Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

by Thayu Chander

A quick summary

The term "Pentagon Papers" refers to a top-secret 7000 page government document which contained classified information on America's policy and decision making in respect to the Vietnam War. The only victim in this case was the truth. The information in the papers (withheld from both the public as well as Congress), had important eye-opening information on the true nature of executive policy in Vietnam. They were leaked by a man known as Daniel Ellsberg, with help from his friend and compatriot Anthony Russo.
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First of all....

Daniel Ellsberg was a Harvard graduate who was an officer in the Marine Corps between 1954 and 1957. He later became a strategic analyst for the RAND (Research ANd Development) Corporation, and by extension, a consultant to the Pentagon, because RAND was a non-profit think tank for strategic military ideas. He worked on the study "U.S Decision Making in Vietnam, 1945 - 68", known to the public as the Pentagon Papers. The information within the papers demonstrated that every president from Truman to Johnson had lied about the Vietnam War to the American public. For example, Johnson had said he would seek "no wider war" as a campaign pledge, but had expanded operations into Laos and Cambodia behind closed doors. It also included evidence that presidents had been informed that the war was likely unwinnable , but had continued the war anyways, to avoid the humiliation of withdrawal.

But there was a leak...

Ellsberg had been increasing disillusioned with the war, and the information in the studies, as well as some prodding from his coworker, Russo, convinced him to act. After completion, the a copy of the study was stored at RAND. Here, Ellsberg had access to it, and together with Russo, photocopied the entire thing. He first gave copies to certain antiwar Congressman, but none of them acted on it, unfortunately. So, finally, Ellsberg leaked copies to the New York Times, making a deal of anonymity with the reporter he met. The Times compiled articles on the documents, and soon began publishing, beginning on June 13, 1971. Unluckily for Ellsberg, the reporter had also identified him as the source of the copies.

Government Reaction

The Nixon administration reacted poorly, and it won a temporary injunction from the Supreme Court to stop the Times from publishing. Ellsberg, though, had by now leaked the information to more than a dozen other newspapers. The government got injunctions a few others, but by then there was an appeal, which rose to the Supreme Court for the case, New York Times Co. v United States. In a 6-3 decision the Court ruled to let publishing continue, in the name of protecting First Amendment rights and the freedom of the press. It was important, as the case was the first time the government had tried to restrain the press. More important though, was the fact that the Court upheld the constitutional rights of the press in the face of this attempted restraint. It prevents the government from silencing the press, and taking on tyrannical powers. It also emphasized that secrets of such nature should not be kept by reiterating the consequences.


Ellsberg got a trial of his own, though....

Ellsberg had gone into hiding, but it did not do him much good. He faced criminal charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, and had to turn himself in. Russo was put on trial alongside him as well, for refusing to give evidence against his friend. Ellsberg, all the same, faced 115 years, while Russo faced 35, if they were convicted. The trial dragged on for four months, and seemed a toss-up. But, during this time, Watergate occured, and evidence found during that investigation showed that Nixon had send agents to burgle private offices for files to use against Ellsberg. Other such misconduct had also occurred on the part of the government, including some illegal recording, which caused the judge to drop charges against the two, as the evidence demonstrated the prosecution was running a mistrial. Russo and Ellsberg went free. Ellsberg continues to raise awareness about whistle blowing and government malpractice to this day, having his own website and supporting other whistle-blowers, like WikiLeaks.

My Reaction

I personally found this story fairly interesting. It was one of the first major leaks on the federal government abusing power, and it occurred before and led into the famous Watergate scandal. Another cool thing about it was that Ellsberg is still active today, and one can read some his personal articles and commentary on the event. Anyways, I felt that the things the government did were just plain wrong. Hiding war information from Congress seems like a rather big deal, as well as outright lying to the public about intentions, just to garner a vote. At least people like Ellsberg were willing to come forward with stuff like this, and have people take a hard look at the system, as well as try to correct it. It didn't seem like there was much reform connected to this event, and there are still problems of this nature to this day, though, which strikes me as sad, but not surprising. All the same, the government did declassify the entire document for the fortieth anniversary of the leak, which has to count for something, Hopefully it's not just an empty gesture.

Works Cited

Ellsberg, Daniel. "Extended Biography."Daniel Ellsberg's Website — . N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <http://www.ellsberg.net/bio/extended-biography>.


Swain, John. "The impact of The Pentagon Papers 40 years on - Telegraph." Telegraph.co.uk - Telegraph online, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph - Telegraph. The Telegraph, 13 June 2011. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/8573899/The-impact-of-The-Pentagon-Papers-40-years-on.html>.


"The Most Dangerous Man in America in Context: The Pentagon Papers | The Most Dangerous Man in America | POV | PBS."PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/pov/mostdangerousman/photo_gallery_background.php#.USGQzKW3RIE>.