ellsberg and a new trial was scheduled for the spring of the following year. By that time, furor over the content of the Pentagon Papers had largely died down, as the Nixon Administration prepared for its second term and the continuing drawdown of American troops in Vietnam.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Henry Kissinger, with Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford, was one of the architects of Nixon’s reaction to the Pentagon Papers. Wikimedia

15. The Pentagon Papers transformed the Nixon Administration

When the Pentagon Papers were first revealed to the public via The New York Times, Richard Nixon’s reaction was anger at what he considered traitorous behavior on the part of the revelation, but his inclination was to do nothing. Nixon thought that the revelations were damaging to his predecessors in the White House, and that publication would do his administration no harm. It was his top aides, chiefly Henry Kissinger, who persuaded him otherwise, and led to the attempt to stop publication in court. When that failed, the administration went further, in activities which would eventually tie the Pentagon Papers to Watergate.

Within a week of the publication of the papers the White House established a covert group called the Special Investigations Unit. It was known colloquially as The Plumbers. The unit’s first illegal activity was a botched burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, an act reported to John Ehrlichman, who informed Nixon that there had been an operation, “…which, I think, is better that you don’t know about”. The conversation, as with so many others of the Nixon Administration, was recorded on the secret taping system installed in the Oval Office by an increasingly paranoid President, at the time he was still running for re-election.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
G. Gordon Liddy, one of the White House Plumbers involved in the Ellsberg psychiatrist break-in and the Watergate Burglary. Wikimedia

16. The courts dismissed the case against Ellsberg

Whatever else the White House Plumbers were, they evidently were bumblers when it came to the crime of burglary. When Ellsberg’s trial (he faced over 100 years in prison if convicted) began in the spring of 1973 it was revealed that two of the already convicted Watergate burglars, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, had broken into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in Los Angeles in an attempt to obtain further evidence to support the government’s case. The filing cabinet which they rifled today sits in the Smithsonian Institution. The Judge, US District Court Judge William Byrne, ordered the information shared with Ellsberg’s defense lawyers.

He then dismissed the case presented by the prosecution, citing government misconduct. “The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case”, he wrote in his decision. The increasing pressure on the Nixon White House helped lead to the decision not to pursue further legal actions against Ellsberg, Watergate having supplanted the Pentagon Papers in the attention of the American public. It was later revealed that senior Nixon aide John Ehrlichman had met with Judge Byrne and offered him the position of FBI director, which the Judge turned down while the Ellsberg case was pending.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
A government exhibit of the surveillance taps meant to be installed during the Watergate burglary, which drove the Pentagon Papers off the front pages of newspapers. Wikimedia

17. Watergate ended public interest in the Pentagon Papers

The true depth of the false information about the Vietnam War fed to the American people (and the civilian government in many cases) was only beginning to be discussed and disseminated when it was overtaken by the election of 1972, and then the revelations of Watergate. Richard Nixon, who had a credibility problem throughout his political career, was not responsible for any of the deception described in the Pentagon Papers. But he nonetheless became harmed politically, as the occupant of the White House at the time they were revealed, and by the bumbling responses of his staff.

The White House plumbers created themselves in order to find leakers of classified information. Their creation was due in part to Henry Kissinger’s belief that Daniel Ellsberg was one of the “most dangerous” men in the country. The plumbers, shortly after breaking into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, became involved with the Committee to Re-Elect the President, reduced to the excruciatingly appropriate acronym CREEP. It was they who were caught breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Complex, initiating the events which brought down the Nixon presidency.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Nixon with aide John Ehrlichman, whose advice and counsel helped destroy Nixon’s presidency. Wikimedia

18. Nixon believed the Pentagon Papers proved the existence of a left-wing conspiracy

As noted earlier, the Pentagon Papers did not contain information detrimental to Richard Nixon, nor his presidency. Instead, there is much within them to indicate that the administrations of the four preceding presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, had deliberately and systematically deceived the American people over American involvement in Southeast Asia. But it was Nixon’s reactions to the Papers which linked him with them in the minds of the public, and which began the decline of his presidency, even as he was withdrawing American troops from South Vietnam.

