In Context

In 1969, RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg began copying a top-secret report weakening America's justification for war in Vietnam. After Congress failed to release it, Ellsberg leaked the "Pentagon Papers" to The New York Times, which began publishing excerpts on June 13, 1971.

In 1967, several years after the United States had entered the conflict in Vietnam, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara assembled a team of analysts — many from the RAND Corporation — to compile a report on decisions made about involvement in Vietnam by the U.S. government from the early 1940s through March 1968. Thirty-six men, including Daniel Ellsberg, worked on the project. McNamara's motivation in commissioning this project remains a subject of controversy. He insisted that he authorized the study to preserve for scholars the government documents that chronicled key decisions that had resulted in U.S. involvement in an Asian land war. According to Morton Halperin, one of the two directors of the study, "McNamara had a sense then that this was a tragic blunder, that we were in the middle of a catastrophe and that it was important to try to understand how we had gotten into that catastrophe."

When the study was complete, a copy of it was stored at the RAND Corporation. As a RAND employee, Ellsberg was eventually granted access to the study, and by September 1969 he had read it in its entirety. It dramatically changed his understanding of the war. Before reading the study, Ellsberg had assumed the presidents involved had perhaps been misled or poorly advised on the prospects in Vietnam. After reading the study, he came to several conclusions: 1) every president since and including Harry Truman in the late 1940s had been advised by some that the war was unwinnable; 2) each of four presidents, Truman through Johnson, escalated the war mainly to save face, so as not to become known as the president who had lost Vietnam to the Communists; and 3) each president lied to the American people about both his escalation plans and the prospects for military success.

After seeing the disparities between what the public was being told and what was actually going on behind closed government doors, Ellsberg became sickened by his own involvement in justifying the war. In 1969, with the help of former RAND colleague Anthony Russo and at times his own two children, Ellsberg began photocopying the 7,000-page document with the goal to disclose it publicly in order to stop what he had concluded was "murder, mass murder."

Ellsberg delivered copies of the study to antiwar Congressmen, including William Fulbright, George McGovern and Pete McCloskey, but none disclosed its contents within Congress or to the public, as Ellsberg had hoped they would. Ellsberg leaked copies of the study to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan in March 1971. Sheehan convinced his editors at the paper that their readers had the right to know this heretofore secret information. The first articles on the top-secret study, which included excerpts from it, appeared in the paper on June 13, 1971, and within days the study became known as "the Pentagon Papers."

Ellsberg also sent a copy of the papers to Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, a Democrat, who planned to read from them during a filibuster of a bill that would extend the draft. Prevented from filibustering, he instead read the papers during a late-night one-person meeting of the subcommittee he chaired, thereby entering the papers into the public record. He later found a small publisher, the Beacon Press in Boston, to print them. The four-volume set was titled The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition.

» The New York Times. "Times Topics: Pentagon Papers."

» Beacon Press. "Beacon Press and the Pentagon Papers."

» Falk, Richard A. "Demystifying Iraq?" The New Centennial Review 5, no. 1 (Spring 2005).

» University of Southern California. "Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers."