On the 40th anniversary of the initial public release of excerpts of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times, the complete set of documents without redactions have finally been entered into public record.
This latest version fills 48 boxes and runs 7,000 declassified pages. About a third of the content is being made available for the first time, including a complete account of peace negotiations between the United States and Vietnam.
Dr. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the facts about U.S. decision making during the Vietnam War, because he firmly believed that the report proved successive administrations were misleading the American public about the facts. The war with Vietnam lasted 20 years and cost the lives of nearly 60,000 U.S. troops.
Ellsberg’s decision to photocopy the documents and make them public laid bare to public scrutiny the inconsistency of truth with fact. Ellsberg was indicted for espionage, theft of government property, and conspiracy, on June 25, 1971.
A series of lawsuits were filed against those who assisted in the release, including the New York Times and a United States senator who entered part of the papers into the public record, but the Supreme Court eventually protected the whistle-blowers.
“The United States—Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense,” was top secret. The study was ordered by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and was conducted by a small number of trusted researchers. Even the Lyndon Johnson administration was in the dark about it.
While working for the RAND Corporation, Ellsberg was one of a ery few men with access to the report. He became convinced that the administration was failing to learn from past lessons, and believed that only pressure from an educated public would change its course.
“While the United States government had experienced a series of failures that called for a change in our policy, successive administrations had really seen our experience as a succession of adequate successes,” said Ellsberg, the man responsible for making the classified documents public, in a REASON magazine interview.
Ellsberg was a rifle company commander in the Marine Corps and served during the Suez crisis. He was No. 1 in his class at second lieutenants Basic School. He was also a Harvard educated economist, and had gone to Vietnam in 1965 for the State Department.
Ellsberg had begun in 1969 to attempt to have the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hold hearings into the matter, but he was refused. Then he turned to the media.
“[The papers had to leave my safe,” Ellsberg told Manuel S. Klausner and Hank Hohenstein, co-authors of “Why I Did It!: An Interview with Daniel Ellsberg,” published in 1973.
He was not only disaffected with the Vietnam War and believed it should end; he was concerned that an accumulation of executive secrecy was stealing power from Congress and the American people.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek, speaking on C-Span’s “Washington Journal,” said Americans were disaffected by the Vietnam War, and they had many questions about the way the war was being conducted.
The papers’ release gave Americans the facts from which to judge for themselves.
“[The war] touched off an awful lot of feeling about doubts about the government, and I think that in part, when government is seen as operating without full regard for the well being of the public, or operating in secret ways that should be out there for debate,” Dallek said.
“Because, if you are going to get into a war, if you are going to get into some kind of an extended conflict that is going to cost you blood and treasure, then in a democracy of ours, it deserves to be an open debate,” Dallek continued.
This week’s release of the Pentagon Papers was arranged by the National Declassification Center, established by President Obama in 2009. The center’s goal is to make available approximately 400 million pages of secret documents.
The complete set of documents is available at the Kennedy, Nixon, and Johnson libraries of the National Archives, and at the research room in an archives facility in College Park, Md.