Pentagon Papers Case Fifty Years On: Some Personal Reflections

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Fifty years ago today, the United States Supreme Court handed down its per curium decision in New York Times Company v. United States, rejecting the Nixon administration’s demand to prevent publication of the Pentagon Papers. That secret history of the Vietnam War documented that the U.S. government had long known that the war couldn’t be won, but nonetheless continued to wage it anyway.

That case is often hailed as a milestone for press freedom.  Yet as Adam Liptak spelled out earlier this month in The New York Times in A First Amendment Case That Made an ‘Incoherent State of the Law’:

The Supreme Court’s unsigned opinion rejecting the Nixon administration’s attempt to censor publication of a secret history of the Vietnam War was just three paragraphs long and declared only that the government had not overcome a “heavy presumption” against prior restraints — on that occasion.

The vote was, moreover, fairly close — 6 to 3. Every justice contributed a concurring or dissenting opinion, none of which got more than two votes. You need a spreadsheet to make sense of who voted for what, but the bottom line is at odds with the conventional view that the case was a flat-out First Amendment victory.

“A majority of the Supreme Court not only left open the possibility of prior restraints in other cases but of criminal sanctions being imposed on the press following publication of the Pentagon Papers themselves,” Floyd Abrams, who represented The New York Times in the case, wrote in his 2014 book, “Friend of the Court.”

I encourage you to read Liptak’s piece, which  discusses the rather muddled legacy of the Pentagon Papers case,  and to which I don’t have much to add.

A half-Day 250 Mile Car Journey That Took Me From the 1950s to the 1970s

What I want to share in this post are my memories of the case seen throughly my then-ten-year-old eyes. But first, a bit of background.

In 1971 and until his retirement, my father, Harry, was by day a guidance counsellor at Sussex County Vocational and Technical High School. Yet his true passion was pursued in the  hours immediately after school let out, when he coached various high school sports teams: football in the autumn, basketball or wrestling during the winter, leaving the spring for his favorite, baseball. The extra dollars he earned by coaching helped him support our family: my parents, I the eldest, three younger sisters, and my brother, the youngest, only 8 1/2 years younger than I.

Sometime during 1971, Dad was selected to attend a fellowship program at Boston University. that summer. There were 50 participants, and somewhat unusually for the time, the seats were divided equally between men and women.

So after our school year ended, all seven of us piled into our station wagon one sunny June day, along with all the clothing and household goods we’d need to spend six weeks in Boston – including a spare mattress strapped to the roof of the car – and drove to Boston. My parents had sub-let a Boston University professor’s Brookline apartment.

Until that time, I’d spent my childhood in small towns in northern New Jersey, first Sparta, then Allamuchy. While I keenly recall key events of the ‘60s – the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK; the moon landing; Janis Joplin’s overdose; the shootings at Kent State (where my cousin was a first-year student at the time) – my day-to-day experiences were more those of a 1950s childhood, rather than what people think of when they hear the phrase “the 60s.”

In Boston, a very different version of the 1960s had played out. Our journey ran into some obstacles.The desk clerk at the motel where Mom had booked a couple of rooms for the night before we’d move into  the apartment, took one look at all seven of us Scofield crammed into that car along with our mattress, and refused to check us in.

The next day, we took over that apartment, a comfortable, well-furnished place, not far from a trolley stop, Several bedrooms, a couple of baths, and a study with a large poster of The Bearded One on the wall. I didn’t recognize the face, but I could tell Mom and Dad were uneasy. This was 1971 and my parents, public school teachers, had lived through the McCarthy hysteria. The professor or his wife made a joke about Uncle Karl’s presence and my father smiled awkwardly.

The thing I remember most vividly from that summer was following the Pentagon Papers story through the pages of The Boston Globe. I don’t recall many day-to-day details. Even the memories I have are unreliable, as my initial first-hand impressions have been subsequently overwritten by later reading, study, and films. Yet one set of memories that I know are true: the black banner headlines. The thud of the large editions of the paper smacking against the sidewalk  outside the newsstand. Even as a just-ten year old child, I knew that what was unfolding in Washington was important. Very important. History was happening all around me. During those six weeks  in Boston, I was suddenly thrust into a big wide roiling world and when we went back home, that door would stay open to me. The summer made such an impression that there was no question of where I’d return, in the autumn of 1979, when I left home to attend university.

