The Pentagon Papers and Their Continuing Significance

Vietnam Veterans of America is sponsoring a one-day symposium on June 5, 2001, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers—the secret government study of decision-making about the Vietnam War. The study was leaked to The New York Times, which prepared a series of lengthy articles and began publication on June 13, 1971. That started an extraordinary federal court battle that pitted the U.S. government against the press and ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court less than two weeks later.

On June 15, 1971, the government rushed into federal district court in New York City and got a temporary restraining order blocking further publication by the Times. While the government and the Times were arguing about a preliminary injunction on Friday, June 18, 1971, the Washington Post published parts of the Pentagon Papers.


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.

Later 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.


There 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.

The 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

that 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;

that 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;

that 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

that 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.

The 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.

After 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:

"It 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. "


Vietnam 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%

Given 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.

More 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.

Under 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.