||That same day, Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Rehnquist, now Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, phoned the Washington Post and asked it to stop publication of the Papers. The Post refused. Later that day, the government went to court in Washington, D.C., but failed to get an injunction against the Post. This was a win for the Post.
But that night the government argued for an emergency appeal. On
Saturday morning June 19, 1971, a split panel of the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the district
court’s refusal to enjoin the Post and ordered the lower court to hold a hearing and decide the case on Monday, June 21, 1971. This was a win for the government.
that day, the Federal District Court in New York City denied the
government’s request for a preliminary injunction and dissolved the
injunction against the Times. This was a win for the Times,
but the government immediately got a continuance of the injunction
until an emergency appeal could be heard on Monday, June 21, 1971. On
that day, the Federal District Court in Washington denied the
government’s request for a preliminary injunction against the Post. This was a win for the Post. Meanwhile, other newspapers around the country were starting to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers.
The next day, on appeal in New York, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit sent the case against the Times
back to the lower court for further proceedings and a decision by July
3, 1971. This was a win for the government. A day later, the U.S. Court
of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the district
court’s denial of the preliminary injunction against the Post. This was a win for the Post. The government sought rehearing, but the request was denied.
On June 24, 1971, The New York Times
asked the Supreme Court to review the appellate decision in New York in
favor of the government. Later that day, the government asked the
Supreme Court to review the appellate decision in Washington, D.C., in
favor of the Washington Post. On Friday, June 25, 1971, the
Supreme Court agreed to take both cases and scheduled oral argument for
the next day, Saturday, June 26, 1971. Four days after the cases were
argued, the Supreme Court decided, in a 6-3 decision, that the
government could not block publication of the Pentagon Papers. New York Times Co. v. United States. The press won its confrontation with the government about the secret history of the Vietnam War.
would be no Pentagon Papers without Robert S. McNamara, who served
Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as Secretary of Defense from 1961
through early 1968. During that time, he oversaw and promoted the
escalation of the Vietnam War from a manageable number of advisers to
more than 500,000 American troops engaged in a difficult war that
eventually devastated three small, poor Asian countries; killed or
wounded millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, and Americans;
and divided America. Amid his own growing doubts about the war he had
encouraged, McNamara quietly left the government in early 1968. Before
doing so, however, he ordered a small staff in the Department of
Defense to undertake a secret study of U.S. decision-making about
Vietnam since the end of the Second World War. The study was directed
by Leslie Gelb.
study, which became known as the Pentagon Papers, was completed by
mid-1969. Classified top secret, the study consisted of 47 volumes and
about 7,000 pages, which included approximately 3,000 pages of
narrative history and some 4,000 pages of appended documents. Only 15
copies of the study were made and distribution of the copies was
controlled. Two copies of the study, however, went to the RAND
Corporation, which did considerable work for the military. Daniel
Ellsberg, whose service in Vietnam as a high-ranking civilian employee
of the Department of Defense during 1965-1967 convinced him that the
war was wrong and that the government was not being honest with the
public about the war, had access to the study at RAND. He copied it and
leaked most of it to Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter who had been in Vietnam.
The Pentagon Papers were political dynamite which burst upon a nation
had listened to a series of American Presidents rationalize why
continued U.S. involvement with an unstable and corrupt South
Vietnamese government was necessary;
that had watched the war on television as thousands and thousands of dead and wounded American soldiers returned;
that had seen hundreds of thousands of distressed citizens engage in massive antiwar demonstrations;
saw parts of Washington, D.C., and other cities in flames after the
assassination of Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr., who
came to oppose the war on moral as well as political grounds;
witnessed hundreds of colleges and universities go on strike after the
invasion of Cambodia and saw student protesters shot down by National
Guardsmen at Kent State University; and
saw radical Vietnam veterans who fought the war turn against it and
throw their medals back at the U.S. Capitol several weeks before
publication of the Pentagon Papers.
Pentagon Papers played a role in turning an already disturbed U.S.
public further against the war and in feeding the mistrust and siege
mentality in the White House that eventually led to Watergate and
Nixon’s resignation. The Papers showed that the U.S. had eventually
supported about 80 percent of the cost of the failed French war against
Vietnam; that the U.S. had engaged in covert action against North
Vietnam as early as 1954; that the U.S. had undermined the 1954 Geneva
Accords by hand-picking and supporting an unpopular South Vietnamese
leader who ensured that no post-Geneva elections were held to unify
Vietnam; and that the U.S. significantly increased its covert actions
against North Vietnam in 1964 before overstating to Congress and the
public what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964.
leaving the government in early 1968, McNamara declined to talk about
the Vietnam War in public for twenty-seven years. Finally, in April
1995, he published his controversial book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in which he said the U.S. was “wrong, terribly wrong” about Vietnam. In his 1999 book, Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, McNamara tried to convey, on the very first page, the human cost of the Vietnam War:
is estimated that something on the order of 3.8 million Vietnamese
(North and South, military and civilian) were killed. The United States
lost 58,000. Had the United States lost in proportion to its population
the same percentage as Vietnam, 27 million Americans would have died. "
veterans, who fought valiantly and served proudly, suffered and died
because of the poor judgment, bad decisions, and flawed policies
described and displayed in the Pentagon Papers. Consequently, Vietnam
veterans have a particular interest in reminding the nation about this
historic anniversary. That sense of obligation grows stronger when one
considers an April 2000 CBS News poll question about American knowledge
of the war:
On whose side did we [the U.S.] fight?
North Vietnam: 18%
South Vietnam: 57%
Don’t Know: 26%
the nature of the war and the times, there are still disagreements
about the war even among those who knew on which side the U.S. was
fighting. Certainly Vietnam veterans are not all of one mind about the
war, but they do know what they endured and what the war cost them.
than twenty-five years have passed since the war ended. Young people
just entering the teaching profession today were not born until after
the war ended. For the vast majority of students today, the Vietnam War
is something about which they have little, if any, knowledge. The end
of the draft, the advent of the all-volunteer military, the end of the
Cold War, and the related downsizing of the military mean that the
military is smaller and less diverse than it was during the Vietnam
era. Fewer and fewer members of Congress have military experience—let
alone service during the Vietnam era. National policy governing the
military and the treatment of military veterans is increasingly being
shaped by those who have never served in the military.
these circumstances, Vietnam Veterans of America deems it important to
remind the nation of the thirtieth anniversary of the Pentagon Papers.
This is particularly so where only a recent presidential veto blocked
the enactment of a law for increased penalties for disclosure of
classified information. Given the experience of the Vietnam War and the
many examples of government deception provided by the Pentagon Papers,
many believe that the United States does not need an official secrets
act. Over 58,000 names on a hallowed memorial in Washington, D.C.,
attest to what can happen when the government and a series of
Presidents are neither wise nor honest about the necessity for sending
the nation’s armed forces into harm’s way.