Now, sitting at my desk, when I can call up news from around the world by tapping a few keystrokes, it’s easy to forget just how limited were the news sources available in small town USA during that period, even though we lived no more than 65 miles from mid-town Manhattan. The New Jersey Herald covered local news and did a pretty god job with that. Dad took the New York Daily News for its sports coverage – and after the summer of ’71, Mom added the New York Times, so that I could read it. At that time, there was no home delivery out in the boondocks, nor all that much demand either, so she had to special order the paper from Benny’s Market and then pick it up every day – three miles there, the same back again.

There was no cable of course, so we got our TV signals through a rooftop antenna, which captured the networks, CBS (channel 2), NBC (4), ABC (7), the local NY channels, 5, 9, and 11 (which had an atrocious signal, and alas was the source of much grumbling from my father, as he struggled to watch its snowy broadcasts of New York Yankees games).

During that summer of 1971, I read the Globe every day. And I gorged on it. We were well-protected children – over-protected I would say. Yet I had a free-range childhood, especially compared to today. Dad was off at seminars or sessions much of the time, so my mother did most of the day-to-day supervision. Even though I had absolutely no street smarts, I was allowed to walk on my own down the street to the main intersection, where I would buy the paper. There was a small pharmacy, where I remember buying a replacement strap for my new Timex watch: my birthday present; Mom let me select the strap all by myself. She also sent me to purchase things from the Stop & Shop. I usually enlisted my sister Judi, three years younger than I, to accompany me on these missions. On one, we somehow managed to overturn – by accident – a Lavoris mouthwash display. To quite dramatic effect. Bright crimson, cinnamon-scented liquid splashed out from the shattered glass bottles used in those pre-plastic days.

These are just a few of the first steps towards adulthood I took that summer. The most lasting one was to grasp for the first time the importance of the press. Today in our very different media universe, where bloggers, and independent journalists now play a large role, the central concern raised in the Pentagon Papers case remains: how important it is for people to know what the government is doing, ostensibly on our behalf. My own position on the First Amendment is largely an absolutist one, and probably resembles most closely the position of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of my childhood (but alas, not that of the ACLU of today). From the Liptak piece, discussing an ACLU  reply brief written to answer the question posed by Justice Potter Stewart to pin the NY Times attorney down and forcing him to concede a situation where prior restraint might be necessary:

It said Justice Stewart’s question “must be answered in a totally different manner” and that “the answer is, painfully but simply, that the right of a free people to determine its destiny has been, and should continue to be, paramount to any attempt by the government to impinge upon, erode or ultimately destroy the right of the people to know.”

I’ll close by mentioning another issue that has persisted and indeed become more pernicious over the last half century. From the Liptak piece:

…there is an almost universal consensus that the government classifies far too much information. Erwin Griswold, a former dean of Harvard Law School who argued the case for the Nixon administration as U.S. solicitor general, agreed that the classification system was broken.

“It quickly becomes apparent to any person who has considerable experience with classified material,” he wrote in a 1989 essay in The Washington Post, “that there is massive over-classification and that the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security, but rather with governmental embarrassment of one sort or another.”

That applied, he wrote, to the Pentagon Papers themselves. “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication,” he wrote. “Indeed, I have never seen it even suggested that there was such an actual threat.”

That has been my experience too, as I have reviewed thousands of pages of official documents while conducting research in various presidential libraries. The classifiers aren’t worried about security breaches, but instead about embarrassment. And brandishing the national security cudgel is often sufficient to make people who should know better cower and defer to government arguments, as I discovered to my chagrin when I sketched out an absolutist First Amendment position in Larry Tribe’s constitutional law class one day during the autumn of 1989. Alas, though the good professor later acquired a serious case of Trump Derangement Syndrome, I exclude him from this criticism. He appreciated my arguments – so much so that when I returned to my apartment that day, there was a message on my answer machine inviting me to work as one of his many research assistants.

