The release 40 years ago of the Pentagon Papers, which showed how several presidential administrations had misled Americans about their intentions in Vietnam, was a historic moment. Now, people can read the report just as government officials themselves saw it.
The US government is releasing the Pentagon Papers in their entirety on Monday. This 7,000 page report, known formally as the “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” is one of the most famous secret documents in the nation’s history.
It is also a secret document that was poorly kept, as RAND researcher Daniel Ellsberg leaked much of it to The New York Times – a dramatic act of defiance that bolstered freedom of the press after the Supreme Court voted to allow the Pentagon Papers' publication.
Stories based on the report began appearing in the Times 40 years ago today. Given that much of it has been public for so long, will we learn any new secrets from today’s release of the entire project?
Well, for one thing, historians will now get to view the Pentagon Papers in their proper order, with all supporting volumes, as top government officials themselves saw it.
Mr. Ellsberg and fellow leaker Anthony Russo worked clandestinely to copy sections of the report. Combined with the haste in which the Times and The Washington Post printed their initial stories, this means the general US public has seen only a small portion of the information contained in the report.
In addition, Ellsberg withheld a volume of the report that discussed diplomatic efforts to end the Vietnam conflict, as he did not want to undermine those efforts. That volume was declassified in 2003 and is included in the report released today, along with three other sections that weren’t part of book-length compilations of the Pentagon Papers published in the early 1970s.
But the release of the full report won’t produce any new shocking headlines. In part, that’s because the report itself was meant as a long, thorough study of how the US got involved in the Vietnam conflict over time. It was explosive at the time not so much because of its contents per se, but because it revealed how much a series of US presidential administrations had misled the public about their actions and intentions in Southeast Asia.
“The reader will not find any smoking guns here,” writes the NDC of today’s release. “One really has to invest the time to read the Report to understand the enormity of the Vietnam conflict and how the United States became so engaged in such a divisive event.”
President Nixon himself predicted that in the end the importance of the papers would lie, not in the papers themselves, but in the fact that they had been misappropriated and printed in public. Nixon thought that Supreme Court ruling on their publication would be so important he mulled arguing the case himself before the high court, according to the diary kept by his top aide H. R. Haldeman.
In the end, Nixon did not argue the case before the Supreme Court. Solicitor General Erwin Griswold did. In doing so, he listed what the US government claimed were 11 drop-dead secrets contained in the Pentagon Papers, disclosure of which would irreparably harm US security.
Today those secrets – as described and explained by National Security Archive senior fellow John Prados – seem rather mild. They include such things as a claim that derogatory references to allies such as Thailand would gravely hinder the war effort, and that revealing what the US thought of Soviet intentions toward Vietnam would tell the Soviets how much the US knew about them.
“The public release today of the full Pentagon Papers – 40 years after their leaked publication in the media – is a welcome event on many levels: including closing a bizarre chapter in the annals of US government secrecy practices while opening another window into one of the pivotal episodes of modern world history, the Vietnam War,” writes Mr. Prados.