(W)Archives: The Pentagon Papers and Premature Publication

July 4, 2014

Edward Snowden is fond of comparing himself to Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ellsberg’s deed is often viewed as a great act of patriotism. Ellsberg himself said in his memoirs that “leaking could be a patriotic and constructive act.” The papers Ellsberg leaked eventually found their way to the New York Times, which published major excerpts, and to Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, who read substantial portions of them into the Congressional Record.

Given that today is the 4th of July and patriotic fervor is at its annual peak, I thought it might be worth looking at the Pentagon Papers themselves.

The Pentagon Papers,or, as they were more properly known, the “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” or “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967,” are now declassified. The original documents are available at the National Archives to anyone who wants to see them. A large portion of the opus is also available online, such as these first few hundred pages which examine U.S. policy toward Vietnam from 1940 to 1950; describe the “character and power of the Viet Minh”; and ask whether Ho Chi Minh should be understood as an “Asian Tito,” opposed to Soviet-style communism.

It was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who caused the Pentagon Papers to come into existence. The idea came out of a 1967 meeting with Harvard Professor Richard Neustadt. McNamara recalled in his 1996 memoirs that “for the first time…I voiced my feeling that, because the war was not going as hoped, future scholars would surely wish to study why. I thought we should seek to facilitate such study in order to prevent similar errors in the future.” Later that year, McNamara acted on this idea, ordering his Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs, John McNaughton “to start collecting documents for future scholars to use.” He further directed that the collection should include relevant documents not only from the Pentagon but from the White House, State Department, and CIA, as well. McNaughton put Leslie Gelb, later a New York Times reporter and President of the Council on Foreign Relations, in charge of the project.

Gelb and his team of 35 military officers, civil servants, and academics did far more than compile papers. They wrote a 3,000 page narrative history reaching as far back as the 1920s, and attached 4,000 pages of supporting documents. The final 47 volume product was delivered to McNamara’s successor, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, in early 1969, just days before the Nixon Administration came into office. Clifford never even read it. However, two of the 15 copies were sent to the RAND Corporation. At RAND, Daniel Ellsberg—who had actually worked on the study for some months in 1967—got access to it, and in 1971, he leaked almost all of it to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan.

The leaks sent the Nixon Administration into a tizzy, but in his memoirs Nixon wrote that his Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird told him that 95% of the material could be released even then without harm to national security. As Nixon recalled it, the bigger issue was the principle that the U.S. Government—not the New York Times—should decide what was rightfully secret.

Much as it will be impossible in the future to write a history of NSA without referring to Snowden’s revelations, the Pentagon Papers were for many years indispensable to any serious book about the Vietnam conflict. Indeed, Leslie Gelb himself wrote an important book with Richard Betts in 1979 based in part on the Papers. Entitled, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, it argued that “the foreign policy failed but the domestic decision-making system worked.” That is to say, it implemented a policy intended to bring about the goal that every American administration had agreed to: South Vietnam must not fall to communism. Put another way, the overall thrust of the Pentagon Papers was that the U.S. Government was generally doing what it said it was doing, though many of the details were new and sometimes unsettling.

In that regard, the Pentagon Papers are similar to Snowden’s revelations.  However, in other ways, the two sets of documents are very different. Far from cleaning out the Pentagon’s files on every on-going operation in Vietnam (an act which would not have been physically possible at the time), Ellsberg leaked a history of the Vietnam conflict, a single, albeit massive, item. The primary source documents included in the appendices are assessments, analyses, situation reports, directives and other such materials. They do not reveal sources and methods (as the Snowden documents undoubtedly do) or put lives at risk (as the Snowden documents arguably do). The team of historians put them all into context and their meaning is easy to understand, unlike the NSA documents which have been repeatedly misinterpreted even by some of the English-speaking world’s best reporters. Indeed, the Pentagon Papers are remarkable for being not lurid.

At the end of the day, it is worth remembering that Daniel Ellsberg released to historians (and the public) materials that had been prepared from the beginning for that very purpose. If he had not leaked the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg would have lived long enough to see them declassified anyway.

Will history eventually look upon Snowden as it looks upon Ellsberg? Maybe. But it won’t be because the facts of the cases are the same.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: tommy japan