Not many classmates joined me in defending the pole I’d chosen that day, decades before the launch of cancel culture. Some tied themselves into knots justifying constraints on speech. And as I was defending my turf, I noted at the time the silence of another reliably loquacious classmate who, as I’ve written about, was renowned among our HLS ’91 class for his annoying pontifications in just about every class. Not that day, however. Perhaps defending the First Amendment didn’t accord with the temperature of the room. Or perhaps he had another reason for staying silent. But that was rarely the case in the other classes we took together (see Don’t Be An Obamamometer: Support Naked Capitalism and Critical Thinking).

Back when it mattered, the Pentagon Papers were published. The Supreme Court didn’t stand in the way. Senator Mike Gravel – who died this week, age 91, on June 26, 50 years after the day the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Pentagon Papers case – also played a courageous role in keeping us informed, by reading the papers into the Congressional Record.  Daniel Ellsberg, the original whistleblower,  is still with us.

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  1. jo6pac

    Sadly the govt went into a very sercet mode and now that the 1% and friends control the nerative everything today is out in the open and we the people don’t seem able to stop them. They done a great job in dividing the citizens of Amerika. Sad

    Oh I was raised as free range kid. Good Times in Niles, Calif.

    1. John T

      I lived near Niles in the 50-60’s. We used to go swim and fish at the creek there. Also I think I remember a snack bar?

      Went to El Rancho Verde, Bernard, and Logan before moving to Ben Lomond.

      1. jo6pac

        I went to school in Niles then Logan for 1 yr then Mission San Jose that school sucked big time

    2. Acacia

      OT, wasn’t familiar with Niles but a quick search led me to the web site of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. Now I know where I’ll go on my next visit to the Bay Area. Thanks Jo!

  2. pjay

    Thank you for this reminiscence. I was a naive high school junior in a small, conservative Midwestern town, and my comprehension of these events reflected that narrow window. Within just a few years my world had changed 180 degrees; in my case it was life at a large state university that rapidly took me from the 50s to the 70s. We were discussing Watergate in classes, the antics of the CIA were beginning to be exposed in Congressional investigations… and I was reading my own paperback copy of the Pentagon Papers.

    It really seemed like there were some positive changes possible back then. The contrast between the promise of these early 70s events, and the “promise” of your ambitious Harvard classmate, makes me sad and nostalgic.

  3. Nikkikat

    My brother and I were also free range kids. As long as we showed up for dinner, we were free to roam. We lived in the city but had cousins our age in the country. They were also free to roam too. Occasionally, one of the adults would venture out and see what we were up to. But most of the time they didn’t bother us. The kids born in the late 50’s and early 60’s were more free than any generation. We rode our bicycles and skate boards to town. Played in vacant lots building forts, one day we were cowboys the next it was army. When we moved to California we rode them to the beach. Spent the whole day everyday there.We had the best childhoods!
    They were strict with us and there was always chores to do and expectations at school, but we were never in the house until time for dinner or the street light came on.

    1. Pelham

      Same here growing up in Kansas town of about 10,000 in that time. It was place unto itself, though I certainly remember how events such as the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers intruded upon us — but really only during the evening network news. Ours was a seemingly self-sufficient and fairly prosperous little world from which one could feel the mystery, the pull and the threat of the wider world beckoning at a great distance. From the safety of our world, we contemplated the boundless possibilities of the beyond. How I miss that feeling!

  4. David in Santa Cruz

    I don’t think that all the “celebrations” and “commemorations” fully understand the toll that Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, the efforts of Nixon’s plumbers, and the Espionage Act prosecution took on Daniel Ellsberg personally.

    In 1978 (IIRC) I was invited by three former anti-war activists of my acquaintance to spend an evening with them and Ellsberg at a house where he was staying before an anti-nuke speech the next day. He shared with us a deeply personal story of years of obsessive government persecution that was so overwhelming that we all wept.