Many of Nixon’s decisions were made based on the advice and counsel of his closest aides. Henry Kissinger in particular was adamant about stopping publication in the first place, and prosecuting Ellsberg for espionage. Both acts linked the Nixon Administration with the Papers, and both made it appear, especially to Nixon’s enemies, that he was trying to use the departments of government to hide something. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon’s true enemies were not the newspapers which published the study, but the members of his own staff who controlled the administration’s response.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
John Mitchell’s actions turned the Pentagon Papers into a legal confrontation between the Nixon Administration and The New York Times. Wikimedia

19. Nixon’s staff escalated the public knowledge of the Pentagon Papers

Although Nixon was disinclined to pursue any action against The New York Times when publication began (before the Washington Post published them) he spoke with his then Attorney General, John Mitchell, on June 14, 1971, the day of publication of the second installment. Nixon was still hesitant to do anything to impede publication and stated that he wanted to pursue finding and arresting the leaker, but under prodding from Mitchell agreed to send a message to the Times. Mitchell left the President with the impression that the message would be a telegram requesting that the paper cease publishing information which was still classified.

Instead, Mitchell sent the Times a message which demanded a cessation of publication and return of the classified papers and all copies, under the threat of prosecution of the newspaper and the individuals involved with publication under the 1917 Espionage Act. The paper said it would publish until a court decision said they could not. Meanwhile, Kissinger joined the fray, concerned what the Pentagon Papers revealed concerning American-China policy for decades would erode his negotiations with the Chinese at the time. Kissinger also knew that Ellsberg, who had once worked for him, was well aware of other damaging reports which would discredit the United States, and wanted him silenced immediately.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
The secret use of B-52 bombers over Cambodia escalated the war in Southeast Asia even further in 1969. Wikimedia

20. Under Nixon, deception of the American people over Vietnam continued

Although the Pentagon Papers did not cover activities of the Nixon Administration regarding the Vietnam War, early in his presidency he authorized further expansion of the war, to be conducted covertly, while the American public was informed otherwise. Nixon authorized the execution of Operation Menu in early 1969. The operation was the extended carpet bombing of Cambodia using, for the first time, B-52 heavy bombers. The bombing was ordered in March and by May 1969, The New York Times had the story, and in an article published on May 9 citing unnamed sources revealed the operation to the American people.

Some of the same people in the Department of Defense responsible for the Pentagon Papers were working on the Cambodian operation, and Nixon suspected one of them, Morton Halperin, an aide to Henry Kissinger, of being the source of the story. Halperin’s phones were tapped, illegally, at Nixon’s order to the FBI. It was the first illegal telephone surveillance ordered by the Nixon Administration on the grounds of “national security” and the taps remained in place for nearly two years. The bombing raids in Cambodia drove the North Vietnamese forces they were targeting westward over the next four years, and the bombers flew deeper into Cambodia to follow them.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Nixon’s 1972 visit to China was marred by both the Pentagon Papers and the emerging Watergate scandal. Wikimedia

21. The New York Times was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1972

Thanks to the secret taping system Richard Nixon installed in the Oval Office it is possible today to listen to a recording of the President summing up his view of the Pentagon Papers in a conversation with aides on May 11, 1973. “The son of a bitching 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”, the President grumbled, followed by the comment, “What in the name of God have we come to?”. At the time, the Watergate scandal was digging deeply into his administration.

By then the American people and press were more absorbed in the Watergate investigations and the legal battles over Ellsberg’s actions, rather than the content of the Pentagon Papers, which had revealed the truth of America’s early involvement in the war. The war itself remained controversial, usually over the lines of how fast the United States could get out. The actions of Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, and to some extent even Johnson, were no longer considered germane to the central issue, which was withdrawn.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Both the war and the protests against it continued unabated following the leak of the Pentagon Papers. Wikimedia

22. How much damage did the Pentagon Papers do to the United States?

In the long run, the Pentagon Papers did little to change the political situation in the United States as it regarded the Vietnam War. Hawks remained hawks and demanded the heads of Daniel Ellsberg and the reporters and editors who published the documents. Peace advocates continued to condemn America’s “illegal war” and demand an immediate ending to it. The government continued to expand the war, into Cambodia and Laos, while informing the American people that gradual American withdrawal and “peace with honor” was coming. The long-suffering Vietnamese people continued to suffer.

