The Pentagon Papers

Title:                  The Pentagon Papers

Author:                 Mike Gravel

Gravel, Mike (1971-2), Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn. The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam (The Senator Gravel edition – 5 vols.). Boston, Beacon Press

LCCN:    75178049

E183.8.V5 P42


Date Updated:  February 28, 2017

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara created the Vietnam Study Task Force on June 17, 1967, for the purpose of writing an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War”. The secretary’s motivation for commissioning the study is unclear. McNamara claimed that he wanted to leave a written record for historians, but kept the study secret from the rest of the Johnson administration. Neither President Lyndon Johnson nor Secretary of State Dean Rusk knew about the study until its publication; they believed McNamara might have planned to give the work to his friend Robert F. Kennedy, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968.

Instead of using existing Defense Department historians, McNamara assigned his close aide and Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton, McNaughton’s aide Morton H. Halperin, and Defense Department official Leslie H. Gelb to lead the task force. Thirty-six analysts — half of them active-duty military officers, the rest academics and civilian federal employees — worked on the study. The analysts largely used existing files in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and did no interviews or consultations with the armed forces, with the White House, or with other federal agencies in order to keep the study secret from others, including National Security Advisor Walt W. Rostow.

McNamara left the Defense Department in February 1968 and his successor Clark M. Clifford received the finished study on 15 January 1969, five days before Richard Nixon‘s inauguration – although Clifford claimed he never read it. The study comprised 3,000 pages of historical analysis and 4,000 pages of original government documents in 47 volumes, and was classified as “Top Secret – Sensitive”. (“Sensitive” is not an official security designation; it meant that the study’s publication would be embarrassing.) The task force published 15 copies; the think-tank RAND Corp. received two of the copies from Gelb, Halperin, and Paul Warnke, with access granted if two of the three approved.

Daniel Ellsberg knew the leaders of the task force well. He had worked as an aide to McNaughton from 1964 to 1965, had worked on the study for several months in 1967, and in 1969 Gelb and Halperin approved his access to the work at RAND. Now opposing the war, Ellsberg and his friend Anthony Russo photocopied the study in October 1969 intending to disclose it. He approached Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Senators William Fulbright and George McGovern, and others, but none were interested.

In February 1971 Ellsberg discussed the study with New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, and gave 43 of the volumes to him in March. The Times began publishing excerpts on June 13, 1971; the first article in the series was titled “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing US Involvement”. The name “Pentagon Papers” for the study arose during the resulting media publicity. Street protests, political controversy and lawsuits followed.

To ensure the possibility of public debate about the content of the papers, on June 29, US Senator Mike Gravel (then Democrat, Alaska) entered 4,100 pages of the Papers to the record of his Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds. These portions of the Papers were subsequently published by Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.[6]

Article I, Section 6 of the United States Constitution provides that “for any Speech or Debate in either House, [a Senator or Representative] shall not be questioned in any other Place”, thus the Senator could not be prosecuted for anything said on the Senate floor, and, by extension, for anything entered to the Congressional Record, allowing the Papers to be publicly read without threat of a treason trial and conviction. This was confirmed by the Supreme Court in the decision Gravel v. United States.

Later, Ellsberg said the documents “demonstrated unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents, the violation of their oath and the violation of the oath of every one of their subordinates”. He added that he leaked the Papers to end what he perceived to be “a wrongful war”.

The Papers revealed that the U.S. had deliberately expanded its war with bombing of Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which had been reported by media in the US. The most damaging revelations in the papers revealed that four administrations, from Truman to Johnson, had misled the public regarding their intentions. For example, the John F. Kennedy administration had planned to overthrow South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem before his death in a November 1963 coup. President Johnson had decided to expand the war while promising “we seek no wider war” during his 1964 presidential campaign, including plans to bomb North Vietnam well before the 1964 Election. President Johnson had been outspoken against doing so during the election and claimed that his opponent Barry Goldwater was the one that wanted to bomb North Vietnam.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[1]

Contains a comprehensive interdepartmental task force study of 8 May 1961, entitled “A Program of Action for South Vietnam,” and many other directives and reports on covert operations and intelligence activities. See especially:

“Lansdale Team’s Report on Covert Saigon Mission in 1954 and 1955” (Vol. 1, doc. 95, p. 95)

“The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November 1963” (Vol. 2, pp. 201-76)

“OCO to CORDS” (Vol. 2, pp. 609-23)

“Efforts to Improve Intelligence on ‘Progress of the War” (Vol. 3, pp. 32-34)

“Initiation of Covert Operations” (Vol. 3, pp. 149-54)

“Plan 34-A—September Schedule” (Vol. 3, doc. 185, p. 553)

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[2]

With the release of the Pentagon Papers came perhaps the most comprehensive study tracing American involvement in the Vietnam War. The Gravel edition represents the bulk of material turned over to Congress at the height of the controversy surrounding publication by the New York Times. Volumes 1 through 4 are commentary and analysis by Pentagon researchers; volume 5 contains fifteen essays by leading critics of the war effort on the implications of the papers, as well as name and subject indexing for the bulk of the papers contained in the first four volumes. The assembled papers indicate that in spite of the relatively accurate intelligence assessments of deteriorating conditions in Vietnam, the official optimism in Washington dictated that such pessimistic reports be altered, overlooked, or discounted. Covert operations sponsored and funded by the United States in support of South Vietnam (34 A operations and Desoto patrols) are shown to be directly responsible for events leading to the Tonkin Gulf incidents; inaccurate and incomplete reporting of these activities resulted in U.S. policy shift to war footing. See also the annotation for this work in chapter 5, section D.

[1] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 56

[2] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 212


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