    Government secrecy only serves the public interest when there is a clear and imminent danger to human life, but to this day our so-called “leaders” obsess on anything that might embarrass them politically as a secret that must be protected — from Obama’s murderous drone-assassination campaign to CalPERS cozy relationship with the funders of Jeffrey Epstein.

    Shame on what’s left of our gutted news media for enabling our government’s persecution of Ed Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Reality Winner, and Julian Assange, among others.

    1. Pelham

      Hear, hear! As a former newspaperman I’m ashamed of the profession, and its cowardice in failing to support Snowden and the others is the foremost reason. If somehow the case against Assange falls apart and he’s released, I hope embarrassment across the profession cuts painfully deep.

  5. John Zelnicker

    I was 21 when the Pentagon Papers were released and remember it well. I was active in the anti-draft/anti-war movement at UPenn and we knew secrets were being kept and cover-ups abounded, but we didn’t really know where or how. I was still a bit traumatized by the shootings at Kent State only a couple of months earlier and was very tuned into the political news.

    Publication of the Papers was revelatory. We had been proven right. Now we knew just how bad it was.

    Growing up in the ’50’s and ’60’s in a suburban-type neighborhood on the west side of Mobile, there was no such concept as free-range kids. We all biked and ran around all over the area with the only rule being that we had to be home for dinner and, oh yeah, be careful. By the time I was ten our range was about 4 square miles.

  6. Dave in Austin

    I’d like to make a mild dissent on the Pentagon Papers. The PP were supposedly assembled at the instruction of MacNamara to create a record of decision making. In actuality it ended up as a Cover Your Ass for LBJ, Mac and the other decision makers. The thesis of the PP was “We drifted unknowingly into a large war without understanding what was happening”. But somehow THE MOST IMPORTANT document is missing.

    LBJ put off a decision, we are now told, because of the 1964 election, which he won in a landslide. From then until the first ground troops landed in 1964 all the documents are about staff discussions. But by statute the Joint Chiefs of Staff were the advisor to the President on military matters. That was their only function; they had been taken out of the chain of command in 1958. Johnson refused to meet with them for a discussion on Vietnam from early 1964 to March 15, 1965.

    On that date he held a one hour meeting to have the JCS ratify the decision to commit the first 125,000 troops. The JCS came loaded for bear. The meeting lasted for two hours. They handed him a 200+ page plan and an estimate that if the North Vietnamese choose to fight it would take 5 years, 500,000 troops and 50,000 dead- another Korea 10 years later. Plus it would require activating 200,000 reservists, some to run the training camps for new draftees, but most to have the enginerering battalions to build the bases, the roads to the Laosian border and then the roads and positions across Laos to the Thailand border in order to close the Ho Chi Minh trail. Oh, by the way, we would need to ration copper because more than half of the already tight supply would be needed for the brass for shells. House building would essentially have to end because there would be no copper for pipes.

    I’ve talked to staffers who wrote the briefing. All records are missing- I’ve filed the FOIAs. The files of Wallace Greene, the head of the USMC, who wrote a report on every single meeting with the President have been purged of the report on that meeting (the rest are at USMC History office in Quantico). There are cryptic comments in the staff files at the LBJ Library about how public the would not stand for it; Jack Valenti quietly resigned over the issue.

    If anybody out there- some old retiired Lt. Col. or his children- have a copy of the report, I’d like to see it and publish it. I think the NC rules say “no contact info” so just send a note to Yves and I’ll be happy to allow her to give out my contact info.

    So Johnson knew; MacNamara knew; so did the various Bundys and national security staffers in the White House. And the fact that the JCS estimate was NOT in the Pentagon Papers suggests that the PP was a whitewash designed to absolve the civilians.

    The Army Chief of Staff who was at the meeting, Gen. Harold Johnson. who had been a POW in the Philipines during WW II, broke down in tears at his retirement dinner in 1968 and said he should have resigned when the advise was ignored and LBJ hid the costs so he could fund the great society programs. General Johnson said it was the only dishonorable thing he did in his whole career.

