The Pentagon Papers Explained

The Pentagon Papers Explained

Larry Holzwarth - September 28, 2019

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

“Draft Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Johnson”. Robert McNamara. Office of the Historian, US Department of State. November 3, 1965

“Evolution of the War. Counterinsurgency: The Kennedy Commitments. 1961-1963”. National Archives Pdf. Online

“Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to the President”. McGeorge Bundy, Office of the Historian, US Department of State. September 8, 1964. Online

“The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November, 1963”. Pentagon Papers Volume 2, Chapter 4. Online

“Memorandum From the Director of Central Intelligence to the President”. John McCone, Director of Central Intelligence. Office of the Historian, US Department of State. July 28, 1964. Online

“Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers”. Daniel Ellsberg, 2002

“The Nixon Defense”. John W. Dean. 2014

“Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America”. Rick Perlstein. 2008

“Nixon And The Pentagon Papers”. Jordan Moran, Miller Center, The University of Virginia. Online

“Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Destruction of Cambodia”. William Shawcross. 1979

“The Pentagon Papers (Daniel Ellsberg) Trial: An Account”. Douglas O. Linder, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Online

“How Presidents Test Reality: Decisions on Vietnam”. John Burke and Fred Greenstein. 1989

“Pentagon Papers”. US National Archives. Searchable archives. June 13, 2011. Online