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Pentagon Papers

Richard Nixon

Pentagon Papers: Richard Nixon was the 37th American President who served in office from January 20, 1969 to August 9, 1974. One of the important events during his presidency was the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the summer of 1971.

Definition and Summary of the Pentagon Papers
Summary and definition:
The Pentagon Papers was the name given to a secret Department of Defense 7,000-page study of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The top secret 'Pentagon Papers' were leaked, by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, to the New York Times newspaper in March 1971.

The Pentagon Papers revealed that the US government had not been honest, had used "incredible deception" and that decisions about the Vietnam War had been made without the consent of Congress. The Pentagon Papers which only covered the period up to 1967 and did not implicate the Nixon administration.

However Nixon and Henry Kissinger feared that the leaked documents could "destroy American credibility forever". The Pentagon Papers were published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and various other newspapers and caused outrage and uproar with the American Public and confirmed many suspicions about the "credibility gap" between what the government said and what they actually did. By the end of 1971 opinion polls showed that 66% of all Americans wanted the Vietnam War to end as quickly as possible.

Background History to the Pentagon Papers: The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War (November 1, 1955 – April 30, 1975) was a long standing conflict fought between the Communist government of North Vietnam and Viet Cong guerrillas, who were supported by the Chinese, and the armies of South Vietnam supported by the United States.

Background History to the Pentagon Papers
To understand the impact of the Pentagon Papers it is helpful to understand the recent historical events surrounding the Vietnam War just prior to the publication of the Pentagon Papers.  In 1967 General Westmoreland, who was in overall command of the Vietnamese operation, had told the American public the war in Vietnam was progressing well and the end was in sight.

  • Despite assurances from the military and the US Government things were not going well, and anti-war protests against the Vietnam War were dramatically increasing

  • The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched the surprise attack called the Tet Offensive (January 30, 1968 - September 23, 1968) which gained a massive psychological and political victory for the communists

  • By April 1969 US troop deployment had reached its peak, numbering 543,000 US soldiers in the Vietnam War.

  • In November 1969, news of the My Lai Massacre broke in America to the horror of the nation

  • On April 30, 1970 President Nixon, fearing a humiliating defeat in Vietnam, extended the war to Cambodia.

  • Large scale anti-war demonstrations spread across the USA and on May 4, 1970 four student demonstrators were shot dead at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen

The Pentagon Papers were therefore revealed at the time when the American public began raising questions about the US involvement in the Vietnam war.

Background History to the Pentagon Papers: Daniel Ellsberg
The impact of the above events had a dramatic effect of the psyche of the American people, including a Military analyst called Daniel Ellsberg. Daniel Ellsberg had begun work for the US Department of Defense in 1964. Daniel Ellsberg moved to Vietnam in 1965 to work out of the American Embassy in Saigon. He left Vietnam in June 1967 and began to work for the RAND Corporation on a top-secret report, ordered by Robert McNamara the Defense Secretary, entitled 'U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-1968'. The report later became known as "The Pentagon Papers". The top-secret report contained proof of what Daniel Ellsberg called "evidence of a quarter century of aggression, broken treaties, deceptions, stolen elections, lies and murder." Daniel Ellsberg believed that the Vietnam War should be stopped and made the dangerous decision to become a "Whistleblower" and expose the dishonesty and deception of the military and successive administrations regarding the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg made the decision to photocopy the "Pentagon Papers".

Facts about Pentagon Papers
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Pentagon Papers.

What were the Pentagon Papers? A United States government 7,000-page, 47-volume report on the internal planning and policy decisions within the U.S. government regarding the Vietnam War.

The official title of the report was 'United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense' but would become famously known as the "Pentagon Papers".

Who commissioned the Pentagon Papers? The report was commissioned in 1967 by Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Why did Robert McNamara commission the report? McNamara was frustrated with the stalemate of the Vietnam war and wanted to leave a comprehensive analysis about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War for succeeding administrations in order to prevent future policy errors.

Who compiled the Pentagon Papers? Work began on June 17, 1967 by the Vietnam Study Task Force, under the direction of Leslie H. Gelb. The top secret 'Pentagon Papers' were compiled by a team of 36 military officers, analysts, historians and civilian policy experts. One of the team was Military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg.