    Elsberg was not aware of the report. He was an honorable man doing what he though was right. Was he set up to release the PP? Was the release intended by MacNamara and LBJ? I don’t know. But that’s the story as best as I’ve been able to piece it together. If anyone out there in NCland has more information, I’d love to get it.

    1. Yves Smith

      I have to beg to differ. Ellsberg said in his own book Secrets that the reason for creating what became the Pentagon Papers was to look at military decision-making. Vietnam was the case study due to the complexity of the issues and the extended time frame. There may also have been a CYA motive, but that was not the only motive.

      Rand, not the Pentagon, took the lead in assembling the materials, although obviously the Pentagon was the source for most docs. Ellsberg was invited to review them in his capacity as one of the leaders in the field of decision theory. The fact that he’d been on the ground in several capacities in Vietnam may have played a role but Ellsberg does not seem to see it that way.

      In Secrets, Ellsberg is explicit and repeatedly says is what was disturbing about the Pentagon Papers was that experts like him at Rand who had come to realize the Vietnam War was unwinable believed if they could only get through to the President, they could cut through the noise of misinformation and persuade him to exit. What he saw by reading the Pentagon Papers was that the military and the White House, from the get go, knew the US could not prevail in Vietnam, that this recognition extended across administrations. But no President (and perhaps also top military officers, my recollection is that Ellsberg is fuzzier on this point) was willing to leave because they saw US prestige at stake.

      Thus the meeting where the records were missing is not essential to making the case that the US knew the war was always and ever doomed. But it’s work to read the Pentagon Papers and conclude that. The meeting is simply the sort of isolated vignette that makes the picture overwhelming as of LBJ’s time in office. But the knowledge that the US would never prevail was not news then. What that meeting adds to the picture instead is that the cost of staying in was becoming untenably high, the officialdom saw that, and still carried on.

      1. Dave in Austin

        This is an unusual situation. This “comment” is really designed for Yves to read, and possibly for publication but I’m not comfortable with forming it as a rebuttal to Yves’ response.

        Yves treats Ellsberg as a reliable witness but his history makes him no more reliable than the other participants and the chron of his involvement makes it clear that he had access to all the critical OSD/McNamara documents in real-time in 1964-5. He had no reason to be surprised when he read the documents years later.

        Ellsberg is an honest man but at heart he is still a Marine Captain. His most recent book on the nuclear weapons doctrine in the late 1950s, The Doomsday Machine, is definitely worth reading- fascinating stuff- but he gets the big picture wrong. Ike understood the military and knew if he put delegation orders into a formal form the senior military might rely on them in an emergency and create a disaster. So he said “delegate only if all communications are disrupted” and made sure that the triad was able to ride out a first strike. Ellsberg was horrified by this vagueness and imprecision and his interviews with mid-level people in the field led him to passionately call for formal rules. Incidentally, his description in this book of how and when the PP were released fills in a huge, inexplicable hole in his story. Get a copy.

        My response to Yves, below, cites three sources: the quite factual Wikipedia article on the Papers (WPP); the Air Force Magazine article that tells how the professionals remember it (AFM); the Yves response to my post (YS). I have a great deal of confidence in the way Yves digs and compares narratives. No doubt trying to come up with valuation estimates was a great education in reality. I’d like to get this response posted but it should be in a non-confrontational form, not a “Me vs Yves”. I’d welcome your suggestions.

        Your response to me was timestamped 12:50 am. Good grief! No wonder people hired you.


        Dave Miller (Dave_in-Austin)

        WPP Wikipedia Pentagon Papers at:
        YS= Yves response to my post

        YS “Ellsberg said in his own book Secrets that the reason for creating what became the Pentagon Papers was to look at military decision-making”.