The entity which was most damaged by the release of the Pentagon Papers and the legal squabbles which surrounded them was the Nixon Administration, and as in other areas of his troubled and troubling presidency, most of the wounds suffered were self-inflicted. Had Nixon allowed publication to go forward unimpeded the papers would have exposed the duplicity of previous presidents while allowing him to compare his efforts for peace and Vietnamization of the war effort favorably in comparison to his predecessors. Instead, he bore the bulk of the damage for America’s long involvement in Vietnam.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
On the day following JFK’s funeral senior American officials met to discuss plans to escalate the war in Vietnam. Wikimedia

23. The Pentagon Papers list the chronology of the United States escalating the war

Beginning on November 26, 1963 – the day after the funeral of John F. Kennedy – and continuing through 1964, there were a series of steps completed by the United States with the expressed intention of luring the North Vietnamese into escalating the war, allowing an appropriate response by the United States military. The steps were taken with the upcoming 1964 presidential election in the United States under constant consideration. The insurgency by the Viet Cong was exaggerated, the weakness of the government of South Vietnam was exploited, and US advisors stepped up their activity in prodding the North Vietnamese.

There was also an expansion of air reconnaissance over Vietnam, as well as Laos and Cambodia, conducted by US airplanes, intended to provoke a response. The same applied to Naval patrols along Vietnam’s coastline, which eventually led to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The entire chronology, and the supporting Department of Defense analysis and summary, indicts the Johnson Administration for deliberate expansion of the war, timed to take place after the 1964 election, and rebuts President Kennedy’s autumn 1963 statement to Walter Cronkite, “…after all, it’s their war”.

The Pentagon Papers Explained
President Kennedy while being interviewed at Hyannisport by Walter Cronkite in September, 1963. Wikimedia

24. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended military action in October, 1964

In October 1964, just weeks before the election, the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended to the National Security Council and the President, “strong military actions are now required in order to prevent the collapse of the US position in Southeast Asia”. It was in the fall of 1964 that President Johnson allowed American advisors, in company with South Vietnamese troops, to cross into Laos on the ground in order to destroy supplies meant for the Viet Cong, or the means of transporting them. By the end of 1964, often these raids included only one Vietnamese soldier, the rest being CIA and US military personnel.

The same timeframe saw an expansion of the US operations known as FARMGATE, essentially a reconnaissance, supply, and bombing operation using unmarked and obsolescent American airplanes (such as WW2 vintage B-26 bombers) flown by Vietnamese crews accompanied by American advisors. By the end of 1964, most FARMGATE flights were conducted by all American crews, sometimes accompanied by mercenaries from other western countries, with one Vietnamese crew member. In describing the thinking at one conference in which these and other American actions were approved, the Pentagon Papers read, “Our point of departure is and must be that we cannot accept overrunning of Southeast Asia by Hanoi and Peiping”. [Beijing]

The Pentagon Papers Explained
Henry Cabot Lodge, then Ambassador to South Vietnam, was a leading architect of America’s escalation of the war in Southeast Asia. Wikimedia

25. The Pentagon Papers contain the thoughts and discussions among the policymakers of American history in the mid-20th century

Throughout the entire collection of documents which comprise the Pentagon Papers, the thoughts and suggestions of America’s post-World War II political and military experts and their lower-level staff are listed in detail. Presidents do not appear often, and when they do it is as an expression of approval or disapproval of the recommended action, questions regarding a report, or intention regarding strategy. The papers are littered with the names of second-half 20th century American history. Dean Acheson, Henry Cabot Lodge, George Marshall, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Maxwell Taylor and many others. They offer a straightforward description of how American involvement developed into a trap for itself.

The Pentagon Papers have long been available in print in numerous volumes, some abridged, some with commentary. They offer a comprehensive and highly detailed presentation, step-by-step, explaining how the United States descended into the quagmire of Vietnam. Much of the presentation is not pretty to American eyes when the level of deceit by the government is considered. Late in the period of the war they cover, the military was also deceiving the government it served. They were made available online on the National Archives website, with each volume a separate PDF file, in 2011. They were also released to Presidential Libraries allowing all Americans to read them for themselves.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“In Retrospect”. Robert McNamara. 1996

“The Pentagon Papers”. John T. Correll, Air Force Magazine. February, 2007

“Pentagon Papers: The Secret War”. The Nation, TIME Magazine. June 28, 1971

“The Pentagon Papers”. Neil Sheehan. 1971

“Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing US Involvement”. Neil Sheehan, The New York Times. June 13, 1971

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