What did the Pentagon Papers consist of? The report consisted of 4,000 pages of actual documents taken from the 1945 - 1967 period of the Vietnam War and 3,000 pages of analysis. The classified study was so secret that is was completed without the knowledge of President Lyndon Johnson or his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk.

What did the Pentagon Papers reveal? The Pentagon Papers revealed that Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and their administrations had deliberately deceived the American people by escalating the Vietnam War, while publicly stating the opposite.

The Pentagon Papers revealed that the Harry S. Truman administration gave military aid to France in its war against the communist Viet Minh which led to the direct involvement of the United States in Vietnam

The Pentagon Papers revealed that the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, immersed in the Cold War, decided to undermine the new communist regime of North Vietnam and prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam.

The Pentagon Papers revealed that the John F. Kennedy administration changed the Vietnam policy of "limited-risk gamble" to a policy of “broad commitment”.

The Pentagon Papers revealed that as President Lyndon Johnson was promising not to expand the Vietnam War the US government was deliberately expanding its role in Vietnam by sending in U.S. combat troops, with raids of the coast of North Vietnam, attacks by U.S. Marine Corps and air strikes against Laos. Johnson had made up his mind to send U.S. combat troops to Vietnam

Robert McNamara left the Defense Department in February 1968 and his successor Clark M. Clifford received the finished study on January 15, 1969, five days before the inauguration of President Richard Nixon. The report was classified as "Top Secret – Sensitive" and only 15 copies were published with limited access.

The Pentagon Papers only covered the period in Vietnam up to 1967 and did not implicate the Nixon administration.

A member of the team who compiled the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, knew it contained "evidence of a quarter century of aggression, broken treaties, deceptions, stolen elections, lies and murder" and desperately wanted the Vietnam War to end.

Ellsberg, assisted by another team member called Anthony Russo, began to photocopy large sections of the study with the intention of becoming a 'Whistleblower' and exposing the content.

Daniel Ellsberg approached several members of Congress including Senator Fulbright and Senator McGovern, in the hope that they would debate the report in Congress and enter the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record. All of the Senators declined.

In March 1971, taking advice from Senator McGovern, Daniel Ellsberg made the decision to approach Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter and show him the Pentagon Papers.

The first of a series of articles based upon the leaked Pentagon Papers was published by The New York Times on June, 13 1971.

President Nixon was not unduly worried about the first publication as the Pentagon Papers focused more on the errors of his predecessors, rather than on him. Nixon was also promoting the policy of Vietnamization aimed at withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam. However, Henry Kissinger, National Security Advisor, was extremely concerned and convinced Nixon that the articles could "destroy American credibility forever".

The New York Times was slapped with an injunction ordering a stop to publication which led to the a case in the Supreme Court. On June 26 the Supreme Court heard the case New York Times Co. v. United States. On June 30, 1971 the Supreme Court held in a 6–3 decision that the injunctions were unconstitutional due to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution advocating the right to free speech.

Daniel Ellsberg was charged with theft, conspiracy and violations of the Espionage Act for leaking the Pentagon Papers, but his case was dismissed as a mis-trial when evidence emerged about wiretappings and break-ins that had been ordered by the government

The Pentagon Papers were published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and various other newspapers and caused outrage and uproar with the American Public.

The publication of the Pentagon Papers confirmed many suspicions about the "credibility gap" between what the government said and what they actually did.

The significance of the Pentagon Papers heralded a new era of skepticism about the Vietnam War and the US government in general.

The End of the Vietnam War came with a Ceasefire agreement on January 27, 1973 ending U.S. military involvement in the war. A total of 2.59 million Americans had served their country in the conflict during which 58,307 American troops were killed and 304,000 were wounded, of which 75,000 returned home severely disabled.

The government sanctions of wiretappings and break-ins surrounding Daniel Ellsberg and Pentagon Papers were later mirrored in lies and deceptions of the  Watergate Scandal which led to the downfall of President Nixon. 

The Pentagon Papers were finally declassified and released on June 13, 2011.

US American History
1945-1993: Cold War Era

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