        CONTRA The Wikipedia article in the opening paragraphs makes it clear that McNamara‘s motives are unclear. It notes that:

        “Instead of using existing Defense Department historians, McNamara assigned his close aide and Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton to collect the papers.[8] McNaughton died in a plane crash one month after work began in June 1967, but the project continued under the direction of Defense Department official Leslie H. Gelb.[8] Thirty-six analysts—half of them active-duty military officers, the rest academics and civilian federal employees—worked on the study.[8] The analysts largely used existing files in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In order to keep the study secret from others, including National Security Advisor Walt W. Rostow, they conducted no interviews or consultations with the armed forces, with the White House, or with other federal agencies.[11]”

        Not one military planning document is in the PP. The study is drawn from civilian OSD and White House staff files only.

        YS “ Rand, not the Pentagon, took the lead in assembling the materials, although obviously the Pentagon was the source for most docs. Ellsberg was invited to review them in his capacity as one of the leaders in the field of decision theory. The fact that he’d been on the ground in several capacities in Vietnam may have played a role but Ellsberg does not seem to see it that way.”

        My response:

        RAND had no role in assembling the PP. After it was finished two copies were donated to RAND. Ellsberg got access to the Rand copies after some hesitation (see AFM article).

        Ellsberg was privy to all the cables and reports from July 64, so his story about being surprised by the contents doesn’t wash. He was recruited by Gelb to help assemble the PP in 1967 because he was already familiar with the civilian message traffic at OSD:

        “In July 1964, McNaughton offered him (Ellsberg) a job as his special assistant. In that capacity, his most important duty was screening all of the information that came in on Vietnam. Ellsberg figured this would lead to his appointment “at the deputy assistant secretary level” in less than a year. That did not happen, and in 1965, he moved over to the State Department and went to Vietnam as a foreign service officer.

        When Ellsberg returned to the United States in 1967, Halperin and Gelb recruited him to work on the Pentagon Papers for several months.”(AFM and WPP)

        “For the most part, the Pentagon Papers were about the machinations of politicians rather than about operations of the armed forces,” (AFM)

        YS “ What he saw by reading the Pentagon Papers was that the military and the White House, from the get go, knew the US could not prevail in Vietnam, that this recognition extended across administrations.”

        That is the crux of the issue. Was the war winnable and at what cost? The JCS were kept out of all Vietnam planning from early 1964, which is remarkable. When LBJ was forced to call them in on 3/15/1965 to ratify the deployment of the first 125,000 troops (which LBJ thought was merely a bargaining chip to force the NV leadership to negotiate) the JCS went on record saying what it would cost if we were forced to fight a war and win it. That is the report that LBJ blew-up over and that the LBJ Library staff files whispered about. If McNamara was not privy to what the JCS was about to do he undoubtedly learned of in that day from staff people and his own sources. In 1962-3 during the Laos crisis 2/3 of a division was deployed in northern Thailand as a bargaining chip and the NV negotiated on the issue, but that was Laos and this was Vietnam. The JCS and sigint thought the NV were serious about fighting. And a fight to win the war would have to cut the trail southward which already 85,000 Communist cadre had traveled since 1961.

        Yes, the war was winnable, but even the JCS was telling LBJ that the cost was probably too high to make it worthwhile. And their estimates were on the button… 5 years, 500,000 troops and 50,000 US dead. But because LBJ tried to hide the war and the costs, the JCS plan, which was the correct one militarily, was never used. So we still got the 5/500,000/50,000 but instead of winning we lost.

        1. Yves Smith

          Wikipedia is often not reliable and your extract demonstrates that. The Defense Department historians would be unsuitable to prepare a report of this nature. The full Pentagon Papers ran to 7000 pages, largely if not entirely classified documents.

          The role of the DoD historians is to a significant degree to assure the preservation of source documents, particularly lower-level records:

          For want of a better term, we will define “service historians” as the uniformed and civilian historians employed by the Department of Defense. These service members and civilian play a critical role in the preservation of military history and the education of military leaders. On the battlefield, embedded uniformed historians establish policies to determine what records will be saved for historic purposes and conduct battlefield interviews to record experiences shortly after they occur. The role of these uniformed historians cannot be understated as much of their work will be determining what materials will be available for historians to research in the future. These historians will have access to a range of classified and unclassified materials than may take decades before they become available for public access. Civilian historians also support the Department of Defense by conducting oral interviews of high-ranking military leaders, constructing educational materials, and producing official histories for their assigned service. The Department of Defense invests heavily into historians hoping to capture critical information and develop educational programs to improve the combat power of the U.S. Military.

          Other documents suggest that the ranks of the DoD historians are small. And if their procedures are similar to the State Department, its members do not have security clearances but have to receive clearances for review of particular records.

          You are incorrectly depict Ellsberg as a lone source; his account names superiors who were also involved by name and alludes to many others at Rand who held similar views.

          Ellsberg in Secrets got access to the Pentagon Papers as they were being assembled. He was asked to look at them before they were completed. Ellsberg also had intel from his higher ups at Rand about the project (Rand was almost certainly the source of many and possibly all of the civilians; you’d have to have high level clearances to work on a project like this).

          You also forget that Ellsberg had DIRECT interaction with McNamara. My copy is still in boxed from my move, otherwise I’d pull it. He recounts a helicopter ride, for instance, where he gave McNamara yet another set of current factoids that pointed to the war not being winnable. McNamara said something terribly grim, that this was what he expected to find out. I don’t recall how explicit McNamara was, but as Ellsberg recounted it, McNamara made clear during Ellsberg’s briefing that he on the same page as Ellsberg and his fellow skeptics at Rand (and the skeptics in DoD and SecState when Ellsberg was on the ground in Vietnam first working for one agency and then the other and one of only about a couple of dozen American officers who were willing to go outside Saigon and observe conditions on the ground). McNamara also said something to the effect that the bad facts Ellsberg was presenting were entirely in line with his expectations.

          McNamare left the helicopter and told the press how well the war was going.

  7. The Rev Kev

    Growing up in Oz, the deal was to generally come home when the street lights were turned on. I can’t say I read much about the Pentagon Papers at the time as there seem to be so much focus on Richard Nixon, ‘Nam & Watergate. In fact, it was like an early Nixon Derangement Syndrome the way many people thought of Nixon. But at least at the time the Pentagon Papers were published widely whereas the equivalent Afghanistan papers flared up briefly and then were quickly forgotten about. The media of today is pathetic as compared to the one that we had back then.

    1. Acacia

      Heh… “Nixon Derangement Syndrome” was a real thing.

      This [warning: exiting family blog zone] light switch cover was something I encountered at a friend’s parents house in the early 70s (and no, I didn’t “conserve energy” by switching it… uh… off).

  8. Science Officer Smirnoff

    A letter that takes major exception to the NYT’s celebratory marking of an anniversary of the papers’ publication—

    To the Editor [The New York Times]:

    As a postscript to A M Rosenthal’s celebration of The Times’s publication of the Pentagon Papers 20 years ago (column, June 11):

    A few months after the publication of the secret study of the Vietnam War ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert S McNamara, I talked to Neil Sheehan, the Times reporter in Washington who brought the papers to the paper. Wasn’t he disappointed? How did President Nixon have the nerve to go on talking about “Hanoi breaking the Geneva agreements,” since the true story was now on record?

    He answered (I took it down), “As far as I know, no one in this Administration read the Pentagon Papers. A very high official told me that commissioning the study had been a sign of weakness in McNamara. One should simply execute policy, he said.” I asked, “Well, what then about The Times itself?” Sheehan: “What about it?

    I: “Times semantics still depict a war between one attacking country and one defending country.”

    He: “A news story is just a piece of a whole story . The strength and the weakness of daily journalism is its specificness. A journalist cannot turn himself into a propagandist.”

    I: “But he is one now, for a Government line that was exposed, as let us say, unreal.”

    He: “No doubt an American journalist like all other journalists uses terms that reflect his social background. To me the Pentagon Papers help us keep our freedom to publish.”

    I: “Meanwhile, back in Vietnam.”

    He: “The Vietnamese are warriors. They have to do it themselves and they will. They defeated the Mongols. The spirit of man is stronger than all machines.”

    (signed) Hans Koning New Haven, June 12, 1991
    The writer is author of “Nineteen Sixty-Eight” (New York, 1987).

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